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Moving Away From GDP: Suggestions for Metrics to Assess Economic Performance

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Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is, most certainly, an important yardstick for the economic performance of a country. Economists, policy makers, and central banks use GDP to gauge the health of the economy and direct fiscal and monetary policies to boost it.

GDP, along with unemployment rate, are some of the most popular metrics discussed in newspapers and on cable news. Political pundits and lobbyists use GDP to buttress positions, especially on immigration.

Despite the high esteem GDP figures are held to in media and political circles, politicians rarely mention this metric while campaigning for public office. This makes common sense, as GDP figures have very little bearing on the lives of ordinary citizens. At a macro level, rising GDP figures might speak of a productive and growing economy, but the benefits don’t necessarily seem to trickle down to enhance the well-being of the average Joe and Jane. The employment of the word ‘trickle’ should not be construed as a call for a heated debate on ‘trickle-down theory.’

China’s 2016 GDP was estimated to be around $11 trillion, close to two-thirds of that of the US, which was estimated to be in the vicinity of $18.5 trillion. Third on the totem pole was Japan, just shy of the $5 trillion mark. But neither does China fare well than the US in areas of individual liberties and economic freedom, nor does it outdo Japan in securing prosperity and welfare for its masses.

The same principle can be applied in cases of India and Russia, both of which finish above The Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, and all of the Nordic countries.

Perhaps, a rising GDP and other such titular accomplishments, like undertaking the cheapest Mars mission in the world, aren’t issues to gather around and feel cheery. Perhaps, there are other subtle factors that maximize individual liberties, create wealth, bring prosperity, and provide opportunities to individuals to better their socio-economic condition over time.

Most important of all of these subtle and not oft discussed factors, is economic freedom. Simply put, economic freedom, as conceived in the work of Adam Smith and defended through the efforts of Milton Friedman, is the ability of members of society to trade freely with one another, to buy and sell at prices determined by markets, and to own and defend private property. All of this set within a diligently enforced legal framework constitutes economic freedom and makes up the central idea of Laissez-faire.

Economic freedom dovetails with prosperity and growth, as illustrated in Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ – a landmark work in the field of classical economics. When people pursue their economic interests in a market free of government intervention and undue regulation, thus, resulting in mutually agreed exchanges, not only do the individuals benefit, but also a greater good emerges.

This ‘greater good’ manifests in the form of a highly industrialized, organized, wealthy, and prosperous society, where resources are plentiful and life for the ordinary citizen is livable.

More importantly, a Laissez-faire arrangement provides its partakers with opportunities to better their socio-economic condition.

The Heritage Foundation, every year, releases an index of economic freedom, based on twelve qualitative and quantitative factors, grouped into 4 categories: Rule of Law, Government Size, Regulatory Efficiency, and Open Markets. Countries are ranked by the net average of their scores on each of the twelve factors.

In the 2017 edition of the economic freedom index, the countries that are designated ‘free’ and ‘mostly free’ are all, but for a few exceptions, developed, industrialized, and provide a high standard of living and superior quality of life to their citizens. The countries that are labeled ‘mostly unfree’ have become hotbeds for economic misery, social problems, poverty, corruption, and offer their citizens an inferior quality of life. Much worse is the predicament of those countries that are grouped under the ‘repressed’ label.

The United Nations Development Programme, each year, publishes a Human Development Report (HDR) which exposits and measures human development in different countries around the globe. The report acknowledges that income growth is a means to an end – individual development – than an end in itself. It works off of the conviction that people’s ability to better their lives, the abundance of opportunities, and the freedom to make beneficial choices lead to human development over time.

The HDR publishes the Human Development Index (HDI) – an attempt to quantify the development potential of a country. While not comprehensive and deeply insightful, the index is a composite measure of life expectancy, access to education, and standard of living that people of a certain country get to enjoy. Gross National Income (GNI), which is one of the dimensions of the index, enters the index in its logarithmic form. This is done to indicate the diminishing ability of increase in income to spur human capabilities.

A close comparison of the GDP and HDI rankings reveals some incredible findings.

  1. Except the US, Canada, and Germany, none of the countries that make the top ten on the GDP rankings, makes it into the top ten on the HDI rankings. Iceland, which finishes 9th on HDI, is placed at 105 on GDP, below Sudan, Algeria, Kenya, and even Yemen.
  1. The BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – that are among the top fifteen by GDP don’t make the cut on HDI. In fact, India, the worst performer in the bloc, is ranked under ‘medium’ category on HDI.
  1. With the exception of a few petrodollar economies and a few developed Asian countries, most of the top 50 entries on HDI, categorized under ‘very high development,’ are western, industrialized, developed economies. Only 21 of these nations make it to the top 50 on the GDP rankings.

