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Global Economy to Edge Up to 3.1 percent in 2018 but Future Potential Growth a Concern

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The World Bank forecasts global economic growth to edge up to 3.1 percent in 2018 after a much stronger-than-expected 2017, as the recovery in investment, manufacturing, and trade continues, and as commodity-exporting developing economies benefit from firming commodity prices.

However, this is largely seen as a short-term upswing. Over the longer term, slowing potential growth—a measure of how fast an economy can expand when labor and capital are fully employed—puts at risk gains in improving living standards and reducing poverty around the world, the World Bank warns in its January 2018 Global Economic Prospects.

Growth in advanced economies is expected to moderate slightly to 2.2 percent in 2018, as central banks gradually remove their post-crisis accommodation and as an upturn in investment levels off. Growth in emerging market and developing economies as a whole is projected to strengthen to 4.5 percent in 2018, as activity in commodity exporters continues to recover.

“The broad-based recovery in global growth is encouraging, but this is no time for complacency,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said. “This is a great opportunity to invest in human and physical capital. If policy makers around the world focus on these key investments, they can increase their countries’ productivity, boost workforce participation, and move closer to the goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.”

2018 is on track to be the first year since the financial crisis that the global economy will be operating at or near full capacity. With slack in the economy expected to dissipate, policymakers will need to look beyond monetary and fiscal policy tools to stimulate short-term growth and consider initiatives more likely to boost long-term potential.

The slowdown in potential growth is the result of years of softening productivity growth, weak investment, and the aging of the global labor force. The deceleration is widespread, affecting economies that account for more than 65 percent of global GDP. Without efforts to revitalize potential growth, the decline may extend into the next decade, and could slow average global growth by a quarter percentage point and average growth in emerging market and developing economies by half a percentage point over that period.

“An analysis of the drivers of the slowdown in potential growth underscores the point that we are not helpless in the face of it,” said World Bank Senior Director for Development Economics, Shantayanan Devarajan. “Reforms that promote quality education and health, as well as improve infrastructure services could substantially bolster potential growth, especially among emerging market and developing economies.  Yet, some of these reforms will be resisted by politically powerful groups, which is why making this information about their development benefits transparent and publicly available is so important.”

Risks to the outlook remain tilted to the downside. An abrupt tightening of global financing conditions could derail the expansion. Escalating trade restrictions and rising geopolitical tensions could dampen confidence and activity. On the other hand, stronger-than-anticipated growth could also materialize in several large economies, further extending the global upturn.

“With unemployment rates returning to pre-crisis levels and the economic picture brighter in advanced economies and the developing world alike, policymakers will need to consider new approaches to sustain the growth momentum,” said World Bank Development Economics Prospects Director Ayhan Kose. “Specifically, productivity-enhancing reforms have become urgent as the pressures on potential growth from aging populations intensify.”

In addition to exploring developments at the global and regional levels, the January 2018 Global Economic Prospects takes a close look at the outlook for potential growth in each of the six global regions; lessons from the 2014-2016 oil price collapse; and the connection between higher levels of skill and education and lower levels of  inequality in emerging market and developing economies.

Regional Summaries

East Asia and Pacific: Growth in the region is forecast to slip to 6.2 percent in 2018 from an estimated 6.4 percent in 2017. A structural slowdown in China is seen offsetting a modest cyclical pickup in the rest of the region. Risks to the outlook have become more balanced. Stronger-than-expected growth among advanced economies could lead to faster-than-anticipated growth in the region. On the downside, rising geopolitical tension, increased global protectionism, an unexpectedly abrupt tightening of global financial conditions, and steeper-than-expected slowdown in major economies, including China, pose downside risks to the regional outlook. Growth in China is forecast to moderate to 6.4 percent in 2018 from 6.8 percent in 2017. Indonesia is forecast to accelerate to 5.3 percent in 2018 from 5.1 percent in 2017.

