2016 started off as one of the worst years on record for the stock market. As investors scrambled around dreading that the bull market might be over, the Federal Reserve and Central Banks from the around have continued to pacify fears that despite the jerky start, economic indicators were positive.
The Federal Reserve incessantly refers to the unemployment numbers, which fell to 4.9 percent (the lowest in a decade), as proof that the economy is continuing to strengthen. But how true are the soothing words of the Central Banks as compared to the economic data?
Gold the Indicator
In the ancient days, gold was considered the medium of exchange but in more recent times, especially since the elimination of the gold standard, the precious metal has been seen as a commodity. The prices of commodities fluctuate with the overall demand and supply of the global economy. As the global economy decelerates, commodities fall in price. As of 2016, almost all commodities have dropped in value and leading that dramatic decline is oil. Despite the precipitous drop in commodity prices, one commodity that has not depreciated but rather increased in value is gold. Unlike other commodities, gold can fluidly transition between being a commodity, medium of currency or hedge against financial uncertainty. In the current fickle financial environment, gold has reasserted itself as a form of insurance against the unstable fiat currencies.
Unlike other commodities, gold can be seen as a vote of confidence for Central Banks around the world including the Federal Reserve. Gold has been up about 14% against the Dollar but roaring against other currencies like the Ruble, Yen, etc. The rise in the price of gold indicates that investors are flocking to the precious metal as means of indemnification. Thus, all the assortments of financial tools that the Central Banks have employed such as quantitative easing, negative interest rates, etc. have failed with respect to propping up the economy. Despite all the “positive” indications by the Federal Reserve, the economic numbers from around the world are indicating the world is or will be in a global recession.
The US, the world’s largest economy, has not been performing as well as the administration and Federal Reserve has claimed. Despite the stock market breaking records in the last several years, the fundamentals did not support it rather the Federal Reserve’s intervention via quantitative easing and interest rate reductions have helped create the artificial bull market. The largest misleading indicator is the unemployment rate, which is claimed to be at 4.9% but, in reality, is much higher. Some estimates put the unemployment numbers closer to recession/depression levels. In addition, today more than half of Americans are on a form of government assistance. The following data indicates a worsening economic situation:
- Exports were in decline in a year over year basis by 7%
- Factory orders have dropped for 14 consecutive months
- The Restaurant Performance Index, a monthly composite index that tracks the health and outlook of the restaurant industry, has dropped to the lowest level since 2008
- The Baltic Dry Index, a measure of the price of moving major raw materials by sea, fell below 300 for the first time. This signals a dramatic drop in global demand for raw materials since the index is a direct measure of demand for shipping capacity
- Orders for the Class 8 trucks have been almost cut in half on a year to year basis, which indicates demand for supplies has largely declined within the US
- Despite approaches to reduce production of oil by global producers, the price of oil has more or less stayed below $30 USD per barrel. This indicates the global economy has slowed down
- A large number of those employed in the US since the Great Recession was due to the boom in the Oil and Gas (O&G) industry. It is now reported that 67 O&G companies are filing for bankruptcy in the US and that 35% of all O&G companies around the world are at risk of becoming insolvent. This is in addition to the tens of thousands that have been laid off since the decline in oil prices
- The number of job cuts skyrocketed by 220% in the month of January
- Retail stores are shutting down at a stunning pace across the country
While the US numbers are looking bleak at best, the global data is not any better:
- Chinese exports have fallen by more than 11% on a year over year basis
- Chinese imports are even worse in January on year over year basis indicating a decline of almost 20% –This dramatic decline is part of a larger trend of Chinese imports declining now for 15 months in a row
- Indian exports plunged by almost 14% on a year over year basis
- Japanese exports have declined by almost 10% on a year over year basis while their imports have declined by almost 20%
- For the sixth time in six years, Japanese GDP growth has treaded negative territory
- The overall global stock market currently exhibits a bear market with about 20% of all global stock wealth being wiped out in the last year alone
Unfortunately for global investors, the continued intervention by Central Banks around the world, in the hopes of propping up the languishing economies, has caused the global economy to only worsen. Since the 2008 crash, the interest rates have been slashed by the Central Banks almost 640 times and more than 12 trillion dollars’ worth of assets have been purchased by them to no avail. Despite attempting to resolve the financial crash of 2008, governments did not eliminate the root cause of the problem but rather applied a bandage solution, which only worsened over time. Now it is all beginning to slowly unravel. All that is needed is a Black Swan event to bring the Central Banks to use the “R-word ” in describing the global economy.
