In recent months, Bitcoins have been all the rage especially as the crypto-currency has begun to climb in value. The spike has once again shone a light on the digital currency as a potential alternative to fiat currencies, which currently is witnessing all kinds of volatility thanks to Brexit, central banks’ thirst for printing, and massive deficit spending. While many investors see a positive future for the alternative currency, the true test of Bitcoin will be if a nation adopts the currency. The adoption of Bitcoin as a national currency will bring with it a plethora of financial securities but at the cost of eliminating the ability of central banks to print currency endlessly.
What is it?
Bitcoin was born out of a desire for online payments to be conducted among peer to peer systems with the elimination of a third party or middleman such as Paypal. Since its inception, Bitcoin has evolved into a myriad of entities ranging from being an investment vehicle, digital currency, community, and more importantly, the potential to be an alternative monetary system. It’s in this last point where Bitcoin’s greatest potential lies, if the trend continues; it could forever change how people and government conduct business.
Is it Money?
Despite making headlines, Bitcoin is still unknown to many. A study conducted by the Coin Center has found that 2/3 of Americans have no knowledge about the digital currency and of those that did know, 80% never have used it. This is one of the major impediments for Bitcoin in its quest to become an established currency. When Bitcoins are mentioned, the primary concern for people is whether or not it is money? Many people think of it more as a credit than actual currency such as Dollars, the Euro, Rubles, etc. In order to better understand if Bitcoins are money, one must understand how money is defined. Money is primarily defined by the following characteristics:
Durability – Be able to withstand wear and tear. Thanks to technology, Bitcoin as a digital unit of currency can, in theory, last into perpetuity.
Divisible – Ability to divide into small units allowing consumers to purchase products at any price. Bitcoin is more divisible than any existing currency, allowing users to go into thousandths place for a transaction, if need be.
Scarce – Must be limited and not so easily obtained. Unlike fiat currency, which is not capped and can be printed endlessly (as it is now around the world), Bitcoin production is capped at 21 million, at which point no more will be produced. This fact alone makes Bitcoin more stable than gold which is not firmly capped and supplies remain somewhat unbounded depending on mining activity.
Portable – Is it easy to carry? Due to its digital nature, Bitcoins can be carried on phones, tablets or computers anywhere and anytime.
Acceptability – Must be widely accepted as a medium of exchange. This is currently one of the uphill battles for Bitcoin. It is gaining momentum globally but as a relatively new currency, it needs to continue to increase its recognition. Nevertheless, relative to many minor currencies of weaker economic nations, Bitcoins appear to be accepted more so.
Stability– The value of the currency must remain relatively constant over long periods of time. As a new currency with few investors, Bitcoins liquidity is more volatile due to the effect of every transaction on the digital currency’s price, but with time this issue will subside as more investors and users partake into the currency decreasing its precariousness. In addition, the upper cap of Bitcoin production will serve as an anchor for price stability due to the fact that no more can be created. In theory, this parameter would invalid many national currency, if not all. The US Dollar, perhaps one of the most trusted and strongest currencies, has lost almost 100% of its value in the last several decades.
Thus, by the six generally accepted measures defining a currency as money, Bitcoins appears to fit the mold.
The 2008 financial crash as well as the economic uncertainty that has followed in the past decade has caused many to begin questioning the financial systems and philosophies that govern them around the world. As a result, shifts to populist leadership have begun to take root in many countries as well as the call for overhauling their respective economic systems. The confidence crisis will not be solved by any one leader or system but rather how money is handled in these respective countries. Under the current global monetary system, established in Bretton Woods and its subsequent modifications, all the nations in the world have fiat currencies. Fiat currencies are monies that are backed by the promise of the government that issues it and nothing else. This greatly diverges from what use to be practiced where currency was anchored to some tangible commodity that had an intrinsic value such as gold and/or silver. The root cause, albeit perhaps a simplified explanation herein, of many economic crises is due to use of fiat currency. Fiat currencies are not secured to anything, thus allowing central banks to scheme for ways to “alter” its value. Their tools of choice are printing more and using the additional money created out of thin air to “eliminate” any debt and deficit spending but such free reign to produce money comes at a dire consequence; devaluation or inflation. Inflation is an indirect tax on a nation’s population. Unrestricted spending leads to massive currency printing, which eventually is paid for by the citizens through inflation that can go unchecked sometimes as history has demonstrated in Weimar Germany, Zimbabwe, and now Venezuela, to cite a few extreme cases.
