The Oil Curse

Argentina is about to nationalize an oil company (owned by a Spanish company) a year after said company announced the discovery of massive new reserves, Spain’s threats to take “clear and forceful measures” notwithstanding. This type of nationalization might seem extreme but it is business as usual in oil-rich states. My friend and co-author Michael Ross, has just written a new book that provides a thorough yet very readable analysis of the ways oil income does and does not affect the political, social, and economic development of countries. Don’t take my word for it, read reviews here (Petroleum Economist), here (FT), and here (Nature).

Ross finds that oil wealth hinders democracy, makes civil war more likely, and perpetuates patriarchy. Oil riches do not necessarily slow economic growth but they do not help much either. So what’s the trouble with oil revenues? Ross argues that there are four distinctive qualities of oil revenues. The first is just the sheer scale of oil revenues. Government budgets tend to rise exponentially with oil discoveries. Increased revenues by themselves are not necessarily problematic but the source of the revenue also matters. If governments are funded by taxes, they become more constrained by their own populace than when they are funded by non-tax revenues (see here a more generalizable version of that argument from Kevin Morrison).

Third, oil revenues are very volatile compared to tax revenues. Most countries have little control over the world oil price, which falls and rises quite dramatically. They have some control over new oil discoveries but luck also plays a major role. Volatile revenues make for volatile politics, although some mature oil rich states (like Norway or the UAE) have managed to find ways to cope with this. Fourth, oil revenues are secretive and relatively easy to hide. This facilitates corruption and hinders accountability.

None of these factors automatically lead countries to become authoritarian patriarchies that erupt into civil wars. As Ross highlights, there are ways that governments can manage their oil revenues wisely. Yet the incentives often run the other way, especially when states first discover massive oil reserves.

As in other countries that preceded Argentina in nationalizing the oil industry, President Cristina Fernandez motivates the nationalization with references to sovereignty and the unwillingness of the foreign owned company to provide  benefits to Argentinean citizens. In many ways, there is little that is remarkable about the nationalization and, if managed well, it could benefit Argentinians. However, Ross’ book suggests that the odds of that happening are not particularly high.

6 Responses to The Oil Curse

  1. Luis April 17, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    Well, Argentina is not oil dependent. It is a relatively diversified middle income economy so the resource course is unlikely to operate via oil. I prefer Thad Dunning´s more nuanced argument, clarifying the mechanisms under which resources can hinder democracy –which we could extend to other outcomes.

  2. E April 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    I get a distinct Amy Chua vibe here (of course, it could be just because I finished
    reading the book).

  3. Jay Livingston April 18, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    One word: Norway.

  4. Nathanael April 19, 2012 at 10:36 pm #

    The US decison to hand its oil wealth to whoever happened to first notice it, and vest that wealth in that company forever, hasn’t worked out well for US politics either, with oil companies famously becoming powerful “bad actors” on our national scene. So it’s not clear to me that nationalization makes a difference regarding the “oil curse”….