The New Macroeconomics of Populism

The nationalist urge to keep the world off your back extends to foreign finance.

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Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador throws out the first pitch at a baseball game in March. Photo: Getty Images.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador throws out the first pitch at a baseball game in March. Photo: Getty Images.

It is nearly 30 years since Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards published a seminal book, The Macroeconomics of Populism. Their conclusion back then was that the economic policies of populist leaders were quintessentially irresponsible. These governments, blinded by an aim to address perceived social injustices, specialised in profligacy, unbothered by budget constraints or whether they might run out of foreign exchange.

Because of this disregard for basic economic logic, their policy experiments inevitably ended badly, with some combination of inflation, capital flight, recession and default. Salvador Allende’s Chile in the 1970s, or Alan García’s Peru in the 1980s, capture this story perfectly.

These days, the macroeconomics of populism looks different. Of course there are populist leaders out there whose policies follow, more or less, the playbook of the 1970s and 1980s. Donald Trump may prove to be one of those, with a late-cycle fiscal expansion that seemed to have no basis in economic reasoning; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by some accounts, may be another.

But a much more interesting phenomenon is the apparent surge in populist leaders whose economic policies are remarkably disciplined.

Take Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. When it comes to fiscal policy, it is odd indeed that this fiery critic of neoliberalism seems fully committed to austerity. His budget for 2019 targets a surplus before interest payments of 1 per cent of GDP, and on current plans he intends to increase that surplus next year to 1.3 per cent of GDP. He has upheld the autonomy of the central bank and, so far at least, his overall macroeconomic framework is anything but revolutionary.

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban offers another example of conservative populism. Under his watch, budget deficits have been considerably lower than they had been previously, helping to push the stock of public debt down from 74 per cent of GDP in 2010, the year Orban took over, to 68 per cent last year.

This emphasis on the virtues of fiscal prudence is also visible in Poland, where Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s PiS has managed public finances with sufficient discipline in the past few years to push the debt/GDP ratio below 50 per cent last year, the first time this has happened since 2009.

The obvious question is: what has changed in the decades since Dornbusch and Edwards went into print?

One answer is that today’s populists tend to strive for national self-reliance, which encourages them to avoid building up any dependence on foreign capital. And since that goal is achieved by keeping a tight rein on macro policy, fiscal indiscipline is avoided in order to limit vulnerability to foreign influences.

Perhaps this is because the ‘them’, or the perceived enemy, for many of today’s populists tends to be outside the country rather than inside. Broadly speaking, it is the forces of globalisation — and global capital in particular — that are the problem for these leaders, and self-reliance is the only way to keep those forces at arm’s length. This helps to explain why, for example, Orban has been so keen to repay debt to Hungary’s external creditors. He has relied instead on selling bonds to Hungarian households to finance his deficits, even though the interest rates on those bonds are much higher than he would pay to foreign creditors. It also helps explain why the PiS in Poland has presided over a decline in foreign holdings of its domestic bonds. Foreign investors owned 40 per cent of Poland’s domestic government debt back in 2015, but only 26 per cent now.

In other words, among many of today’s populists there is a blurring of the distinction between populism and nationalism. And the nationalistic urge to keep the rest of the world off your back seems to dominate the populist urge to spend money. The perfect example of that instinct is Vladimir Putin: not necessarily a populist, but his administration has been emphatic about the need to keep public spending low and to build solid financial buffers. National self-reliance is an economic obsession for the Russian government, and provides a model for other countries who wish to insulate themselves from international finance.

One of the reasons why the macroeconomics of populism have changed in this way is the historical legacy of economic disaster. If you are a populist leader in a country where financial crisis is part of living memory — as it is in Mexico, Hungary and Russia, say — you might do well to err on the side of conservatism for fear of repeating the mistakes of your predecessors.

But another reason why populism looks different for countries like Poland, Hungary, Mexico and Russia has to do with mere luck. Hungary and Poland, in particular, enjoy the luck of geography: having been absorbed into the EU, they have received financial transfers from Brussels averaging some 3-4 per cent of GDP in the past few years, so that populism in these countries has been solidly underpinned by the terms of their EU membership. López Obrador is enjoying the inheritance of his predecessor’s sound macro policy, together with a buoyant US economy and low US interest rates. Russia has had the good fortune of oil exports to rely on.

The thing about luck is that it can run out. So maybe it’s not quite time yet to bury the old macroeconomics of populism. But for the time being, it seems true to say that many of today’s populists have an unexpectedly robust sense of economic discipline.

This article was originally published in the Financial Times.