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Je Suis(se) HSBC! – The austerity odd or ad?

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While the wealthy evade billions in taxes, ordinary citizens continue to bear the burden of budget cuts. Meanwhile, those who resist are punished for it. Is our austerity world an upside-down normalcy and reality? Je Suis(se) HSBC!! Isn’t it odd, or it’s just another (unintentional) ad?

“What is rewarded above is punished below … Profits are privatized, losses are socialized.”
Ultimately, major scandals like HSBC’s Swiss tax evasion scheme are merely flash points offering us a clearer view of the hidden dynamics at work in the world economy. Credits: telegraph.co.uk
This week it was revealed that HSBC — Europe’s biggest bank — has been actively running and propagating a massive tax evasion scheme through its Swiss subsidiary, allowing some of its wealthiest international clients to hide over $120bn in undeclared assets in 30.000 secret Swiss bank accounts. Leading British regulators, MPs and government officials were aware of the malpractices and the names of potential tax evaders (including movie stars, drug lords and heads of state), but never pressed criminal charges.

Instead, the UK — like the rest of Europe — ushered in an age of austerity. Where the billions of the rich escaped to Switzerland and the Caymans, the benefits of the poor were cut “to balance the budget.” Last year, David Cameron pledged to slash “wasteful” public spending for another decade, as it “comes out of the pockets of the same taxpayers whose living standards we want to see improve.” The irony of the Prime Minister speaking from a golden throne was hardly lost on anyone. Welcome to the topsy-turvy reality of austerity politics.
As for HSBC, of course the diligent observer will not have been very surprised by the news of the bank’s umpteenth mega-scandal. Already back in 2012, financial journalist Matt Taibbi made it clear that HSBC had been engaged in “more or less the worst behavior that any bank can possibly be guilty of.” So far, the bank has managed to avoid prosecution despite laundering billions of dollars for some of the most notorious Mexican drug cartels as well as a Saudi bank linked to Al Qaeda, and systematically rigging interbank interest rates and reaping lavish profits in the infamous LIBOR scandal.

The decision of US and UK regulators to reach deferred prosecution agreements with HSBC and not to press criminal charges in these scandals signals the double standards at the heart of our contemporary justice systems. In the US, where more than half of the prison population is doing time for minor drug offenses, the white collar criminals who aid and abet the violent traffickers of these same drugs get off with a slap on the wrist. As Taibbi puts it, “for the crimes [HSBC] committed, getting away with just [a fine] — and it’s not even their money, it’s the shareholders’ money — it literally is a get out of jail free card.”

Yet it is very important not to let the criminal behavior of a single bank distract us from the bigger picture. HSBC is but one notoriously scandalous player in a financial system that is dominated by some of the most criminal organizations of our times. Focusing our wrath on individual acts of misbehavior risks missing a deeper dimension. While it is the illegal practices that mostly hit the headlines and cause indignation, the real theft still occurs within the bounds of the law — in the everyday transactions and ordinary financial operations at the heart of these banks’ business models.

In this sense, the greatest scandal of our times is systemic in nature and rests upon the wholesale transformation of the world economy over the past four decades. With the onset of financialization in the 1970s, the international banking system began to act like Galeano’s magnifying glass: grossly amplifying pre-existing inequalities and inverting reality in the process. In the first instance, the system sucks up billions in interest and tax money from below. Starting with the bankruptcy of New York City in 1975 and the Mexican debt crisis of 1982, austerity became the key mechanism whereby the banks effected a historically unprecedented redistribution of resources from the bottom to the top.
At the other end, the magnifying glass created the preconditions under which the world’s wealthiest businesspeople, Third World dictators and white-collar criminals could further increase their accumulated capital — obtained through decades’ worth in pillage and plunder of state resources and common property — and stuff it in offshore bank accounts and foreign assets, where this immense stolen wealth largely escapes taxation, regulation and criminal investigation.

The financial privileges obtained through this process, which has been referred to by David Harvey as “accumulation by disposition”, stand in direct relation to the fiscal deprivation at the bottom. Ultimately, major scandals like HSBC’s Swiss tax evasion scheme are merely flash points offering us a clearer view of the hidden dynamics at work in the world economy: what is taken from one side shows up at the other. In a word, there is no such thing as austerity; there is only an outrageously skewed redistribution of resources. In this upside-down world of financial capitalism, money doesn’t trickle down — it steadily flows upwards.

The result is a stable set of outcomes in which profits are perennially privatized and losses are systematically socialized. Those who question this state of affairs are told that “there is no alternative,” and those who actively resist — like the social movements and progressive governments in Latin America and Southern Europe — are ruthlessly punished for it. First the cops will beat ordinary citizens over the head when they protest, then investors will beat popular governments over the head when they do the same. Foreign capital is withdrawn, bond yields spike up, stock markets collapse. Where the bankers above are rewarded for criminal behavior, those who struggle for justice from below find themselves imprisoned within the narrowing perimeters of the permissible.

