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The Greek crisis impact on Southeast Europe

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During the course of Greek debt negotiations, debate has been dominated by the questions about the impact of this crisis on the Euro zone. Few discussions have focused on the potential economic and political ramifications the crisis may pose for countries in Southeast Europe (SEE).

With the stakes so high, Greece’s ability to strike a deal with its Euro zone creditors is good news for everyone especially for the countries of SEE. The most recent bailout deal of around 80 billion Euros has generated a good amount of optimism although many details remain hazy . Significant hurdles need to be cleared and the risks have not gone away.

Beyond Greece, the threat of economic instability in SEE is real. The economic situation of Greece’s neighbors remains fragile due to the lingering effects of the European financial crisis. The World Bank notes the region suffered a double dip recession over the last five years with an average regional GDP contraction of 5.9 percent in 2009, and another 1.2 percent in 2012 .

SEE’s heavy dependence on European markets resulted in negative trade and associated financial spillover effects. As it struggles to regain its economic stride, SEE continues to experience sluggish growth rates and poor market and investor confidence .

The current economic turmoil in Greece has only highlighted the region’s vulnerabilities and challenges. The macroeconomic imbalances of the region make them particularly vulnerable to Greek economic contagion. Direct and indirect effects from the Greek crisis concern mainly the banking sector, trade, foreign direct investments, and foreign workers´ remittances .

Over the last two decades, Greek banks established a significant number of subsidiaries in SEE countries. Greek banks represent approximately 20 percent of the financial and banking market of SEE. They play an important role in Bulgaria (20 percent), Macedonia (20 percent), Albania (16 percent), Serbia (14 percent), and Romania (12 percent) .

As the Greek crisis unfolded, SEE Central Bank authorities appear to have put in place measures to insulate the Greek owned banks from a possible contagion by ring-facing the local subsidiaries from their parent institutions.

Indeed, in most of the countries, subsidiaries of Greek banks hold no Greek government securities and seem to have sufficient capital and normal liquidity levels. Strong capital-adequacy ratios have been introduced in SEE to protect depositors, and ensure the stability of the financial system.

However, the question is whether a Greek banking collapse at home would affect customers in the SEE and spread contagion in the form of panic withdrawals. It remains uncertain how a Greek bank bankruptcy and recapitalization would affect Greek banks abroad. Even if not directly impacted by recapitalization, this process would likely force their affiliates in SEE to cut back the lending.

Any panic will predictably slow down lending by other European banks with significant exposure to the Greek sovereign debt. The region is more vulnerable than other areas because the banking system is owned up to 80 percent in some of the countries by foreign banks. If the much squeezed credit market in the region is factored in, the situation further appears even gloomier.

However, there could be some potential good news for the banking sector after the third bail-out deal. According to the most recent agreement with the Euro zone creditors, a new trust fund of 50 billion Euros of Greek assets will be set, with half of it to be used for recapitalization of the banks . Theoretically, this should avert the risk of a crash of the banking sector in Greece and have some positive ramifications for subsidiaries in SEE.

When it comes to trade between SEE and Greece, it has declined over the last years, and Greece is not anymore among the main destinations for the SEE`s exports. However, Greece remains the second biggest importer in most countries of SEE.

The economic recession in Greece has had a negative impact on remittances to SEE countries, mainly for Albania, Bulgaria and Serbia . The return of these economic migrants to their origin countries is another risk that put more stringent pressure to the weak economies in the region.

Formerly, Greece was one of the largest investors in SEE. In 2009, Greece´s outward stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region stood at $ 10.5 billion, making up 27 percent of investments . Greek FDI is now less significant in the region.

However, for Greece itself, SEE remains an important market. In fact, if one is to evaluate Greek FDI in general, the stock of FDI per capita in Greece diminished by almost 35 percent from 2009 to 2013 yet the stock of outward investment saw a slight increase, from $3.555 in 2009 to $4.165 in 2013 .

Last but not least, a worrying negative spillover is the political one. Greece’s current situation was no doubt brought about by lax attention to following formal standards and implementing sound fiscal management standards. It is a lesson learned for the EU.

For the SEE, the Greek crisis will likely impact the prospects and the timing of the EU integration of the aspirant countries and may even call into question.

The green light for EU integration of SEE was promised in the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit . It would be ironic if the Greek crisis results in a longer integration process for aspirant countries in this small region.

 

(*)The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views of Department of Defense or its Components.

Valbona Zeneli is the Chair of the Strategic Initiatives Department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

Economy

Tech layoffs and Indian IT Professionals

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According to a report in the Washington Post, nearly 30%-40% of the 200000 workers laid off by IT companies like Google, Microsoft etc, since November 2022 are Indians. Several of these workers are on non-immigrant visas — H1B and L1 Visas. H1B is a non-immigrant work visa which enables US companies to employ individuals with specialised skills. If those on H1B visas do not find a new job within 60 days, they will have to leave the US. This would result in numerous logistical problems – for instance children of many of these individuals are enrolled in schools, and these individuals would also have to sell their properties. One suggestion which had been made is that these companies can extend the termination date for IT professionals on H1B visas by a few months.

