Guatemala: Fiscal Challenges Await New President

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020/ US Embassy Guatemala/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2GeHS0U

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, inaugurated on January 14, faces a deeper public finance crisis than previously estimated, putting even greater pressure on him to undertake fiscal reforms and start the slow and difficult process of fiscal stabilization and recovery.

  • The Giammattei administration has inherited a fiscal mess from former President Jimmy Morales, during whose four-year administration public spending on principal social needs didn’t surpass 8 percent of GDP (7.9 percent in 2019). Despite slow, slight growth in the education budget in 2015-2019 and a growing population, the number of students enrolled at the elementary and high school level actually contracted. Spending on health – in a country with half of its children suffering from chronic malnutrition, one of the lowest health service levels, and one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world – remained around 1 percent of GDP. The military budget under Morales, however, expanded considerably, allowing the Armed Forces to purchase weapons and a ship and to at least try repeatedly to buy military aircraft.

The fiscal situation is worsened by the persistent inability of the national tax authority (SAT) to achieve its collection goals for almost a decade, as well as by the array of amnesties and fiscal privileges approved by the National Congress in 2015-19. As a result, the Morales administration ran up fiscal deficits from 1.1 percent of GDP in 2016 to 2.5 percent in 2019 – accelerating the increase in the stock of public debt from 24.7 percent of GDP in 2017 to 27.0 percent in 2019 – Guatemala’s highest in recent history.

  • Making things worse, the debt was principally handled through issuance of Treasury Bonds sold on the national and international markets at terms – higher rates and shorter maturity periods – less favorable to the Guatemalan government. Last September Congress passed a law, supposedly to formalize cattle growers and ranchers (a sector well known for not paying taxes), that many observers say is so badly written that it opens the door to more tax fraud and even money laundering by powerful drug cartels. ICEFI and even some members of Congress note this has the potential to cause even greater revenue losses in 2020.

Budgetary pressures seem very likely to continue rising this year, further complicating the new president’s challenges. The Constitutional Court in late November ruled that the Executive Branch must correct the way it calculates the transfers that the Constitution requires the Central Government make to the municipalities, the Judiciary, the San Carlos University (Guatemala’s only public university), and the federated and non-federated sports institutions. If this ruling is confirmed, it will generate a huge increase in those organizations’ budgets, seriously exceeding the government’s current fiscal capacity by more than US$1 billion (1.2 percent of GDP).

  • ICEFI’s analysis shows that the only way for the new government to overcome the public finance crisis is to undertake far-reaching fiscal reform – revitalization of tax administration, a credible fight against corruption and tax evasion, and correcting budget priorities. For a government more inclined to pro-business and liberal economic thinking, such reforms may represent a considerable political challenge.
  • President Giammattei also inherited a difficult political situation from his predecessor, whose conflict with the UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and whose alliance with persons widely believed to be involved in corruption further undermined popular confidence in the government. The new president will be judged harshly if he fails to demonstrate early on a commitment to fight corruption, increase transparency, and make government more accountable. Accusations that he himself has been involved in corruption are already arising. He faces these tough economic and political challenges – with diminished resources, fiscal chaos, and with the previous administration’s allies considerably strengthened – at a time that Guatemala can ill afford to continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.

January 23, 2020

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the fourth in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries. The others are here, here and here.

El Salvador: Draft Budget Confirms Structural Problems in Public Finance

By ICEFI and CLALS*

US banknote lot

U.S. Banknote Lot/ Creative Commons/ https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jqchd

The budget that President Nayib Bukele submitted to El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly in September increases much-needed social spending appropriate for the country’s current socio-economic context, but it lacks clear objectives and benchmarks — and fails to address ongoing structural problems in public finance.

  • The proposed budget is based on revenues of US$5.466 billion, 92.7 percent of which will come from taxes. In gross terms — without considering tax rebates — that amounts to a tax burden of 18.2 percent of GDP, just below the 18.3 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019. In net terms, the budget claims taxes will reach 18.1 percent of GDP (compared to 17.7 percent in 2019), but that figure is not realistic: it estimates tax refunds of only $16.5 million — compared to $117.4 million for the January-August period of this year. This error threatens to undermine serious Legislative debate.