‘America First’ vs. Global Financial Stability
The recently concluded annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank group, held in Indonesia last weekend, has highlighted a series of concerning trends with regard to the global economy. It has subsequently left many considering the impacts of a possible global recession that may be looming ahead in the next of couple of years to come. These fears were evident in the worldwide sell-off in global equities last Thursday that has been widely attributed to the IMF revising down its global growth forecast in its World Economic Outlook (WEO) report. The report highlighted growth in a number of developed economies as having plateaued, with rising trade tensions and policy uncertainty greatly contributing to the slow-down. This includes the ongoing trade war between the US and China, as well as the numerous uncertainties pervading within the Euro-Zone.
All of this has had a significant knock-on effect on emerging markets, including Pakistan which has already been struggling with massive fiscal and current account deficits amid rampant inflationary pressures. With tensions between the United States and China still on the rise, Pakistan presents a notable example of how deteriorating global macro-economic conditions have been exacerbated by rising geo-political tensions between these two global powers.
For instance, it took Imran Khan’s fledgling government months to accept the reality of another IMF bailout (Pakistan’s 13th in the last 30 years) despite its $68 billion investment commitment with China. This is because the US, being the largest contributor of funds to the IMF has increasingly politicized this bailout in light of its own deteriorating relations with China. In fact, the US has directly blamed China for Pakistan’s recent debt woes referring to what has been come to known as China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. The argument being that the massive loans being doled out by China to developing countries under its Belt & Road Initiative are leading to unsustainable debt levels, eroding their sovereignty while expanding China’s hold over them. Pakistan’s loan obligations to China as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are presented as a case in point.
Despite both Pakistan’s and China’s protests to the contrary, it is widely expected that some of the IMF’s conditions attached to Pakistan’s requested bailout are thus likely to include greater scrutiny and revisions regarding the CPEC initiative. This is likely to form part of the US’s overall objective of limiting and constraining China’s influence over Pakistan and the wider region. The impact this would have on Pakistan however is likely to prove critical considering its precarious economic as well as geo-political position. Not only would the IMF’s conditions limit the new government’s ability to maneuver its economy around an increasingly unstable world financial system; it would also delay the much needed infrastructure projects being planned and implemented under CPEC with Chinese assistance. Therefore, the very purpose of the IMF bailout which is to provide some semblance of stability to Pakistan’s ailing economy, would embroil it deeper in uncertainty as a direct result of the US’s unilateral push against China.
It is worth noting here that during its annual meeting, the IMF clearly voiced its concerns regarding escalating trade tensions between the US and China. While calling for increased dialogue and a careful examination of debt induced risks across the world, the IMF seems to be warning both sides over the fragility of prevailing global economic conditions. At the same meeting, China too echoed these concerns and called for increased dialogue with the US to promote open trade and growth. As a country that has for the last few decades championed globalization, China’s vision of shared global growth and win-win partnerships in emerging markets such as Pakistan, have however been directly challenged by the US. A US, that is in contrast aggressively willing to defend the prevailing status quo, as part of President Trump’s mantra of ‘America First’. Hence it was no surprise that US representatives, in response to these concerns brought up by the IMF and China, have continued to downplay the risks of their policies on global economic stability.
With respect to China and numerous emerging markets such as Pakistan, the fact still remains that the world financial system is currently replete with risks and uncertainty as a direct result of US policy. All of this is occurring while the US President continues to boast about surging US equities and record employment figures as a direct outcome of these policies. While the US economy has experienced sustained growth since the 2008 financial crisis, markets and business cycles have a way of correcting themselves, especially when world leaders themselves point to overbought and overextended conditions.