This undergirds the initial premise that while a rising GDP heralds a growing national economy, the benefits of this growth rarely reach the masses; and that certain other factors like opportunities and freedom of choice determine the well being and prosperity of individual citizens.

Businesses are the heart of an economy. Not only do they create valuable goods and services, they also create jobs, catalyze innovation, create affordability through competition, and help raise revenues for the government through taxes. Even more important is the role of small – and medium – sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for more than half of formal jobs created across the world. SMEs also hold keys to solutions for development issues like energy, clean water, sanitation, and education in third world countries

Thus, it should follow that countries, regardless of the stage of development, should encourage entrepreneurship and create a business friendly environment, not just for large international businesses, but also SMEs.

The World Bank, in 2002, started a project to quantitatively measure business environments in 190 countries and rank them based on their ease of doing business. It is no wonder that the top 50 entries are packed with mostly developed, high- and upper-middle income economies of Europe and North America. A similar trend can be seen in innovation according to the Global Innovative Index.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, and commerce cannot thrive without trade. Trade helps exchange not only goods and services, but also capital, know-how, business culture, and ideas. It also opens up business opportunities abroad for domestic businesses, while the entry of foreign businesses enriches the markets with a variety of goods, sparks competition, lowers prices, and creates jobs in the local economy.

It’s no surprise that countries that have encouraged open trade have flourished over time, while those that have pushed back against it have penalized their people with economic suffering. The Enabling Trade Index (ETI) published by the World Economic Forum illustrates this very fact: wealthier, more prosperous countries also happen to be the staunchest promoters of trade, while the ones who hold a feeble or antithetical position on trade also happen to be poorer.

So far, the suggested metrics have yielded an approximately homogenous trend, providing far better insights, than a cursory and obfuscating metric like GDP can, into an economy’s potential to deliver progress and welfare for its citizens.

The pièce de résistance, however, of this verbose article is the index of global migration flows. As Milton Friedman put it, to judge a country’s economy empirically, we only need to see how people vote with their feet; that is to say whether people are leaving a nation, like rats off a sinking ship, or are clamoring to get in.

In a report, accompanied by a brilliant infographic, released by The Wittgenstein Centre for Democracy and Global Human Capital, investigators estimated immigration and emigration by regions and countries. Looking at the recent estimates (2005 – 2010), one would be hardly surprised to see a net influx for most European countries along with the US and Canada, while a net efflux for South Asian nations and many African, East Asian, South-east Asian, and Latin American countries.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is just part of the story of economic growth; the real narrative, however, rests in the subtleties of every day life for the average individual. These subtleties are determined by the degree of economic freedom, the abundance of opportunities, the freedom to choose, the support for entrepreneurship and enterprise, and the openness to trade; all of which lead to prosperity, growth, wealth creation, and a high degree of social mobility. Migratory flows remain a firm testament as to whether an economy provides its people with sufficient freedom, resources, and choices to better themselves.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

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Can Sukuk Match the Growth Trajectory of Green Bonds?

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As the socially responsible investing movement in fixed income began to take off a decade ago, a great deal of ink was spilled on the similarity of green bonds and Sukuk. Both products are explicitly ethical and appeal to investors’ social consciences over and above their desire for financial returns. The thesis at the time was that an ever-increasing number of investors would seek out these types of ethical investments, leading to a steep upward trajectory in demand for both green bonds and Sukuk. MICHAEL BENNETT writes.

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To a certain extent, that thesis has played out. Between 2010 and 2020, the annual issuance of green bonds increased from less than US$5 billion to more than US$270 billion. They have successfully transitioned from being a highly niche product to one that has a role in the portfolios of major institutional investors across the globe. Green bonds became the product that mainstreamed socially responsible investing on the fixed income side of the capital markets.

Sukuk have also increased during that time-period, going from US$53 billion of annual issuance in 2010 to US$140 billion in 2020. While a 164% increase in annual issuance volume is impressive, it clearly lags the 5,300% growth for green bonds. This divergence in the growth trajectory of the two products can also be observed in Chart 1 that looks at annual issuance volumes between 2014 and 2020:

In absolute terms, it should come as no surprise that Sukuk volumes now trail green bonds, as there is a much larger market globally for conventional instruments than for Shariah compliant ones.

