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Further attempt to explain the oil curse mechanism using a debt overhang concept

Mahieddine Adnan Ghecham (Al Ain University, AL AIN, United Arab Emirates)

Journal of Economic Studies

ISSN: 0144-3585

Article publication date: 20 October 2020

Issue publication date: 27 April 2021




This study aims at increasing the authors’ understanding how and why the oil curse takes place.


The study uses a structural equation model (SEM) and stochastic frontier analysis (SFA) in order to underline the mechanism under which the oil curse operates.


The study shows that oil abundance could lead to inefficient resource allocation. This inefficiency is strongly correlated with a weak institutional setting which would lead to accumulated external debt and ultimately to poor economic performance.

Research limitations/implications

The quality of institutions and governance plays a major role in defining government success in allocating public resources efficiently. In a weak institutional setting, characterized with lack of accountability oil rents can promote rent-seeking behavior of public agents; a type of behavior that promotes misallocation and waste of resources. This in turn undermines public finances and leads to external debt accumulation. Debt per se is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has a turning point beyond which it can be a source of economy for countries (particularly countries with limited diversified source of revenue and inefficient public sector). It is to note that the authors work does not refute the positive impact that the increase in oil value has on economic growth (e.g. Nusair, 2016). However, it reminds policy makers that in order to sustain this impact over long term, it is necessary to build a strong institutional framework that prevents inefficient use of resource allocation as it could result in rapid accumulation of debt over short period of time. The adoption of sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) by a number of oil rich countries has helped them to manage adverse oil shocks. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of these funds could be limited in a country whose institutions are not very strong. Characterized by a mediocre institutional setting, Algeria's sovereign fund, for example, has lost 67% of its reserves over just two years (2014–2015) before reaching the level zero by February 2017 following the drop of oil prices in 2015 (see Central Bank of Algeria, 2017). Also, the foreign exchange reserves of the country experienced a drop of more than 72% over a short period of time (2014–2020), leading to the resurgence of the idea of contracting external debt. Similarly, following the sharp drop in oil prices in 2015, the Saudi Arabia's external debt (% of GDP) has jumped by more than 150% over three years only, reaching a level of 28.85% in 2020 compared to a 10.62% in 2015 ( The positive correlation of weak institutions with inefficiency can lead to fiscal policy procyclicality. Inefficient public spending tends to be procyclical compared to productive public spending (Makin, 2014). This procyclicality is apparent in developing countries, particularly those characterized by corrupted and weak institutional environment (Alesina et al., 2008; Frankel et al., 2013). This is conducive to output fluctuations where booms and busts are exacerbated (Frankel et al., 2013).


Originality of the study resides in the idea that external debt is an important element that could help to explain why oil curse could take place. The transmission mechanism that underpins the oil curse hypothesis is yet to be fully understood. In doing so, the paper, with the use of two sophisticated statistical techniques, reconciles between the concept of debt overhang and oil curse hypothesis. Similar research efforts are scant.



Ghecham, M.A. (2021), "Further attempt to explain the oil curse mechanism using a debt overhang concept", Journal of Economic Studies, Vol. 48 No. 4, pp. 852-868.



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