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The geopolitical and financial significance of Bitcoin

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Bitcoin and the other “cryptocurrencies”, namely Ethereum and Litcoin- although there are 33 additional currencies arriving on the Internet – are a brand new phenomenon on the currency market.

Currently we are all in the so-called “fiat money” regime, namely any money declared by a government to be legal tender, which is a currency not backed by gold reserves – a currency which is always and anyway accepted by everyone.

Hence it is also fiat money, like the first “lire” of the Kingdom of Italy.

This means it is a State-issued currency that is not convertible by law to any equivalent value in gold or other hard currencies.

Fiat money is stable as it is controlled, almost on a daily basis, with the money demand from the economic system.

When there is an excess of money supply, we talk about inflation.

This is, indeed, the true meaning of the alltoowell-known concept of “inflation”, not the mere “price increase” which, at most, can be an indicator of excessive growth in money supply, not one of its causes.

Accepting the Dollar, the French or Swiss Franc, the Euro, the Ruble or any other currency (albeit, in fact, the situation would be somehow different for the Russian currency) is always mandatory by law.

Hence also seigniorage is mandatory, namely the act of legal magic with which each issuing bank decides that a small piece of paper is worth 100 nominal euro – although costing  only 3 cents to the issuing bank for producing it.

The difference between the face value of money and the cost to produce it (plus fixed costs such as equipment, staff salaries and taxes) is, in fact, seigniorage.

The latter, however, should not be demonized, as done by some theorists who – by using a silly contemporary language dogma – are called “radicals”.

Reasonably, the possible alternative is the intrinsic value money, like the medieval coins – molten gold marked as shown on the coin front or back. Nevertheless the King often “reduced the value” of coins or melted gold and silver with non-monetary metals, such as copper (although the United States was to use it in the future) or even bronze.

Today we would say it was a form of “seigniorage” “with criminal relevance and implications”.

The primal scene – just to quote a concept by Sigmund Freud -stemmed from the 1971 “Smithsonian Agreement”.

It was the American agreement Nixon had wanted as from August 15, 1971, signed in the Smithsonian Museum of Washington. It was signed by what we would currently call the G7 and reestablished an international system of fixed exchange rates without the backing of gold. It certified the end of FED’s obligation to pay for gold up to the fixed rate of 35 US dollars per ounce.

It was the end of the gold-backed currency – the “fiat money” no longer pegged to intrinsic money – occurring after the Allies verifying that the American currency was severely overvalued.

The costs borne for the Vietnam War, the end of the Johnsonian cycle of Great Society and the crisis of US products on European markets, were all factors which led De Gaulle, at first, to ask – without further ado – the payment of the US debt in gold or in hard currencies. Later many other allies who were reluctant to put in place non-tariff barriers against US products followed suit.

To put it more brutally, Nixon shifted the burden of the US super-inflation onto his allies of the Bretton Woods Agreement, which Europeans were forced to pay since they had to buy highly overvalued dollars for their international trade.

As the US Treasury Secretary, John Connally, said at the time to his European colleagues: “The dollar is our currency but your problem”.

In other words, cryptocurrencies are the result of this long historical process.

The currency based on Nothing, the postmodern point of arrival point of the disembodied monetary instrument.

A currency that is believed to be good because everyone thinks so – a financial transposition of Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

As you may remember, it is the tale about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their position, hopelessly stupid or incompetent – while in reality, they make no clothes at all, making everyone believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes”, no one, including his Ministers, dares to say they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will  be seen as stupid. Finally, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor “is not wearing anything at all” and the cry is taken up by others.

The same will happen to the contemporary monetary equilibrium, but it will certainly not be a child who will get  bankers and the public at large to open their eyes.

Hence today banks create money, which is mandatory to consider valid, with a fiat -namely ex nihilo – from the Void of Value. Or from their debt or even from the State debt.

Just issue securities having another name.

Hence, what is currently money? It is what the Auctoritas decides to be so.

Or, to be precise, the money supply currently issued by the central banks or other banking institutions, which is not based on savers’ deposits or on debt repayment forecasts,  but it is only the sign of a debt, the “promise of a settlement”which, however, is spent immediately.

