Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Poland’s shock therapy: blame Jeffrey Sachs

The initial (monetarist-ish) economic reforms in Poland after the fall of communism - and all the pain that went with them – are usually seen in this country as the responsibility of economist, former finance minister, and former head of the Polish National Bank, Leszek Balcerowicz.

The 'shock therapy' is also known as the Balcerowicz Plan.

Most international commentators and 'liberals' in Poland regard the reforms as a success, though not some in the present government coalition. In fact, many hate Balcerowicz’s guts.

But Poland’s emergence as a market economy is all down to economist superstar Jeffrey Sachs, apparently, who will be talking on the subject of post-communist reform, and other matters, in the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures, which you can hear on April 11.

Sachs told the FT this week:

”The essence of what [Poles] wanted to do [in 1989] was right, it was based on sound fundamentals. What I tried to do was to add the economics to go around it.”

So there you are, Andrzej Lepper et al: leave Balcerowicz alone. He didn’t understand economics in the first place! Jeff did.


opamp said...

This is news?

It is known that the Balcerowicz Plan was authored by Sachs/IMF. However, it was Balcerowicz who was signing the papers and thus he should face trial for his "achievements".

Sachs is quoted in Stiglitz's book "Globalization" saying that the fall of communism presented a unique occasion to conduct an a controlled economic experiment, and he has used this occasion. What's more, he says that this experiment has failed. (Yes, you read that right: Sachs and Balcerowicz were experimenting on the Polish economy. And failed.). Stiglitz further asserts that the only reason the transformation in Poland was successful, was that the implementation of Sachs/Balcerowicz plan has been aborted in 1992/93. At the same time the plan has been fully carried out in Russia, with known results.

A little known fact is the Harvard Institute of International Development scandal, where Sachs's coworkers were involved in financial speculations in the countries Sachs was an advisor to. If I remember correctly nobody has been charged, but HIID has been dismantled and Sachs moved to Columbia University...

YouNotSneaky! said...

I've only read parts of Stiglitz' book in a bookstore and decided not to buy based on what I sampled. He's a great theoretical economists but when he starts talking politics, it's pure crap and a barely suppressed longing for socialism. It's like he knows the damn thing don't work but he just wants it to so hard that those feelings get in the way. When he's writing technical academic papers though it's all no nonsense stuff.

I don't see a point into getting into a discussion of who should get the credit - I think Balcerowicz by himself was too obscure at the time to be listened to so Sachs at the very least played a role of a famous name that could be put on the plan. Elsewhere (like his book on poverty) Sachs pretty much says that he developed the general plan and Balcerowicz filled in the details.

Either way, these reforms worked. Poland has had the highest growth among all former communist economies, averaging between 3.7 and 5.5 percent per year (depending on whether you're looking on purchasing power adjusted series, GDP or GNP). Note that in US or Western Europe it's an all out party when growth hits 2%. If other policies (fiscal) hadn't screwed things up we'd be looking at 7% style Irish growth. Still the above numbers are nothing to sneeze at.

The transition crisis of 89/90/91 happened in ALL the relevant countries, whether they did 'shock therapy' or not, whether they even transitioned to a market based economy or not - the crisis was already there structurally in 1986.

The really amazing thing is that inequality in Poland during the transition actually fell (though it perked back up towards the end of the 20th century when growth slowed down as well), unlike pretty much anywhere else in EE/CSU.

Russia got screwed up, but, 1) Russia was already screwed up, there was gonna be a crash pretty much no matter what, 2)'shock therapy' as pushed by Sachs was never implemented, in fact Sachs resigned after much frustration 3)the only part of 'shock therapy' that was implemented was a rapid privatization program which was actually the one area where folks like Sachs and Balcerowicz urged caution (and Poland took its time with it, maybe too much). There was some sketchy stuff on the part of Andrei Schleifer, the other Harvard advisor, or more specifically his wife. It's hard to tell whether there was really anything to it or was it just that there was so much shadiness going on at the time that if you had any kind of a stake in Russian assets some of that shadiness was going to spill over on you. Hence, no charges.