Europe and Central Asia: Growth in the region is anticipated to ease to 2.9 percent in 2018 from an estimated 3.7 percent in 2017. Recovery is expected to continue in the east of the region, driven by commodity exporting economies, counterbalanced by a gradual slowdown in the western part as a result of moderating economic activity in the Euro Area. Increased policy uncertainty and a renewed decline in oil prices present risks of lower-than-anticipated growth. Russia is expected to expand by 1.7 percent in 2018, unchanged from its estimated growth rate in 2017. Turkey is projected to moderate to 3.5 percent this year from 6.7 percent in the year just ended.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Growth in the region is projected to advance to 2 percent in 2018, from an estimated 0.9 percent in 2017. Growth momentum is expected to gather as private consumption and investment strengthen, particularly among commodity-exporting economies. Additional policy uncertainty, natural disasters, a rise in trade protectionism in the United States, or further deterioration of domestic fiscal conditions could throw growth off course.  Brazil is expected to pick up to 2 percent in 2018, from an estimated 1 percent in 2017. Mexico is anticipated to accelerate to 2.1 percent this year, from an estimated 1.9 percent last year.

Middle East and North Africa: Growth in the region is expected to jump to 3 percent in 2018 from 1.8 percent in 2017. Reforms across the region are expected to gain momentum, fiscal constraints are expected to ease as oil prices stay firm, and improved tourism is anticipated to support growth among economies that are not dependent on oil exports. Continued geopolitical conflicts and oil price weakness could set back economic growth. Growth in Saudi Arabia is forecast to accelerate to 1.2 percent in 2018 from 0.3 percent in 2017, while growth is anticipated to pick up to 4.5 percent in the Arab Republic of Egypt in FY 2018 from 4.2 percent last year.

South Asia: Growth in the region is forecast to accelerate to 6.9 percent in 2018 from an estimated 6.5 percent in 2017. Consumption is expected to stay strong, exports are anticipated to recover, and investment is on track to revive as a result of policy reforms and infrastructure upgrades. Setbacks to reform efforts, natural disasters, or an upswing in global financial volatility could slow growth. India is expected to pick up to a 7.3 percent rate in fiscal year 2018/19, which begins April 1, from 6.7 percent in FY 2017/18. Pakistan is anticipated to accelerate to 5.8 percent in FY 2018/19, which begins July 1, from 5.5 percent in FY 2017/18.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Growth in the region is anticipated to pick up to 3.2 percent in 2018 from 2.4 percent in 2017. Stronger growth will depend on a firming of commodity prices and implementation of reforms. A drop in commodity prices, steeper-than-anticipated global interest rate increases, and inadequate efforts to ameliorate debt dynamics could set back economic growth. South Africa is forecast to tick up to 1.1 percent growth in 2018 from 0.8 percent in 2017. Nigeria is anticipated to accelerate to a 2.5 percent expansion this year from 1 percent in the year just ended.

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Iceland’s slowdown underlines the need to fix structural issues

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Sound macroeconomic policies and favourable external conditions have enabled Iceland’s economy to emerge stronger from a decade of post-crisis management. Yet the impact on growth from a drop in tourist arrivals and seafood exports underlines the need for reforms to open up and diversify the economy and improve its resiliency to sectoral shocks, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland.

The Survey, presented in Reykjavik by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría alongside Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson and Minister of Education, Science and Culture Lilja Dogg Alfredsdottir, takes stock of Iceland’s progress on improving fiscal and monetary policy, reducing debt and building up financial buffers. Today Iceland enjoys sustainable public finances, high employment and one of the lowest levels of income inequality of OECD countries.

A lack of structural reform has left Iceland heavily dependent on volatile sectors however. Tourism ballooned over the past decade, overtaking aluminium and fishing to account for 40% of export income and 10% of GDP, but has stalled since the insolvency of a low-cost Icelandic airline. Seafood exports are also down. After several years above 3%, the OECD projects Iceland’s GDP growth will drop to 0.2% in 2019 before rebounding to 2.2% in 2020.

“Iceland’s resurgence since the financial crisis to reach some of the highest living standards of OECD countries has been remarkable. It is a beautiful example of how a robust economy can co-exist with an egalitarian society,” said Mr Gurría. “However this slowdown shows that now is the time to go structural and to further open up the economy. Iceland should focus on reducing regulatory red tape and restrictions on foreign investment.”

