Comparing Regulation for Domestic Firms in Different Countries

The following post is based on the executive summary of Doing Business 2012: Doing Business in a More Transparent World, a co-publication of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation. The lead author of the report is Sylvia Solf, program manager of the Doing Business project; more information about the team can be found here. The complete report, including omitted footnotes and figures from the summary, is available here.

Over the past year a record number of governments in Sub-Saharan Africa changed their economy’s regulatory environment to make it easier for domestic firms to start up and operate. In a region where relatively little attention was paid to the regulatory environment only 8 years ago, regulatory reforms making it easier to do business were implemented in 36 of 46 economies between June 2010 and May 2011. That represents 78% of economies in the region, compared with an average of 56% over the previous 6 years.

Worldwide, regulatory reforms aimed at streamlining such processes as starting a business, registering property or dealing with construction permits are still the most common. But more and more economies are focusing their reform efforts on strengthening legal institutions such as courts and insolvency regimes and enhancing legal protections of investors and property rights. This shift has been particularly pronounced in low- and lower-middle-income economies, where 43% of all reforms recorded by Doing Business in 2010/11 focused on aspects captured by the getting credit, protecting investors, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency indicators.

Overall in 2010/11, governments in 125 economies implemented 245 institutional and regulatory reforms as measured by Doing Business—13% more than in the previous year. A faster pace of regulatory reform is good news for entrepreneurs in developing economies. Starting a business is a leap of faith under any circumstances. For the poor, starting a business or finding a job is an important way out of poverty. In most parts of the world small and medium-size businesses are often the main job creators. Yet entrepreneurs in developing economies tend to encounter greater obstacles than their counterparts in high-income economies. Finding qualified staff and dealing with lack of adequate infrastructure are among the challenges. Overly burdensome regulations and inefficient institutions that discourage the creation and expansion of businesses compound the problems.

Through indicators benchmarking 183 economies, Doing Business measures and tracks changes in the regulations applying to domestic companies in 11 areas in their life cycle. A fundamental premise of Doing Business is that economic activity requires good rules that are transparent and accessible to all. Such regulations should be efficient, striking a balance between safeguarding some important aspects of the business environment and avoiding distortions that impose unreasonable costs on businesses. Where business regulation is burdensome and competition limited, success depends more on whom you know than on what you can do. But where regulations are relatively easy to comply with and accessible to all who need to use them, anyone with talent and a good idea should be able to start and grow a business in the formal sector.

Across regions, entrepreneurs in developing economies face a regulatory environment that is on average less business-friendly than those in OECD high-income economies. This means costlier and more bureaucratic procedures to start a business, deal with construction permits, register property, trade across borders and pay taxes. Getting an electricity connection, a new dimension in this year’s ease of doing business ranking, costs more on average in Sub-Saharan Africa than in any other part of the world—more than 5,400% of income per capita (the average in OECD high-income economies is 93% of income per capita). Local businesses complete more complex formalities to get an electricity connection in many Eastern European and Central Asian economies than anywhere else in the world. But it is not just about complex formalities or red tape. A less business-friendly regulatory environment also means weaker legal protections of minority shareholders and weaker collateral laws and institutions such as courts, credit bureaus and collateral registries.

Globally, more efficient regulatory processes often go hand in hand with stronger legal institutions and property rights protections. There is an association between the strength of legal institutions and property rights protections in an economy as captured by several sets of Doing Business indicators (getting credit, protecting investors, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency) and the complexity and cost of regulatory processes as captured by several others (starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, paying taxes and trading across borders). OECD high-income economies, by a large margin, have the world’s most business-friendly environment on both dimensions. At the other end of the spectrum, economies in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are most likely to have both weaker legal institutions and more complex regulatory processes as measured by Doing Business.