Spending in the proposed 2020 budget reaches $5.774 billion — equal to 20.8 percent of GDP, compared to 22.3 percent estimated for 2019. Some areas that are already struggling, such as environmental programs, face significant cuts, while others will experience modest decreases and increases.

  • According to the draft, Central Government operating costs will decrease by 1.8 percent of GDP, driven by cuts in contracting of services and purchase of goods as well as in current transfers. Capital expenditures, on the other hand, will increase 0.3 percent over 2019 — that is, about 3.3 percent of GDP.
  • The Central Government’s spending on social development is slated to grow to its highest level in decades — about 10.5 percent of GDP ($2.921 billion), compared to 9.7 percent this year. The main beneficiaries of the increase will be municipal governments, pension systems, trusts for social security, and health care. With some 800,000 children and adolescents lacking schools to attend, the proposed increase in the education budget — from 3.73 percent (in 2019) to 3.75 percent — is minimal.

The budget anticipates a slight increase in the federal deficit. The non-financial public sector, including trusts to cover social security obligations, will experience a deficit of 3.1 percent of GDP (compared to the 2.7 percent that ICEFI estimates for 2019) — pushing total public debt to 70 percent of GDP. That’s less than the 70.7 percent estimated for 2019, but ICEFI cautions that the decline could easily evaporate as the government faces growing demands over the course of the year. Either way, debt servicing will remain the most significant item in the 2020 budget, reaching $1.102 billion (4 percent of GDP).

The perennial challenge that El Salvador’s leaders like their counterparts throughout the region  face is how to stimulate economic growth and reduce inequalities to make the state more democratic and effective. But this budget, if implemented as drafted, will achieve neither goal in politically significant ways. The fiscal data underscore that the fundamental structural problems low revenues, inadequate public spending, and high fiscal deficits and public debt remain unaddressed.

  • The increase in capital spending, while positive, is insufficient to have its desired impact of driving economic growth. ICEFI’s analysis indicates that the jump in social spending is certainly warranted by the growing unhappiness in various social sectors, but also falls far short of what’s needed to reverse ongoing negative trends. The cuts in environmental protection from a minuscule 0.07 percent of GDP (2019) to 0.05 percent seem outright foolish for a country that has already shown vulnerabilities, which could aggravate existing economic and social conditions. Rather than taking on the serious challenges El Salvador and its economy face, the 2020 draft budget kicks the can down the road, without credible expectation that the task will be easier in the future.

December 9, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the third in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Honduras: Facing the Budget Challenges?

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Honduran Lempiras

Honduran Lempiras/ Alex Steffler/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Honduras’ proposed budget for 2020 reduces support to the country’s most needy – while protecting the military and security agencies – and, particularly if the debate on priorities is not made more inclusive, risks exacerbating already high political tensions and chronic economic mismanagement. On the revenue side, the draft budget shows a drop in tax revenues from 18 percent of GDP in 2019 to 16.5 percent – which, ICEFI has found, is not justified by technical analysis of the circumstances. Government spending – excluding payment on the national debt but including transfers to funds and trusts – equaled 19.7 percent of GDP, compared to 21.5 percent in 2019. (ICEFI estimates that the average government spending in Central America in 2019 will be 18.5 percent.) This drop will affect most public entities, particularly in social spending.

  • Education faces deep cuts. The budget of the Secretariat of Education, for example, will drop from 4.85 percent of GDP in 2019 to 4.49 in 2020. Transfers to public universities are slated to be reduced 23.1 percent from 2019 levels, and scholarships are also on the chopping block – cut 27.5 percent for national and 37.5 percent for international scholarships.
  • Health spending in Honduras – the country with the highest poverty rates in Central America – will decline from 2.39 percent to 2.37 percent at a time that inflation is more than 4 percent. The budget for Infrastructure and Public Services will be hit hardest – cut from 0.82 percent of GDP to 0.40 percent. Capital expenditures or investment will decline 33.5 percent year on year, including 38.5 percent from machinery and equipment and 34.6 percent for construction.
  • One of the only government sectors seeing increases is in the military and security, according to ICEFI. The 2020 budget proposes a 39.6 percent increase from 2019 on military and security equipment.

