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Narrowed Fiscal Buffers: A Vulnerability in Emerging and Developing Economies

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A decade ago, the worst financial crisis in generations sent shockwaves around the world, forcing many emerging markets and developing economies to tap into hard-won fiscal space to stimulate their economies. Today, much of that fiscal space has been depleted, leaving these economies vulnerable should another economic shock materialize.

“After a long and protracted recovery, economies across the globe are expanding,” said Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Director of Research at the World Bank. “But periodic downturns are an inevitable feature of the global economy, and developing countries should take action now to put themselves on a firmer footing.”

Franziska Ohnsorge, Manager in the World Bank’s Development Prospects Group, addressed the issue of countries’ readiness to cope with an economic shock at a recent Policy Research Talk. Drawing on a new database covering 200 countries, and using 28 indicators over 3 decades, she described how emerging market and developing economies’ fiscal space has evolved.

These indicators show that the fiscal positions of many of these economies have deteriorated in multiple dimensions over the past decade. Government debt has grown steadily since 2007, and as of 2017 stands at over 53 percent of GDP on average. Prior to the global financial crisis, that figure was 46 percent.

This growth in debt has been driven by a reversal from fiscal surpluses prior to the crisis to deficits in every year since 2009. In 2017, EMDEs ran a deficit of about 4 percent of GDP, their biggest since the crisis. Three-quarters of EMDEs are currently adding to their stock of debt—and that is in the absence of a major global shock since 2008-09.

Should they be subject to a shock similar to previous episodes of financial stress, nearly all EMDEs would set their government debt on a rising trajectory, at current spending levels. To maintain constant debt levels in the face of a shock, EMDEs would have to make drastic cuts to government spending, equivalent to 8 percent of GDP on average, Ohnsorge said.

Other aspects of EMDE fiscal positions have also slipped. External debt has been creeping up in recent years, and now exceeds 50 percent of GDP on average in EMDEs. At the same time, sovereign debt ratings have been trending steadily downward since 2011, reflecting growing investor wariness. The average maturity of sovereign debt has likewise been heading downwards since 2009, increasing turnover risk.

“If a crisis were to happen today, government debt would be only slightly smaller compared to the run-up to earlier crises, and deficits would be much wider,” said Ohnsorge. “Are EMDEs ready for the next shock? The data suggest not, at least in some dimensions.”

One bright spot: foreign-currency denominated government debt has held broadly steady as a percentage of all government debt. Exchange rate risk has proven to be a dangerous feature of past crises.

In part, the decline in EMDEs’ fiscal positions has reflected appropriate fiscal policies, Ohnsorge said. In particular, EMDEs switched towards countercyclical fiscal policy during the 2008-09 crisis. In decades prior to that, EMDEs increased government spending during economic expansions and cut spending during recessions. However, that pattern reversed between 2008 and 2014, resulting in negative structural fiscal balances.

Not All Fiscal Stimulus Is Equal

Even more troubling is that fiscal stimulus appears to be less effective when an economy’s fiscal space is narrower. When governments engage in fiscal stimulus to prop up a weak economy, households, investors, and other actors in the economy may respond in ways that dampen the stimulus. Households may cut back on their expenditures in the expectation of future tax hikes, a long-standing idea in economics known as the Ricardian Equivalence Theorem. Investors may become concerned about sovereign credit risk, resulting in an increase in interest rates.

New empirical research conducted by Ohnsorge and her colleagues finds that not only do both households and investors counteract a stimulus in many situations, but the dampening of stimulus is worse where government fiscal space is smaller. In more extreme cases where government debt is high—in excess of 60 percent of GDP—fiscal stimulus could even be counter-productive, resulting in a decline in GDP.

Consequently, the necessity for EMDEs to firm up their fiscal positions before another crisis hits is more urgent than ever. Historical patterns underscore the timeliness of this precaution: the current global expansion has lasted seven years, still short of the post-1960 average of 10 years, but not far off. The current U.S. expansion has lasted 33 quarters, well beyond the post-1960 average of 24 quarters. EMDEs still have time to take action, but the clock is ticking.