Some regions break away from the general trend. One is the Middle East and North Africa, a region where reform efforts over the past 6 years have focused mainly on simplifying regulation. Today economies in the region often combine relatively weaker legal institutions with relatively more efficient regulatory processes. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, by contrast, economies have on average slightly stronger legal institutions and less efficient regulatory processes. In this region reform efforts over the past 6 years have put greater emphasis on strengthening legal institutions and protection of property rights than those in the Middle East and North Africa.

Policy makers worldwide recognize the role that entrepreneurs play in creating economic opportunities for themselves and for others, and often take measures to improve the investment climate and boost productivity growth. Investments in infrastructure—ports, roads, telecommunications— are seen as a vital ingredient of private sector development. In an increasingly complex global economy, investments in education and training are critical. These investments typically take time to bear fruit. But economies that have made the transition from developing to high-income status have generally done so by boosting the skills and capabilities of their labor force. A critical way for policy makers to encourage entrepreneurship is by creating a regulatory environment conducive to the creation and growth of businesses—one that promotes rather than inhibits competition.

Opportunities for Greater Access to Information in Business Regulation

Institutions play a major role in private sector development. Courts, registries, tax agencies and credit information bureaus are essential to make markets work. How efficient and transparent they are matters greatly to business. To improve the efficiency of processes and institutions, governments around the world—regardless of national income level—are making greater use of technology. More than 100 of the 183 economies covered by Doing Business use electronic systems for services ranging from business registration to customs clearance to court filings. This saves time and money for business and government alike. It also provides new opportunities to increase transparency as well as to facilitate access to information and compliance with regulation. But not all economies take advantage of the opportunities for openness provided by the new technologies. And at times fiscal constraints and budgetary priorities have prevented faster adoption of the latest technologies to improve the quality of public services.

This year Doing Business researched how businesses can access information essential for complying with regulations and formalities, such as documentation requirements for trade or fee schedules for business start-up, construction permitting or electricity connections. Because some economies lack fully developed information technology infrastructure, the research also explored whether economies used other means to make such information easily accessible, such as posting fee schedules at the relevant agency or disseminating them through public notices.

The findings are striking. In the majority of economies in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa, obtaining such information requires a meeting with an official. In all OECD high-income economies documentation requirements for trade are accessible online, at an agency or through public notices. In the Middle East and North Africa this is the case in only about 30% of economies, and in Sub-Saharan Africa in less than 50% of economies. Documentation requirements for building permits are available online or through public notices in only about 40% of economies in these 2 regions.

Easier access to fee schedules and lower fees tend to go hand in hand. In economies where fee schedules are easily accessible, starting a business costs 18% of income per capita on average; where they are not, it costs 66% of income per capita on average.

Beyond information that businesses need to comply with regulation, institutions such as courts provide information that helps increase transparency in the marketplace. Efficient and fair courts are essential for creating the trust needed for businesses to build new relationships and expand their markets— and for investors to invest. But it is not only their role in efficient enforcement that matters. Doing Business finds that in close to 75% of a sample of 151 economies, courts are required by law to publicize the initiation of insolvency proceedings.

How the Top 20 Economies Manage Business Regulation

The 20 economies with the most business-friendly regulation as reflected in their ranking on the ease of doing business are Singapore; Hong Kong SAR, China; New Zealand; the United States; Denmark; Norway; the United Kingdom; the Republic of Korea; Iceland; Ireland; Finland; Saudi Arabia; Canada; Sweden; Australia; Georgia; Thailand; Malaysia; Germany; and Japan. As noted elsewhere in this report, an economy’s ranking on the ease of doing business does not tell the whole story about its business environment. The underlying indicators do not account for all factors important to doing business, such as macroeconomic conditions, market size, workforce skills and security. But they do capture some key aspects of the regulatory and institutional environment that matter for firms. These 20 economies have implemented effective yet streamlined procedures for regulatory processes such as starting a business and dealing with construction permits as well as strong legal protections of property rights. They also periodically review and update business regulations as part of a broader competitiveness agenda and take advantage of new technologies through e-government initiatives.

