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Five steps for closing the transatlantic productivity gap

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American companies embraced new information technologies 20 years ago, while Europeans are still hesitating. Bruno Maçães sets out a digital catch-up strategy.

The productivity gap between the United States and Europe has been widening steadily for 20 years. Labour productivity growth in the U.S. has accelerated from an annual 1.2% during 1973-1995 to 2.3% for 1995-2006. In the European Union, it declined from 2.4% to 1.5% during the latter period. Even if the two regions’ business cycles are not completely synchronised, the benefits they’ve derived from the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) revolution clearly diverge.

Europe’s productivity slowdown is due to the later emergence and smaller size of IT investment in EU economies compared to the United States. In the U.S., productivity has grown faster than in the EU because of a larger share there of employment in the ICT producing sector, and faster productivity growth in services industries that make intensive use of ICT.

Post-World War II Europe had a relatively well-educated population and strong institutions, that favoured the rapid transfer and use of mainly U.S.-made new technologies. But since the mid-1990s, the patterns of productivity growth between Europe and the U.S. have changed dramatically. Labour market reforms meant that Europe’s labour input growth led to a decline in relative capital intensity. In the U.S. there was strong growth in industries producing information and communications technology equipment and a capital-deepening effect from investing in information and communications technology. In other words, for Europe the advent of the knowledge economy has been much slower.

EU governments should therefore use their array of policy levers, including tax, regulation, and procurement policies, to encourage greater ICT innovation

Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis in Europe, there has been widespread agreement that reforms are needed to boost the EU economy. GDP growth in the eurozone is stuck below 1%, unemployment above 11% and inflation is still falling, and at 0.3% in November 2014 was far from the European Central Bank’s 2% target. It is now dangerously near outright deflation. From a monetary standpoint, the ECB has been called to do its part by getting inflation back on track, but it cannot do everything on its own.

The importance of completing the Single Market for services and of reforming labour markets and social policies has been long emphasised by economists. But now we are being forced to seriously consider the possibility that growth will ultimately depend on encouraging the more widespread use of new technologies. Faster productivity growth will not only allow the EU to support a growing number of retired people without imposing higher taxes on those in work, but will also help maintain Europe’s global competitiveness.

Along with the EU’s productivity slowdown, there have also been low levels of investment. The EU is facing an investment gap that will hamper short-term recovery and long-term growth. The traditional catch-up and convergence model of the 1950s and 1960s has proved unsuccessful under some very different conditions, so it now appears that ICT’s increased adoption could become the key driver of productivity growth and an overall improvement in living standards.

Over the last decade, and with the encouragement of the European Commission, significant progress has been made by national governments with initiatives for improving productivity and competitiveness through ICT. The EU’s Digital Agenda is an example of how policy makers have tried to tackle the issue, but more work still needs to be done if suitable conditions for ICT investment are to be created.

First, EU governments must place productivity improvements at the core of their economic policies. There can be no negative relationship between higher productivity and job growth. The misguided argument that the more efficiently we work, the less work there is for workers to do must be abandoned. It is a view that fails to identify critical second order effects in which the savings from increased productivity are recycled back into the economy to create more demand that in turn creates more jobs. To improve living standards, EU governments must stop creating or maintaining inefficiencies through their neglect of ICT investment, and must instead engage in clear EU productivity enhancement policies.

Second, the EU should deepen the scope of its investments beyond ICT capital. Intangible capital may in many ways prove more important as it covers a broad spectrum of factors that include labour force skills, ICT training and institutional knowledge passed on across company divisions. Creating a skilled workforce and a school curriculum that has been designed in partnership with the ICT industry would help create the right environment for ICT investment.

Third, European institutions can actively support the digital transformation of industries through their own procurement of ICT products. The EU could purchase ICT goods and services in the early stages of development, and arrange with their suppliers training for officials to spur cooperation with the private sector. By doing so, the EU would address network externalities that exist in many sectors. The argument that ICT’s benefits will lead to externalities seems borne out by the concept of network effects and the notion that the larger the network the more valuable it becomes to individual users. EU governments should therefore use their array of policy levers, including tax, regulation, and procurement policies, to encourage greater ICT innovation and transformation.

Fourth, tax and trade policies can promote ICT by minimising the tax wedge on it. ICT investment by governments reduces costs and encourages the productivity effect. Trade policies can promote ICT adoption by providing expanded information and technology trade agreements, facilitating market access and increasing technological complementarities and knowledge spillovers.