And hence it is confirmed in its Value. The Value lies in theshift from a currency to another or from a currency to real goods or assets.

Obviously banks still earn interest on the money supply, regardless of its source.

Bitcoin, however, is not a currency like any other, guaranteed by internal law and interbank agreements.

The cryptocurrency is based on a mechanism like the one of online sales, namely the peer-to-peer one, which is gradually accepted by all those who now operate with Bitcoins.

Hence, while the final Bitcoin supply is defined – as always happens – our Internet currency is completely volatile.

Therefore it cannot certainly be a unit of account.

Hence Bitcoin varies- programmatically – as demand changes. In fact, last year its value increased by 47 times.

The reason is simple: it is a monetary supply that adapts to demand, but is also able to stop so as to create sufficiently long Bitcoin income and returns to attract average investors.

In January 2018,the cryptocurrency is worth approximately 900 dollars – a value that will probably increase when, in all likelihood, the Internet currency will be accepted by large commercial and distribution chains.

If it is a currency that influences markets by adapting to buyers’ requests (or artificially reducing supply in an instant), the only ones that can reap benefits are the Great States, the International Crime Organizations or the new networks of global Banks.

Never let them tell you that the small investor of Grand Rapids or Varese can determine the first “peer-to-peer” that, by repetition, triggers the chain off.

It is another fairy tale like the one of the movie Mary Poppins pointing to the magical growth of the penny deposited in a London bank, growing out of all proportion and turning into huge amounts of money.

The fairy tale is the expected automatic growth of funds denominated in Bitcoins, from 10 euro up to millions of millions, like the stars.

In fact, nothing is closer to the world of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm than some bad finance.

We can wonder whether the cryptocurrency is nothing more than a “Ponzi e-Scheme”.

You may recall the Ponzi Scheme or pyramid scheme, in which the high interest rates granted to capital providers -attracted precisely by the rates that are promised – are paid with new investors’ fresh capital.

In fact, what is striking is that the production of Bitcoins is sometimes artificially low because there are many people  who want to buy them.

An issuing bank à la carte.

In fact, the many people who are waiting for buying Bitcoins hope that their value will increase, but only after they have managed to buy them.

A self-fulfilling prophecy.

A mechanism which is exactly the same as the Ponzi Scheme.

As the best US financial advisers say, do not follow the crowd.

Hence the Bitcoin is a “bubble”. A bubble probably bound to last, but still a bubble.

A bubble born in 2016. The primary year, while everybody makes reference to 2009, when the production of notes was no longer enough and the debt to be repaid was huge, while the West was entering its darkest crisis since the 1929one.

The trigger,i.e. the banking panic and the unaware laissez-faire approach of the US Presidency, were the same in both cases.

Two crises – the old and the new -broken out precisely in the United States, the burden of which was later shifted onto  the rest of the West.

With a view to overcoming the first crisis, the huge costs borne for the Second World War were needed.The Rooseveltian stimulus had been to little avail.

The second crisis, much closer to us, which was triggered by the subprime crisis, has needed liquidity injections even greater than those needed during the 1929Great Depression – injections which have not ceased yet.

In the latter case, the exit from the crisis is ensured by the creation from nothing of the largest mass of money in human history, also through the Internet.

In fact, the Internet currencies have allowed to create exchange value, purely financial values ​​that have strongly contributed to multiplying global liquidity in collaboration with standard currencies, which have been distributed indiscriminately to just any market – with helicopter money – by the US Governors and then by the ECB Governor, although certainly in much smaller proportions than his US counterparts.

On the other hand, when there is a liquidity crisis- a crisis caused by an excess of debt – every issuing bank prints money or rather creates money from debt securities. There is no other solution.

Contemporary Value arises from the mastery of a Name and from the artificial dissociation between this Name and a New Name.

Furthermore,in any case, the presence of cryptocurrencies only on the Internet and with a system along the lines of the peer-to-peer mechanism of normal online sales has allowed hackers’ systematic theft of 14% of all cryptocurrencies existing on the worldmarket.

