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SPIEF 2015: Tendencies and expectations

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This week the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, the biggest event in business life of Russia and its investors will take place. It is an annual gathering of influential Russian and international politicians and government officials, businessmen, representatives of academic community. The Forum aims to establish the framework for developing ties between politics and business on local and the international level. This is a place where business faces politics and all the challenges the nowadays complex international situation brings.

The First St. Petersburg Economic Forum was held in 1997 under the aegis of the Federation Council of Russia and the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The next year St. Petersburg Forum changed into a permanent body with a view to developing entrepreneurship in Russia, strengthening relations with international trading partners and attracting foreign investments.

Within the next few years the Forum grew up from a conference focused on the CIS integration processes to a grand economic event encompassing a wide range of business development issues and drawing intense international attention. In 2007 the St. Petersburg Forum and the World Economic Forum signed the memorandum on participation of the WEF in the work of Forum. Many heads of states and other high officials attended the Forum, turning it into the event of a global scale. Political officials and businessmen sign here cooperation agreements and contracts worth millions of dollars.

The President and his Forum

In 2005 Vladimir Putin attended the SPIEF for the first time. Since then, unofficially called “presidential”, the Forum has transformed into a highly political event. The President became an excellent decoy for Russian and foreign political and economic elite. He is the official identity of the Forum. In his speeches and during round table discussions Putin more often considers international politics issues.

The atmosphere on the last year’s Forum was a perfect reflection of the tense relations between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian crisis. In particular, the economic sanctions, coming after the annexation of Crimea, were the main subjects to discuss. Putin claimed that so far the sanctions target just “his friends, the people from his inner circle” and aim to “punish them, nobody knows why”. He also took the opportunity to deny once again that the annexation of Crimea was planned and the presence of Russian military in the region.

Although, the St. Petersburg Economic Forum was a convenient framework for the foreign companies presented in Russia, the large companies decided to stay away from the risks and maintain their reputation. A number of big European and American companies boycotted the 2014 Forum. Among others, the representatives of Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Siemens, the Coca-Cola Company refused to come to St. Petersburg. Many companies reduced their representation in the event. The White House confirmed that the Administration of the U.S. President advised CEOs to ignore the Forum.

SPIEF – 2015: Tendencies and expectations

This year the Forum expects more than 5,000 of participants. “Recent changes require cohesive actions from the international community to ensure sustainable, long-term development”, President Putin says. He will hold a meeting with CEOs of big companies and corporations, and discuss new challenges for business with heads of investment funds.

When the United States and Europe have blocked off the way to the West to a number of Russian politicians and businessmen and frozen the assets of several companies, Russian business faced serious challenges – many large Russian companies face difficulties in attracting European and American investors, purchasing of military equipment and dual-use goods. Also, a number of transactions in the energy sector were banned. However, the US and European companies involved in the Russian market are doing better than expected, although their activities are still subject to risk. Russia has been living under the sanctions regime for a year already and the forthcoming Forum might be a useful platform for reflection on the future of Russian economics and business.

Due to the Russian politics in Ukraine, a number of participants has been reduced significantly. Nevertheless, the organizers of the Forum are confident: “Political confrontation does not affect serious business”. They are ready to welcome some large American and European companies soon. BCG and McKinsey & Company, Metro AG and TUI AG, Ernst & Young, Shell, BP, Societe Generale, Total, Schlumberger, Metro and Carlsberg are among them.

New reference point – Focus on Asia

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum may be devoted to finding new allies, experts say. Most likely, they will be found in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. This year, Russian companies are preparing to conclude preferential agreements on international trade with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS member states, as well as Turkey, Israel, South Korea, India and Peru. Also the possibility of establishing a free trade zone with ASEAN and further development of the Eurasian Customs Union are actively discussed.

Already last year the tendency to reorient the big Russian companies to Asia became visible. For instance, Gazprom has struck the biggest bargain in its history with the Chinese CNPC – a contract worth $ 400 billion for 30 years. This year more representatives of Chinese business are expected to attend the Forum. The Japanese Toyota also plans to expand its presence in Russia, although with a view to producing vehicles for Europe but not for Russian domestic market – as ruble has become weaker and the purchasing power of the population decreased.