Even the most passionate supporters of Islamic finance accept that the potential market for Islamic products is only a fraction of that of their conventional comparators. However, that does not explain why, in percentage growth terms, Sukuk have fallen so far behind green bonds. Why has one product exploded while the other has made only a steady climb?

Many explanations have been offered for why Sukuk have not grown at a faster pace in recent years. These usually focus on global economic hurdles that have impacted the market (eg oil price declines, COVID-19-related slowdowns).

However, many of these same issues have impacted, to one degree or another, the conventional markets as well. In addition, some economic hurdles could reasonably be expected to increase issuance volumes (eg a decrease in oil prices could cause an oil-exporting sovereign to have greater need to tap the capital markets).

Therefore, these explanations seem insufficient to fully explain how green bonds have grown at such a faster clip than Sukuk.

I believe the reason for the difference may stem in part from the fact that the Sukuk market has simply not responded sufficiently to the socially responsible investing movement. As the remarkable growth of the green bond market proves, predictions a decade ago that socially responsible, fixed income investing was about to take off were correct.

In other words, the socially responsible investing wave did indeed come. The problem for Sukuk is the product has not found the best way to ride that wave.

Sukuk are ethical instruments. They cannot be used to finance impermissible activities like gambling, tobacco and weapons manufacturing. Also, they are structured to avoid high degrees of leverage and speculation, and therefore promote a sounder financial system.

Many investors who are motivated by ethics and feelings of social responsibility should be quite happy to add Sukuk to their portfolios, regardless of whether they are adherents of Islam.

A conventional bond has none of these built-in restrictions. Therefore, to make a conventional bond an ‘ethical investment’, additional steps must be taken, for example adding covenants to limit the potential uses of the financing. This building-in of these additional prohibitions is the genesis of green bonds and other labeled sustainable development bonds. In essence, these bonds adopt the types of restrictions on the use of proceeds that already to a certain degree exist for Sukuk.

However, the Sukuk market has not sold the standard Sukuk product as ethical. Rather, it has treated Sukuk as equivalent to a conventional bond (no better or worse from an ethical perspective), and therefore sought to develop green and socially responsible labels for certain types of Sukuk that mimic the labeling that is required to make a conventional bond ethical.

I believe such labeling of certain Sukuk can have the unfortunate impact of obscuring the ethical nature of the basic Sukuk product and, at the extreme, possibly throwing the social responsibility of most Sukuk into doubt.

In other words, if certain Sukuk are labeled ‘socially responsible Sukuk’, what does that imply about all the Sukuk that do not carry that label?

While I certainly would not advocate against green and other types of labeled Sukuk, I think the Sukuk market needs to spend more time and effort to be clear that such labeled Sukuk are simply a special use of proceeds instruments within a broader universe (ie all Sukuk) that is already ethical in nature.

Such an approach would mirror the one the World Bank takes in the conventional market. The World Bank issues green and other labeled bonds from time to time, but the priority always is to stress the ethical nature of all the issuances.

By focusing on the ethical quality of the Sukuk product itself, I believe Sukuk can best benefit from the ethical investing movement, and take its place, aside green bonds, as an ethical investing success story.

World Bank

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US Sanctions Against Russian Sovereign Debt: Possible Alternatives

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The US and the EU have imposed new sanctions against Russia because of the so-called “Navalny case”. The European Union has activated the human rights sanctions mechanism approved by the EU Council in December 2020. On March 2, the EU added four Russian security officials to its sanctions list. The sanctions include a ban on entry to the EU, an assets freeze in the EU and a ban on economic transactions with persons involved in the lists. However, such officials are unlikely to have assets in the EU. Even if they exist, such assets are not significant for the Russian economy. The sanctions were introduced as a reaction to the arrest and then imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, while restrictions on the topic of the alleged poisoning were introduced back in October 2020. At the time, six high-ranking Russian officials and the Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technologies were subject to the restrictions. Such sanctions have zero impact on the Russian economy.

Unlike the EU, the US has refrained from imposing sanctions following the alleged poisoning of the politician last year. However, on March 2, they were introduced, both in connection with the poisoning and in connection with his subsequent arrest. That is, the topics of the use of weapons of mass destruction and human rights violations were combined. The blocking sanctions targeted seven Russian officials who were already affected by EU sanctions, as well as three research institutes. Trade sanctions were imposed against 14 companies. US government agencies have been prohibited from lending to Russia and a ban was introduced on the supply of weapons and on the provision of US financial assistance. These measures have no impact on the economy. These companies are not the backbone of the economy, Russia does not need US help, it does not buy weapons from the United States, and it does not take loans from US government agencies.