A theft worth 1.2 billion US dollars, with revenues equal to at least 200 million US dollars.

In less than ten years, however, the technology generatingBitcoins will be vulnerable to cyber-attacks launched by quantum computers, which will become more widespread  than they are today.

The attacks on virtual currencies have already cost governments and private companies owning them asmany as 113 billion dollars of turnover.

Nevertheless, who is currently inflating the Bitcoin value, which has more than doubled compared to January 2017 –  a value that is now around 125%?

The main reason for this is China. Beijing is now the first market  for the exchange of cryptocurrencies in the world.

As early as 2015 China alone traded 80% of Bitcoins.

Today, the top 4 among the 32 major exchange platforms of these new currencies mainly trade yuan.

One of these platforms has opened a mining station for  “creating” Bitcoins – an operation which is highly energy-intensive and consuming – on the slopes of Tibet, where there is abundant low-cost energy.

Every time the yuan depreciates, the Bitcoin appreciates, because there are so many Chinese who pocket their capital to avoid government’s control and hence buy Bitcoins.

The yuan is depreciating and the capital flight from China is ongoing. The tool is often the conversion of the yuan masses into Bitcoins.

We may wonder whether the e-currency is used as a tool of  “indirect war” against China.

Moreover, the current growth on the US and on some other European Stock Exchanges has occurred with credit money, borrowed at zero interest rate, which has been provided to  major investors by central banks.

Another possible reason justifying the Bitcoin growth.

Virtual money may havealso been created to avoid the investors’ traditional rush to gold – the “tribal residue”, as Keynes called it – and hence not to increase the dollar value, currently maneuvered downward?

On January 15, one of the most active US-listed banks on the Bitcoin market ceased to convert cryptocurrencies into “traditional” currencies, but especially into dollars.

The beginning of the fall in the Bitcoin value, but the preservation of market liquidity, so as to prevent it from converging towards gold, in particular, or European hard currencies or, even worse, towards the Chinese or Russian financial markets.

Hence the Bitcoin is a pseudo-currency that serves to control the volatility and trends of global financial markets, as well as to keep it artificially high and avoid some currencies becoming “full” or sovereign like the Swiss Franc.

In fact, in 2018 a referendum will be held throughout the   Helvetic Confederation on the so-called “full” or sovereign currency, i.e. on a Swiss Franc created by the national central bank and not by international banks.

“True Francs on our accounts”. Only the Swiss National Bank can create e-money, where necessary.

These are the goals of those who have proposed the referendum.

Let us hope for the best. Those who almost invented modern finance – the Swiss merchants of the Middle Ages, the link between Italian ports and large Central European markets -now realize the dangers of creating value from nothing, the Faustian (and darkly malicious) mechanism currently governing the magical and alchemical transformation of banks’ and States’ debt into credit for individuals.

Let us hope that the financial world will come to its senses, just in time.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Eurasian integration: From economics to creation of a center of power

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had every reason to congratulate his Armenian colleague Nikol Pashinyan with the outcome of the summit of Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) leaders that was recently held in Yerevan, where many promising decisions were made, bringing Iran, Singapore and Uzbekistan closer to this international organization.
Creation of various economic associations amid the ongoing process of globalization and toughening competition is a global trend nowadays. And still, the reasons for this process in Eurasia are as much economic, as they are existential.

The “traitorous” decision by the Western Christian powers during the Crimean War to side with the Ottoman Empire, which was widely perceived as a force hostile to the Christian world, came as a shock for Russian society, and above all, for the elite of the Russian Empire, which, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, had been working hard to expand “the window on Europe,” opened by Peter the Great. The Europeans’ deep-seated rejection of Russia as part of the European world, often spilled out into open hostility.

