Tag Archives: Good Economic Times (GET)

Presidential Success and the World Economy

This is a guest post from Daniela Campello and Cesar Zucco Jr., both professors at FGV/EBAPE Rio de Janeiro, based on their recent paper in the Journal of Politics, “Presidential Success and the World Economy.”

For the economic vote to work as a mechanism of democratic accountability, voters need to be able to properly assign responsibility for economic performance (Ashworth 2012). In “Presidential Success and the World Economy” we show that this assumption does not always hold. The paper examines the extent to which Latin American presidents are punished and rewarded by economic conditions that were brought about by factors beyond their control. We find, in a nutshell, that this misattribution happens very often, at least in a subset of countries in the region, and argue that this  severely limits democratic accountability in the region.

Our general empirical strategy in the paper is to predict presidential reelection and approval ratings using only international variables that are exogenous to any action taken by presidents, but that have substantial impact in economic performance. The logic of the argument is that these factors should not predict the political outcomes if voters actively discounted “chance” when evaluating presidents based on economic outcomes.

It has been long established in the Economics literature that commodity prices and US interest rates largely influence the domestic economic performance of countries in Latin America (see, for instance, Malan & Bonelli 1977). Commodity prices operate through trade, as most countries in the region are commodity exporters (Maxfield 1998, Gavin, Hausmann & Leiderman 1995, Izquierdo, Romero & Talvo 2008). International interest rates operate through the financial channel, as capital flows to emerging economies tend to respond to the international costs of capital (Calvo, Leiderman & Reinhart 1996, Santiso 2003). The first contribution of the paper is to combine these two variables into the “Good Economic Times Index” (GET), which provides a cogent summary of the recent economic history of the so-called  low-savings-commodity-exporting (LSCE) countries of the region, mostly those in South America.


The figure shows the values of GET since the early 1980s. It reflects the hike in U.S.  interest rates in 1979 that  precipitated a debt crisis that ravaged the region, which coupled with extremely low commodity prices, produced the 1980s’ “lost decade.” In the early 1990s, lower US  interest rates prompted a boom of private capital inflows that helped improve economic conditions, which worsened again with the increase in interest rates that triggered the financial crises that marked the end of the decade.  In the 2000s, rising commodity prices combined with even lower interest rates to fuel a period of unprecedented wealth creation. In this context, the “great recession” was no more than a ripple in a region that was shielded from the crisis by high commodity prices and further decreases in US interest rates. The sharp drop in GET observed in the last few years contributes to explaining the economic downturn experienced throughout the region since 2012. Not surprisingly, as we show in the paper higher values of GET are associated with more growth, less inflation, less unemployment, and less “misery” in LSCE countries, but not in other Latin American countries, which we refer to as the “comparison group”.

Interestingly, the GET index is a very strong predictor of presidential success in the LSCE countries, but not in the comparison group. In a set of all free and fair elections in the region since 1980, we estimate that an increase from the 25th to the 75th percentile of GET is associated with almost 0.5 higher probability of reelection (understood as either personal reelection or election of the incumbent sponsored candidate) in LSCE countries. GET also predicts the presidents’ popularity in Brazil — the largest LSCE country — since the late 1980s, but not in Mexico — the largest country in the comparison group. A one standard-deviation increase in GET leads approximately to a 15% increase in popularity over an 18 month period. GET, alone, has the same predictive power as a large set of domestic economic variables.

Our results stand in contrast to recent empirical work, mostly on developed democracies,  which  shows  that voters’ capacity to assess and discount the impact of exogenous factors enables them to punish and reward incumbents exclusively for outcomes of their own making (Duch & Stevenson, Kayser & Peress etc). Authors have suggested that this capacity develops as citizens observe the global economy and benchmark their country’s  performance.  In our paper, we conjecture that inward-looking models of development, citizens’ relatively low media consumption, and relatively low levels of political and economic integration limit Latin American voters’ awareness of regional trends. As a result, citizens lack the elements to  benchmark their country’s economy, and to discount the impact of common exogenous shocks. Without this discounting, the power of the economic vote to hold leaders accountable is severely curtailed, as presidents are rewarded/punished for their good/bad luck.

We are currently conducting follow-up research to examine three important extensions of these findings. The first is to examine experimentally the conditions under which voters manage to discount exogenous factors when evaluating the president, or to overcome their “attribution bias.” The other is to determine theoretically and empirically — also through experiments — how presidents behave when they know their fate is determined by exogenous factors, a topic that speaks to literature on populism and corruption. Finally, we are looking at the role of local media in  enabling voters to correctly assign responsibility for economic performance.


Ashworth, Scott. 2012. “Electoral accountability: recent theoretical and empirical work.” Annual Review of Political Science 15:183-201

Calvo, Guillermo, Leonardo Leiderman & Carmen M. Reinhart. 1996. “Inflows of Capitalto Developing Countries in the 1990s.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 10(2):123-39

Duch, Raymond M. & Randolph T. Stevenson. 2008. The Economic Vote: How Political  Institutions Condition Election Result. New York: Cambridge University Press

Gavin, Michael, Ricardo Hausmann & Leonardo Leiderman. 1995. “Macroeconomics ofCapital Flows to Latin America.” Working Paper IADB 4012(3):389-431

Izquierdo, Alejandro, Randall Romero & Ernesto Talvi. 2008. “Booms and Busts in LatinAmerica: The Role of External Factors.” IADB Working Paper 89(631):2-31

Kayser, Mark & Michael Peress. 2012. “Benchmarking across borders: electoral accountability  and the necessity of comparison.” American Political Science Review 106(3):661-684

Malan, Pedro S & Regis Bonelli. 1977. “The Brazilian economy in the seventies: old and new developments.” World Development 5(1):19-45

Maxeld, Sylvia. 1998. “Eects of International Portfolio Flows on Government Policy Choice”, In Capital Flows and Financial Crises, ed. Miles Kahler. New Jersey: Council of Foreign Relations pp. 69-92

Santiso, Javier. 2003. The Political Economy of Emerging Markets – Actors, Institutions and Financial Crises in Latin America. New York: Pallgrave McMillan