At first glance, the budget would appear to produce a surplus in 2020 of about 0.4 percent of GDP, which is double that ICEFI estimates for 2019. But factoring in the transfer of resources to the funds and trusts – a more reliable way of tracking fiscal behavior – the deficit will actually be 1.5 percent of GDP. That’s lower than ICEFI’s estimate of the deficit this year (1.9 percent), but it is achieved at the expense of the wellbeing of a majority of the Honduran population.

If approved and implemented as proposed, the budget will set back several strategic goals that the Honduran government itself has set. The budget confirms the government’s desire to reduce the public deficit principally through cuts to social spending and some capital expenditures – even though the approach contravenes commitments made under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and General Comment No. 19 (2016) on public budgeting for the promotion of children’s rights, which establishes that states should not deliberately adopt regressive measures that undermine child’s rights.

  • Although some provisions of the budget in principle could expand production of goods and services, they do not clearly point to either social inclusion, especially in terms of gender, age, and ethnicity. Budget allocations dedicated to attention to women are very low, equaling barely 0.19 percent of all spending. Neither does the budget focus on achieving any particular Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The transparency and inclusiveness of the budget debate in the Honduran Congress will be crucial to determining the longer-term impact of this budget on human rights and the provision of public goods and services to the most vulnerable Hondurans, including children, adolescents, and women. Executive and Congressional decisions on the budget will shift the country’s path toward prosperity and governance – or continue down a path of instability and tension. More breaks for those capable of paying taxes, while cutting essential services to those who cannot, will be a step in the wrong direction. At a minimum, Honduran leaders should demonstrate the benefits of such moves will outweigh the costs. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the Honduran budget will depend on a broad, inclusive, and honest debate.

November 26, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the second in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

Costa Rica: Public Finance Plans are Not Sustainable

By ICEFI and CLALS*

President of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado Quesada

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President of Costa Rica, April 2018/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain/ https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Carlos_Alvarado_Quesada_CAQ_PAC_03.jpg

The Costa Rican government’s draft budget for 2020, presented to the Legislative Assembly on August 30, reveals that shortfalls in tax revenues, high deficits, and accelerated public debt endangers the country’s ability to continue its social services and maintain its traditional level of democratic governability. The fiscal reforms that Costa Rica has undertaken – Law 9635 on Strengthening Public Finances – have proven, at best, insufficient to correct the imbalances envisioned in the new budget.

  • The budget proposes a tax burden of 13.2 percent for 2020 – equal to that observed in 2018 before the tax reforms were implemented but below ICEFI’s estimate for the end of 2019 (13.5 percent). This rollback is alarming because it essentially erases the gains expected from the reforms. It is due to increased levels of tax evasion and avoidance, and illicit capital flows.
  • The government projects public spending to reach 8,475.5 billion Colones (US$14.0 billion), accounting for 22 percent of GDP – slightly below the 22.1 percent approved for this year but higher than ICEFI’s estimate for the end of 2019 (20.9 percent). The 2020 proposal implies cuts to public spending that will affect key ministries, including Education and Public Works and Transportation, the budgets of which will decline 1.4 and 0.4 percent from this year, respectively.

Costa Rica’s fiscal deficit poses another long-term challenge. The draft budget contemplates a deficit that would reach 7.8 percent of GDP, higher than ICEFI’s estimate of 6.1 percent for 2019. For Costa Rica’s fragile public finances, this would suggest an inability to achieve fiscal sustainability in the medium term despite the recent tax reform.

  • The proposed budget would grow national debt to 64.7 percent of GDP in 2020, which is double the debt level observed during the earlier years of the decade (29.9 percent).

The failure of the tax reform law underscores Costa Rica’s urgent need for a fiscal accord that responds to the challenges of economic growth, social development, and democratic governance. To avoid such a scenario, tax officials will have to devise and implement plans and strategies next year that will stop and reverse the steady loss of the Executive’s ability to collect taxes. The cuts to education, public works, and transportation could erode Costa Rican well-being. Public budgets reflect the priorities of a society, and both the Executive and Legislative authorities in San José have the obligation to expand debate to include input from affected sectors. Costa Rica will face even greater challenges if it fails to formulate a budget that includes a responsibly progressive tax regime; reduction in tax evasion and under-reporting; greater control over illicit capital flows, adoption of a principle of worldwide income; increase fiscal transparency and accountability, debt restructuring, and maintenance of spending levels that guarantee adequate universal services. 

