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Is it time for the rise of local currencies?

Prof. Murray Hunter

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It’s an almost long forgotten historical fact that most trade was undertaken by local based currencies right upto the 20th Century. Australia had a number of colonial currencies before federation in 1901. The United States of America had a number of currencies issued by private banks before the Federal Reserve Bank was formed in 1913, and individual states of the European Union had their own national currencies before the mega-currency, the Euro was launched in 1999.

However given the trend to larger and “stronger” currencies, the hype of the Euro, the protection of the US Dollar as the major trading currency, a very quiet trend has been going the other way. In contrast, more than 2,000 local currencies, in some form or the other, have been launched in various communities around the world.

Literature on the phenomenon of the local currency almost doesn’t exist in contemporary economic literature. Therefore the purpose of this article is to have a look at local currencies, and try and answer the following questions; Why do communities launch them? Do local currencies have any benefit to these communities?, and What is the real potential of these currencies?

A local currency, sometimes referred to as a community currency, is a means of exchange used by members of a community that have some common bonds. Local currencies are usually not backed by a national government, nor is it officially a legal tender within the region it circulates within. A local currency is usually intended for trade within a limited geographical area.

Money is essentially an agreement to use something as a means of exchange. Any local currency can be denominated by the prevailing national currency, or measured in any commodity, or even labor units to determine comparative unit value, so people know how to use it as a medium of exchange. This redemption measure, if realizable, is usually a major factor giving users confidence in its present and future value.

A local currency is a potential tool of monetarism, where it can help to define an economic boundary where certain groups readily accepts it as a medium of exchange.

Local currencies are usually created on the value judgment, supported by E.F. Schumacher’s ideas that there should be a focus on the development of local economy. The proponents of local currencies would usually aspire towards developing a diverse local economy full of diverse micro-activities which would promote local production, local self sufficiency, and the maintenance of profits within the local area by local businesses. They would hope that the local currency and the corresponding changing spending habits (use of a local rather than national currency) would promote a preference and loyalty to local products and businesses, rather than goods and businesses from outside.

The proponents of local currencies would also probably aspire towards developing personal relationships in trade and desire to get away from the “McDonalds landscape” where the same restaurants, stores, and service businesses exist in everyplace with an emerging mono-culture. Thus the introduction of a local currency would be seen as a method of encouraging the de-standardization of their local community through promoting the development of vibrant diverse community activities.

The success of any local currency depends upon the assumption that a single country may not be an optimum currency area, where different regions within a country may be better off with different currencies. This would allow the development of local comparative advantage over national comparative advantage. This is very much against the spirit and purpose of macro-economic policy during the development phase of most economies, which has generally promoted centralization, the growth of SMEs into larger corporations so that economies of scale are developed to the point where firms can exercise competitive advantage in the international market.

Even though local currencies worked extremely well in the 19th Century (remember they were most often redeemable in gold then), the track record of the contemporary local currencies hasn’t been good. The successful ones like the Berkshare have been proxy currencies with an a generally agreed par value with the national currency. In fact, it is only the Berkshare used in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, that has been touted as the success story of local currencies. The Berkshire has a large number of users, which manages to keep the currency circulating within the local community. However in the Berkshire case, the community was already pre-disposed to producing local products for the local community. Many others have failed or ceased to exist through low levels of support within communities. While others like the Kelantan Dinar launched in 2006 was effectively sabotaged by the Malaysian Federal Government through repeated statements that the Dinar was not legal tender.

One of the impediments of any successful local currency is developing a critical mass of community support that would keep the circulation velocity high enough to maintain its perceived value.

A more notoriously use of a local currency was in the Cocoas Islands, where the Malay workers once ruled by the Clunies-Ross family were paid in Cocos Rupees, a currency John Clunies-Ross created and which could only be redeemed at the Clunies-Ross owned company store. Large retail corporations have successfully used forms of complementary local currencies as coupons, gift certificates, and point systems, to enlist customer loyalty.

Although there is scant evidence that any local currency to date has actually promoted local economic wealth, the mediocre track record of local currencies does not mean they don’t have great potential in the future as a means of achieving specific economic objectives needed in many economies today. From a macro-economic point of view, a local currency is a perfect tool for local micro-economic management, where the objective is to develop micro and SME industry to serve the immediate community. This will more and more become an important objective both in developing and developed economies around the world due to poor local enterprise diversity in many places.

A local currency, coupled together with a hybrid of crowd funding organized by local cooperative banks, would be a powerful alternative for providing credit to local enterprises that the conventional ‘big’ banks have been hesitant to service.