The Crimean War underscored Christendom’s split along ideological and political lines, which began with the separation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in 1054. The rapprochement between Russia and the European powers during and immediately after the Napoleonic wars proved a rather short-lived (and atypical) episode in the history of East-West relations. Before very long, however, Russian society managed to develop an “antidote” that cured the psychological trauma caused by the war: “Russia has only two allies: its army and Navy,” as Emperor Alexander III famously said. Moreover, the complex of “otherness” vis-a-vis Europe quickly turned into a matter of pride for many Russian thinkers, such as Nikolai Danilevsky (“Russia and Europe”), Leo Tolstoy (“War and Peace”), Alexander Blok (“Scythians”), to name just a few. 

While Danilevsky presented Russia as the leader of the still emerging Slavic “cultural-historical type,” the classical “Eurasians” with their idea of “Russia-Eurasia” believed that the cultural code of the Russian people is closer to the Turkic than to the West-Slavic one. What the “Eurasians” failed to delve into, however, was religious difference between the Russian and Turkic peoples, most of the latter being Muslims.

The ambitious experiment of building communism on a planetary scale further alienated Russia from the West, but brought it closer to the countries of the “third world,” primarily those in Asia. During the 1990s, Russia once again reached out to the West, only to be cold-shouldered by it.

This is exactly the response the West gave Turkey at the turn of this century and, just like the Russians before them, the Turks transformed their own complex of rejection from the West into a matter of pride. Today, according to various polls, up to 94.5 percent of Turks view the United States a hostile country. Anti-Americanism (coupled with anti-Western sentiment) is similarly on the rise in much of the Eurasian continent – from China all the way to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the “Eurasians” theorized about a fundamental idea the entire future of “Russia-Eurasia” was to be built on. Today, most of the Eurasian countries’ foreign policy paradigm is overshadowed by their postcolonial syndrome and their desire for a more equitable world economic order.

“The recurrence of arrogant neo-colonial approaches, where some countries have the right to impose their will on others, is rejected by an absolute majority of members of the world community,” who seek “a more meaningful role in taking key decisions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in an article titled “The world at a crossroads, and the system of international relations of the future.”

This goal can only be achieved by joint efforts and closer integration in the Eurasian space, where complex supranational integration formats, such as ASEAN, SCO, the Customs Union and the Common economic space (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) are already being established. Despite the complexity of the search for a mutually acceptable combination of the interests of very dissimilar countries (unlike in the case of the European Union), which have different civilizational affiliations and some even have running conflicts, this process is still moving ahead.

And yet, despite all their specific features, these countries still have very much in common: as a rule, a powerful state (“public”) economic sector, a long tradition of statehood (unlike Europe, not necessarily national) and, as a consequence, a traditional view of state power as something bordering on sacrosanct. And also an inherent rejection of the Western worldview with its mass culture, “rational,” almost materialistic, religion, and the substitution of morality by the criminal code, as the harshest critics of the West claim. Comparing Russia and Europe, the Russian historian Mstislav Shakhmatov stated: “The state of truth and the state of law are two different worldviews: the former is characterized by religious pathos and the latter – by material aspirations (…). Almost a century later, this maxim still rings true with many Eurasian societies.

Integration in our pragmatic century should start with a search for shared economic interests (by the way, the European Union grew out of the European coal and steel association). Speaking at the 2016 international economic forum in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin pitched the idea of creating a large Eurasian partnership which, besides the CIS countries, would also bring on board China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and other countries.

Russia, which is a melting pot of a plethora of ethnic groups and cultures, has every reason to claim the role of a “natural” driving force behind the process of Eurasian integration. According to Turkish political analyst Ferhan Bayir, today “even the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey, which is rooted in political Islam, is edging closer to Russia as it increasingly opposes the United States… Even more so Iran, which is not just getting closer to Russia, but is actually working together with it in many parts of the region.”

Europe became a self-sufficient (though flagging) power center even before it united politically, and Eurasia may well become another such center. Since political unity, including in future, is unlikely, the participants of this integration process could still learn how best to respond together to external challenges, just like Russia, Turkey and Iran managed to collaborate in the Syrian conflict. 