It should be clear by now that to this systemic injustice there can only ever be systemic answers. Of course regulators should actively pursue criminal charges against HSBC for its latest mega-scandal, but without powerful anti-systemic movements to carry demands for social justice forward, meaningful change remains unlikely. To turn the looking glass around and put the world back on its feet will require mass mobilization and political organization on a scale we have not been able to imagine so far. Now more than ever we need to take back to the streets and start developing a coherent transnational project to confront the criminal rule of global finance head on.

First published by the ROAR Magazine.

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Economy

Bangladesh’s Graduation: A Ray of Hope for India’s Garment Industry?

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Authors: Ms. Prerana Manral and Mr. Shreyansh Singh*

A report was released by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 8th highlighting the implications of graduation of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) on their trade participation. By virtue of their status as LDCs, these countries enjoy access to international support measures such as development financing, preferential market access, technical assistance etc. WTO also obliges LDCs with certain carve outs such as Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) to increase their participation in global trade.  The LDCs are graduated to developing country status if they meet the threshold levels for at least two of the three indicators i.e. Gross National Income (GNI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) for two consecutive triennial reviews. Interestingly, in 2018 Bangladesh became the first country to meet the thresholds for all the three indicators and if it meets these thresholds again for the second triennial review in 2021, it will be eligible for graduation in 2024.

In such a scenario, Bangladesh will lose some of the benefits provided to LDCs by developing and developed countries like the preferential market access which presently accords Bangladesh a competitive edge over Indian products. One of the key labor-intensive sectors which contributes significantly to the exports of both Bangladesh and India is garments industry. In 2009, both the countries almost had an equivalent share in the world market, however in 2018 India was left far behind Bangladesh. India’s total garment exports stood at 21 billion USD whereas Bangladesh’s exports were at 40 billion USD in 2018. 

Bangladesh’s garment sector, due to its LDC status, currently enjoys a duty-free access to markets of Europe and other developed countries. Specifically in EU markets, goods from Bangladesh are covered under “Everything But Arms” (EBA) preferential arrangement which provides zero percent duty on all the products except arms and ammunition. On the other hand, India loses out due to 9% average tariff on garments under the Standard GSP scheme of EU. Further, under the SAFTA and APTA Agreements, India also provides similar duty-free market access to LDCs which along with the removal of quantitative restrictions has exponentially increased Bangladesh’s garments exports to India leading to a tough time for the domestic industry even in the internal market.

Source: Authors’ calculation based on data available on World Integrated Trade Solution

The major markets for India and Bangladesh garment exports are the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan. Trade estimates of garment products clearly show that India’s export in terms of value is significantly less than that of Bangladesh. Since 2010, India’s total share of exports grew by 9.4% whereas Bangladesh’s exports skyrocketed by 141% in these markets. The major reasons behind Bangladesh’s exemplary export performance are tariff exemptions and lower wage labor market which provides impetus to narrowly beat its competitors in the international market. The analysis done in the report reveals that 70% of Bangladesh’s overall export is covered under LDC-specific preferences.

At this juncture a possible graduation of Bangladesh will lead to termination of such preferential access granted exclusively to LDCs which may provide an opportunity for Indian exporters to grab a larger share. However, to maximize the gains arising from this development India needs to prepare a robust action-plan. Firstly, low cost inputs such as cheap power, land and raw materials will have far-reaching effects in enhancing the export competitiveness. Secondly, India should focus on mass scale production of garments in order to achieve economies of scale to bring down its cost of production. Presently, the production is limited majorly to small-scale enterprises which lack capital intensive technology. This in turn negatively affects the quality and time of production which are crucial factors in tapping the domestic and international markets. The improvement in these parameters would help Indian exporters to move up the value chain in terms of creating brand value for its superior quality products. Another overdue policy action could be cutting the import duties on high-quality machinery required for better production. In addition to this, a fiscal stimulus is required to boost the ecosystem in wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

Lastly, to offset the preferential access enjoyed by its competitors such as Vietnam, Bangladesh etc. India should identify its partners and strategically negotiate FTAs for lower tariffs and Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs) to obtain better market access for Indian exports. Needless to mention, India will only be able to reap the benefits arising from Bangladesh’s graduation (due in 2024) if it sows the right seeds today. Effectuating such policies especially at a time when corporate taxes are slashed to match that of India’s competitors along will definitely send a positive signal for investment in the sector from the top global garment companies.  

*Authors are Research Fellows at Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute for Foreign Trade. Views expressed are personal.