It's ridiculous to argue that the plan worked because it was aborted in 93 when in fact by 92 the economy was starting to make up the lost ground. And even then, it's not really true that it was "aborted" - how can you abort a "shock"? The whole idea is to do it quickly. What Stiglitz probably means is that Poland slowed down on privatization of state owned assets but this was only a part of the overall plan. Everything else -removal of price and wage controls, currency reform, opening up to trade and foreign capital flows (sort of), letting folks set up their own businesses, monetary stabilization, etc - all that had already been done. I guess one could call a succesful completion of a plan an "abortion of the plan".

I think this relates very well to the other thread about the Polish way of always looking at everything in the worst possible way. Poland's the most succesful economy in Eastern Europe, in good portion thanks to Balcerowicz, so of course Poles wanna string him up. We just hate success. It makes us feel unmanly.

beatroot said...

Of course it isn’t ‘news, Opamp – the news is that he will be doing the Reith Lecture.

But I think it is interesting that Sachs has since repositioned himself alongside Bono (see photo) et al as part of the ‘Make Poverty History’ brigade. And that’s very interesting indeed. 15 years ago Sachs associated himself with the IMF – and what the IMF did to the world’s poor was give developing countries loans and then demand extreme cuts in public spending etc and impose a monetarist agenda.

Which did very little was the poor and certainly didn’t make them history.

opamp said...

(scroll down for the English text) is an arcticle published in Forbes in 1993 detailing the "success" of Sachs/Balcerowicz reform.

Regarding Stiglitz's book, you missed its main point which is: the IMF economists are uneducated (sic!) and religiously cling to oversimplified (hence incorrect) economical models, with disastrous results in practice.

by 92 the economy was starting to make up the lost ground.

Except that its more advanced segments looked like they suffered a nuclear attack. (Heck, I know some places that still do).

Pray tell, how come that similar industriues in Slovenia, which lost 80% of domestic market in 1991 survived in a good condition, so that Slovenia currently has TWICE the GDP per capita than Poland? Next, why is it that the period of economic growth in Poland between 1993 and 1997 corresponds to the period when Balcerowicz was kept out of decision loop?

Either way, these reforms worked.

Sort of. Yes, the GDP value has been restored in '97 or so, but its composition was completely different. The best symbol of Balcerowicz's reform is Galeria Mokotów in Warsaw: a shopping mall built in place of a demolished semiconductor factory. (Because nobody needs semiconductors in a modern world, right?)

YouNotSneaky! said...


First with regards to Stiglitz. His words about his fellow economists at the IMF were that they were "third rate economists from first rate universities" which was basically a chamski statement which says more about Stiglitz then about his collegues.
1) It's not really true. Certainly folks such as Ken Rogoff (previous IMF head) and Anne Krueger (current IMF head) are in the same league as Stiglitz.
2) To the extent that it is true, so what?
2a) A third rate economist from a first rate university is still a first rate economist and can hardly be characterized as "uneducated".
2b) The 'first rate economists from first rate university', such as Stiglitz himself, tend to be very theoretical, abstract and mathematical but lack policy experience and aren't very good with 'how the real world works'. The second and third rate ones usually have a lot more policy experience, understand politics and all the million of imperfections that characterize the real world but not a neat mathematical model (at which Stiglitz excels). So even if I (or some country) had a choice between Stiglitz or a 3rd rate economist from a 1st rate university, I would still go with the latter.
Basically Stiglitz' statement is the type of intellectual disdain that physicists tend to target at engineers. But if you want a bridge build, as nice as quantum theory is, you want to go to the engineer.

That's it for now.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Beetroot, I'm not sure why you call IMF's policies "monetarists". There's certainly things to criticize about both but they're not necessarily related.

"Weak" monetarism is basically just the proposition that the money stock in an economy matters and that growth rate of money stock is the primary cause of inflation, at least once you get above a few % points. This position is hardly controversial, is shared by most economists regardless of their political persuasion and forms a consensus in the discipline.