It would certainly be great if all countries of the continent (like just anyone else too) could learn to be friends and work together, but awareness of common interests (and, in the era of globalization, of destinies too), can hardly extend to all of Eurasia. Therefore, when we talk about the hypothetical Eurasian community as a center of power, we would have to exclude China, which itself is a power center and the core of a separate civilization. As for India, it will hardly show much interest in close integration as Hindustani civilization is a vivid example of an introverted and self-contained one.

Putting aside the term “center of power,” creating a community of countries with shared economic interests in Eurasia is quite possible. This project will not be hampered by any political incumbrancers, if only its participants agree to find compromises as they go. It won’t be easy, but, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…

From our partner International Affairs

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The $10 Trillion Question: How to End a Lost Decade of Global Productivity

MD Staff

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Ten years on from the global financial crisis, the global economy remains locked in a cycle of low or flat productivity growth despite the injection of more than $10 trillion by central banks. While these unprecedented measures were successful in averting a deeper recession, they are not enough on their own to catalyse the allocation of resources towards productivity-enhancing investments in the private and public sectors. The Global Competitiveness Report 2019, published today, points to the path forward.

Launched in 1979, the report provides an annual assessment of the drivers of productivity and long-term economic growth. The assessment is based on the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI), which maps the competitiveness landscape of 141 economies through 103 indicators organized into 12 pillars. These pillars are: Institutions, Infrastructure; ICT adoption; Macroeconomic stability; Health; Skills; Product market; Labour market; Financial system; Market size; Business dynamism; and Innovation capability. For each indicator, the index uses a scale from 0 to 100 and the final score shows how close an economy is to the ideal state or “frontier” of competitiveness.

This year, the report finds that, as monetary policies begin to run out of steam, it is crucial for economies to boost research and development, enhance the skills base of the current and future workforce, develop new infrastructure and integrate new technologies, among other measures.

With a score of 84.8 (+1.3), Singapore is the world’s most competitive economy in 2019. The United States remains the most competitive large economy in the world, coming in at second place. Hong Kong SAR (3rd), Netherlands (4th) and Switzerland (5th) round up the top five. The average across the 141 economies covered is 61 points, almost 40 points to the frontier. This global competitiveness gap is of even more concern as the global economy faces the prospect of a downturn. The changing geopolitical context and rising trade tensions are fuelling uncertainty and could precipitate a slowdown. However, some of this year’s better performers in the GCI appear to be benefiting from the trade feud through trade diversion, including Singapore (1st) and Viet Nam (67th), the most improved country in this year’s index.

“The Global Competitiveness Index 4.0 provides a compass for thriving in the new economy where innovation becomes the key factor of competitiveness. The report shows that those countries which integrate into their economic policies an emphasis on infrastructure, skills, research and development and support those left behind are more successful compared to those that focus only on traditional factors of growth.” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

The report documents emerging areas of promising policies, reforms and incentives to build more sustainable and inclusive economies. To manage the transition to a greener economy, the report recommends four key areas of action: engage in openness and international collaboration, update carbon taxes and subsidies, create incentives for R&D, and implement green public procurement. To foster shared prosperity, the Report recommends four additional areas of action: increase equality of opportunity, foster fair competition, update tax systems and their composition as well as social protection measures, and foster competitiveness-enhancing investments.

Global trends and highlights

In addition to providing an annual assessment of economies’ long-term health, the report also highlights five trends in the global economy and their implications for economic policymakers

The last ten years saw global leaders take rapid action to mitigate the worst of the financial crisis: but this alone has not been enough to boost productivity growth.

With monetary policy running out of steam, policymakers must revisit and expand their toolkit to include a range of fiscal policy tools, reforms and public incentives

ICT adoption and promoting technology integration is important but policymakers must in parallel invest in developing skills if they want to provide opportunity for all in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Competitiveness is still key for improving living standards, but policymakers must look at the speed, direction and quality of growth together at the dawn of the 2020s.

It is possible for an economy to be growing, inclusive and environmentally sustainable – but more visionary leadership is needed to place all economies on such a win-win-win trajectory.

The report’s data also shows growing inequalities in the global economy.

Market concentration: The report finds that business leaders in the United States, China, Germany, France and the United Kingdom believe that market power for leading firms has intensified over the past 10 years.