However, the new US sanctions are still fraught with uncertainty. The key question is whether the United States is imposing restrictions on Russian sovereign debt obligations. Such a measure could cause more serious damage and have an impact on the world markets.

The prospect of sanctions against Russian government bonds is related to the specifics of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991. Properly it is used as a legal basis for the imposition of sanctions in the event that a country uses chemical weapons (in the US and the EU, it is assumed that Navalny was poisoned with a substance from the Novichok group). The CBW Law envisages the imposition of sanctions in two stages. On March 2, 2021, the first stage was implemented (a ban on aid, military supplies and loans from government agencies). If, within three months after the first stage, the President does not provide Congress with evidence that the target country has not abandoned the use of CBW and has not given reliable guarantees of their non-use in the future, then the second stage of sanctions will be introduced. It is important to note here that guarantees of non-use should be determined by UN inspections or those provided by another international organisation. Obviously, Russia will not give such guarantees and will not allow any inspections. Moreover, according to the statements of the Russian authorities, Russian chemical weapons were destroyed long ago. In other words, the second round of sanctions is inevitable. The CBW Law obliges the US President to impose at least three of the six types of sanctions. The most unpleasant of these is the ban on American banks from lending to the Russian government.

There has already been a precedent for using CBW against Russia. The sanctions were imposed in connection with the Skripals case. In 2018, the first stage was carried out, and in 2019 — the second. It was secured by Donald Trump’s executive order No. 13883. The decree reflected two types of sanctions — a ban on lending to the Russian government and blocking aid through the IMF. Then trade restrictions were added. If the last two measures were symbolic, then the ban on lending potentially had more serious consequences. However, this measure was applied in an extremely limited manner. The ban applied only to Russian government bonds denominated in foreign currencies, while most of them are denominated in rubles. The sanctions also did not affect the debt of Russian state-owned companies.

In general, the issue of sanctions against Russia’s sovereign debt has been raised many times on other occasions. In 2017, within the framework of Art. 242 of PL 115-44 CAATSA, Congress ordered the US Treasury to give an opinion on the appropriateness of such sanctions. Officials noted in their report that such sanctions would hurt Russia, but were also fraught with market fluctuations and costs for American investors. Such sanctions have repeatedly been proposed in sanction bills, including the most famous ones — DASKA and DETER. However, they have never been passed into law. In 2019, the State Department criticised DASKA.

The forthcoming second round of sanctions over the Navalny case will again raise the issue of restrictions on Russian sovereign debt. Two alternatives are possible. The first is the preservation of the existing restrictions already adopted by Trump in 2019, or their cosmetic expansion. The second is a more radical tightening, including bonds denominated in rubles. The second alternative cannot be ruled out, especially if there is another escalation in the Navalny case. If the status quo is maintained, the first option is most likely.

From our partner RIAC

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St. Petersburg Forum Offers Unlimited Business Opportunities

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The 24th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF’21), unique business forum that is highly expected to bring together politicians, corporate business directors and investors from different parts of the world, is set to take place June 2-5 as the epidemiological situation begins to stabilize in Russia.

That however, the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) with organizers promise everything in its power to ensure that the event is held with all the necessary measures in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and strictly in compliance with the recommendations given by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Roscongress Foundation, the organizer, says on its website that it has decided to create new infrastructure for comfort and safety of participants in view of the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, PCR test conducted at access to the venues, catering, sanitizing the premises, and providing participants and staff with personal protective equipment.

Thermal imaging control will be provided. Medical stations at the venue provided with the necessary equipment and medicines. There will be ambulances and resuscitation vehicles, including teams of English-speaking doctors. All spaces of the site equipped with air recirculation units and decontamination devices, among other measures for all participants visiting the events in St. Petersburg city.

Hans Kluge, Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe, together with Anna Popova, Head of Federal Service for the Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor), will hold a special briefing for participants on pandemic situation and its control in Russia and around the world.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian local media that President Vladimir Putin plans to take part in the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). “But Putin will be there in person,” Peskov reaffirmed his earlier statement, and further informed that in-person forum will be held in strict accordance with health and safety measures, the president received the first vaccination shot on March 23 and the second on April 14.

Over the years, this forum has strengthened multifaceted business ties, facilitated broadening relations and the development of cultural dialogue between Russia and many foreign countries. According to Roscongress Foundation, a number of foreign countries, keen on making solid business presentations and equally seek partnership opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation, have already registered their participation.