"Strong" monetarism, associated with the earlier Friedman (he changed his views towards the end there) was the idea that a central bank should target money supply rather interest rates and better yet, do so in the automatic fashion - change the money supply by the long run rate of growth of income. This actually made some sense pre-1980 when money velocity - how often a unit of currency turns around - was stable but technological changes and regulatory changes in the industry increased the velocity and made shambles of the idea.(It's probably true that the EU central bank clings to these ideas more then say the US Fed).

Sachs could be characterized as a first kind of monetarist (as could most economists) but not the second. This is probably true for the majority of economists who work for IMF.

But the IMF is in the business of economic crisis control. So this is a bit like comparing a general practitioner to an emergency room doctor (I might be overdoing this analogy to professions bit).

One criticism of IMF which I think has some weight is that it takes a cookie cutter approach (less so recently then in the past).

Basically if a country gets into an economic crisis because it follows stupid policies - printing money like crazy, spending money like crazy, implementing a crazily overvalued exchange rate - then the IMF advice is the sound one. You gotta stop printing money, you gotta cut spending, you gotta realign or float the currency. Since these are the causes of the crisis the only way to end the crisis and turn the economy around is to end the causes, even if it's costly in the short run.

If, however, the economic crisis occurs through no fault of the country - a sudden drop in the price of its exports, a sudden increase in the US interest rates (since most gov debt is denominated in $ - this being the cause behind many crisis in the early 80's), a speculative attack on an otherwise sound currency, maybe political unrest or war - then the IMF policy MAY be inappropriate. On the other hand as the economist Rudiger Dornbusch once said "when countries arrive at the IMF on a stretcher it's not time for 'cute' experiments".

But Poland in 1989, like rest of EE, was exactly in the first position. The IMF advice, whether it was the driving force behind the Balcerowicz plan or not, was appropriate.

varus said...

As younotsneaky put, the IMF do not generally deal with heathy robust economies. Economies are already in a mess, before the IMF steps in. Admittedly, sometimes they have been overly austre. but the generaly principle behind the Strategic Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) was sound if a little over zealously applied. If we put this in the personal frame, then if i can not deal with my loans and morgage etc, then i need to revaluate my spending and make necassary cuts in my outgoings, simple. This may not be great, but i still must do it. There is a lot of hate around the world agaist the IMF/worldbank, some of which is justified, however, too often people strike at the 'international community' without looking at what their own government has done to get them in this mess in the first place.

varus said...

As an interesting footnote, the Warsaw Voice have just sent an email with a link to a Washington Post article about Balcerowicz


Here he is 'luaded' as a hero.

P.S. Sorry i have still not got the hang of hyperlinking in a comment.

Anonymous said...

I must admit I can barely follow this discussion as it's become rather specialized.

The bottom line is :
Shall we bother with Sachs' Reith Lecture or not?

Thanks for pointing to it though 'stluczony korzen' it's always such an arse finding thought-provoking podcasts.

opamp said...

Sorry i have still not got the hang of hyperlinking in a comment.

Be my guest. Use the following replacing square brackets [ ] with angular ones < >:

[a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/10/AR2007041001480.html"]Washington Post article about Balcerowicz[/a]

This produces:

Washington Post article about Balcerowicz

varus said...


thanks for that, I just tried it out on my blog and it worked a treat.

beatroot said...


I'm not sure why you call IMF's policies "monetarists". There's certainly things to criticize about both but they're not necessarily related.

Back in the 1980s there was things they had in common. Both were ‘supply side’ and reacting against Keynesianism. Many monetarist economists were working for the IMF back then.

In order to receive loans, countries were forced to adopt harsh economic policies, such as privatising state industry, and slashing state spending.

I don’t think Balcerowic was a true monetarist as by the time he got his hands on the treasury pure monetarism was on the way out.

The IMF in those days was a different organization than it is now, ideologically. For a start the Bretton Woods groups don’t like dealing with government much anymore – they like more ‘direct contact’ with ‘the people’ – usually via foreign NGOs.

But when they do they do not demand the often ruinous privatization that usually hit the poorest hardest.