It would be pertinent to point out, that several organisations are trying to help Information Technology (IT) professionals in their job search and also in influencing US policy makers of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). While some of these individuals may be fortunate enough to find opportunities within the US, and a few would also be willing to relocate to India, if they are economically sound, others need to look at possible alternatives. While one possible alternative is Canada, which in recent years has been going all out to attract skilled tech professionals. After the inward immigration policies of the Trump administration, several professionals shifted to Canada (in 2019 the number of Indians who received permanent residency of Canada was over 80,000 while in 2016 less than 40,000 Indians received Canadian residency). Under the Global Skills Strategy program – the Canadian equivalent of the H1B – the processing time of immigration process for skilled workers to two weeks this has also resulted in Canada being a preferred destination for Indian IT professionals in recent years.

These professionals can also explore the possibility of options like UAE. UAE has been making a special effort to attract skilled professionals through its Golden Visa Program – a  10 year residency visa. Earlier, one of the reasons why the west was a preferred destination for Indian professionals vis-à-vis the UAE was that the latter did not provide long term visas. The introduction of the golden visa could make the UAE as a favoured destination for IT professionals given its proximity to India as well as the high living standards. Apart from this, the Golden Visa does not impose restrictions regarding dependents and family members can be sponsored regardless of their ages.

It is not just the UAE, even Japan is trying to attract professionals and has recently announced that individuals who have graduated from top universities can stay back for a period of two years (currently they can only stay for 90 days). Singapore which in recent years has emerged as preferred destination for Indian professionals has also emerged as an attractive destination for IT professionals. Between 2005 and 2020, the proportion of Indian professionals in Singapore has doubled and this has been driven to a large degree by the demand for tech professionals.

Many of the individuals who have been laid off by US companies can also take advantage of the increasing opportunities in India in the start-up sector and the recent thrust on digitalisation in India. Both the central and state governments should try to woo some of these individuals. A number of state governments, such as Kerala, have devised policies aimed at assisting expats who have returned from overseas to start business ventures.

Seeing the changes which are taking place in the IT Sector globally as well as some of the increasingly insular immigration policies of western countries, it is important that Indian students as well as professionals think innovatively and look at alternative avenues. Western companies as well as companies also need to bear in mind, that if other countries like UAE, Singapore, Japan and possibly countries like Vietnam and Taiwan, with strong research eco-systems and infrastructure, begin to open their doors to skilled IT professionals, then the west is unlikely to remain the primary choice for IT professionals in the longer run.

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Free-Market Capitalism and Climate Crisis

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Free market capitalism is an economic system that has brought about tremendous economic growth and prosperity in many countries around the world. However, it has also spawned a number of problems, one of which is the climate crisis. The climate crisis is a global problem caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These externalities are chiefly a consequence of day to day human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and conventional agriculture. The climate crisis is leading to rise in temperatures, sea levels, and more erratic weather patterns-The floods in Pakistan and depleting cedars of Lebanon are vivid instances for these phenomena, which are having a devastating impact on the planet.

One of the main reasons that free market capitalism has contributed to the climate crisis is that it prioritizes short-term economic growth over long-term environmental sustainability. Under capitalism, companies are primarily motivated by profit and are not required to internalize the costs of their pollution. This means that they are able to pollute without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. Additionally, the capitalist system is based on the idea of unlimited growth, which is not sustainable in the long-term. As long as there is an infinite demand for goods and services, companies will continue to produce them, leading to ever-increasing levels of pollution and resource depletion.

Another pressing issue that free market capitalism is recently going through is that it does not take into account the externalities of economic activities. Externalities are the unintended consequences of economic activities, such as pollution and climate change. Under capitalism, companies are not required to pay for the externalities of their activities, which means that they are able to continue polluting without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate” Naomi Klein argues that the current system of capitalism is inherently incompatible with the urgent action needed to address the Climate crisis.

To address the climate crisis, it is necessary to put checks and balances over the free market capitalism and/or make a way towards a more sustainable economic system. This can be done through a number of different effective policies, such as:

Carbon pricing: This can be done through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which would make companies pay for the carbon emissions that they are producing. In the article “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” authors suggest that revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce the carbon emissions.

Increasing renewable energy investments: an increment in the investments in clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, can result in the reduction in  the use of fossil fuels.

Regulating pollution: Governments can regulate pollution to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere.

Encouraging sustainable practices: Governments can encourage sustainable practices, such as recycling and conservation, to reduce the use of resources.

It is remarkable that evolving Capitalism can be harnessed to address the climate change. The private sector has the resources and innovation to develop and implement new technologies and sustainable practices, but they need the right incentives and regulations to do so. Finding the balance between economic growth and environmental protection must be a priority for capitalists.