Saint Petersburg to become a business capital for a few days

The Forum is a good opportunity to show the attractiveness of Saint Petersburg for Russian and foreign investors. The City Administration adopted the law which benefits investments in such areas as health care, education, culture and sport, science and innovation. The legal procedures for licensing of the future investors are being simplified as well.

St. Petersburg will present its investment projects in transport infrastructure, science and innovation, energy, culture and tourism. A large part of the exhibition will be devoted to the development of the Arctic zone. The city will present the information about the region and its involvement in the development of these strategic for Russia territories. The models of the newest equipment for exploitation of the oil fields will be showcased.

Without any doubts the Forum promises to be interesting. The confrontation between Russia and the West evolves – the White House claimed that the U.S. Authorities of any level will not be represented, while Alexis Tsipras, the Prime Minister of Greece, is expected at the Forum to discuss the “Greek question” with Vladimir Putin. The forthcoming Saint Petersburg Economic Forum will face the new challenges of today’s political situation. It will show the capacities of Russia’s economy to manage them.

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Can The Lessons of 2008 Spare Emerging Europe’s Financial Sector From The COVID-19 Cliff?

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The more we know about the past, the better we can prepare for the future. The 2008 financial crisis provides important lessons for policymakers planning the COVID-19 recovery in 2021.

Over 10 years ago, the world stumbled into a financial crisis that changed the very fabric of our societies.

A cocktail of lax financial regulation and casual attitudes toward debt and leverage led to a global fallout that few countries in the world escaped. Despite a decade of recovery, the scars of that era are still very visible. This was particularly true for many parts of Europe. And as is often the case in major disasters, both natural and man-made, the most vulnerable were hardest hit.

Striking parallels

Today, as countries grapple with the economic impacts of Covid-19, policymakers in emerging Europe must strive to remember the hard-learned lessons from 2008. In financial terms, the parallels between now and then are striking.

Back then, countries in Central and Southeastern Europe were among the worst hit. In the run-up to the crisis, big euro area banks bought up local subsidiaries. Backed by these parent banks, credit started expanding rapidly from a very low base. The credit boom was accompanied by climbing real estate prices and mounting personal and corporate debt. Aspirations to replicate the living standards of the EU’s wealthiest member states led to citizens and businesses shouldering more than they could handle.

Suddenly, the global crisis stopped capital flows in the region and turned the boom to bust. Credit growth went into reverse, real estate prices nosedived, economic growth stalled, and non-performing loans (NPLs) spiraled up. Over the next decade, much of the region would be caught between weak economic growth and lackluster financial sector performance.

Familiar feedback loop

Covid-19 is a strong contender for the worst economic shock in our lifetimes. In its aftermath, a familiar feedback loop is on the horizon: high leverage and depressed growth will amplify financial sector vulnerabilities in the months ahead.

True, banks in emerging Europe entered Covid-19 with stronger liquidity and capital buffers than before the global financial crisis, but they are far from immune. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more businesses and consumers are likely to struggle. Next come the debt defaults. Before the domino-chain of NPLs gains momentum and countries spiral into widespread financial crisis, policymakers must act. This means taking four overarching measures.

First, rising NPLs require a proactive and coordinated policy response. If banks resist writing down bad loans and continue to lend to zombie firms, the resulting credit crunch becomes longer and more severe. Policymakers were slow off the mark in 2008. Once they realised a coordinated response was needed, much of the damage was already done. In NPL resolution, the mere passage of time makes a bad situation worse, and policymakers and bankers need to respond early on to prevent the problem from spinning out of control.

Second, supervisors should engage with highly exposed banks and ensure that they fully provision for credit losses. An important lesson of the global financial crisis is that building bank’s capital is a requirement for resilient recovery. In this pandemic, banks have been asked to play an unprecedented role in absorbing the shock by supplying vital credit to the corporate and household sector. Policymakers should resist pressure to dilute existing rules. Soft-touch supervision doesn’t address the underlying issues and only kicks problems down the road. To credibly stick to the rules, regulators can conduct stress tests to identify undercapitalised banks.

Resolve, fairness, and transparency

Third, a timely and orderly exit strategy from debt relief and repayment moratoriums should be prioritised. Countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe promptly introduced these plans when Covid-19 struck and to good effect. But prolonging such schemes comes with a hidden cost. It can weaken borrower repayment discipline, and give firms, that were already struggling before the pandemic, a fresh lease on life.