There may be another philosophical reason for adopting this approach as well. The banking sector has become so centralized, that most governments across the world have deemed their local banks ‘too big to fail”, where these privately owned institutions are almost above the law, or worse still, become a law unto themselves. All lending, trade, interest rates, and other credit facilities are controlled by these banks. No government took any great effort to regulate these institutions post 2008, because the job was too difficult and very few had the political will to do it.

The nature of a national currency has given banks great power to create money through debt creation. Most money that makes up the currency system is actually electronic. There are no notes or coins or supporting wealth to back up this money. It’s just a figure on a computerized ledger system where, if any bank was asked to produce the physical currency, it would be impossible. Technology has allowed this system to evolve, which arguably has been one of the underlying causes of financial crises i.e., electronic selling mortgages and derivatives etc. This is upsetting the balance of wealth in every country, where GINI indexes are actually widening.

Centralization has generally meant higher interest rates over time since single currencies and centralised banking came into existence. This suited government which found it easier to deal with a more centralised banking industry and fund economic activity. This also caused a rural crisis which was partly solved through the formation of specialized and subsidized rural banks in some cases.

One could also argue that the housing crisis was also caused by central currencies where investments made in land as a ledge against inflation of a national currency was encouraged and promoted.

However a local currency may be able to challenge the dominance of these banks, which impose their credit policies upon communities from outside. The local currency may help to provide some economic freedom from the interest rates banks apply to communities, and the prevailing inflation rates on the national scene.

This can be done by using local currencies to provide new means of obtaining credit and capital funding for businesses that banks won’t fund. It is here local currencies can help most, where governments all over the world have failed to influence the banking sector to step into the area of micro-finance. In this period, nearing on deflation, i.e., real wages are relatively decreasing, a local currency may enable local trades people to exchange labor for local goods much more effectively.

The means of trade is typically changing today where the traditional means of exchange with state currencies are being discarded for electronic and cyber alternatives. One thing is for certain is that national currencies will be weakened by the number of alternatives to currencies and banking that are springing up on the internet and social media today.

The potential of local currencies has become a forgotten tool of development. New employment in the future is likely to be created through small business with limited capital. Very few large corporations will dramatically increase employment as they are looking for ways to reduce employment.

Many multinationals open and shut in the developing world, and move on to places where they can make larger profits, leaving vacuums in employment. Therefore micro enterprise and SME development, as well as seeking to diversify local economies should be a major economic objective.

A local currency should go hand in hand with a local community banking system. Any local banking system should have a simple system that is easily understood, be consistent with existing system, be redeemers of currency (i.e., current currencies are not redeemable in anything, if a local currency is redeemable against a national currency gives it intrinsic value), provide a universal measurement of value to provide a sense of security, eliminate interest and install discount rates on loan repayments – i.e., voucher, and be organized at a local and community level.

Credit unions have existed for a long time and this is not far away from the concept espoused here. However governments through their support for ‘big’ banks, and banks through acquisitions and aggressive commercial practices have done their best to destroy this type of institution, which has stood in the way of banks taking over control of the economy, through central lending policies.

One must not forget that money is a social instrument. Local currencies are a ‘bottom-up’ approach to development rather than usual policy initiatives which come from a central government. Local currencies seem to have one thing in common, which may be the primary reason that promoters create them in the first place. That is the enhancement of local identity and sense of community within a region. Advocates of local currencies would argue that a local currency helps to form a sense of community which may lead to localized entrepreneurial start-ups in ventures that serve these communities. This would primarily be in specialized food businesses, etc. Thus local currencies could be seen as a source of social justice in helping to promote local entrepreneurial activities. Opportunity is also a human right.

A local currency, imaginably used, may be able to promote a micro-business sector to cover the local economic void that now exists in many communities. Local businesses can be nurtured through using hybrids of local currencies for alternative financing linking into variations of local crowd funding, and thus reflect local economic value better.

Local currencies may be more protective of international exchange rate fluctuation, thus protecting local economic buoyancy, which appears to be on the rise of late. A local currency may even be able to assist in lowering the high cost levels many developed economies, which has destroyed the simple economic model of local production to serve local communities. It is all about going back to the future in macro-economic policy to recreate local comparative advantage once again.

As pointed out by the author of Sacred EconomiesCharles Eisenstein, it was Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which fostered local production through import replacement protectionist policies in the 1980s that have prospering middle classes today. Compare this with Mexico which opened up free trade and openly allowing in foreign investors, gained very little in knowhow, technology, and permanent capital. Further, countries like Brazil and Thailand are taking measures to protect their economies from the flood of cheap US dollars buying up domestic assets. In both these cases the currency acted as a protection mechanism from the outside world in a form of economic sovereignty. Compare this to the situation in Greece which does not have its own currency.

