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Rise in Global Wealth but Inequality Persists

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Global wealth grew significantly over the past two decades but per capita wealth declined or stagnated in more than two dozen countries in various income brackets, says a new World Bank report. Going beyond traditional measures such as GDP, the report uses wealth to monitor countries’ economic progress and sustainability.

The Changing Wealth of Nations 2018 tracks the wealth of 141 countries between 1995 and 2014 by aggregating natural capital (such as forests and minerals), human capital (earnings over a person’s lifetime); produced capital (buildings, infrastructure, etc.) and net foreign assets. Human capital was the largest component of wealth overall while natural capital made up nearly half of wealth in low-income countries, the report found.

“By building and fostering human and natural capital, countries around the world can bolster wealth and grow stronger. The World Bank Group is accelerating its effort to help countries invest more – and more effectively – in their people,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. “There cannot be sustained and reliable development if we don’t consider human capital as the largest component of the wealth of nations.”

The report found that global wealth grew an estimated 66 percent (from $690 trillion to $1,143 trillion in constant 2014 U.S. dollars at market prices). But inequality was substantial, as wealth per capita in high-income OECD countries was 52 times greater than in low-income countries.

A decline in per capita wealth was recorded in several large low-income countries, some carbon-rich countries in the Middle East, and a few high-income OECD countries affected by the 2009 financial crisis. Declining per capita wealth implies that assets critical for generating future income may be depleted, a fact not often reflected in national GDP growth figures.

The report found that more than two dozen low-income countries, where natural capital dominated overall wealth in 1995, moved to middle-income status over the last two decades, in part by investing earnings from natural capital into sectors such as infrastructure, as well as education and health which increase human capital.

While investments in human as well as produced capital are essential, getting rich is not about liquidating natural capital to build other assets, the report notes. Natural capital per person in OECD countries is three times higher than in low-income countries, even though the share of natural capital in total wealth is just 3 percent in OECD countries.

“Growth will be short-term if it is based on depleting natural capital such as forests and fisheries. What our research has shown is that the value of natural capital per person tends to rise with income. This contradicts traditional wisdom that development necessarily entails depletion of natural resources,’’ said Karin Kemper, Senior Director, Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice at The World Bank.

The report estimated that the value of natural capital assets doubled globally between 1995 and 2014. This is due, among other reasons, to increased commodity prices along with a rise in economically-proven reserves. In contrast, productive forest value declined by 9 percent while agricultural land expanded at the cost of forests in many areas.

The latest report, which follows similar World Bank assessments in 2006 and 2011, includes estimates of human capital for the first time. Human capital is measured as the value of earnings over a person’s remaining work life, thereby incorporating the roles of health and education. Women account for less than 40 percent of global human capital because of lower lifetime earnings. Achieving gender equity could increase human capital wealth by 18 percent.

Human capital accounts globally for two thirds of global wealth; produced capital accounts for a quarter of wealth. Natural capital accounts for one tenth of global wealth, but it remains the largest component of wealth in low-income countries (47 percent in 2014) and accounts for more than one-quarter of wealth in lower-middle income countries.

Wealth accounts for countries are compiled from publicly available data drawn from globally recognized data sources and with a methodology that is consistent across all countries. Some wealth components from natural capital were not tracked in the report, including water, fisheries and renewable energy sources.

The report was funded in part by the WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services) partnership and by the Global Partnership for Education.

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COVID-19 crisis highlights widening regional disparities in healthcare and the economy

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The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on people and economies has highlighted widening regional disparities in access to healthcare and economic growth and persistent disparities in digitalisation over the past decade, according to a new OECD report.

Regions and Cities at a Glance 2020 says that at the onset of the pandemic, some regions were less well prepared to face the health emergency. With 10 beds for every 1000 inhabitants, regions close to metropolitan areas have almost twice as many beds as remote regions. Over the last decades, most regions in OECD countries have seen a significant reduction in the number of hospital beds available per inhabitant, with an average decline of 6% since 2000 and of 22% in remote areas.

The health impact of COVID-19 has been particularly hard in some areas within countries. For example, in some regions of Colombia, Italy and Spain, the number of deaths between February and June 2020 was at least 50% higher than the average over the same period in the 2 previous years.

Morbidity rates that make some places more vulnerable to health crises than others also vary widely. In some regions in Mexico, Chile and the United States, close to 40% or more of the population is obese, posing a higher risk in terms of fatal diseases. For example, due to higher obesity levels, in Mississippi the average likelihood to suffer severe symptoms if infected with COVID-19 is roughly 23% higher than in Colorado.

People living in large cities and capitals were also more able to quickly shift to remote working. Many rural areas still suffer from a lack of access to high-speed broadband, a lower share of jobs amenable to remote working and a less well-educated workforce. One in three households in rural areas does not have access to high-speed broadband, on average. Overall, only 7 out of 26 countries have succeeded in ensuring access to high-speed connection to more than 80% of households in rural regions. And in some regions in Italy, Portugal and Turkey, 25% or more of the population does not use the Internet or does not have a computer.

Some regions were also struggling economically before the crisis. After a period of decline in the early 2000s, gaps in GDP per capita across small regions in the OECD area have increased, reflecting a long-standing process of concentration of population and economic activities in metropolitan areas.