Skills gap: Only the United States among G7 economies features in the top 10 on the ease of finding skilled employees. It is, in fact, the best economy in the world in this category. Of the others, the United Kingdom comes next (12th) followed by Germany (19th), Canada (20th), France (41st), Japan (54th) and Italy (63rd). China comes 40th.

Technology governance: Asked how the legal frameworks in their country are adapting to digital business models, only four G20 economies make it into the top twenty. These are; the United States (1st), Germany (9th), Saudi Arabia (11th) and the United Kingdom(15th). China comes 24th in this category.

“What is of greatest concern today is the reduced ability of governments and central banks to use monetary policy to stimulate economic growth. This makes it all the more important that competitiveness-enhancing polices are adopted that are able to boost productivity, encourage social mobility and reduce income inequality,” said Saadia Zahidi, Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society at the World Economic Forum.

Regional and country highlights

G20 economies in the top 10 include the United States (2nd), Japan (6th), Germany (7th) and the United Kingdom (9th) while Argentina (83rd, down two places) is the lowest ranked among G20 countries.

The United States (2nd overall) is the leader in Europe and North America. The United States remains an innovation powerhouse, ranking 1st on the Business dynamism pillar and 2nd on Innovation capability. It is followed by the Netherlands (4th), Switzerland (5th), Germany (7th), Sweden (8th), the United Kingdom (9th) and Denmark (10th). Among other large economies in the region, Canada is 14th, France 15th, Spain 23rd and Italy 30th. The most improved country is Croatia (63rd).

The presence of many competitive countries in East Asia and the Pacific makes this region the most competitive in the world, followed closely by Europe and North America. In Asia Pacific,Singapore leads the regional and the global ranking thanks to a top-10 performance in seven of the 12 GCI pillars, including Infrastructure (95.4), Health (100), Labour market (81.2), Financial system (91.3), quality of public institutions (80.4) and it takes advantage of being the most open economy in the world. It is followed by Hong Kong SAR (3rd), Japan (6th), and Korea (13th). China is 28th (the highest ranked among the BRICS) while the most improved country in the region this year (Viet Nam) is 67th. The ranking reveals how heterogenous the regional competitiveness landscape is. Although the region is home to some of the most technologically advanced economies in the world, the average scores of the innovative capability (54.0) and business dynamism (66.1) are relatively low, lagging behind Europe and North America.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile (70.5, 33rd) is the most competitive economy thanks to a stable macroeconomic context (1st, with 32 other economies) and open markets (68.0, 10th). It is followed by Mexico (48th), Uruguay (54th), and Colombia (57th). Brazil, despite being the most improved economy in the region is 71st; while Venezuela (133rd, down six places) and Haiti (138th) close the regional ranking. The region has made important improvements in many areas, yet it still lags behind in terms of institutional quality (the average regional score is 47.1) and innovation capability (34.3), the two lowest regional performances.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Israel (20th) and the United Arab Emirates (25th) lead the regional ranking, followed by Qatar (29th) and Saudi Arabia (36th); Kuwait is the most improved in the region (46th, up eight) while Iran (99th) and Yemen (140th) lose some ground. The region has caught up significantly on ICT adoption and many countries have built sound infrastructure. Greater investments in human capital, however, are needed to transform the countries in the region into more innovative and creative economies.

Eurasia’s competitiveness ranking sees the Russian Federation (43rd) on top, followed by Kazakhstan (55th) and Azerbaijan (58th), both improving their performance. Focusing on Financial development (52.0), and Innovation capability (35.5) would help the region to achieve a higher competitiveness performance and advance the process towards structural change.

In South Asia,India, in 68th position, loses ground in the rankings despite a relatively stable score, mostly due to faster improvements of several countries previously ranked lower. It is followed by Sri Lanka (the most improved country in the region at 84th), Bangladesh (105th), Nepal (108th) and Pakistan (110th).