Perhaps the real reasons why local currencies are introduced are non-economic. Local currencies are more about building community pride and developing ‘cultural capital’ against national and international trends.

The objective of a local currency and the attached value system to it, is to create or recreate a local community, product and service economy that meets the needs of local society from the local society itself. It aspires to develop a self financing community.

This is a very powerful tool for community development, to create micro-economic activity back in the communities that have become economically barren, and then to capture the value of local trade and hold it within the community.

As Bernard Lietaer said, ‘civilization needs a new operating system and fast’. This is indeed very relevant for many parts of the world today.

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Economy

U.S. policy and the Turkish Economic Crisis: Lessons for Pakistan

M Waqas Jan

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Over the last week, the Turkish Lira has been dominating headlines the world over as the currency continues to plunge against the US dollar. Currently at the dead center of a series of verbal ripostes between Presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the rapidly depreciating Lira has taken center stage amidst deteriorating US-Turkey relations that are wreaking havoc across international financial markets. Considering Pakistan’s current economic predicament, the events unfolding in Turkey offer important lessons to the dangers of unsustainable and unrealistic economic policies, within a dramatically changing international scenario. This holds particular importance for Pak-US relations within the context of the impending IMF bailout.

In his most recent statements, Mr. Erdogan has attributed his economy’s dire state of affairs as an ‘Economic War’ being waged against it by the United States. President Trump too has made it evident that the latest rounds of US sanctions that have been placed on Turkey are directly linked to its dissatisfaction with Ankara for detaining American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr Bruson along with dozens of others has been charged with terrorism and espionage for his purported links to the 2016 attempted coup against President Erdogan and his government.  There is thus a modicum of truth to Mr. Erdogan’s claims that the US sanctions are in fact, being used as leverage against the weakening Lira and the Turkish economy as part of a broader US policy.

However, to say that the latest US sanctions alone are the sole cause of Turkey’s economic woes is a gross understatement. The Lira has for some time remained the worst performing currency in the world; losing half of its value in a year, and dropping by another 20% in just the last week. Just to put the scale of this loss in to perspective, the embattled currency was trading at about 2 Liras to the dollar in mid-2014. The day before yesterday, it was trading at about 7 Liras to the dollar.

While the Pakistani Rupee has also depreciated quite considerably over the last few months, its recent drop (-17% against the dollar over the past 12 months) pales in comparison to the sustained and exponential downfall of the Lira. Yet, both the Turkish and Pakistani economies are at a point where they are experiencing an alarming dearth of foreign exchange reserves that have in turn dramatically increased their international debt obligations.

The ongoing financial crises in both Turkey and Pakistan are similar to the extent that both countries have pursued unsustainable economic policies for the last few years. These have been centered on increased borrowing on the back of overvalued currencies. While this approach had allowed both governments to finance a series of government investments in various projects, the long term implications of this accumulating debt has now caught up with them dramatically. As a result, both countries may soon desperately require IMF assistance; assistance, that in recent times, has become even more overtly conditional on meeting certain US foreign policy requirements.

In the case of Pakistan, these objectives may coincide with recent US pressures to ‘do more’ regarding the Haqqani network; or a deeper examination of the scale and viability of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor. With regards to the latter, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clearly stated that American Dollars, in the form of IMF funds, to Pakistan should not be used to bailout Chinese investors. The rationale being that a cash-strapped Pakistan is more likely to adversely affect Chinese interests as opposed to US interests in the region at the present. The politics behind the ongoing US-China trade war add even further relevance to this argument.

In the case of Turkey however, which is a major NATO ally, an important emerging market, and a deeply integrated part of the European financial system, there is a lot more at stake in terms of US interests. Turkey’s main lenders comprise largely of Spanish, French and Italian banks whose exposure to the Lira has caused a drastic knock on effect on the Euro. The ensuing uncertainty and volatility that has arisen is likely to prove detrimental to the US’s allies in the EU as well as in key emerging markets across South America, Africa and Asia. This marks the latest example of the US’s departure from maintaining and ensuring the health of the global financial system, as a leading economic power.

Yet, what’s even more unsettling is the fact that while the US is wholly cognizant of these wide-ranging impacts, it remains unfazed in pursuing its unilateral objectives. This is perhaps most evident in the diminishing sanctity of the NATO alliance as a direct outcome of these actions.  After the US, Turkey is the second biggest contributor of troops within the NATO framework. As relations between both members continue to deteriorate, Turkey has been more inclined to gravitate towards expanding Russian influence. In effect, contributing to the very anti-thesis of the NATO alliance. The recent dialogues between Presidents Erdogan and Putin, in the wake of US sanctions point markedly towards this dramatic shift.