Traditional inter-country business dialogues are planned as part of SPIEF featuring representatives of business communities of Italy, Germany, France, the United States, India, Africa, Finland, Japan, Latin America, Middle East, as well as the EAEU-ASEAN business dialogue. Under the umbrella of SPIEF, international meetings in business room format will be held with the participation of representatives of Roscongress Foundation’s international partners and businesses in the corresponding world regions.

Apart from the main business programme, SPIEF will also host the SME Forum, Youth Economic Forum, SCO, BRICS and ASEAN events, B20 Regional Consultation Forum, Creative Business Forum and Drug Safety and Security Forum, as well as events on Arctic and African agenda.

The central theme of the Forum is A Collective Reckoning of the New Global Economic Reality. The business programme includes more than a hundred events divided into four tracks touching upon the issues of global and Russian economy, as well as social and technological agenda.

Joining Forces to Advance Development is the key track of the business programme. It includes sessions on economic recovery and international cooperation, discussions on Eurasian integration, transformation of global trade, effectiveness of business during the pandemic, global energy market, recovery of food market, and sustainability of national healthcare systems.

The second theme block of the business programme focuses on national development targets, the anti-crisis agenda for strengthening long-term potential of the economy, investment climate in Russian regions, shaping of Russian research and technology space, development of the financial market, creation of circular economy, and functioning of strategically important industries.

Discussions under the New Technology Frontiers track will feature the topics of international cooperation in science, digital sovereignty and information security, healthcare digitalization, tech ethics and others.

The Human Factor in Responding to Global Challenges theme block will talk about cultural codes of the new reality, collaboration in international education projects, and new skills and employment models in a post-COVID world. Moreover, there are sessions on the development of creative industries, sport and education.

The Russian Small and Medium-sized Business Forum is an annual event held as part of SPIEF to discuss the current state of small and medium-sized businesses and measures to enhance their role in the Russian economy. It is, however planned that the focused sessions encompass the key aspects of support and development for small and medium-sized enterprises.

“Small and medium-sized business is the foundation of the economy and a key indicator of the current status of socioeconomic development. As we are looking towards the future, it is essential to develop and implement long-term programmes that will give a new impetus to the development of SMEs,” said Anton Kobyakov, Adviser to the Russian President and Executive Secretary of the SPIEF Organizing Committee.

“We plan to discuss all the proposals in details at the SME Forum because they determine how small and medium-sized businesses will thrive in the future. Small and medium business is the largest employer and a guarantor of socioeconomic stability and the dynamic development of society. The development of entrepreneurial education, cooperation among small and big businesses, and the development of youth entrepreneurship, among other issues,” he said.

With a similar view and position, SME Corporation CEO Alexander Isayevich said “Entrepreneurs need to understand how to work in the new economic realities and what support measures the state will continue to provide. In addition, it is crucial for entrepreneurs to have high-quality non-financial services. The sessions, attended by a wide range of experts, will help to find optimal solutions not only for the SME sector, but also for the entire economy. We always advocate an open dialogue with business, as this is the principle that underlies our new development strategy.”

As part of Youth Day programme, the most promising undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as young scientists from Russia’s leading universities and scientific organizations will participate in the St. Petersburg Forum.

“It has become a good tradition for talented young scientists and students to take part in SPIEF, it is a leading business event that brings together unique experts from all areas of the economy. Participation opens up limitless opportunities for young people to exchange experience and gain new knowledge,” said Andrey Fursenko, Aide to the President of the Russian Federation.

There will also be large-scale different cultural events. For instance, Qatar plans an exhibition – “Qatar between Land and Sea, Art and Legacy” – this exhibition is a great opportunity for people from around the world to explore the very precious elements of the Qatari and Middle Eastern tradition and lifestyle, such as handmade carpets and artifacts, pearls, and antique jewelry, which makes it a magical journey through history.

St. Petersburg forum is highly-considered as an important step forward in developing and strengthening investment‑related collaboration. As one of the biggest economic forums in Russia, it yearly gathers several thousands of participants, including representatives of ministries and government bodies, financial and investment organizations, startups, and tech and innovation companies, and representatives of the media.

Despite the adjustments made due to the pandemic, there are for all participants interesting and useful initiatives for comprehensive interaction as the key objective is to create opportunities and friendly conditions to consolidate links between Russia and the world.

About the SPIEF’21 Organizer: Roscongress Foundation is a socially oriented non-financial development institution and a major organizer of international conventions and exhibitions; and business, public, sporting, and cultural events. It was established in pursuance of a decision by the President of the Russian Federation.

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