The evolution of regional economic disparities remains very heterogeneous across countries. Contrary to the OECD-wide trend, one-half of OECD countries experienced an increase in the gap between their richest and poorest regions. Trends in regional productivity follow similar patterns. Since 2008, only one-third of OECD countries have experienced an increase in productivity in all regions.

With more than 100 indicators, Regions and Cities at a Glance 2020 combines official statistics with new, modelled indicators based on less conventional data sources, analysing trends in health, well-being, economic growth, employment and the environment, as well as regions and cities’ preparedness to face global crises and adapt to megatrends.

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Cash flow the biggest problem facing business during COVID-19 crisis

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A new report  on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic  on businesses shows that their greatest challenges have been insufficient cash flow to maintain staff and operations, supplier disruptions and access to raw materials.

With businesses already undergoing significant competitive pressure prior to the crisis, government restrictions, health challenges and the economic fall-out brought by COVID-19 further set back many enterprises.

Interrupted cash flow was the greatest problem, the survey found. More than 85 per cent reported the pandemic had a high or medium financial impact on their operations. Only a third said they had sufficient funding for recovery. Micro and small enterprises (those with 99 employees or fewer) were worst affected.

The survey, carried out by Employers and Business Membership Organizations (EBMOs), involved more than 4,500 enterprises in 45 countries worldwide. EBMOs gathered data from their enterprise members between March and June 2020. The businesses were asked about operational continuity, financial health, and their workforce.

At that time, 78 per cent of those surveyed reported that they had changed their operations to protect them from COVID-19, but three-quarters were able to continue operating in some form despite measures arising from government restrictions. Eighty-five per cent had already implemented measures to protect staff from the virus.

Nearly 80 per cent said they planned to retain their staff – larger companies were more likely to say this. However, around a quarter reported that they anticipated losing more than 40 per cent of their staff.

Looking into the future, preparing for unforeseen circumstances and mitigating risks associated with a disruption of business operations is needed. Fewer than half the enterprises surveyed had a business continuity plan (BCP) when the pandemic hit, with micro and small businesses the least likely to have made such preparations. Additionally, only 26 per cent of the enterprises who responded said they were fully insured and 54 per cent had no coverage at all. Medium-sized enterprises, (those with 100 to 250 employees), were most likely to have full or partial coverage.

Strengthening government support measures for enterprises are also vital for their recovery. Four out of ten enterprises said they had no funding to support business recovery while two-thirds said funding was insufficient. Of the sectors analysed, the tourism and hospitality sector, followed by retail and sales, were most likely to report funding issues.

The report production was facilitated by EBMOs who collected and shared the survey data with the Bureau for Employers’ Activities  (ACT/EMP) at the International Labour Organization. ACT/EMP is a specialized unit within the ILO Secretariat that maintains close and direct relations with employers’ constituents.

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Lithuania: COVID-19 crisis reinforces the need for reforms to drive growth and reduce inequality

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Effective containment measures, a well-functioning health system and swift public support to firms and households have helped Lithuania to weather the COVID-19 crisis to date. That said, the pandemic still carries significant economic risks, and the recent upsurge in infections is very concerning. Once a recovery is under way, Lithuania should aim to reform public companies, strengthen public finances, and ensure that growth benefits all people and regions, according to a new OECD report. 

The OECD’s latest Economic Survey of Lithuania says that prior to COVID-19, good economic management and an investment-friendly business climate were helping to lift average Lithuanian incomes closer to advanced country levels. While the recession provoked by the virus has been milder than elsewhere – with GDP projected to drop by 2% in 2020 before rebounding by 2.7% in 2021 – Lithuania’s small and open economy will be vulnerable to any prolonged disruption to world trade. Increasing public investment and improving governance at state-owned enterprises could help lift growth and productivity. Other reforms should focus on improving the effectiveness of spending and taxation. Over the longer term, Lithuania should establish a clear debt reduction path and a long-term debt target.

“Lithuania’s sound economic management of recent years, and its swift response to both the health and economic aspects of the pandemic, are helping the country to weather the COVID-19 crisis,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “It is now key to build on these achievements and restart the reform engine to ensure robust, sustainable and inclusive growth for the future.”

The pandemic has exposed high levels of income inequality in Lithuania, where relative poverty is high among the unemployed, the less educated, single parents and older people due to a tax-benefit system that is insufficiently redistributive. The Survey recommends Lithuania to continue providing temporary support to people and businesses hit by COVID-19, as well as to increase regular social support while retaining incentives to work.

In terms of support to the economy, the Survey notes that while Lithuania’s government spending has increased considerably over the past two years, it remains below the OECD average. Public investment also remains low. Given the importance of modernising infrastructure and stimulating crisis-hit demand, the Survey recommends maintaining or increasing current levels of investment and improving investment quality by carrying out rigorous cost-benefit analysis for individual projects. Increasing investment in rural areas, and giving local government more say in tax policy and spending, could help reduce regional disparities and promote inclusive growth.

The Survey also recommends phasing out environmentally damaging fossil fuel subsidies and increasing environmental taxation, which would benefit public finances while helping the shift to a lower-carbon economy.

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