Based on the above, it has become increasingly evident that US actions have come to stand in direct contrast to the Post-Cold War status quo, which it had itself help set up and maintain over the last three decades. It is rather, the US’s unilateral interests that have now taken increasing precedence over its commitments and leadership of major multilateral frameworks such as the NATO, and the Bretton Woods institutions. This approach while allowing greater flexibility to the US has however come at the cost of ceding space to a fast rising China and an increasingly assertive Russia. The acceleration of both Pak-China and Russo-Turkish cooperation present poignant examples of these developments.

However, while it remains unclear as to how much international influence US policy-makers are willing to cede to the likes of China and Russia over the long-term, their actions have made it clear that US policy and the pursuit of its unilateral objectives would no longer be made hostage to the Geo-Politics of key regions. These include key states at the cross-roads of the world’s potential flash-points such as Turkey and Pakistan.

Therefore, both Turkey and Pakistan would be well advised to factor in these reasons behind the US’s disinterest in their economic and financial predicaments. Especially since both Russia and China are still quite a way from being able to completely supplant the US’s financial and military influence across the world; perhaps a greater modicum of self-sufficiency and sustainability is in order to weather through these shifting dynamics.

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Social Mobility and Stronger Private Sector Role are Keys to Growth in the Arab World

MD Staff

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In spite of unprecedented improvements in technological readiness, the Arab World continues to struggle to innovate and create broad-based opportunities for its youth. Government-led investment alone will not suffice to channel the energies of society toward more private sector initiative, better education and ultimately more productive jobs and increased social mobility. The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2018 published by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank Group outlines recommendations for the Arab countries to prepare for a new economic context.

The gap between the competitiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and of the other economies of the region, especially the ones affected by conflict and violence, has further increased over the last decade. However, similarities exist as the drop in oil prices of the past few years has forced even the most affluent countries in the region to question their existing social and economic models. Across the entire region, education is currently not rewarded with better opportunities to the point where the more educated the Arab youth is, the more likely they are to remain unemployed. Financial resources, while available through banks, are rarely distributed out of a small circle of large and established companies; and a complex legal system limits access to resources locked in place and distorts private initiative.

At the same time, a number of countries in the region are trying out new solutions to previously existing barriers to competitiveness.

  • In ten years, Morocco has nearly halved its average import tariff from 18.9 to 10.5 percent, facilitated trade and investment and benefited from sustained growth.
  • The United Arab Emirates has increased equity investment in technology firms from 100 million to 1.7 billion USD in just two years.
  • Bahrain is piloting a new flexi-permit for foreign workers to go beyond the usual sponsorship system that has segmented and created inefficiencies in the labour market of most GCC countries.
  • Saudi Arabia has committed to significant changes to its economy and society as part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, and Algeria has tripled internet access among its population in just five years.

“We hope that the 2018 Arab World Competitiveness Report will stimulate discussions resulting in government reforms that could unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the region and its youth,” said Philippe Le Houérou, IFC’s CEO. “We must accelerate progress toward an innovation-driven economic model that creates productive jobs and widespread opportunities.”

“The world is adapting to unprecedented technological changes, shifts in income distribution and the need for more sustainable pathways to economic growth, “added Mirek Dusek, Deputy Head of Geopolitical and Regional Affairs at the World Economic Forum. “Diversification and entrepreneurship are important in generating opportunities for the Arab youth and preparing their countries for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

With a few exceptions, such as Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon, most Arab countries have much less diversified economies than countries in other regions with a similar level of income. For all of them, the way toward less oil-dependent economies is through robust macroeconomic policies that facilitate investment and trade, promotion of exports, improvements in education and initiatives to increase innovation and technological adoption among firms.

Entrepreneurship and broad-based private sector initiative must be a key ingredient to any diversification recipe.

The Arab Competitiveness Report 2018 also features country profiles, available here: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates.

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The impact of labour market trainings on unemployment process in the global labour economy

Gunel Abdullayeva

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Since the 1990s, the persistence of high unemployment has been followed by two downturns, which affected an economic life over the world across the nation-states. The overt consequences cost unpleasantly social and economic outcomes for the states as well as societies. Henceforth, activation turn has observed once more shifting passive employment policies within the active policy actions of countries upon labour market at the beginning of a new millennium. It was supposed that the activation of jobless people through keeping employees occupied, job-search assistance, job creation and work experience programs, training and invest in up skilling, is an open way to fight against high unemployment and secure economic growth as well. Hereby, the idea of an active labour market policy (ALMP) became again pivotal tool in the domestic policy agendas of states in order to engage in new challenges of labour markets. Since the 1950s,it is an apparent fact that in Europe and the Nordic countries that the effectiveness of ALMPs engenders diminution in a structural and long-term unemployment and leads to increase net income together with the employment ratio of targeted groups in national economies.