The question of when and how to phase out the measures does not have a simple answer. Nevertheless, the general principle should be to unwind them as soon as conditions permit. This could be done by gradually narrowing down the range of borrowers eligible for support so that only the viable enterprises are supported.

Fourth, distressed but potentially viable firms will need loan restructuring. To restore the commercial viability of ailing companies entails restructuring of their liabilities, matching payment schedules with expected income flows. Loan restructuring of non-viable borrowers, by contrast, will only lead to delaying inevitable losses.

There will be uncertainty about who can and cannot survive. An assessment will be needed to separate the lost cases and viable ones and everything in between. This will help release capital from underperforming sectors and propel more dynamic firms to drive renewed economic momentum.

We live in difficult times that require resolve, fairness, and transparency in policymaking. But these qualities are not easy to live up to in times of great uncertainty, heightened anxiety, and lack of access to relevant information. Fortunately, we can look to the past to glean lessons for the future. Now, it’s time we put them into practice.

Originally posted at Emerging Europe via World Bank

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The strategic thinking behind the EU-China investment deal

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Washington was understandably perplexed that a China-EU investment agreement was concluded a few weeks before the Biden administration, especially a  president who has been advocating for multilateralism and the restoration of trust and an alliance with the EU.

Some analysts argue the agreement is a big win for China by breaching the transatlantic partnership, while some scholars contend that Beijing has made historical concessions to Brussels, indicating the future lucrativeness of European business in China. Both are valid to some extent, but the strategic thinking of Beijing and Brussels behind the pact may have been overlooked.

Beijing’s strategic thinking

The EU has always been the favoured target for Beijing. Despite numerous rebrandings, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the admittedly core economic, infrastructure and diplomatic policy proposed by President Xi in 2013, was initially intended to connect with the EU, facilitating Eurasian economic integration. According to Hellenic Institute of Transport, there was no regular direct freight service between China and Europe in 2008, whereas in 2019, 59 Chinese cities and 49 European cities in 15 countries have been linked by the BRI.

Also, although the EU is situated within Western democratic thought, the views of EU members regarding China are diverse and relatively different from the US and other English-speaking countries. Germany and France, the key pillars of the EU, still allow the usage of Huawei, whereas the US, Australia, Canada and the UK have variably banned it. Italy is the only one to endorse the BRI in the G7, a group of major Western democracies. The summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries, known as “17+1”, has been held since 2012, gaining certain support from some EU members, in spite of Brussels’ aversion.

Probably, in the Chinese diplomats’ perceptions, the post-Brexit EU may become much more approachable and pragmatic to China, a mysterious rising land from the East, in that European continent nations with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds have been living together for millennial generations, leading to a more diverse and pragmatic approach to Beijing.

As for compromises Beijing has made, some of them, such as various reforms of state-owned-enterprises, would have been the essential component of the Chinese economic agenda, but the intriguing point is the timing and astonishing scope of concessions. After seven years of drawn-out negotiation, Beijing suddenly started pushing this pact at the beginning of 2020, when the Covid-19 broke out globally, and the Sino-American trade war further exacerbated, leading to China’s reputation plummeting in the West.

Through Sino-American relations, I doubt that Beijing may have noticed, as Professor Susan Shirk, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, pointed out, that even the American business community, benefitting enormously from the Chinese market, has not really “stepped forward to defend US-China relations, much less defend China”, which is rare in bilateral history.

Recently, President Xi Jinping even wrote a letter to encourage Starbucks’ former chairman Howard Schultz to repair Sino-American relations. Having observed this, Beijing thus decided to show a high level of sincerity and openness to European business elites, not only by economic reforms but also by promising to work on labour rights. The latter may not be a priority in Beijing, but Beijing conspicuously notes the ideological concerns of EU politicians in order to win the hearts and minds of Brussels.

Brussels’ strategic thinking

As for the EU, China has unquestionably been an attractive market. Calculated by purchasing power, China’s GDP has been de facto the largest economy for years. As the only positive-growth nation in 2020 among G20 members, China has the largest middle class, signifying potent consuming ability. Recent Chinese economic reforms primarily aim to promote consumption, which is the icing on the Chinese market’s cake, and this is also embedded in European views of China and the US.