If the US economy truly is on the cusp of a potential downturn, then present geo-political tensions are more than likely to exacerbate the impacts of an impending global recession. For Pakistan, with its precariously low foreign currency reserves and an unsustainable debt to GDP ratio, such a recession is likely to bring on even bigger problems than any of the potential cuts the IMF may propose on CPEC. Thus, while the US may limit China’s rise as an economic power in the short-term, it does so at the expense of emerging markets and global economic stability in the long-run. This lack of foresight is likely to hurt the US more as it realizes how economies cannot exist within a vacuum in an increasingly interdependent world.
How to finance Asia’s infrastructure gap
Asia’s countries famously need to invest trillions of dollars a year to provide infrastructure required to keep traffic flowing, ports trading, and factories humming. Yet most countries in the region consistently fall short.
The 2017 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report “Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs” puts the infrastructure tab for 45 developing Asian countries at more than US$1.7 trillion per year. Developing Asia now invests only about $881 billion a year, or slightly more than 50 percent of that. This is the infrastructure gap.
Less well known, however, is that the investment shortfall is frequently not for a lack of funds or technology. The money may be available, particularly in the private sector, but not enough of it is going where Asia needs it. And this is because many developing countries lack the knowledge and capacity to design and implement bankable infrastructure projects that integrate new technologies.
To encourage private sector investment in infrastructure, high-quality bankable projects must adopt current levels of proven technology as well as be “future-proofed” to further advances in technology.
Delegates from across the development spectrum — from government through the private sector — will gather on Oct.13 in Bali for the Global Infrastructure Forum 2018 to discuss several trillion-dollar questions. How can governments and the private sector help fill the infrastructure gap? How can authorities’ better pair the world’s big investors with the many inclusive, resilient, sustainable, and technology-driven infrastructure projects this region needs to advance economic progress? And how can multilateral development banks best help?
To be sure, strong infrastructure projects are going up all over Asia. Take Indonesia, the Forum host; the country has made enormous strides under its ongoing and ambitious infrastructure program.
The country has seen progress: from the trans-Papua road project in one of the country’s most remote and underdeveloped regions to better information and communications technology under the Palapa Ring (satellite) Project. Indonesia has also launched innovative and clean energy projects such as the 72-megawatt Tolo wind-farm in South Sulawesi and massive urban infrastructure to boost Jakarta’s livability and competitiveness. This latter project includes a new modern airport terminal, rail link, and the first phase of the mass rapid transit expected to open in 2019.
Knowledge is crucial to get such projects off the ground, and this is where the multilateral development banks, including ADB, can assist.
The development banks are providing governments financial and technical support to enhance knowledge in numerous areas.
ADB is also helping strengthen government and private sector project development and governance capacity, for instance, for preparing high-quality projects able to support private finance. It also established the Asia Pacific Project Preparation Facility, a $73 million multi-donor trust fund to support project preparation, monitoring, and project restructuring, as well as capacity building and policy-reform initiatives linked to specific projects.
In addition, the organization is promoting public-private partnerships, catalyzing regulatory reforms to make infrastructure more attractive to private investors, and encourage more bankable projects. Potential is vast, in that pension funds alone, which hold $7.8 trillion in assets, are estimated to invest only about 1 percent of funds under management in infrastructure.
A recent ADB report, “Closing the Financing Gap in Asian Infrastructure,” notes that the richer Asian economies, such as Japan — where savings rates top 30 percent — can clearly play a stronger role if it only could. Yet, the country still invests almost $4 trillion in portfolio assets outside Asia.
Likewise, ADB is developing alternative financing structures and is backing green finance to encourage a bankable green finance project pipeline that can access funds from commercial and institutional investors. Many major investors are now strictly subject to environmental, social, and governance requirements in their investment decisions.
