Macroeconomics doesn’t get much plaudits around now, but here is a real-life story that should hearten those who think the field is really broken. It concerns Andres Velasco, a distinguished macroeconomist who is currently the minister of finance in Chile, and who also happens to be a good friend, colleague and co-author.
Until the current crisis hit, Chile’s economy was booming, fueled in part by high world prices for copper, its leading export. The government’s coffers were flush with cash. (Chile’s main copper company is state-owned, which may be a surprise to those who think Chile runs on a free-market model!) Students demanded more money for education, civil servants higher salaries, and politicians clamored for more spending on all kinds of social programs.
Being fully aware of Latin America’s commodity boom-and-bust-cycles and recognizing that high copper prices were temporary, Velasco stood his ground and decided to do what any good macroeconomist would do: smooth intertemporal consumption by saving most of the copper surplus. He ran up the largest fiscal surpluses Chile has seen in modern times.
This didn’t make Velasco very popular. Last November, public sector workers marched in downtown Santiago, burning an effigy of Velasco.
But by the time the financial crisis hit Chile, Velasco (and the Central Bank governor Jose de Gregorio, another fine macroeconomist) had accumulated a war chest equal to a stupendous 30% of GDP.
The price of copper plummeted 52 percent from Sept. 30 to year-end, and Velasco dusted off his checkbook. In the first week of January, he and Bachelet unveiled a $4 billion package of tax cuts and subsidies… Velascos stimulus spending, includ1 40,000-peso ($68.41) handouts to 1.7 million poor families…
The surpluses accumulated during the good years has given the Chilean government unusual latitude in responding to the crisis. As a result, the economy is doing much better than its peers. As Bloomberg reports, “the countrys economy is expected to grow 0.1 percent in 2009, as the region contracts 1.5 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.”
And does good economics pay off politically? Eventually, yes. Five months after being burned in effigy, Velasco is currently President Bachelet’s most popular minister.