The Pew Research Center has shown that more countries in Europe viewed China rather than the US as the world’s leading economy in 2019 and 2020. Also, more residents in Germany and France regarded US power and influence as threatening than China in 2018. Even with the new Biden administration, EU leaders anticipate a renewed trans-atlantic partnership but do not expect a sudden revolution of EU-American trade war, as bilateral trade disputes are structural and beyond Trump’s presidency.

More realistically, what is one of the major external concerns EU members face today? Back in the Cold War, the western expansion of the Soviet Union deeply disturbed European security, necessitating their consistent alliance with the US.

However, as Jonathan E. Hillman, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote: “Russia has nuclear weapons but also a one-trick economy focused on energy exports, a rusting military, and a declining population.” In particular, Russia has been increasingly challenged to maintain traditional influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, not to mention any comprehensive aggression to EU.

Furthermore, geographically, China is distant, and the EU does not have fundamental military interests in South China Sea but rather seeks to maintain peace and freedom of navigation for their shipping and trade, notwithstanding Brussels’ political friction with Beijing. But the large-scale uncontrolled migration from Africa and the Middle East may well be the EU’s main worry. However, regardless of some Western media ostensibly branding China as a neocolonialist in Africa, China has essentially supported the African economy via the BRI investment, creating local employment and purportedly discouraging the flow of a certain amount of immigrants to Europe. So, realistically, by signing the pact, the EU may keep the door open to cooperate with China in Africa.

On the flip side, if the EU sides with the US to the exclusion of China, what will happen to the EU? Certainly, Brussels will be praised by Washington politically, while the business sphere may be a different story. The recent Sino-Australian trade disputes indicate that “in the world of international commerce, democratic and strategic friends are often the fiercest rivals”, argued Professor James Laurenceson from the University of Technology Sydney, as Chinese tariffs against Australian goods have brought opportunities to businesses in America and New Zealand. So, US corporations in China must be delighted to see business space left by the EU companies because of possible EU-China trade skirmishes.

Sensibly, the EU is adopting an independent foreign policy to maintain autonomy between China and the US. More notably, as a third party during the Sino-American power competition, having signed a deal with Beijing, Brussels may possibly request Washington to offer more, thus maximizing its geopolitical and commercial interests.

Conclusion

To conclude, both sides made pragmatic decisions to sign the pact. Professor John Mearsheimer, at the University of Chicago, argued a few years ago that liberal dreams are great delusion facing international realities. China has executed a realist foreign policy since Deng Xiaoping’s reform, and this time, the EU may have woken up, because this deal signifies that geopolitical calculation has overtaken ideological divergence.

Author’s note: First published in johnmenadue.com

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The Silk Road passes also by the sea

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On December 30, 2020, China and the European Union signed an agreement on mutual investment.

After seven years of negotiations, during a conference call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Commission, with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel, the “Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” (CAI) was adopted.

This is a historic agreement that opens a new ‘Silk Road’ between Europe and the huge Chinese market, with particular regard to the manufacturing and services sectors.

In these fields, China undertakes to remove the rules that have so far strongly discriminated against European companies, by ensuring legal certainty for those who intend to produce in China, as well as aligning European and Chinese companies at regulatory level and encouraging the establishment of joint ventures and the signing of trade and production agreements.

The agreement also envisages guarantees that make it easier for European companies to fulfil all administrative procedures and obtain legal authorisations, thus removing the bureaucratic obstacles that have traditionally made it difficult for European companies to operate in China.

This is the first time in its history that China has opened up so widely to foreign companies and investment.

In order to attract them, China is committed to aligning itself with Europe in terms of labour costs and environmental protection, by progressively aligning its standards with the European ones in terms of fight against pollution and trade union rights.

With a view to making this commitment concrete and visible, China adheres to both the Paris Climate Agreement and the European Convention on Labour Organisation.

China’s adherence to the Paris Agreement on climate and on limiting CO2 emissions into the atmosphere is also the result of a commitment by China that is not only formal and propagandistic. In fact, one of the basic objectives of the last five-year plan – i.e. the 13th five-year plan for the 2016-2020 period – was to “replace unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable growth… also with innovative, coordinated and environmentally friendly measures…”.

In the five-year period covered by the 13th five-year plan, China reduced its CO2 emissions by 12% – a result not achieved over the same period by any other advanced industrial country, which shows that the policy of “going green”, so much vaunted by European institutions, has actually begun in China, to the point of making it realistic to achieve “zero emissions” of greenhouse gases by 2030, thanks to the decision to completely relinquish the use of fossil fuels in energy production.