But they have in common is that they still demand ‘conditionality’ – government’s have to stamp out corruption etc. In fact, these days external agencies like the IMF.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Back in the 1980s there was things they had in common. Both were ‘supply side’ and reacting against Keynesianism. Many monetarist economists were working for the IMF back then.

No, no. Monetary policy, whether Keynesian or Monetarist style, is inherently about management of Aggregate Demand, not supply. Privatization of state owned assets would be supply-side (note though that this isn't the same as being a capital-S Supply Sider, which is more about cutting taxes), but whether this is a good idea is not necessarily related to how one thinks monetary policy should be conducted. Personally I tend to favor a somewhat Keynesian money policy (i.e. some discretion rather than rules based policy) but I also think that often times privatization of government stuff is a good idea (though a lot depends on how you go about it).

In order to receive loans, countries were forced to adopt harsh economic policies, such as privatising state industry, and slashing state spending.

What Varus said. If you were lending money (at below market interest rates) to someone (who's been behaving like a tweeker on a meth binge - defaulted many times in the past, was spending money like crazy, etc.) you'd probably want to impose some 'conditionality' too. Sale of government owned enterprises is one way to get the fiscal budget in order. Cutting spending is another.
I don't know of any hard evidence (as opposed to baseless assertions or unrepresentative anecdotes) that these policies affect the poor disproportionally more than the rich, and more importantly, more than the ongoing crisis hurts them. If an economy crashes the poor suffer the most. It's in their benefit to get the economy to turn around as quickly as possible.

In these situations you're basically between the Scylla of short term pain and the Charybdis of a total ungoing meltdown. No good choices really, just less bad ones.

It's true that IMF's approach has changed in recent years.

beatroot said...

Sneaky. Balls. The radical thing about monetarism was that they looked at economics from supply side. So inflation was not caused by ‘demand push or pull’ but by money supply over production. That was why they were obsessed in the early days by M1 M2 M3…etc.

Just a quick google and one gets:


It would be more correct to say that monetarism was one kind of supply side economics…but emphasis on supply and not managing demand was a key characteristic of monetarism.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Ummmm....I don't see how that link contradicts me:

Monetarists emphasize the role of money and the government's
monetary policy in economic affairs


Supply side economics... emphasizes the harmful role of impediments to
production (such as taxes)

Also, that description is not very good (probably because it needs to economize on space).

The basic dichotomy between the supply side and demand side goes something like this:

Demand side - how much people want to spend. Depends on interest rates (hence money supply), fiscal policy and, I dunno, "animal spirits".

Supply side - depends on the technological level of the economy and amount of factors of production; capital and labor.

Of course there might be some overlap between the two (which is probably where the confusion is coming from). For example tax cuts can be seen as both a demand side policy (increase demand) and a supply side policy (by increasing after tax wages or return on capital may increase the supply of these factors)

Generally it is thought by most economists (including modern Keynesians) that demand affects the short run while supply determines the long run. Of course there's some disagreement over how long the long run is (Friedman thought it could be as long as 10 years which is way longer than most economists today, even Keynesian ones, would say).

Broadly speaking Monetarists of the Friedman variety thought that:
1. Monetary policy was a more reliable demand stabilization policy than fiscal policy. I.e. money matters.
2. But even monetary policy has "long and variable lags" and hence is just as likely to make things worse as better - for monetary policy to work it has to be perfectly timed but given the flow of information that a central bank receives, it can't.
3. So the best thing to do would be to put the money supply on 'auto-pilot' by increasing it at a constant rate. This would lead to a gradual and smooth shifting out of aggregate demand. As a result one could avoid deflation (the boogeyman of Keynesians), inflation (the boogeyman of Monetarists) and provide a sufficient amount of liquidity to the economy.

So yeah they thought that "discretionary" demand managment policy was a bad idea but they had very little if anything to say about the supply side.