With the XXI century’s new technological vicissitudes and industrialization, the active employment policies have been designed to support people with monetary (income) and non-monetary (education) incentives in order to reduce inequality, keep the balance of social inclusion, and stimulate market beyond to decrease unemployment. Consequently, labour market training grew into to become an important measure of ALMP strategies in the background of “welfare to workfare policy approach” to create better-skilled workforce as well as to surge adequate match between skilled manpower and needs of progressive demand in labour markets.

In fact, the scholarly studies state significant impacts of training and vocational programs in the activation of the workforce. For example, the 1950-1960s – Post War Era characterized with the rapid economic growth and labour supply shortage in the European industry. And as a solution, national employment policies started to focus on labour trainings. So that Sweden with its successful retraining system has been the pioneer of ALMP idea in the history. On the other hand, Germany with 1969`s Employment Promotion Act considered training as a principal component of active employment policies to upskill workforce in terms of new industrial needs by market demand.

The UN 2009 reports that education is considered one of the main indicators of poverty reduction: education and human resource investments contribute to an economic development of nation-states and societies. Higher educated people or up-skilled workforce boost up productivity and react the positively to technological changes. Some scholars and interlocutors claim that in long-term perspectives ALMPs should have to aim to develop an education and training system that enhances the productivity and employability of a labour force. Because of the fact that the skilled manpower is one of the cornerstones of the higher employment, developed economy, higher net income and well-being of the whole society.

Many types of research have been carried out to identify the prominence of labour market training, however, the Katz`s study (1993) shows the significant point of job market training as turning “unskilled labour” into “skilled labour”. Perceptibly, the unemployment problem is more common among less skilled individuals and new entrants to the market. Shifting in demand against unskilled labour force causes an unemployment among those people. In contrast to unskilled force reservation wage and labour demand is high for skilled manpower in the market. Here, the training policy helps turn out unskilled to a skilled workforce and to increase total employment in order to decrease unskilled unemployment. Research argues that training policy extends the skilled labour force and close the gap between the unskilled and skilled workers. Caruana and Theuma (2012) refer to Katz (1993) argue that in order to push jobless people towards work, some trainings improve the qualification of those workers who are already in the market. Hence, Katz (1993) emphasizes the importance of labour market training in reducing the unemployment rate of unskilled labour by transferring more workers to the skilled labour pool. They also underline the significant role of a training policy in improving the skills of employees and increasing, the supply of skilled manpower in the economy. The following figure “Development of Unskilled Labour Force” visualizes Katz`s statement andshows how training measure affects the job market in both ways. The points where demand curves intersect supply curves, which are given wages for skilled and unskilled labour respectively. As the author explains, the wages represent the remuneration of foregone opportunity costs that, logically, is higher for skilled labour than for unskilled one. Since labour demand for the skilled labour is stronger than that of unskilled labour, thus, the demand curve for the former one is more elastic. As the figure illustrates, after the implementation of training, part of unskilled labour is moving up to the skilled.

At the same time, scholar states that wage setting regulation, training, and education systems affect differently net income and employment perspectives. Consequently, education and labour training policies create an equal distribution of skills and able to reduce supply and demand shifting on wages and employment. Another study by Calmfors et al., (2001) argue that training programs increase the reservation wage of attendees. However, salary growth and employment perspectives are possible by time after long run participation in the program.

To sum up, the training policy is considered as a main supply-side policy tool of activation to tackle unemployment. Scholars argue that training programs are useful to prevent the long run unemployment and to keep unemployed active in the market via participation. However, ex-post evaluation of training programs is controversial. Country case studies show that training programs are more effective in the background of vocational education reforms and collaboration with demand-side active labour market policies.

Reference list:

  • , Forslund A., &Hemstrom M., (2001), Does Active Labour Market Policy Work? Lessons from Swedish experiences, Swedish Economy Policy Review, 85, 61-124
  • Caruana C. &Theuma M., (2012), The next leap – From Labour Market Programmes to Active Labour Market Policy.
  • Katz, F.L., (1993), Active Labor Market Policies to Expand Employment and Opportunity.
  • United Nations, (2009), Rethinking Poverty: Report on the World Social Situation 2010, Retrieved from http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/rwss/docs/2010/fullreport.pdf
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