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Post-Pandemic Economies and Environment

Dr.Abid Rashid Gill

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The cleaner air in cities, the burgeoning biodiversity and dramatic shift to less pollution-intensive lifestyle across the globe indicate the scope of the environmental improvement that can be achieved in just days. This is what we need to adhere to navigate the current pandemics:COVID-19 and environmental degradation. The environmental issues as we know do not seem to wait for a more convenient time, we therefore must deal it and Covid-19 pandemic concurrently. It is a very fatal disease and has incited urgent response all over the world. The governments, businesses and industries have been forced to deal with the pandemic in an unprecedented way.

According to the experts, this pandemic has provided us with the opportunities to deal with other crises also. We can take a transnational leap towards a sustainable society that produce minimum wastes and emissions. How we deal with current pandemic will also set our environmental trajectory for the centuries to come. The changes in our behaviour that we are experiencing nowadays and some of which may instilus permanently have a far-reaching impact on the environment. Our consumption and travel patron are more responsible: driving less car, attending online meetings rather than taking flights. Equally, it indicates that considerable dent on emissions and wastes products can be made without disturbing too much economic growth.

However, according to International Renewable News Agency (IRENA), for the long-run substantial reduction in the emissions of the toxins, huge and lasting changes are needed in the way how energy is produced and consumed. Though China and India two major growing economies, observed 25% and 30% reduction respectively during the months of lockdown. However, a shift towards low-emission society cannot be accomplished only via individual choices instead it involves reimagining the ways our urbane centres are built and organised, how roads are laid out so that moving without cars become easier, how provisions for walking, cycling and public transport is mad. There is a need for complete overhauling theway we grow, manufacture, trade, consumes and the way we travel.

Cities of Western Europe have been leading this transition by introducing innovative infrastructure projects: Milan has allocated 35 Km street for pedestrians and cyclists; Brussels has created 40km of a new path for cyclists and France has subsided cycling. Also, the Mayor of London started taking measures to build a car and buses free streets and bridges. Similarly, many cities are working on the circular economy where wastes are minimized through reuse and recycling. Following the footsteps of these cities, Pakistan also needs to devise pro-environmental urbane policies and mobility models.

Many studies such asYaron Ogen, 220 and  Dario Caro, 220 indicate a strong link between COVID-19 death rate and an increase in emissions. Especially in North Italy and Spain, the high death rate from COVID-19 is seen to be associated with high air pollution in cities. Curtailing the pollution, therefore, would reduce general health burden and prevent any future pandemic may not prove to be so lethal. It has been learnt from the pandemic that early actions to contain the virus were more effective than trying to deter when the virus has spread. The same is also true for the environmental issues as Prof. Stern of Brentford claimed in 2006 that “countries needed to spend 1% of their GDP to stop greenhouse gases rising to dangerous levels. Failure to do this would lead to damage costing much more, the report warned – at least 5% and perhaps more than 20% of global GDP”.

Eventually, it is time for governments to forge with the private sectors to produce a sustainable economy. After this pandemic is over, the businesses, the industry, and individuals would plead to governments for state support. The governments should have an agenda of a sustainable economy while pouring money into the economy as aid packages. Governments should use this opportunity and must take a long view to utilize the stimulus packages. To an extent, the impact of COVID-19 on the environment is the functions of a kind of fiscal stimulus will be adopted in post-pandemic. Ideally, we should avoid a post-2008-09 financial crisis when fiscal measures of China government boosted the emissions by 6% (World Bank,2020). Rather, a more successful model of South Korea should be borrowed where stimulus package of 2008 included investment in natural conversation, energy efficiency, renewable energies, and sustainable transportations.

The COVID-19 virus is a global issue that requires a global response asall states are sharing data, experiences, equipment, and resources to deal with this pandemic. This same spirit of international collaboration is needed to produce the viable solution of the environmental issues. An inclusive global programme collaborated by rich and poor nations that ensures sustainable production can ensure low-emissions economies across the globe. The post-pandemic economies should be navigated in a way that protects people and planet and avoids any ecological destruction that leads to viral diseases. This pandemic can be taken as a mandate to build a new world from its broken parts.

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Long lockdowns and the status of Indian MSMEs

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Recently, when the Government of India decided to classify institutions as Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) they were trying to set up an incentive structure to usher a new era of growth. The incentives announced are in the form of attractive cheap loans, fewer compliance standards, tax benefits, and host of other freebies. The intended scheme wanted to keep growing — from Micro to Small and Small to Medium, and the support system and put the nation on a path of self-sufficiency .