Led by Mauritius (52nd), sub-Saharan Africa is overall the least competitive region, with 25 of the 34 economies assessed this year scoring below 50. South Africa, the second most competitive in the region, improves to the 60th position, while Namibia (94th), Rwanda (100th), Uganda (115th) and Guinea (122nd) all improve significantly. Among the other large economies in the region, Kenya (95th) and Nigeria (116th) also improve their performances, but lose some positions, overtaken by faster climbers. On a positive note, of the 25 countries that improved their Health score by two points or more, 14 are from sub-Saharan Africa, making strides to close the gaps in healthy life expectancy.

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The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the (Unwarranted) Pessimism over Jobs

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Ever since homo erectus carved a piece of stone into a tool, the welfare of our species has been on the increase. Indeed, this technological breakthrough led first to the hand axe, and eventually to the iPhone. We have found it convenient to organize the most dramatic period of change between these inventions into four industrial revolutions.

 As each revolution unfolded, dire predictions of massive job losses ensued, increasing with each. The first three are over, and these concerns were clearly misplaced. The number of jobs increased each time, as did living standards and every other social indicator.

McKinsey predicts that 800 million workers could be displaced in 42 countries, or a third of the workforce, because of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). When reminded of the experience with previous revolutions, the comeback is often that this one is different. Although this has been said at the onset of each revolution, could there be something more to it this time?

Disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and 3D printing are indeed transforming social, economic and political systems, often in unpredictable ways. The technology itself is difficult to map because its growth rate could be exponential, factorial or higher. It is this unpredictability that is making impact assessments difficult. Difficult but not impossible.

To begin with, we know that a lot of low-skilled, repetitive jobs are being automated, starting in high wage countries but quickly spreading to the developing world. And not all high-skilled jobs are immune either.

But are there limits? To answer this question, we need to first understand how work has been transformed, especially with global value chains. Jobs now consist of a bundle of tasks, and this is true for all skill levels. As long as one of the multitude of tasks that a worker performs cannot be technically and economically automated, then that job is probably safe. And there are lots of jobs like that, although it may not appear so, on the surface. 

For example, although most tasks performed by waiters can be automated, human interaction is still required. Human hands are also highly complex and scientists have yet to replicate the tactile sensors of animal skin. The robot may deliver your soup, but struggle to place it on your table without spilling it. Apart from what vending machines can dispense, some of the tasks associated with waiting tables will still require humans.

The debate also tends to wrongly focus on gross rather than net jobs, usually unintentionally. But it is the net figure that matters in this debate. 

For instance, greater automation of production processes will require greater supervision and quality control. Humans will be required to carry out this function. The focus on gross ignores the higher skilled jobs created directly as a result of greater automation. 

And as long as the cost of adding more supervisors does not outweigh the savings from automation, the reduction in the price of the final good would spur an increase in demand. If the increase in demand is large enough, it could even expand the number of jobs in factories that automate part, but not all, of their production process. In this case, the automation leads to a net increase in jobs.

There will also be inter-industry effects. Productivity gains from new technology in one industry can lower production costs in others through input–output linkages, contributing to increased demand and employment across industries. Higher demand and more production in one industry raises demand for other industries, and on it goes.

Why then the widespread pessimism about the 4IR and jobs? 

It could be that it is easier to see how existing jobs may be lost to automation than it is to imagine how new ones may emerge sometime in the future. Simply put, seeing is believing. In a sense, this is like the gross versus net confusion, but separated by time and greater uncertainty.

It is also more sensational to highlight the job displacing possibilities than the job creating ones. We also hear more about it because while the benefits are widely dispersed across the general public through lower prices, the costs are concentrated and can displace low-skilled workers, providing greater incentive to organize and lobby against or complain about the costs. 

Furthermore, when there is enough uncertainty, it is generally safer to overstate rather than understate the potential cost to innocent victims of change. All of these factors could combine to explain the unwarranted pessimism over jobs.

But there could be a silver lining to all this negativity. If it leads to greater efforts to reskill and reshape the workforce to better adapt to change, then this is exactly what is required, and there is no overdoing it. Ironically, it could well be this pessimism that produces the preparedness that results in it being misplaced, if not to begin with, but in the end!

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