The fact that the velocity of money went hay wire in the late 70's/early 80's pretty much put these ideas to rest. The US Fed played around a little bit with monetarism in the late 70's but quickly abandoned it. It surivived in somewhat diluted forms in the EU for longer. But it was never the backbone of IMF policy as that's a completely different ball game.

You might be thinking of the so-called Real Business Cycle theory;
associated with Kydland and Prescott of University of Minnesota, which does focus on the supply side. But while that had some impact on economic methadology and theory it has had next to zero impact on economic policy as actually practiced.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Just wonderin', if a country finds itself in an economic crisis with runaway inflation (which, among many other nasty effects, erodes the tax base), large fiscal deficits, shut of from the credit market (so only way to raise revenue is to print more money - feeding the inflation spiral), collapsing output and exploding unemployment, exactly what kind of policies would you recommend?

More money-printing-fueled-government spending to increase demand?

beatroot said...

It’s a good question. Sounds like Zimbabwe!

First the people have got to get rid of those who got themselves in that mess in the first place.

As far as the inflation goes then short term monetary policies could be used. To get growth going again they could try neo-Keynesian type measures. Cutting public spending would not be an option To get foreign currency and credits they would have to get some kind of help initially from outside. But those must not be ‘conditional’. The best the international institutions could do is ‘do no harm’.

YouNotSneaky! said...

Sounds like Zimbabwe!

It also sounds like Poland '89 or Bolivia '85.

As far as the inflation goes then short term monetary policies could be used.

But that means monetary austerity and a cut in the money supply, exactly the policy IMF recommends.

To get growth going again they could try neo-Keynesian type measures. Cutting public spending would not be an option

I assume here you mean something like public works spending or something like that. This could work in some slump-but-not-crisis situations. It probably could/did help Japan in the late 90's. However - remember the fiscal deficit mess and lack of financing. Increasing spending (hell, NOT decreasing spending) can only be financed by printing more money which would make the problem worse.

To get foreign currency and credits they would have to get some kind of help initially from outside. But those must not be ‘conditional’. The best the international institutions could do is ‘do no harm’.

Well, yes, but usually people who lend you money expect to get paid back and want to take some precautions to ensure that you pay them back. These countries in crisis basically have NO access to international credit markets (foreign aid is nowhere near big enough to help and takes a long time to mobilize). The purpose of the IMF is precisely to provide "help from outside" (cheap cheap loans), though it's also understandable that they want to get paid back.

There's some exceptions here. US provided conditionality-free bail out to Mexico in 1995 and it worked well. Part of the implicit advantage of being in EU is that if a crisis develops fellow club members will help you out. So yeah, alternatives can sometimes work.

I'm not disagreeing with you 100%, just mostly want to point out that the IMF deals with really difficult cases where there's no good options. Getting the pain over with quick (shock therapy) might be the least bad.

(about 70%)

beatroot said...

Getting the pain over with quick (shock therapy) might be the least bad.

Sneaky! If Poland had got over shock therapy then we would not be having this debate now! Quick fixes have long term consequences...

YouNotSneaky! said...

It got over it. By 1992. GDP per capita grew faster then any other comparable country (Slovenia is not comperable - Tito already introduced a lot of market/capitalism long before and it wasn't facing an economic crisis in late 80's). Inequality decreased (though part of that decrease was due to the new pension law and the Kuroniowka not shock therapy). All that's left is a bunch of baseless whining. Poland did good, nothing wrong with admitting that.

beatroot said...

It got over it.

Sorry sneak, but that is just not how it is perceived here. PiS, samoobrona and LPR represent all those who see that shock therapy and the market reforms as gangsterism. That is why they still hate Bacerowicz's guts today.

I am not saying what I would have done in 1989, because I honestly don;t know. But to say that the 'shock' is over misunderstands Polusb politics today.

Michael Farris said...

The Poland may have gotten over shock-therapy as measured by economists, but that is a far distance from people's subjective interpretation.

Basically, the Polish public does not compare the Polish economy with other former warsaw-pact countries or with the Polish ecnonomy in the past, they compare it with the most developed economies of Europe (esp UK, Germany, Scandinavia) and find it lacking and sensible talk from economists won't change that.

opamp said...