Creating a skilled workforce and a school curriculum that has been designed in partnership with the ICT industry would help create the right environment for ICT investment

Fifth, European businesses would be better able to benefit from ICT if they could achieve larger economies of scale. Business leaders have called for a more flexible approach to labour, product, and capital markets as that could unlock growth and innovation. Reforms might include tackling obstacles to private investment, the bringing down of energy costs, lower taxes on labour and capital and a degree of harmonisation of corporate tax rules while making labour markets more flexible.

Deepening the European Single Market is crucial if resources are to flow to their most productive use and stimulate improvements in technology. Harmonising data protection laws across the EU would increase legal certainty for companies looking to invest in European markets, particularly in cross-border services. Removing administrative barriers to ICT service providers when they enter EU markets would help to simplify market entry, reduce investors’ costs and the inefficiencies that impede investment.

The investment plan announced by the incoming European Commission late last year could do much to drive this strategy, provided the projects selected exploit innovation for greater multifactor productivity growth. The projected Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would expand market access for EU companies and will increase their return on investment on more ICT projects. Europe’s future economic competitiveness hinges on its ability to embrace the digital economy much more quickly. Now it is up to governments to set the right conditions. If they promote a political agenda for market reform, investment will follow.

 

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Europe’s World. Reposted per author’s permission.

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Economy

China’s Descending Rise

Todd Royal

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China is in a sustained economic slowdown. This is causing malignant unease among the political and economic leadership of the communist party in Beijing that governs China. Investing in China will be different, because:

“The country’s first sustained economic slowdown in a generation. China’s economic conditions have steadily worsened since the 2008 financial crisis. The country’s growth rate has fallen by half and is likely to plunge further in the years ahead, as debt, foreign protectionism, resource depletion, and rapid aging take their toll.”

Chinese social structures are under duress over their aging society. Formerly in the 1990s-early 2000s: “China had the greatest demographic dividend in history, with eight working-age adults for every citizen aged 65 or older.”

Once societies age, marital numbers decrease, and overall productivity plunges. China’s explosion of older citizens versus working-age will bring unique circumstances for global consumers. Factual evidence of slower productivity is evident throughout China, and will have to be considered for any financial or economic decision for decades ahead. The Chinese economic miracle bursting is largely due to aging demographics.

No one in western or eastern economic analysis circles or think tanks realistically saw this coming former President’s Deng Xiaoping opening of China. This was termed, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics (and/or) ‘socialist market economy,’” still ongoing. This slowdown will have deep ramifications for the global investment community, liberal order in place for over seventy-five years, and Chinese financial wealth that now spans the globe.

When countries age, and use reproductive rights to control populations, they become more assertive abroad, and repressive to its citizenry; this describes China’s social, political and economic philosophies that govern over a billion people. Since its one-child policy was enacted, Chinese economic productivity will plummet, “because it will lose 200 million workers and young consumers and gain 300 million seniors in the course of three decades.”

Suppressive economies have difficulty innovating, producing enough goods domestically, and integrating into world economic mechanisms that intends to distribute wealth globally. But this isn’t the first time these warnings have been made publicly.

Former Premier, Wen Jiabao gave a prescient declaration in March 2007 during the long march of economic progress when Mr. Jiabao had misgivings about China’s growth model by stating, “(Chinese growth had become) ‘unsteady, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” Recent numbers indicated China’s official GDP “has dropped from 15 percent to six percent – the slowest rate in 30 years.”

Expansionary Chinese growth hasn’t experience this level of downturn since the end of the Mao into post-Mao era. What this does for the Belt and Road Initiative that is paving the way for investments into Central Asia up to the Arctic Circle is uncertain? Deep investment difficulties could witness China stopping the flow of billions of infrastructure projects into countries and continents such as Africa desperate for growth.

Public figures from the Chinese government generally have the economy growing at six percent, but many analysts and economists peg the number(s) at “roughly half the official figure.” China’s GDP has consisted of bad debt that typical financial institutions and western governments will transfer from the state to public sector and ultimately costs passed onto consumers. For China’s wealth to increase when so much domestic wealth is spent on infrastructure projects to increase GDP these official numbers need context.

China has bridges, and cities full of empty office and apartment buildings, unused malls, and idle airports that do not increase economic productivity, and if that isn’t the case then infrastructure increasing economic measurements will decrease. Unproductive growth factors officially known are: “20 percent of homes are vacant, and ‘excess capacity’ in major industries tops 30 percent.” According to official Chinese estimates the government misallocated $6 trillion on “ineffective investment between 2009-14.” Debt now exceeds 300 percent of GDP.

What’s discovered is the amount of China’s GDP growth “has resulted from government’s pumping capital into the economy.” Private investments have trouble overtaking government stimulus spending, and Foreign Affairs ascertains “China’s economy may not be growing at all.”