Only 2 decades ago some of these 20 economies faced challenges similar to those in many lower-income economies today. Consider Norway’s property registry. Today it is one of the world’s most efficient. But in 1995 its paper records required 30 kilometers of shelving and were growing at a rate of 1 kilometer a year. Norway took steps to change this. First it merged the land department and survey information, then digitized title certificates. In 2002 it amended the 50-year-old Land Transfer Act to allow online titling. Online registration has been required by law since 2008.

Sweden undertook a systematic review of all regulations in the 1980s. Any unjustified requirements were cut in a “guillotine” initiative. (Mexico took a similar approach in the 1990s.) In Korea the Presidential Council on National Competitiveness, created in 2008, identified regulatory reform as 1 of 4 pillars to improve the economy’s competitiveness, along with public sector innovation, investment promotion, and legal and institutional advancement. Reviewing Korea’s business regulations, the council found that 15% had not been revised since 1998. The council applied sunset clauses to more than 600 regulations and 3,500 administrative rules (see the case study on Korea).

Policy makers in some economies today consider regulatory reform a continual process and create dedicated committees or agencies such as Actal in the Netherlands and the Better Regulation Executive in the United Kingdom. These agencies not only routinely assess existing regulations. They also pay increasing attention to managing the flow of new regulations.

In the United Kingdom in 2005–10 a program reduced the burden of regulatory compliance on businesses by 25% according to the government. That amounted to savings for firms equivalent to £3.5 billion. New initiatives are under way, such as the “one in, one out” system and the Red Tape Challenge (see the case study on the United Kingdom). The European Union has also targeted a 25% reduction in the administrative burden that regulation imposes on business. The underlying principle is to have “smart” regulation, dispensing with cumbersome and costly regulations that impair the private sector’s capacity to innovate and grow while maintaining regulations that promote a level playing field.

Other initiatives share the objective of making business regulation effective at the lowest possible cost for business. In Sweden the government recently commissioned the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysis to conduct studies on the effect of rules on the enterprise sector. Canada and the United States have introduced impact assessments to prevent the introduction of regulations considered too costly to society.

At all levels, much attention is being paid to transparent policy making. Governments are making business regulation and the regulatory process accessible, helped in many cases by e-government initiatives. The United Kingdom invites comment on regulatory proposals on the website of the Better Regulation Executive. Canada and the United States publish guidelines on the evaluation process underlying the cost-benefit analysis of new regulations.

Differences in Performance Across Areas of Business Regulation

The economies making such continued efforts, often over decades, often compare well with others across all 10 areas of business regulation included in this year’s ease of doing business ranking—and they do so over time, reflecting a more consistent and comprehensive approach to business regulation. In many of the other economies, by contrast, the degree to which regulations and institutions are business-friendly varies fairly widely across different areas of regulation.

This shows up in comparisons of an economy’s 3 highest rankings on Doing Business topics with its 3 lowest rankings. For example, Malaysia’s top 3 rankings (on getting credit, protecting investors and trading across borders) average 11, while its lowest 3 (on dealing with construction permits, getting electricity and registering property) average 77.

For some economies this variance is due in part to the rapid pace of reform in some areas of business regulation. One such area is business entry: more than 80% of the 183 economies covered by Doing Business have made it easier to start a business since 2003. Among them is the Arab Republic of Egypt, where starting a business is reasonably straightforward thanks to the implementation of an efficient one-stop shop. But dealing with construction permits takes about 7 months, and enforcing a contract through the courts takes almost 3 years on average. Egypt’s top 3 rankings (on starting a business, getting credit and trading across borders) average 54, while its lowest 3 (on dealing with construction permits, paying taxes and enforcing contracts) average 149.

Indeed, reforms simplifying business entry have been high on the agenda since early on—particularly in common markets such as the European Union, where businesses are free to start and operate in any of the member states. Over time such business regulation reforms have increasingly been undertaken by low- and lower-middle-income economies. Many have been helped by peer learning among policy makers, which has picked up around the world. Every year corporate registrars from 31 economies meet to discuss challenges and solutions. Representatives from Canada, which ranks number 3 on the ease of starting a business, are now advising economies as diverse as Indonesia and Peru. In 2010/11, 53 economies made it easier to start a business. Since 2005 the number of economies where starting a business takes 20 days or less has increased from 41 to 98.

