The Washington Consensus: Steps to build an economy?

Imagine being in charge of a country which has undergone a rapid change for the worse in terms of an economic standpoint. It is definitely difficult to get the country back on track. Because of the help of the IMF and the World Bank you can now start afresh. However, it is still confusing about what has to be done to build your economy from scratch. Thankfully there are a set of rules to help you in this endeavor in setting up a self-sufficient economy known as the Washington Consensus. So let us find out what it is and how it functions.

What is the Washington Consensus?

John Williamson, an economist, first used the term “Washington Consensus” in 1989. He was discussing a set of measures that had gained acceptance among Latin American politicians in reaction to the early to mid-1980s macroeconomic unrest and debt crisis. In order to aid in the recovery from the debt crisis, these measures were also supported by specialists in Washington’s international institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well as the US Treasury.

A note of caution, these rules are only meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive, which means that these rules do not guarantee the economy to be a success. Definitely there will have to be some considerations taken in place depending on the scenario of the country and what can actually be done depending on the ability of the government.

Maintaining fiscal restraint, reallocating public spending priorities (from subsidies to health and education spending), reforming tax law, letting the market determine interest rates, upholding a competitive exchange rate, liberalising trade, allowing inward foreign investment, privatising state enterprises, removing barriers to entry and exit, and protecting property rights are among the main Washington Consensus policies. Williamson pointed out that these policies went against what was believed to be true in developing nations, many of which adopted state-dominated systems in the 1950s.

The 10 rules of the Washington Consensus

  • Reduce national budget deficits

Large budget deficits lead to high variable tax rates. To counteract this, it was suggested to observe fiscal discipline either by raising tax revenues or by reducing domestic spending to reduce the amount of spending done by the government.

  • Redirect spending from politically popular areas toward neglected fields with high economic returns

Some aspects of public spending, such as subsidies to state-owned businesses or for the purchase of food or fuel, caused economic distortions and favored wealthier urban people over the impoverished in rural areas. Reducing subsidies for politically connected economic sectors may cost some people money, but it frees up funds for expenditure on infrastructure, education, and fundamental social services.

  • Reform the tax system

Reforms should enlarge the tax base and eliminate the exclusions that exempt some people and organizations with political ties from paying taxes. Taxation that is more inclusive and straightforward can boost productivity, increase tax revenue, and lessen tax evasion.

  • Liberalize the financial sector with the goal of market-determined interest rates

Government interest rate regulations typically penalize savers, deter investment, and stifle financial progress; restricting credit typically encourages corruption and benefits political insiders. Market-based interest rates encourage saving and ensuring that banks or the financial sector, not politicians in the government, decide how much credit is given out.

  • Adopt a competitive single exchange rate

A competitive, market-driven exchange rate can encourage export-led economic growth and alleviate balance of payments issues; avoid inflated exchange rates that deter exports and cause currency rationing.

  • Reduce trade restrictions

Trade barriers that support particular interests should be eased generally. Tariffs are better to quotas and other arbitrary trade restrictions that stifle trade since they allow for progressive reduction, local enterprises to adapt, and produce money for the government as opposed to quota rents for special interests.

  • Abolish barriers to foreign direct investment

Foreign investment that is prohibited or restricted at home gives monopolies to native companies and lessens competition. A country can increase its capital, create jobs, and develop its workforce through foreign investment, but also increasing competition for native businesses. Domestic businesses that attract FDI can encourage intellectual property breakthroughs that advance development.

  • Privatize state-owned enterprises

State-owned businesses frequently operate inefficiently and rely on subsidies from the government, which increase countries’ fiscal deficits. While some unemployment may result from privatization, these changes are more likely to boost firm productivity and profitability.

  • Abolish policies that restrict competition

Removing regulations and obstacles that prevent new firms from entering the marketplace can stimulate competition, efficiency, and economic growth.

  • Provide secure, affordable property rights

Investment and individual liberty are encouraged by a legal system that awards and preserves property rights, including the rights of those who hold land without legal documentation and work undocumented jobs in the informal sector. Owners can obtain financing thanks to private assets, which grows the economy and the revenue base of the government.

Effects of the Washington Consensus

By the middle of the 1990s, the benefits had mainly fallen short of expectations, especially in Latin America, where reforms had been pursued with particular zeal. The Washington Consensus was expanded to prescribe a longer list of adjustments in response, which is evident in the increasing number of terms and conditions associated with IMF and World Bank loans.

However, sluggish development, recurrent fiscal crises, and widening inequality cast doubt on the success of the entire project, severely harming the Washington Consensus’ political reputation. A new wave of leftist governments appeared in Latin America in the 2000s, many of which ran on platforms promising to reverse these regulations.