It got over it. By 1992. GDP per capita grew faster then any other comparable country

Oh yes. GDP. Yes, if you judge the matter only in terms of GDP it was indeed a success.

If you take other metrics into account, it was a disaster. It resulted in huge unemployment, ruined industrial base and technological backwardness. But in terms of GDP the manufacturing collapse was offset by an increased volume of trade activity, so the reform has been labelled a "success".

YouNotSneaky! said...


GDP is a measure of production, not trade activity (though everything that is produced and traded in the market will show up in GDP statistics). It is essentially a country's income. Of course it is not the only measure of well being of a country and its people but it surely must play a role in any such measure.

Unemployment - first, it ain't as high as official statistics, since in Poland a lot of employment is under the table. Second much of it is due to folks who work abroad for part of the year and then come back to enjoy a leisurely vacation back home (I know of tons of folks who do this). Third the amount which you get once you account for these effects would still be high for US but probably "normal" for a European country. And it has everything to do with stupid labor market laws and distortionary taxes and nothing to do with shock therapy or even present day monetary policy. You can't blame this one on Balcerowicz, no way. Of course, in the good ol' Gierek days unemployment was zero. On paper.

Industrial base - what's the point of having an industrial base? To produce stuff, unless you think that the smoke spewing factory over yonder is there just to add to the scenery. If industrial base collapses but amount of stuff produced (GDP) rises then that means that the industrial base that was sitting there before was pretty useless. Might as well raze it and build a shopping mall. And BTW, industrial production in Poland has risen even faster then GDP during this period, anecdotes to the contrary not withstanding. Now Poland produces more with less. This is a good thing.

opamp said...

GDP is a measure of production, not trade activity

The GDP is a global sum of added value. This is the crucial issue: pre-1989 manufacturing was producing everything from scratch, while currently "manufacturing" is a glorified name for performing a final assembly of Far East components. This, however, is a high margin operation, hence the big contribution to GDP. (For an extreme example, some time ago Hyundai was shipping made cars to Slovenia, removing wheels, shipping cars and wheels to Poland as components and performing a "final assembly", i.e. attaching the wheels, here. Since these "components" were arbitrarily priced, the added value and GDP contribution was completely artificial).

The reason why this is important is that Poland is currently purchasing foreign technologies which are basically an updated versions of processes that were available domestically pre-1989 (in some cases they are actually inferior). Had the technological base been preserved, equivalent processes could have been developed domestically for a much smaller cost.

Next, a good example of razing an "useless" industrial base is this: in 1989, a computer factory ELWRO in Wrocław was sold to a strategic investor, named Siemens. Siemens immediately shut it down and razed the facilities. If ELWRO was indeed useless, as you claim, why did Siemens bother to spend money on such an operation? Answer: because ELWRO would be its direct competitor. Such deals were not uncommon under Balcerowicz.

opamp said...

Correction: Siemens bough ELWRO in 1993, not 1989. Transaction price was $38.5 million (pretty much for an "useless" company, eh?).


YouNotSneaky! said...

GDP is a measure of production. Summing up value added across industries is one way of measuring production in practice. There's also alternative ways of measuring it and a country's statistical office usually does them all at once as a means of double checking the numbers. If there's a big discrepancy then you got a problem, but as it turns out there usually isn't. So we're talking about the same thing.

Your two examples are essentially a good illustration of why it's important to look at the overall picture - the aggregate statistic - rather than individual anecdotes. It's always possible to find an instance of shady dealing. The question is "how much does it matter?" While Enron was perpetuating large scale fraud, the US economy was humming along quite nicely in the 90's. If the examples you cite were really important to the big picture then we'd see their impact in measurment of GDP. We don't. Hence they're exceptional.

You're missing the forest for the trees. And you're CHOOSING to look only at the sickest trees. The rest of the forest is doing just fine.

beatroot said...

I think the forest is doing OK too. Problem here has been that the cake is not being distributed fairly. That builds up the resentment. And that creates governments like PiS.

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Anonymous said...

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