Change of classification criteria

In fact, the businesses are  classified as Micro, Small, or Medium depending on the kind of investments they were making in plant and machinery and  if we made investments of up to 5 Crore, then we are as a Small enterprise. But what happens when business is booming and there’s an incentive for us  to invest and expand. Well, without government intervention, we’d have lapped up this opportunity no questions asked. But now, we have to consider the downside. Because, as our transition from being Small to Medium, we’ll forego a few benefits. Benefits that  might not want to cede. Here likes the dilemma because when we  try and deceive the government into thinking we  are a Small enterprise when in fact we are not and we will  have to do is to keep making the investments we  need, but figure out ways to hide the investments on our  accounting books. That means the government will now have to spend additional resources in physically verifying your claims. In effect, the incentives that were designed to help MSMEs grow and become self-sufficient have now turned “perverse”. A move that was meant to promote investment and foster growth is now yielding terrible unintended consequences stifling all progress.

Scheme of the Government

So they began working on a proposal to change the classification criteria. They figured that total revenues would be a good metric since claims regarding revenue can easily be verified with the GST Sales data filed at the Goods and Service Tax portal. More importantly, entrepreneurs won’t have to worry about making new investments since the benefits are no longer tied to this metric. But the industry body representing MSEMs is not happy with this development. They lobbied and urged the government to keep the classification criteria intact but  when the government finally charged ahead and introduced turnover as an additional criterion. They even expanded the investment limit to ensure MSMEs don’t graduate out of benefits too soon. However, MSMEs in the service sector (IT and stuff) will also be classified along the same lines as their manufacturing counterparts. So no step-motherly treatment for the people in the service industry either. Besides the classification, the government also wants to get the big guns interested in the space. They want Venture Capitalists to walk in and buy ownership in promising upstarts. The plan is simple. Put together a mother fund with 10,000 crores from the government. And then disburse the funds from the mother entity to smaller daughter funds in a piecemeal fashion and try and get other investors on-board these smaller funds. If all goes well, the 10,000 crores from the government should attract an additional 40,000 crores from outside investors (PE/VCs) and this should give MSMEs some much-needed funding support. They are calling it the Fund of Funds.

However, in the present status of pandemic banks don’t want to offer another lifeline by extending new loans considering their own precarious situation. And they most certainly cannot contain the problem; since we are likely to see a spike in defaults owing to the fact that most MSMEs have shut shop completely since the lockdown. And if MSMEs can’t restart operations and fail en masse, we will have a systemic problem on our hands. So a government intervention was inevitable. And the finance minister finally announced 3 lakh crore worth of collateral—free loans for businesses, including MSMEs in a bid to plug the funding gap. If we are in a business with a loan burden on your hands, banks will now extend new loans of up to 20% of the total loan outstanding so that we  can restart operations. Now, we’ll have 4 years to repay this loan. Repayment obligations won’t kick in until the end of the first year. The government will stand as our guarantor in case we  default and they will compensate the banks in full interest and principal. So technically, banks should be more willing to lend to these institutions now.

Growing importance of agriculture

 Around 51 lakh people migrated to agriculture last year and this should be seen positively. In fact, we should actively pursue this endeavour and focus on making farming economically viable. Indian Agriculture, on an aggregate level,  has been unprofitable for a good while now. Monsoons are erratic. Irrigation infrastructure still needs work. Warehousing and storage problems still persist. The middlemen skim most of the profit and many farmers work with land parcels so tiny that they can almost never leverage benefits of scale. Meaning we have a small proportion of landowners who run an extremely profitable enterprise while a good chunk of the agrarian population  still live below the poverty line. The point is — there’s been very little incentive for people to continue and work the farmland. And as a consequence, many people migrated from rural hinterlands to urban centres en masse.

But now in the pandemic and long lockdown the  migration patterns have reversed.  There’s now more incentive for India’s labour population to return to agriculture. It’s become prosperous again. First, it is likely that employment did not actually increase in agriculture, but the sector merely absorbed the excess labour as it had no other place to go to. Farmers did not actually call out for more labour. But, family labour landed up in farms when they had no other place to go to. The real estate and construction sector, which is usually a provider of employment to low-skilled farm labourers who try to move out of the labour surplus farmlands, shed 4.6 million jobs between January-April 2018 and January-April 2019. This failure of the construction industry to absorb farm surplus labour is, possibly, the biggest reason why there is an increase in employment under agriculture. A family farm always has scope to absorb some unpaid labour although such additions may not increase any production or profit. There is always an extra patch of the farms to tend to or the need to take the cattle to graze a little farther. Farm work can be spread thinly over available labour and keep everyone “employed” when there is no alternate work available to them.And right now, with the lockdown in place, we are seeing it happen again. People are moving back to agriculture en masse because they have nowhere else to go. The only difference—it’s happening at a scale that almost seems unreal. This migration also has some very real policy implications.

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