Major Criticisms

  1. Free trade is not necessarily advantageous for emerging economies, according to some economists. To ensure long-term prosperity, several strategic and young industries must first be preserved. These businesses can also need protection from imports in the form of subsidies or taxes.
  2. Government assistance has allowed Chinese businesses to make significant investments in Asia, Latin America, and Africa’s developing nations. These businesses frequently make infrastructural investments, opening doors for long-term trade and growth.
  3. Privatization can boost output and raise the standard of the good or service. Privatization, however, frequently causes businesses to disregard specific low-income segments or the social demands of a rising economy.


There can never be a fixed set of rules that even by theory can help to build a self-sufficient economy, the short-term impacts of these rules did not help the targeted economies, however it helped them build a strong base on which these economies can stay stable and thus helped the long-term growth of these economies. Any sets of rules can only be descriptive and not prescriptive for an economy, as each economy in itself is unique and all require different solutions for them to get through their problems. Sure, these rules could be taken as an outline, but definitely not the guidebook to build an economy.

Abishek Jeremy Lobo

Editor, TJEF




By Viswanathan Iyer

Disruption is a topical subject and the term in recent times has been mostly used in a manner to suggest that it only afflicts new age industries or sectors, more particularly those with a touch point to high end technology. It is, however, useful to see business disruption through a broader prism, which will help us explain in a better fashion the churn happening in even some of the traditional manufacturing sectors, which seemed rather dour and unassailable till now. To my mind, a distortion in the business model with a significant redundancy of the long term business forecasts would qualify as a disruption for that particular sector. In addition to the oft mentioned factor of technological innovation; aspects related to regulation, globalization, protectionism, and even esoteric factors like climate change contribute to disruption. A few examples culled out from recent developments will hopefully buttress this point.Picture1

The power sector in India was long considered a sunrise sector in many ways, given the growing demand for power aided by both demographics and strong economic growth. This meant a solid business case which not surprisingly led to an investment binge in the thermal power sector during the second half of the previous decade. That optimism seems distant memory today, with the sector lying in shambles almost across the board. Solar power threatens to corner the new demand requirements, state utilities are unwilling to buy power due to stretched finances, coal supply linkages only exist on paper and for some of the fixed tariff based plants, the feedstock price which was supposed to be fixed escalated overnight due to regulatory changes in a distant country.

The global thermal coal sector which attracted investments by the droves till very recently is now been pronounced as a sunset sector. A business case built for investment in this sector even 5 years back would be redundant today. Some of those lofty investments planned in developing gigantic coal mines to cater to the demand from China appear wobbly, given that China itself is moving towards cleaner forms of energy and cutting its reliance on thermal coal. Closer home in India, the sector also got wildly disrupted when a judicial decision to correct a perceived regulatory anomaly ended up cancelling all coal licenses granted to private operators over the past 25 years.

There has been a dramatic change or a reversal in fortunes of the Oil industry. The price movements over the past couple of years, the demand/supply balance and irrelevance of OPEC cuts has turned the sector’ fortunes on its head. The term “peak oil” as a term was in wide use just about a decade back to explain the supply side of oil when prices were soaring. The same term is used today but with an exactly opposite connotation; various estimates now suggest that we will hit “peak oil” by 2030 but on the demand side. A world which seemed to be running out of oil a decade back is expected to be awash with oil by 2030. Shale, renewables, electric cars, greater energy efficiency are the factors which will drive this profound change of fortunes for the once unshakeable oil sector.

The last of the examples is the telecom sector in India. It has been a fall from the cliff for the sector from the heady years of the early 2000s. From more than ten players we are down to potentially four players over the coming year, and in terms of valuation, the sheets are full of red. Regulatory uncertainty, a greedy exchequer and more recently the entry of one large and resourceful player has broken the back of most of the incumbents who tragically are also overburdened by debt.

As an aside, what does all this mean for conventional debt financing for greenfield projects in traditional manufacturing sectors in the years to come. If the threat of disruption (in the broad sense as articulated earlier) is as prominent in these sectors as the new age ones, can debt finance be a viable source for funding such projects? All startups as we know them today, are almost entirely funded by equity or similar instruments. The uncertainty in the business model and the resultant impact on cash flows makes debt financing unviable. If traditional manufacturing sectors start falling under the same bracket, we might need to tweak the norms for debt financing even for such projects. Possibly the equity component in financing such projects will need to go up to reflect the increased uncertainty, or the debt providers may also need to get some equity flavor to ensure a share in any potential upside at a later date. After all, why would you lend to a project (loaded with uncertainty and risk) for a fixed coupon without any potential upside, when the potential loss for you and the equity holder is going to be practically the same. But that’s a separate discussion for another day as it opens a myriad of possibilities and financial engineering!

About the Author:


Mr. Viswanathan Iyer is the Director of Charoite Carist Private Limited. The firm provides advisory services to financial institutions and mid sized corporates in ares related to Capital, Risk and Strategy.