President Xi Jinping has entrusted China’s policy of “turning green” to the Chinese government’s “rising star”, Lu Hao, i.e. the young Minister of Natural Resources aged 47, who has been chosen as the political decision-maker and operational driving force behind a major project to modernise the country.

Lu Hao has an impressive professional and political record: an economist by training, he was initially appointed First Secretary of the “Communist Youth League”, and later served as deputy mayor of Beijing from 2003 to 2008. Governor of the Hejlongjiang Province (where 37 million people live),he has been serving as Minister of Natural Resources since March 2018.

He is the youngest Minister in the Chinese government and the youngest member of the Party’s Central Committee.

While entrusting Lu Hao with his Ministerial tasks, President Xi Jinping stressed, “we want green waters and green mountains… we do not just want much GDP, but above all a strong and stable green GDP.”

A “green GDP” is also one of the objectives of the “Recovery Plan” drawn up by the European Union to help its Member States emerge from the economic crisis caused by the Covid 19 pandemic through measures and investment in the field of renewable energy.

“Going green” may represent the new centre of gravity of relations between Europe and China, according to the operational guidelines outlined in the “Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” signed on December 30 last.

China’s commitment to renewables is concrete and decisive: in 2020 solar energy production stood at five times the level of the United States while, thanks to Lu Hao’s activism, in 2019 China climbed up the U.N. ranking of nations proactively committed to controlling climate change, rising from the 41st to the 33rd place in world rankings.

On January 15, Minister Lu Hao published an article in the People’s Daily outlining his proposals for the upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan.

During the five-year period, China shall “promote and develop the harmonious coexistence between man and nature, through the all-round improvement of resource use efficiency…through a proper balance between protection and development”.

In Lu Hao’s strategy – approved by the entire Chinese government – this search for a balance between environmental protection and economic development can be found in the production of electricity from sea wave motion.

Generating electricity using wave motion can be a key asset in producing clean energy without any environmental impact.

Europe has been the first continent to develop marine energy production technologies, which have spread to the United States, Australia and, above all, China.

Currently 40% of world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of the sea, thus making marine energy easily accessible and transportable.

Using the mathematical model known as SWAN (Simulating Waves Nearshore), we can see that along the South Pacific coasts there are energy hotspots every five kilometres from the shore, at a depth of no more than 22 metres. In other words, thanks to currents, waves and tides, the Pacific has a stable surplus of energy that can be obtained from the sea motion.

Today, energy is mainly obtained from water using a device known as “Penguin”, which is about 30 metres long and, when placed in the sea at a maximum depth of 50 metres, produces energy without any negative impact on marine fauna and flora.

Another key technology is called ISWEC (Inertial Sea Waves Energy Converter). This is a device placed inside a 15-metre-long floating hull which, thanks to a system of gyroscopes and sensors, is able to produce 250 MWh of electricity per year. It occupies a marine area of just 150 square metres and hence it allows to reduce CO2 emissions by a total of 68 tonnes per year.

ISWEC is an Italian-made product, resulting from research by the Turin Polytechnic Institute and developed thanks to a synergy between ENI, CDP, Fincantieri and Terna.

Italy is at the forefront in the research and production of technology that can be used for converting wave motion into ‘green’ energy. This explains the attention with which Chinese Minister Lu Hao looks to our country as a source of renewable energy development in China, as well as the commitment that the young Minister, urged by President Xi Jinping, has made to promote an extremely important cooperation agreement in the field of renewable energy between the Rome-based International World Group (IWG) and the National Ocean Technology Centre (NOTC), a Chinese research and development centre that reports directly to the Ministry of Natural Resources in Beijing.

The cooperation agreement envisages, inter alia, the development of Euro-Chinese synergies in the research and development of essential technologies in the production of “clean” energy from sea water, as part of a broad Euro-Chinese cooperation strategy that can support not only the Chinese government’s concrete and verifiable efforts to seriously implement the strategic project to reduce greenhouse gases and pollution from fossil fuels, but also support Italy in the production of “green” energy according to the guidelines of the European Recovery Plan, which commits EU Member States to using its resources while giving priority to environmental protection.

The agreement between IWG and NOTC marks a significant step forward in scientific and productive cooperation between China and Europe and adds another mile in the construction of a new Silk Road, i.e. a sea mile.

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