Improving the regulatory environment for business can be difficult and take time, particularly if the improvements involve substantial institutional or legal changes. Some require difficult political trade-offs. Outside pressures may be needed to push through legislative changes. So it is no surprise that times of crisis have often proved to be a time of opportunity. Against the backdrop of the global economic and financial crisis, the number of insolvency reforms increased over the past 3 years, particularly in Europe and among OECD high-income economies elsewhere. In 2010/11, 29 economies around the world reformed their insolvency systems, more than in any previous year. Most focused on improving reorganization proceedings to allow viable firms to continue operating.

Differences across areas of business regulation provide an opportunity for policy makers interested in regulatory reform. Not surprisingly, different areas of business regulation interact. Some research suggests that business regulation reforms have greater impact if combined with effective regulation in other areas. For example, when India dismantled a strict licensing regime controlling business entry and production, the benefits were greater in states that had more flexible labor regulations. These states saw real output gains 17.8% larger than those in other states. In Mexico researchers found that a municipal license reform across states increased new firm registrations by 5% and employment by 2.2%. The effect was greater in states with less corruption and better governance.

Beyond these country-specific studies, cross-country analysis found that a 10-day reduction in the time to start a business was associated with a 0.3 percentage point increase in the investment rate and a 0.36% increase in the GDP growth rate in relatively poor and well-governed economies. Another study points to synergistic effects between institutional reforms that reduce the costs of high-quality production and trade reforms. In many developing economies production of high-quality output is a precondition for firms to become exporters. Institutional deficiencies that raise the costs of high-quality production therefore limit the positive effect that trade facilitation can have on income.

 Closing the Gap—A Global Trend Toward Business-Friendly Regulation

Policy makers often keep an eye on relative rankings that compare economies at a point in time. But they increasingly recognize the importance of improvements within economies over time. And results from recent years are encouraging. In the past 6 years policy makers in 163 economies made domestic regulations more business-friendly. They lowered barriers to entry, operation and exit and strengthened protections of property and investor rights. Only a few economies moved in the opposite direction. República Bolivariana de Venezuela and Zimbabwe went the furthest in making business regulation less business-friendly.

Some economies have gone particularly far in closing the gap with the regulatory systems of top-performing economies such as Singapore, New Zealand and the Northern European economies. Many of them are developing economies that started off with relatively high levels of bureaucracy and weak protections of property rights as measured by Doing Business. In narrowing the gap, all these economies are moving closer to the frontier—a synthetic measure based on the most efficient practice or highest score observed for each indicator. For starting a business, for example, the bar is set by New Zealand on the time (1 day), Canada and New Zealand on the number of procedures (1), Denmark and Slovenia on the cost (0). Georgia, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates set the bar on the number of procedures for registering property (1), France on the documents required to export (2), Singapore on the time to enforce contracts (150 days). The frontier is thus a proxy for global good practice across all indicators.

Economies making the greatest progress toward the frontier have been able to do so thanks to broad regulatory reform programs covering multiple areas of regulation and embedded in a long-term competitiveness strategy. China, for example, implemented policy changes across 9 areas of business regulation in the years since 2005. The changes included a new company law in 2005, a new credit registry in 2006 and, in 2007, the first bankruptcy law regulating the bankruptcy of private enterprises since 1949.

More economies are taking this broad approach. In 2010/11, 35 economies implemented reforms making it easier to do business in 3 or more areas measured by Doing Business—12 of them in 4 or more areas. Four years before, only 10 reformed in 3 or more areas.

Also new are the comprehensive approach and high level of coordination and commitment that some developing and emerging market economies are bringing to regulatory reform. More than 2 dozen economies have put in place regulatory reform committees, often reporting directly to the president or prime minister—as in Colombia, Malaysia and Rwanda. And they have not shied away from radical legal reforms. Economies making the greatest strides in creating a more business-friendly regulatory environment have been revamping their regulatory and administrative systems in multiple areas to encourage private sector activity.

