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Friday, March 14, 2014
The new age of crony capitalism
Political connections have made many people hugely rich in recent years. But crony capitalism may be waning
AS THE regime of Viktor Yanukovych collapsed in Ukraine, protesters against it could be found outside One Hyde Park, a luxury development in west London. Their target was Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and a backer of the old regime. “Discipline your pet”, they chanted.
Ukraine’s troubled state has long been dominated by its oligarchs. But across the emerging world the relationship between politics and business has become fraught. India’s election in April and May will in part be a plebiscite on a decade of crony capitalism. Turkey’s prime minister is engulfed by scandals involving construction firms—millions of Turks have clicked on YouTube recordings that purport to incriminate him. On March 5th China’s president, Xi Jinping, vowed to act “without mercy” against corruption in an effort to placate public anger. Last year 182,000 officials were punished for disciplinary violations, an increase of 40,000 over 2011.
As in America at the turn of the 20th century, a new middle class is flexing its muscles, this time on a global scale. People want politicians who don’t line their pockets, and tycoons who compete without favours. A revolution to save capitalism from the capitalists is under way.
The kind of rents estate agents can only dream of
“Rent-seeking” is what economists call a special type of money-making: the sort made possible by political connections. This can range from outright graft to a lack of competition, poor regulation and the transfer of public assets to firms at bargain prices. Well-placed people have made their fortunes this way ever since rulers had enough power to issue profitable licences, permits and contracts to their cronies. In America, this system reached its apogee in the late 19th century, and a long and partially successful struggle against robber barons ensued. Antitrust rules broke monopolies such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The flow of bribes to senators shrank.
In the emerging world, the past quarter-century has been great for rent-seekers. Soaring property prices have enriched developers who rely on approvals for projects. The commodities boom has inflated the value of oilfields and mines, which are invariably intertwined with the state. Some privatisations have let tycoons milk monopolies or get assets cheaply. The links between politics and wealth are plainly visible in China, where a third of billionaires are party members.
Capitalism based on rent-seeking is not just unfair, but also bad for long-term growth. As our briefing on India explains (see article), resources are misallocated: crummy roads are often the work of crony firms. Competition is repressed: Mexicans pay too much for their phones. Dynamic new firms are stifled by better-connected incumbents. And if linked to the financing of politics, rent-heavy capitalism sets a tone at the top that can let petty graft flourish. When ministers are on the take, why shouldn’t underpaid junior officials be?
The Economist has built an index to gauge the extent of crony capitalism across countries and over time (see article). It identifies sectors which are particularly dependent on government—such as mining, oil and gas, banking and casinos—and tracks the wealth of billionaires (based on a ranking by Forbes) in those sectors relative to the size of the economy. It does not purport to establish that particular countries are particularly corrupt, but shows the scale of fortunes being created in economic sectors that are most susceptible to cronyism.
Rich countries score comparatively well, but that is no reason for complacency. The bailing out of banks has involved the transfer of a great deal of wealth to financiers; lobbyists have too much influence, especially in America (see article); today’s internet entrepreneurs could yet become tomorrow’s monopolists. The larger problem, though, lies in the emerging world, where billionaires’ wealth in rent-heavy sectors relative to GDP is more than twice as high as in the rich world. Ukraine and Russia score particularly badly—many privatisations favoured insiders. Asia’s boom has enriched tycoons in rent-seeking sectors.
Wanted: emerging-market Roosevelts
Yet this may be a high-water mark for rent-seekers, for three reasons. First, rules are ignored less freely than they used to be. Governments seeking to make their countries rich and keep people happy know they need to make markets work better and bolster the institutions that regulate them. Brazil, Hong Kong and India have beefed up their antitrust regulators. Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, wants to break its telecoms and media cartels. China is keen to tackle its state-owned fiefs.
Second, the financial incentives for businesses may be changing. The share of billionaire wealth from rent-rich industries in emerging markets is now falling, from a peak of 76% in 2008 to 58% today. This is partly a natural progression. As economies get richer, infrastructure and commodities become less dominant. Between 1900 and 1930 new fortunes in America were built not in railways and oil but in retailing and cars. In China today the big money is made from the internet, not building heavy industrial plants with subsidised loans on land secured through party connections. But this also reflects the wariness of investors: in India, after a decade of epic corruption, industrialists in open and innovative sectors such as technology and pharmaceuticals are back in the ascendant.
The last reason for optimism is that the incentives for politicians have changed, too. Growth has slowed sharply, making reforms that open the economy vital. Countries with governments that are reforming and trying to tackle vested interests, such as Mexico, have been better insulated from the jitters in the financial markets.
There is much more to be done. Governments need to be more assiduous in regulating monopolies, in promoting competition, in ensuring that public tenders and asset sales are transparent and in prosecuting bribe-takers. The boom that created a new class of tycoon has also created its nemesis, a new, educated, urban, taxpaying middle class that is pushing for change. That is something autocrats and elected leaders ignore at their peril.