Chinese economic growth – post-Mao – saw the country’s self-sufficiency in agriculture, energy, and water almost complete by the mid-2000s. Through economic malfeasance, population control, and resource decimation, “water has become scarce, and the country is importing more food and energy than any other nation.” Environmental degradation is destroying the basic necessities for every day survival.

This is where the world community and financial resources of east and west can meet needs, and grow interconnected, global economies. Energy is one of the biggest areas that China will engulf global energy supplies

The U.S. Energy Information Administration believes China will continue being the largest natural gas user in non-OECD Asia, and by 2050:

“Expects that China will consumer nearly three times as much natural gas as it did in 2018. China’s projected increase in natural gas consumption is greater than the combined growth of natural gas consumption in all other non-OECD Asian countries.”

Opportunities for liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities to be built globally, and in China to spur domestic and international economic activity are unlimited. As China goes, so goes Asia, and the world is now in the “Asian Century.” Investors, geopolitical strategists, and anyone concerned with global security should never believe it is wise to let China continue to falter economically and societally. Setting up investment mechanisms and diplomatic vehicles that benefit China, and the world community is a prudent choice.

When military choices defeat sound fiscal and monetary polices, the past 150 years have brought “nearly a dozen great powers experienced rapid economic growth followed by long slowdowns.” Normal, civilized behavior was pushed aside. What’s needed for Chinese economic growth is the free flow of information, managed wealth, consumer goods, and research/innovation.

Decades ahead, and current economic realities point to China being a great power that is under pressure, but still needs capital. A weak, unsecure China who isn’t satisfied with its place in the Asian hemisphere or global economic system isn’t good for continued prosperity. It would be smarter to engage and invest within China in the areas of energy, water, agriculture, and electricity where opportunities still abound.

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Agribusiness: Africa’s New Investment Frontier

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Authors: Mariam Yinusa and Edward Mabaya*

In the past decade, a stroll along the aisles of any African supermarket is revealing: there is a new wave of home-brewed brands that are fast becoming household names. Products like Dangote rice from Nigeria, Akabanga pepper oil from Rwanda and Tomoca coffee from Ethiopia attest to the gradual but persistent evolution towards greater agro-processing and value addition in the domestic agriculture sector.

Africa’s agribusiness sector is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2030, so there is certainly cause for optimism. Consumer demand for food in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. But what is fuelling this growth?

First, size matters. At a population of 1.2 billion people, Africa is currently the second most populous continent in the world, superseded only by Asia. According to United Nations projections, Africa’s population could reach 2 billion by 2030 and 2.5 billion by 2050. This means that one in five consumers globally will be African.

Second, quality counts. Sustained GDP growth rates in several countries across the continent have translated into rising incomes for some segments of the population. According to the African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook Report, the middle-class population is expected is projected to reach 1.1 billion by 2060 which will make up 42% of the population. The average African middle-class consumer is becoming relatively more affluent, sophisticated and discerning in the food they choose to buy and eat. Concerns about price/quality trade-offs, convenience, nutritional content and food safety, amongst others, are central in their minds.

Third, concentration can be powerful. Although most growth poles are small to medium cities, megacities with populations of over 10 million inhabitants, such as Cairo, Lagos and Kinshasa, have gained increased prominence. These metropoles offer ripe opportunities for investment, as a result of the triad of high consumption, concentrated spending power, and agglomeration (i.e. lower and fixed distribution costs).

On the supply side, there is significant untapped potential. Over 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land is in Africa.

Policy makers recognize the huge opportunities these trends present and are making concerted efforts to create and maintain an enabling business environment to attract both local and foreign investors. The African Development Bank is at the forefront of this coalition of the “ready” to transform African agriculture.

Under its Feed Africa Strategy, the Bank is supporting its regional member countries to address both demand and supply side constraints along agricultural value chains. Through initiatives like the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT), the Bank is boosting historically low yields in priority commodities such as rice, maize and soybeans. In Sudan for example, the TAAT-supported heat-resistant wheat variety has increased wheat self-sufficiency from 24% in 2016 to 45% in the 2018-2019 farming season.

At the same time, Special Agro-Processing Zones (SAPZs) are attracting both hard and soft infrastructure and creating value addition to increased agricultural produce. Together with partners, including Korea-Exim Bank and the European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank has invested $120 million in SAPZs in Guinea, Ethiopia and Togo, which will significantly expand local agro-processing activities along numerous agricultural value chains.

Along with these key investments in Africa’s agricultural value chains, the continent is starting to consolidate its wins. A case in point is regional integration, exemplified by the recent ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has the potential to make Africa the largest free trade area in the world.