World Bank

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Economy

Digital Economy Development in China Shifts the Focus to the Production Side

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Just recently, China’s Central Commission for Comprehensively Deepening Reform reviewed various plans for data system, including a guideline on building the basic systems for data and making better use of data resources. The central government’s layout from the construction of the basic system of data is intended to lay a solid foundation for the further development of the digital economy, in addition to pushing for the development of the data-based data industry to further accumulate resources and driving force. These new changes in the digital economy signify that there is the establishment and improvement of rules in the digital economy of China.

Looking at the content of the guidelines and plans, there are two aspects worth noting, the first is to clarify the ownership and classification of data, and the second is to build a mechanism for data transactions. The clarification of the ownership and the rights and responsibilities is crucial in establishing the legal foundation for data transactions. Of course, the new plan has yet to clarify this, but it does present the hope to develop a system with clear ownership so that the corresponding data transactions can be carried out. Although Shanghai, Beijing, Hainan, and other places have begun the attempt of creating data exchanges and data transactions, in terms of scale and transaction frequency, this is still in the initial trial stage. Researchers at ANBOUND believe that the focus of data resource development and application of digitalization will shift from the consumer side to the production side.

While the new concept provides a framework for the establishment of the data system, it does not mean short-term boost for the development of the data industry or the digital economy can be formed. The future relies on digital technology to generate data, rather than monetize data, and the same is true in other fields. With this, the model of harvesting from online traffic flow by capital and market expansion will face higher and higher business costs and regulatory barriers. Judging from the development trend of the digital economy in China, after the rectification of internet platforms and the country’s domestic 5G network reaching the stage of large-scale popularization, the overall driving force for the development of the digital economy will be weakened.

Statistics reveal that in 2020, the scale of China’s digital economy has reached USD 5.4 trillion, accounting for 38.6% of GDP, maintaining a high growth rate of 9.7% and becoming the key driving force for stable economic growth. Yet, the growth rate still dropped by 5.9 percentage points from the previous year. The downward trend in the growth rate of the digital economy deserves attention. In 2021, the expected growth of the digital economy scale was RMB 42.4 trillion, accounting for 37.06%, a slight decline from the previous year. At the same time, the proportion of China’s digital economy in GDP was 21.4 percentage points lower than that of the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and 5.1 percentage points lower than the global average.

Researchers at ANBOUND pointed out that the main problem that needs to be solved in the future development of China’s digital economy is the ownership of data resources. The main issue being disputed in the country’s traffic economy that is constraining internet platforms is precisely about the right to data usage. In the existing internet platform economy like online consumption, when the market expansion encounters boundaries and the cost of data acquisition is getting higher and higher, internet platforms that rely on their own accumulated customer data are seeking to realize cash in consumption and finance. This has brought a great impact on the current real economy and financial sectors, and is also an important cause of the authority’s rectification of internet platforms. As noted by ANBOUND, clarifying and resolving the matter in regard to the ownership of data resources is becoming a pragmatic issue. As far as data resources are concerned, although there is still some room for development in the medical and financial fields, under the background of the increasingly perfect anti-monopoly system and the continuous improvement of supervision, the traffic economy is now being constrained and restricted. This signifies that the space for the application and development of the existing large amount of data resources based on consumer data will be constrained on the consumer end.

From the overall trend, when the internet platform is constrained and the traffic economy encounters incremental bottlenecks, the development of digital industrialization dominated by terminal digital consumption will face difficulties in transformation after going through a stage of rapid growth. Looking at the data industry, on the one hand, strengthening supervision means that the Big Data resources, mainly consumer data, also face institutional obstacles to further development and “diversion”. The development of digital industrialization not only faces the obstacles of insufficient digital infrastructure, but also requires technological breakthroughs in its industrialization development itself. In addition, the production side also faces the basic hurdle of lack of a large amount of production data. Therefore, in the new growth space of the digital economy, the demand for large amounts of data on the production side will be the key driving force for building a basic data system and establishing a data transaction mechanism.