Finally, as technology rapidly evolves, particularly digital, it is creating substantial opportunity. Land acquisition, for example, significantly delays infrastructure projects across the region. Digital technologies are therefore being tested in several countries and watched closely for an ability to improve land titling. Likewise, ADB is involved in Spatial Data Analysis Explorer to help in decision-making relevant to climate hazards and resilience across urban systems.
Multilateral development banks can play multiple roles, from assisting and advising on the creation of appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks, developing bankable projects, direct financing or providing credit enhancement tools to finance projects, to structuring innovative “blended finance” solutions in circumstances where the underlying project is incapable of supporting a financing structure priced at commercial funding rates. In all of this, multilateral development banks and other development partners can assist developing countries gain the knowledge to better develop sustainable, accessible, resilient, and quality infrastructure.
Prema Gopalan Honoured as India Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2018
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Jubilant Bhartia Foundation, announced Prema Gopalan of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) as India Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) 2018. The award honours her exceptional contribution in revitalizing rural economies by empowering women to succeed in remote and ailing markets. The SSP model comprises four ventures: a federated network of 5,000 self-help groups; a resilience fund for women-led businesses; a rural school of entrepreneurship and leadership for women; and a market aggregator that provides warehousing, branding, marketing and distribution services to last-mile business women. In addition, it has catalysed the government, investors, financial institutions and Indian and global corporations to partner directly with grassroots women business leaders.
Over two decades, this has had a domino effect in 2,000 climate-threatened villages across six states of India. Over 97,000 women in drought and flood-affected villages have set up enterprises in clean energy, sanitation, basic health services, nutrition and safe agriculture. They have transitioned from self-employment to diversify their ventures, aggregate into value chains and mentor thousands of others to get on the path of entrepreneurship – 900 women are recognized locally as climate resilience leaders and 500 are playing a role in local governance. SSP’s grassroots women entrepreneurs are taking their communities forward as part of their business success. As SSP partners with the government to scale its model, it is demonstrating that investing in rural women entrepreneurs can be a solid strategy for transforming India.
Smita Ram and Ramakrishna NK of Rang De were also selected as finalists for their work on unlocking unusual channels of capital for India’s poorest, building bridges between India’s credit-starved communities and ordinary citizens who contribute to meet the education, health and enterprise needs of resource-poor populations. Working on the premise of “micro-investment for micro-loans”, this peer-to-peer lending platform has to date disbursed INR 70 crore from 14,000 social investors and philanthropists to benefit 60,000 families.
“The World Economic Forum has long championed gender equality on the global agenda,” said Hilde Schwab, Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. “The 2018 winner, Prema Gopalan of Swayam Shikshan Prayog, has demonstrated that investing in rural women is a good investment. Female entrepreneurs are critical actors to help bring about the transformation that India seeks!”
Congratulating the winner, Shyam S. Bhartia, Founder and Chairman, Jubilant Bhartia Group, and Founder Director of Jubilant Bhartia Foundation, said: “We are entering the tenth year of partnership with the Schwab Foundation. In the last nine years, we received more than 1,400 applications for this award. The response is indeed overwhelming and the quality of the applications very competitive. We are glad to see how the SEOY India Award is able to identify and bring to the forefront the enterprises who are achieving social impact at a larger scale. We hope that this year’s SEOY India Award winner will serve as an inspiration to future generations of social innovators.”
The SEOY India Award brings some of the country’s most remarkable change-makers on to a common platform. These social entrepreneurs are promising self-starters, with a strong inclination towards addressing the most pertinent needs of marginalized communities in scalable and sustainable ways. Their endeavours encapsulate alleviating poverty, hunger, gender inequality, promoting women empowerment and education. These social entrepreneurs are torch-bearers who have taken the onus of working towards managing micro-finance needs and finding solutions to daunting challenges like climate change. The tenets of this year’s finalists are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The winner will be invited to join the Schwab Foundation’s global community of over 350 social innovators. Social Entrepreneurs are driven by their mission to create substantial social change and promote inclusive growth, developing new products and service models that benefit underserved communities.
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