Agribusiness has already caught the eye of investors. Last year, it was one of the main attractions at the inaugural Africa Investment Forum conference, which is becoming the continent’s premier marketplace for global and pan-African business leaders, and an innovator in accelerating deals.

Agriculture was one of the nine sectors that attracted investor interest at the 2018 Africa Investment Forum. The sector held its own against big hitters like financial services, infrastructure, energy, and ICT. One such transaction was the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) deal in which $600 million loan financing was mobilized from the African Development Bank and other investors to boost annual production of cocoa beans from 880,000 tons to 1.5 million tons. Within the next three years, the project is also expected to promote growth in the domestic cocoa value chain by increasing processing capacity two-fold from 220,000 tons to 450,000 tons per annum.

Africa’s expanding consumer base will undoubtedly lead to more spending on food and beverages on the continent. This should be enlightening for would-be investors in food processing and value addition ventures.

The front door to these opportunities is the Africa Investment Forum, scheduled for November 11-13 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

*Edward Mabaya, Principal Economist and Manager, respectively, in the Agribusiness Development Division of the African Development Bank.

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Asian Reserve Managers Navigate Increasingly Complex Risks

Ingrid van Wees

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Reserve asset management in Asian economies is becoming more and more complex. 

There has been a marked shift in the reserve currency asset markets over the last year. Central bankers in developed markets have moved from policy normalization to an easing bias mainly due to macro-economic risks. This has resulted in a downward trend in yield curves of traditional reserve assets, and some asset markets have even sunk deeper into negative yield territory. The stock of negative yielding debt has doubled globally to $17 trillion as of August 2019 from $8 trillion as of December 2018. 

The US Treasury market is one the last remaining positive yielding traditional reserve asset markets. Given this environment, reserve managers have ventured into “riskier” asset classes, including equities, exchange traded funds, corporate credits, and commodities for greater diversification and expected returns. 

In fact, gold as a reserve asset has regained popularity. According to IMF data, central banks held 34,000 tons of gold as of Q1 2019, making it the third largest reserve asset in the world. 

The current environment is marked by economic uncertainty as the effects of deepening trade tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China are being felt across Asia. Other risks—including the potential for a sharper slowdown in major advanced economies and rising geopolitical tensions in some other regions—have intensified investor anxiety and increased financial market volatility. This uncertainty has exacerbated the several challenges already faced by reserve asset managers in the previous years.

Foreign exchange reserves are a key component of the monetary and exchange rate policies in most countries. Developing economies have accumulated reserves at an impressive pace, after the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Global holdings of reserves have grown at annualized rate of 4.8% since 2008 and now stand at $12.4 trillion. Asia has accounted for more than 55% of the total growth, mostly because of the trade dynamics in Asia and the importance policy makers place on reserve accumulation. 

Traditionally, reserves are kept by emerging economies as a precautionary measure to build confidence in the currency, and as a stabilization mechanism against disorderly markets. However, reserve managers must now balance these with other motives as well. These include supporting the conduct of monetary policy; accumulating assets for intergenerational purposes; or influencing the exchange rate for export competitiveness. 

Given the different motivations for holding reserves, the question of reserve adequacy and the associated cost of holding reserves assumes greater importance. 

The growth of reserves has brought to the fore risk management issues like liquidity and concentration for the preservation of capital to be balanced with return considerations. Adequacy of reserves must be assessed against each objective and the portfolios segmented to address them.

Sovereign wealth funds, or SWFs, have grown as a structure to segment return objectives and provide the governance structure to achieve them. Globally, as of 2018, assets under management of SWFs have grown to $8 trillion. Governance standards around the management of SWFs have emerged as the Santiago principles set out a common global set of international standards regarding transparency, independence, and accountability for SWFs.

Reserve adequacy must consider assessments of developing risks through forward-looking scenario analysis. Such scenario analysis must consider the evolution of factors that drives reserve needs. However, each country is different. Advanced economies need different adequacy measures compared to emerging economies. The lessons from the global financial crisis has taught us that no country is immune from external or internal shocks. Reserves provide a valuable buffer in these stress events.   

Reserve managers face a complex task in investing these resources. With emerging risks clouding the outlook for the global economy, balancing risks with return expectations and with the mandate to provide liquidity during market dislocations has become a more delicate predicament for them. 

They must constantly monitor the operating environment as it can change quite dramatically in a short period of time with new challenges such as the emergence of new crytocurrencies. Challenges of reserve adequacy, asset concentration, and risk management will need to be assessed for sound and effective management of reserves. The role of reserve managers will assume even greater importance going forward.

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