The central and western regions of China are building data centers to meet the current and future needs for large amounts of data storage. However, the application of these data and the development of data resources not only face basic systemic problems, but also lack the development of data application fields. In Guiyang, known for its development of the Big Data industry, the focus is chiefly on storage, and the Big Data investment projects there are mainly on the data centers. To mine data resources, it is not only necessary to realize the accumulation and mining of data, this also requires the support of technology and industry to realize the appreciation of data through digital technology. However, the weak real economy and lack of data development capabilities have become the biggest shortcoming of Guiyang’s development. This makes its data industry generally at the middle and low end of the value chain, and its core competitiveness is rather weak. If the Big Data industry in various places wishes to assume further roles, it still needs the upgrading and integrated development of basic industries. The future development of the data industry depends on the accumulation, application, and development of a large amount of production data. This also means that the future focus of the development of the digital economy begins to shift from the consumer side to the production side.

Final analysis conclusion:

The Central Commission for Comprehensively Deepening Reform’s conception of the construction of data infrastructure means that it will solve the fuzzy area of data ownership and further realize the tradability and transfer of data. This provides an institutional and market foundation for large-scale data development. The digital industrialization of the consumer side, as things stand, has come to an end, where the growth focus of the digital economy will shift to the production side.

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Economy

Economic Sanctions As An Act Of War

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The outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war in 2022 saw the imposition of one of the most comprehensive international economic sanctions on any country in history. These sanctions were expressly aimed to damage the Russian economy, pressure its population and force its leaders to cease hostilities against Ukraine. These measures caused a run on banks, an economic recession and sky-high inflation in Russia. In response, Russia imposed retaliatory sanctions of its own and, described the Western sanctions as an ‘Act of War’. North Korea had raised a similar contention in 2017 in response to similar sanctions.  This author seeks to focus on and examine this claim on its merits and normative value in International Law.

I argue that, from an effects-based perspective, comprehensive and long-term economic sanctions should be regarded as an ‘Act of War’. In a globalised world, economic sanctions can have a disproportionate and indiscriminate effect on a nation’s populace, comparable to that of a direct military intervention in the form of a blockade. The decision to impose economic sanctions should thus ideally be regarded as such and be subjected to the same level of scrutiny and qualifications such as what the case for an armed intervention to be legitimate in modern International Law. A calibrated standard to determine a ‘legal’ economic sanction not amounting to an act of war, will allow for proportionate use of sanctions, to minimise their human costs and respect the rights of economically weaker states.

Economic Sanctions in International Law

The term ‘sanction’ in international law refers to a peaceful action, usually responding to a breach of an international law principle and aiming to economically constrain a target state, entity or individual , imposed by a state or authority with the legal capacity to do so.  Sanctions may be comprehensive, such as completely prohibiting commercial activity with an entire country, or they may be targeted, blocking specific types of transactions, with specific entities or individuals.

Sanctions act as tools of coercion aimed to cause popular dissatisfaction and create pressure on a country’s leadership to change its foreign policies. Importantly, sanctions imposed by major powers such as the US and EU, include ‘Secondary Sanctions’. Such sanctions extend similar trade restrictions to any other third country which continues to deal in the restricted trade with the target country. Secondary sanctions reduce the alternative trade partners for a target country and magnify the effects of sanctions.

The UN Charter itself, in Art. 41, mentions the use of economic sanctions as a measure by the Security Council to give effect to its decisions. It clearly treats it as a separate, less egregious measure then the use of armed force provided for in Art.42. ‘Blockades’ are also mentioned separately as within the scope of use of armed force by the Security Council.

The UN framework does not provide the only legal basis for states to impose economic sanctions, as states are relatively free in customary international law to adopt unilateral sanctions against states, entities and individuals. Various regional treaties also allow for use of collective economic sanctions.

It is also important to acknowledge a long-running movement in the UN to delegitimatize use of unilateral economic measures as a method of coercion, recognising that such measures significantly disadvantage developing countries in particular. This movement has manifested itself in form of various General Assembly resolutions such as Resolution 2131, ‘Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty’, 1965; Resolution 2625 (XXV), ‘Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations’, 1970;   

However, such resolutions are non-binding in nature. As it stands, a strict reading of the UN Charter and associated international legal instruments, does not per se allow for regarding economic sanctions as an act of war, as will be elaborated below.