Enter Bitcoin. The implementation of Bitcoin as a national currency will yield immense benefits for a nation over time. While many countries dread ceding financial authority of their currency, the benefits of Bitcoin implementation as national currency will outweigh the costs for all countries but especially third world nations with smaller economies. Most economies around the world ultimately operate based on the consumer’s confidence, which has been eroding ever since the 2008 financial downturn. Bitcoin remedies the issue of public trust in the economic system. With smaller nations, the adoption of Bitcoin will allow them to restore not only their public’s confidence but attract foreign investments because there is a source of stability in the country; business loves stability. No longer can a nation’s currency be devalued by social welfare, war, debt, or redistribution of wealth especially to help ensure political ambitions. But pursuing such a policy does not come without costs. A national adoption of Bitcoin renders a nation impotent when it comes to the ability to control reserves, printing additional currency, or any other type of monetary policy.
Such surrender of financial ability forces a paradigm shift for governments in how they operate. The ultimate benefit is for a nation’s citizen, government can no longer squander hard earned tax money on fruitless projects, redistribution to other segments of society in order to secure votes and influence, and send money to finance projects for corporate or foreign allies at the cost of running up the national debt with no remorse. Legislators complacent in the status quo system view the separation of currency and state as anathema to the concept of government due to the fact that it reduces their ability to carry out spending, sometimes massively, without checks. In addition, the thought of such a radical departure is only viewed as such due to the fact that nations were technologically unable to do so until now thanks to the advancement in computing as well as blockchain technology.
The adoption of Bitcoin as an official currency by any nation actually demonstrates that government’s adherence of fiduciary responsibility to its citizens. In doing so, a government handicaps itself in being able to run to the printing press and debase their currency all the while reducing citizen’s wealth through inflation. Instead, the government returns to what it should be doing, which is justify every item in a budget as well as balance it. This in itself will cause a government to become more transparent and reduce corruption greatly as well as strengthen democracy.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be the ability of government to borrow. This will hamper economic growth due to the fact that government and business have become acclimated to artificial growth by the government increasing its debt holdings especially in recent decades, therefore creating economic expansion that was never wholly justified or possible without careless financial management. This shift will have a detrimental effect on citizens and nations alike.
Another downside to an adoption of Bitcoin by one or a few nations is the surrender of a powerful weapon, devaluation of currency. The continual back and forth bickering between the US, China, EU, etc. about currency devaluation is only possible when central banks control a fiat currency, once a nation surrenders that ability, they are no longer able to fight on equal footing against a fiat currency-based nation. This could have negative effects in the interim for such a nation’s industries when it comes to exporting goods. Finally, the establishment of Bitcoin will have a large effect on the concept of credit as is known in its current form. Markets will need to devise a new way for credit creation in a world absent of fiat currency and what it means to have credit.
As Bitcoin continues to grow in popularity and garner more attention by investors, everyday users and even politicians, the inevitable reality of Bitcoin becoming a national currency is on the horizon. Such a currency contains the potential to prevent the financial roller coaster that is being observed in nations such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Yet, in the interim, early adopters will face many challenges and impediments as they transition into a Bitcoin-based monetary system but such bumps will pay off in the long term.
The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.
The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.
Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22.
Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.
Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.
The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.
Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery
Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.
Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.
The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.
Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.
Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.
Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.
The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.
How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?
Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.
First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.
Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.
Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.
Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.
Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.
None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.
Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.
I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.
First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank
US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation
The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.
The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.
Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!
Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.
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