That more and more developing economies are serious about business regulation reform is encouraging. Such broad thinking is good news for entrepreneurs and governments alike. Among the 12 economies improving the most in the ease of doing business in 2010/11, two-thirds are low- or lower-middle-income economies. All implemented regulatory reforms making it easier to do business in 3 or more of the 10 areas included in this year’s aggregate ranking.

The Advantage of Being a Late Starter

Many economies have the advantage today of being able to learn from the experience of others. And many are already adopting good practices from other economies. To help identify such practices, this year Doing Business is electronically publishing topic chapters that provide an overview of what has worked and why in 11 areas of business regulation, from business entry to exit. These chapters also provide insights into the importance of each area and show global trends.

What to Expect Next?

Doing Business has been measuring and tracking business regulation around the world for the past 9 years. During this time most economies have made their regulatory environment for local firms more business-friendly. Firms create jobs, and policy makers play a key role in creating a regulatory environment that encourages their creation, growth and investment.

A friendly competition has emerged as economies adopt proven regulatory practices from others. Lessons from others have proved invaluable for such economies as Colombia, Georgia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Rwanda. Within larger economies good practices can often be found across state borders (see the case study on Mexico).

Practitioners interested in learning from others have more resources to turn to. This year’s topic chapters provide the basis for web content and a new online database on practices and experiences in business regulation reform around the world. A series of case studies will explore how economies have integrated regulatory reform into broader competitiveness strategies or approached regulatory reform more generally. This year’s report presents the cases of Korea, FYR Macedonia, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

These expanding resources, including a growing time series of data on business regulation, are allowing more empirical research that sheds light on synergies among different areas of regulation and on the effect of regulatory reform on such economic outcomes as informality, corruption, employment and economic growth. The evidence is encouraging. It suggests that if key bottlenecks are identified, targeted changes can have a substantial effect on new firm creation, productivity and employment. Because many regulations interact, implementing regulatory reform in several areas has synergistic effects. It is also important to recognize that regulatory reforms can take time to translate into changes in the economy.

Other World Bank Group initiatives provide data complementing the Doing Business resources. Two global data sets support the exploration of other areas of analysis—one focusing on laws and regulations specific to women’s participation in the economy and the other on those relating to foreign companies’ engagement in the domestic economy. Enterprise surveys covering 125 economies over 9 years allow researchers and policy makers to assess what the private sector looks like in an economy at a given time—in terms of firm size, sector of activity and geographic location. Through direct interviews with more than 130,000 firms around the world, these surveys examine a range of issues relating to the business environment, including the biggest constraints as perceived by businesses.

The agenda for research into what regulations constitute binding constraints, what package of regulatory reforms is most effective and how these issues are shaped by the context in an economy is still unfinished. To stimulate new research in this area, Doing Business plans to hold a conference in the fall of 2012. Its aim will be to deepen our understanding of the links between business regulation reforms and broader economic outcomes.

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One Comment

  1. oscar vinces
    Posted Friday, March 30, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Regulation is a ‘plus’ and not a problem. The economies with ‘inteligent’ regulations keep growing while we remain stagnant.

    Governments cannot give up their management function. The secret is a wise management of ‘fiscal’ policies and ‘monetary’ policies reinforcing each other.

    In practice,all countries are now competing, and poliiticians (who unfortunately run governments) do not understand market and economic competition and competitiveness.

    In the middle of a national election process, nobody has ever mentioned the need to correct Balance of Payments and Balance of Trade deficits. They are only creating a catastrofic weakness that will end up destroying the US economy.

    I am still to learn about one person who believes that there is a limit to economic development. In the new ‘knowledge’economy, economic develepmenthas only amplified the limits and only the economy and markets will ‘regulate’ the timing and quatity or level of development in the economy – calling it the global economy.

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