Among Iceland’s structural challenges, competitiveness is declining as wages rise faster than productivity. The competitive edge gained after the 2008 crisis has vanished. Foreign direct investment is low, due in part to a high regulatory burden.

The Survey recommends reducing over-regulation, especially in services and for foreign investment, where restrictions are among the highest in the OECD, and lightening the administrative burden for start-ups. Iceland is already working with the OECD to improve its competition policy. Wage settlements across the economy should be in line with productivity growth, and fiscal prudence should be exercised through the current slowdown in order to further reduce the public debt.

In the tourism sector, the Survey suggests considering measures to improve sustainability given that – whether the downturn proves to be temporary or longer lasting – Iceland is already at six foreign tourists a year for each resident and may already have reached a point where the negative social and environmental impacts exceed the economic benefits.

On public finances, the Survey notes that the contribution of public spending to growth has declined since the 2008 crisis. It recommends extending spending reviews to core policy areas like education and health care, and applying more rigorous cost-benefit analysis to spending plans as two ways to improve the effectiveness of public investment.

The Survey also discusses the need to address a decline in high-school student performance and better match adult skills to the labour market. Iceland has a highly equitable education system and a large share of its workforce educated to tertiary level, but it could increase vocational training and make the education system more responsive to the labour market to avoid having people overqualified or possessing the wrong skills for jobs.

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Agricultural Innovation & Technology Hold Key to Poverty Reduction in Developing Countries

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Developing countries need to dramatically increase agricultural innovation and the use of technology by farmers, to eliminate poverty, meet the rising demand for food, and cope with the adverse effects of climate change, says a new World Bank report released today.

The relative stagnation in agricultural productivity in recent decades, particularly in South Asia and Africa where the vast majority of the poor live, underscores the need for new ideas to improve rural livelihoods. Renewed investment to increase new knowledge and ensure its adoption can help harness the large potential gains to be made in agricultural productivity and, hence, income, says the Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture report.

It notes that nearly 80 percent of the world’s extreme poor live in rural areas, with most relying on farming for their livelihood. Poverty reduction efforts, thus, need an intensive focus on raising agricultural productivity, which has the largest impact of any sector on poverty reduction, roughly twice that of manufacturing.

“Boosting productivity in the agriculture sector can lead to more and better jobs while enabling more people to move off-farm to cities to pursue other opportunities. This requires comprehensive reform of domestic agricultural innovation systems, more effective public spending and the cultivation of inclusive agricultural value chains with an increased role for the private sector,” said World Bank Group Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu. “New technologies are improving access to and costs of information, finance and insurance in all sectors, including agriculture. This can help raise the productivity of low skilled farmers, but only with the right incentives and capabilities to develop and scale these technologies,” she added.

The report examines the drivers and constraints to agricultural productivity and provides pragmatic policy advice. It notes that while in East Asia, crop yields have increased six-fold in the past four decades, contributing to the dramatic reduction in poverty in China and other East Asian countries, it has only doubled in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, with corresponding disappointing reductions in poverty.    

In addition, climate change, together with a deteriorating natural resource base, will hit agriculture hard, impacting the poor and vulnerable, precisely in Africa and South Asia.

The key driver for increasing agricultural productivity and rising incomes is the adoption of innovative technologies and practices by farmers. This will enable farmers to raise yields, manage inputs more efficiently, adopt new crops and production systems, improve the quality of their products, conserve natural resources, and adapt to climate challenges.  

However, the world is facing a widening research and development (R&D) spending gap, even as government funding for agriculture is reaching new heights. In developed countries, investment in agricultural R&D was equivalent to 3.25 percent of agricultural GDP in 2011, compared with 0.52 percent in developing counties. Among the latter group, Brazil and China invested relatively high amounts into agricultural R&D, while Africa and South Asia had the lowest spending relative to agricultural GDP. In fact, in half of African countries, R&D spending is actually declining.

Governments need to consider both public and private research and technology transfer in strengthening their overall innovation system. Repurposing the current public support for agriculture offers a significant opportunity to revitalize public agricultural research systems, invest in agricultural higher education, and create the enabling conditions to leverage private sector R&D. The private sector, in turn, can stimulate more rapid access to new technologies for farmers. In developed countries, private companies contribute about half the total R&D spending targeting the needs of farmers, and as much as one-quarter in large emerging economies, such as China, India, and Brazil. Policy tools to encourage more private R&D in agriculture include reducing restrictions on market participation, encouraging competition, removing onerous regulations, and strengthening intellectual property rights.

