By Jens Matthias Arnold and Paula Garda, OECD Economics Department
Chile’s economy has been a poster-child of Latin America for a long time. As the new Economic Survey for Chile highlights, its solid institutions have delivered macroeconomic stability and rising living standards. Per-capita incomes have more than doubled since the 1990s and are among the highest in the region. But despite all this remarkable progress, cracks have emerged on the surface. In October 2019, widespread social unrest paralysed the country and revealed deep-rooted discontent with inequalities of economic conditions and opportunities.
After the social unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic took a steep toll on lives and livelihoods, and led to the sharpest contraction of economic incomes in 40 years. In 2021, the economy recovered swiftly on the back of exceptionally strong policy support, and eventually overheated significantly, as domestic demand pushed inflation well above target. Fiscal policy is rightly consolidating this year, including a strong reduction of public expenditure. The Russian aggression on Ukraine and global supply shortages in 2022 exacerbated inflationary pressures, with rising food and energy prices pounding hard on many families as inflation rose above 14%. Monetary policy reacted swiftly and forcefully, but the monetary policy stance will have to remain restrictive for some time to bring inflation back to the target and to firmly re-anchor inflation expectations.
In the face of these extraordinary shocks, Chile’s institutions have been resilient and helped to avert worse outcomes. The social unrest of 2019 eventually gave rise to an orderly and democratic process of rewriting the country’s constitution. In a national referendum, a majority of Chileans voted in favour of this step. A first new draft constitution was rejected in a second national referendum in September 2022, but another process for drafting a new constitution is being discussed.
Significant underlying growth and inequality challenges will have to be addressed over the next years. A long-standing process of income convergence to advanced economies has gone into reverse since 2014 (Figure 1). Productivity has been stagnant or even decreasing, and boosting it has now become a key priority. Investment in new technologies has been weak, and important parts of the economy could benefit from stronger competitive forces, as cumbersome regulations hold back new firm entry and investment.
Figure 1. Income convergence has reversed
Besides boosting the engines of income growth, pressing social needs will require a growing attention to how incomes and opportunities are distributed. The quality of public education and health services needs to be improved to narrow the gap vis-à-vis private institutions. The pandemic has also highlighted significant gaps in social protection, particularly for the most vulnerable households. Ensuring some basic social protection coverage for formal and informal workers alike, while simultaneously reducing the cost of formal employment, is a key challenge. Only by addressing social protection and informality simultaneously will Chile be able to break the vicious circle where informal workers not entitled to most social protection benefits while the labour charges that finance these benefits raise the costs of creating formal jobs.
Few people have adequate old-age pensions, owing to low contributions and contribution gaps due to informal employment. Pension replacement rates were already low before the pandemic, but many pension accounts are now depleted following three rounds of extraordinary withdrawals during the crisis. A recently established universal basic pension is a key milestone: it will significantly improve pension benefits, particularly for many low-income earners. But future pension reforms should pay particular attention to formalisation incentives, while raising pension replacement rates. Income-support programmes for vulnerable households are highly fragmented, and unifying social assistance programmes into a single cash benefit scheme would allow increasing coverage and benefits.
Education is key for reducing inequalities and raising productivity at the same time. Learning outcomes remain well below the OECD average and pandemic-related school closures have exacerbated these longstanding challenges, as fewer students from vulnerable backgrounds used digital tools to remain connected. Expanding access to quality early childhood education would bridge early and often decisive gaps in cognitive and social progress and allow more women to work. Working conditions for teachers fall short of OECD average standards, with lower pay and longer working hours.
The small size of Chile’s public sector limits its ability to provide better public services and opportunities for all, and to reduce inequalities. Tax revenues of only 21% of GDP are insufficient to meet rising social demands while preserving necessary public investment in infrastructure, education and health (Figure 2). Personal income taxes, which only 20% of Chileans pay, are one explanation behind this low tax collection. Raising public revenues by several percentage points of GDP, as currently planned by the authorities, is ambitious but clearly within reach through a comprehensive tax reform.
Figure 2. Tax revenues are low
As Chile embarks on this path of reforms, many decisions are now being taken that are likely to shape the future of its society and economy for years to come. These reforms are an excellent opportunity not only for raising future incomes, but also for making future growth more inclusive and providing better opportunities for all Chileans, as discussed in the 2022 OECD Economic Survey of Chile.
OECD (2022), OECD Economic Surveys: Chile 2022, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/311ec37e-en.