November 18, 2019

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. This is the first in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries.

The Panama Papers: Damning Evidence Against Latin American Elites?

By Emma Fawcett* and Fulton Armstrong

Panama Papers

Photo Credit: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

The “Panama Papers” have revealed the reputed secret accounts and tax-evasion strategies of a number of Latin American leaders, but preexisting widespread perceptions that political and economic elites are corrupt may reduce the immediate shock value of the revelations.  More than 11 million documents leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca – given an initial review by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – provide evidence of 215,000 arrangements by which 14,153 powerful and wealthy clients from around the world hid their money from the prying eyes of the media, tax collectors, and public-accountability experts.  Early reports already indicate Latin Americans – small-time players compared to the Russians and some Europeans – are among those mentioned.

  • The Petrobras scandal that has paralyzed Brazil will find further fuel in these files. Investigators in Operation Car Wash apparently had no knowledge of many accounts held by Petrobras officials.  A secret company linked to House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who’s leading the charge to impeach President Rousseff, reportedly figures prominently.
  • Argentine President Macri, his father, and brother reportedly had an offshore company for 10 years. They closed it in 2009, two years into Macri’s term as Buenos Aires mayor, but he did not report it.  The government says he was only “circumstantially” the CEO.
  • The president of the Chilean branch of Transparency International, Gonzalo Delaveau, resigned because he was linked to at least five offshore companies.
  • Mexican President Peña Nieto’s association with tycoon-contractor Juan Armando Hinojosa, who reportedly had a massive array of shelters worth US$100 million, is once again a liability. The President was dragged through the mud – and eventually exonerated of personal involvement – over a mansion that Hinojosa allegedly gave to his wife.  The Mexican government is investigating several dozen others named in the documents.
  • Many other cases are in the wings. Pedro Delgado (former governor of Ecuadorian Central Bank and cousin of President Correa); financial backers of Peruvian Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori; and an array of former central bank and intelligence officials – Peruvians, Venezuelans, Panamanians, and others – are all being looked at.  In El Salvador, the Attorney General, already criticized for his investigative zeal, has raided Mossack Fonseca’s offices, suggesting more revelations to come.

Allegations of tax evasion, hidden income, and other forms of corruption are a mainstay of Latin American political lifeand the Panama revelations will only aggravate the oft-held opinion that rich, powerful people play by their own rules to maintain wealth and power.  Ramón Fonseca, one of the founders of the law firm, claims that the publicity is part of “an international campaign against privacy,” which he called “a sacred human right [and] there are people in the world who do not understand that.”  The backlash against someone like Argentine President Macri may not be too great, especially because his family ended the tax haven years ago.  But what makes the allegations potentially disruptive is the number of people implicated – across public and private sectors – in so many countries, in an investigation that has only just begun.  Further revelations are sure to come and, although themselves a sign of transparency, challenge people’s faith that leaders will come clean.  The revelations will fuel popular cynicism and discontent in the short term, but renewed demands for transparency may eventually help rekindle popular confidence in government.

April 11, 2016

*Emma Fawcett is a PhD candidate in International Relations at American University.   Her doctoral thesis focuses on the political economy of tourism and development in four Caribbean case studies: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and the Mexican Caribbean.

Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

Elite Power and State Strength: A Timely Focus of Academic Studies

By Eric Hershberg

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

lapidim / Flickr / Creative Commons

Insufficient state revenues are one fundamental reason that many Latin American governments fail to provide their citizens with adequate education, health care, public transportation, environmental protection and the physical and technological infrastructure needed to move their countries toward high-income country status.  As a whole, the region’s governments were able to spend only 14.8 and 15.25 percent of GDP in 2013 and 2014, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).  Rationalization of expenditures is a goal that can only be pursued in practice if there are adequate funds to begin with, and few Latin American states have that luxury.  (To be sure, even where states are well financed, as in Brazil and Argentina, governments typically fail to spend resources efficiently.)  Historically primitive and regressive tax systems have not evolved in a manner consistent with the development needs of the region.  During the second decade of the 21st century this remains a major obstacle for those who strive to build more effective and democratic states across Latin America.