“Agriculture in Africa and South Asia faces an innovation paradox. While the economic returns to and growth effects of R&D and knowledge diffusion are documented to be very high, research spending is decreasing in critical areas of the world and local universities and think tanks are not keeping up. Policy makers in developing countries need to give careful attention to reversing these trends and improving the broader enabling environment to encourage private sector contribution as well,” said World Bank Chief Economist for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, William Maloney, who is the lead author of the report.

While new communication technologies make improving access to information, finance and insurance more feasible than before, small farmers face major barriers to adopting the new technologies that such research efforts yield.  

“Poor information about new technologies, absence of insurance and capital markets, high market transaction costs, land tenure insecurities and lack of transportation infrastructure are inhibiting adoption and diffusion of new technologies among farmers. Together with increased R&D spending, sustained efforts are needed to remove these barriers,” said World Bank Global Director for Agriculture and Food, Martien Van Nieuwkoop.

Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity in Agriculture is the fourth volume in the World Bank’s Productivity Project series, which examines the ‘productivity paradox’ of a persistent slowdown in productivity growth despite technological advancements. To access Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity in Agriculture report and related products:

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Digital Technologies Can Facilitate Access to Trade Finance in Asia-Pacific Region

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Financial technologies, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, can enhance the efficiency and availability of trade finance, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Asia and Pacific region, according to a report launched today by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

The Asia-Pacific Trade Facilitation Report 2019, highlights the need to address the largely unmet demand for trade finance globally, estimated at $1.5 trillion, of which 40% is from the region. SMEs are the most affected as they tend to have higher rejection rates for trade finance applications, compared with larger firms. SMEs account for 45% of rejected trade finance transactions as their applications tend to incur relatively high costs for banks to comply with anti-money laundering and know-your-customer requirements. Low credit ratings of counterparty banks and companies are other barriers restricting access to trade finance.

“There is an enormous untapped potential in the rapidly evolving digital technologies. Emerging new technologies can help address long-standing issues of high transaction and processing costs, while mitigating the huge trade finance gap,” ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development Mr. Bambang Susantono said at the report launch during the Asia-Pacific Trade Facilitation Forum in New Delhi.

Technologies can help cut costs, eliminate manual documentation, and enable accumulated digital information on SME profiles for lenders to assess risks. E-commerce platforms and cloud-based invoicing can allow direct transactions between buyers and sellers, and blockchain technology and artificial intelligence can facilitate due diligence and payments for SMEs. These technologies offer solutions to improve efficiencies at various stages of international trade.

The report notes the digitalization process is far from complete. Challenges include the high cost of adopting some new technologies and the lack of international rules and standards covering digital trade. Fragmented digital technologies also make it difficult for all parties to be compatible and interoperable. Blockchain technology is not free of risks related to incorrect information input, cyber security, and operations.

The report supports three initiatives that can enable widespread technology adoption: Digital Standards for Trade initiative to develop trade ecosystem standards; Global Legal Entity Identifier system to issue unique identifiers for both large and small firms at low cost and help enhance transparency; and model laws on electronic transferable records, electronic commerce, and e-signatures under a UN system to help countries implement legislation in a concerted fashion towards digital trade.

It also calls for governments to collaborate with private sector and other partners to expand technology adoption to enable cross-border trade financing. It highlights the importance of reducing the knowledge gap by improving awareness of trade finance products as well as building more databases to help SMEs tap trade finance.

The report features the findings of a global survey by ESCAP on digital and sustainable trade facilitation that tracks the implementation progress on various trade facilitation measures related to the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement and ESCAP’s UN treaty on enabling paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific. Very few countries have customized trade facilitation measures to support SMEs and women, with implementation rates of 36% and 23%, respectively.

“Cross-border trade digitalization will help all firms in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly SMEs, which are the most vulnerable to trade uncertainty. It could cut trade costs by 16%, but this will be difficult to achieve without closer regional cooperation,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.

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