The free market capitalism has been the driving force behind global economic growth, but at the same time, it has contributed to the ongoing climate crisis. The solution to this problem is not to reject capitalism, but rather to reform it to the societies’ suitable demands. Government should consider providing a level playing field so as to make the probable transition from fossil-based energy systems to Green energy technologies possible. The capitalists should not consider short-termism over long term environmental sustainability. Government intervention to put a price on carbon emissions, invest in renewable energy, regulate pollution, and encourage sustainable practices is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for all. However, here is the catch:  Is achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by mid-century a probable target? The answer is quite uncertain, however it is critical point to strive for in the face of  escalating Climate Crisis.

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Egypt’s “Too Big to Fail” Theory Once Again at Test

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Authors: Reem Mansour & Mohamed A. Fouad

In the wake of 2022 FED’s hawkish monetary policy, the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, saw an exodus of about USD20bn of foreign capital.  A feat that exerted pressure on the value of its pound against the dollar slashing it by almost half.  This led to USD12bn trade backlog accumulating in Egypt’s ports by December 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst foreign debt nearing USD170bn, inflation soaring to double digits, and a chronic balance of payment deficit, Egypt became structurally unfit to sustain global shocks; the country saw its foreign debt mounting to 35% of GDP, causing the financing gap to hover at USD20billion. 

While it may seem all gloom and doom, friends from the GCC rushed to inject funds in the “too big to fail” country, sparing it, an arguably, ill-fate that was well reflected in its Eurobond yields spreads and credit default swaps, a measure that assesses a sovereign default risk. 

For the same reason in early 2023, the IMF sealed a deal worth of USD3bn, with the government, which unlocked an extra USD14bn sources of financing from multilateral institutions, and GCC sovereign funds, to fill in a hefty portion of the annual foreign exchange gap, albeit  a considerable amount averaging USD6bn per annum is yet to be sourced from portfolio investments.  

With the IMF stepping in, the Egyptian government agreed on a structural reform program that requires a flexible exchange rate regime, where the Egyptian pound is set to trade within daily boundaries against the US dollar, rationalize government spending, especially in projects that require foreign currency; and most importantly the program entails stake-sales in publicly owned assets, paving the way for the private sector to play a bigger role in the economy.

In due course, through its sovereign fund, Egypt planned initial offerings for shares in companies worth about USD5-USD6bn, and expanded the sale of its shares in local banks and government holdings to Gulf investment funds. 

Through the limited period of execution of these reforms, the EGP hit a high of 32 against the greenback, and an inflow of portfolio investments amounting to USD1bn took place, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. 

Simultaneously, Citibank International, cited a possible near end of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar.  Also, in a report to investors, Standard Chartered recommended to buy Egyptian treasury bills, and pointed to the return of portfolio flows to the local debt market in the early days of January, 2023. Likewise, Fitch indicated the ability of the Egyptian banking sector to face the repercussions of the depreciation of the pound, and that the compulsory reserve ratios within Egyptian banks are able to withstand any declines in the value of the pound because they are supported by healthy internal flows of capital.

While things seem to be poised for a recovery, the long term prospects may lack sustainability.  The Egyptian government needs to accelerate its plans to shift gears towards a real operational economy capable of withstanding shocks and dealing with any global challenges. Egypt, however has implicitly held the narrative that the country is ‘too big to fail”. This is largely true to the country’s geopolitical relevance, but even this has its limitations when the price to bail far outweighs the price to fail.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration popularized the “too big to fail” (TBTF) doctrine notably during the 2008 financial crisis. The Bush administration often used the term to describe why it stepped in to bail out some financial companies to avert worldwide economic collapse.

In his book “The Myth of Too Big To Fail” Imad Moosa presented arguments against using public fund to bail out failing financial institutions. He ultimately argued that a failing financial institution should be allowed to fail without fearing an apocalyptic outcome. For countries, the TBTF theory comes under considerable challenge.

In August 1982, Mexico was not able to service its external debt obligations, marking the start of the debt crisis. After years of accumulating external debt, rising world interest rates, the worldwide recession and sudden devaluations of the peso caused the external debt bill to rise sharply, which ultimately caused a default. 

After six years of economic reform in Russia, privatization and macroeconomic stabilization had experienced some limited success. Yet in August 1998, after recording its first year of positive economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was forced to default on its sovereign debt, devalue the ruble, and declare a suspension of payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors.

In Egypt, although the country remains to face a number of challenges, signs remain relatively less worrying than 2022, as global sentiment suggests that leverage will be provided in the short-term at least. Egypt’s diversified economy, size and relative regional clout may very well spare the country the fate of Lebanon. However, if reforms do not happen fast enough, the TBTF shield may become completely depleted.

Hence, in order to avoid an economic fallout scenario a full fledged support to the private sector’s local manufacturing activity and tourism is a must.  Effective policies geared towards competitiveness are mandatory, and tax & export oriented concessions are required to unleash the private sector’s maximum potential and shift Egypt into gear.

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