Several ambitious new books in comparative political economy offer insightful and complementary analyses of the political conditions that perpetuate state weakness as well as the dynamics that offer hope of overcoming it.

  • Aaron Schneider’s 2012 Cambridge University Press volume on State-Building and Tax Regimes in Central America was an initial contribution to this emerging literature, linking that sub-region’s changing relationship to the world economy to aggressive efforts by different factions of the elite to fashion tax systems that reflect their narrow interests rather than a broader agenda of societal development.
  • A book that will be launched later this month in Guatemala City builds on this work by underscoring the importance of political contestation regarding the fiscal arena more broadly – encompassing state expenditure as well as revenue. That study, prepared under the auspices of CLALS and the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI), illustrates the ways in which Central American elites have exercised disproportionate influence to render states ineffective and regressive: they contribute little to state coffers and extract much from them, with consequences that diminish the life chances of a majority of that region’s population.
  • Tasha Fairfield’s conceptually ambitious and empirically rich comparative study of South American cases, to be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, is a landmark contribution to literature on elites and Latin American political economy. It consists of a thorough comparative analysis of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, revealing that strong business associations tied closely to the state augment elite capacity to block progressive tax reforms.  Conversely, she finds that social movement influence over the state can undermine elite capacity to resist the sorts of taxation needed to redistribute wealth.
  • Evelyne Huber and John Stephens demonstrated previously, in their 2012 University of Chicago Press book on democracy and the left, that there is a clear link between the capabilities of the political left in democratic regimes and the prospects for more equitable social policies in Latin America. Such policies, as this recent wave of publications make clear, will only come about if societies develop systems of taxation compatible with the emergence of effective states.

Scholarship on Latin American economic development has until recently devoted little attention to political power imbalances as drivers of state weakness and the consequent failure of societies across the region to forge pathways toward developed-country levels of income and opportunity.  These studies highlight the centrality of elite collective organization and behavior, as well as the political strength of countervailing forces in society, for determining levels of taxation across the region.  Taken as a whole, this welcome wave of social science research restores Latin American political economy to its rightful place as a domain of scholarship that speaks to the concrete challenges facing the region today and in the future.  Policymakers throughout the hemisphere who speak of democracy and economic growth need the clear analysis to progress that scholarly works such as these provide.

February 5, 2015

Fiscal Policies Worsen Security Crisis in Central America

From left to right: Aaron Schneider, Maynor Cabrera and Hugo Noe Pino at the June 5 event on Central American fiscal policy.

Economists are warning that Central America – unlike some South American countries and Mexico – has still not rebounded from the 2007 global economic crisis, and that current fiscal policies dim prospects for improvement.  After making progress reducing poverty prior to 2007, the subregion has been stymied by static tax policies, insufficient investment in physical infrastructure, corruption, and natural disasters induced by climate change.  This is the assessment of Hugo Noe Pino, Ricardo Barrientos and Maynor Cabrera, economists from the Central American Institute on Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), and Aaron Schneider, Professor of Tulane University, who presented their work at a CLALS-sponsored seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center on June 5.

The specialists’ research indicated that political resistance to fiscal reform is strong and comes from both new and traditional political and economic interests.  Elites have not found common ground with the middle and lower class in most of Central America – a key element of Costa Rica’s success prior to the financial crisis.  Absent an enduring fiscal pact, countries in the region are likely to remain plagued by persistently slow growth and unusually skewed income distribution.

Violence and security dominate Washington’s agenda on Central America, but this focus largely misses the underlying dynamic between economic decline and crime throughout the subregion.  Elites favor policies that discourage effective state‑building – including investment in security forces paid well enough that they are less vulnerable to corruption – and that exacerbate social inequalities.  Political fragmentation and low citizen confidence in government institutions have dire consequences for national security, and countries get caught in the Catch‑22 of being unable to attract investment from abroad and encourage development from within as long as fiscal policies fail to promote an educated, healthy and skilled workforce.

CLALS currently has a program investigating how traditional, renewed and emerging elites shape the political and economic landscape of Central America.  For more information click here.  And click here for a video of the ICEFI presentation and discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center.