Economic Sanctions as an ‘Act of War’

Defining ‘Act of War’

Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits all UN members from resorting to the threat or use of force, against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State. However, Art. 51 allows for use of force authorised by the UN Security Council, or in the exercise of the rights of individual or collective self-defence. The word “force” in this context was initially generally understood to refer only to military force. “Acts of War” are thus restricted by international law. General Assembly Resolution 3314, passed in 1974, also sought to define ‘acts of aggression’, but excluded ‘economic aggression’ from the ambit of the resolution.

Comparison to Blockade

The closest ‘act of war’ that may be ‘analogous’ to a comprehensive economic sanction may be the act of a ‘blockade’. A ‘blockade’ is an act of war which involves restricting ships or aircrafts of some or all nations from entering or existing specific ports or coastal areas of a target country, by the threat or use of armed force. Such an act aims to degrade a country’s economy and affect its populace by preventing trade and movement of essential goods. It is included as an act of aggression in Resolution 3314 and also mentioned in Art. 42 of the UN Charter as a type of armed force that may be used by the Security Council.

A sanctioning country uses legal barriers to restrict its trade with a target country and also usually uses its economic heft to dissuade other countries from trading with a target country, by threatening to sanction them too. The question that arises is that how is this situation, from an effects-based perspective, different from a comprehensive economic sanction?  If the net result is the same, that the country’s trade is restricted and its populace is deprived of essential goods, why should only a physical blockade be regarded as an act of war and be subject to stricter scrutiny. This similarity of effects can be proved empirically using historical instances of comprehensive sanctions.

Comprehensive economic sanctions cut off a country from the global financial system, block foreign investment and remittances, cause loss of employment in export industries, causes shortage of essential import goods and high-end technology, which has ripple effects on the economy and popular welfare. These effects are particular amplified for a smaller, developing country which is less likely to be self-sufficient in essential goods.

Various case studies by Prof. Joy Gordon of use of sanctions in Iran, Iraq, and Cuba, demonstrate the damaging effects of sanctions on a country’s economy and tangible loss of life and popular welfare, easily comparable to a devastating armed conflict. For instance, the sanctions regime in Iraq resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 civilians, exceeding the casualties in the Gulf War that followed. The sanctions had included restrictions on import of food grains and import of essential ‘dual use’ goods such as fertilizers for agriculture and chlorine for water purification, which resulted in a famine, epidemic and rise in infant mortality.

Addressing Counter-Arguments

Exercise of State Sovereignty

The first probable argument against treating economic sanctions as an act of war, would be based on state sovereignty, namely the right of a state to dictate its own trade policy. This principle was affirmed in Republic of Nicaragua v. The United States of America, 1986 I.C.J. 14, with specific reference to trade relations— that in the absence of a treaty commitment or other specific legal obligation, a state is not bound to continue particular trade relations longer than it sees fit to do so. States may thus argue that they have the right to choose their trade partners and treating these decisions as an act of war, would make them contingent to UNSC approval and abrogate their economic independence. 

However, state sovereignty is not an absolute principle, especially when pitted against humanitarian interests and interests of other states. The above argument may be addressed by a more careful calibration of standards on what kind of sanctions may amount to an act of war. A probable standard could be considering only those comprehensive economic sanctions which are imposed on essential goods, a shortage of which endanger the basic human rights (such as those to food, clean water, medication etc) of the citizens of the recipient state. This would amount to a reasonable restriction on the right of a trade of a sovereign country, namely that it should not wilfully endanger the essential rights of civilians of another country.

It is also essential to note that the existing regime of economic sanctions can also be differently viewed as a restriction on state sovereignty, as countries with disproportionate economic power are able to use ‘secondary sanctions’ to force other states to comply with sanctions on a target country. This also derogates sovereignty of other states by limiting their trade with a target country.

Economic Sanctions as a ‘Soft Tool’

It may also be argued that treating economic sanctions may deprive countries of an essential ‘soft’ tool to influence ‘rogue’ states and uphold the international legal order, without crossing the threshold of armed conflict.

However, a calibrated standard, as described above, would not completely preclude the use of economic sanctions. Countries may continue to use targeted economic sanctions against the political and economic leadership of a rogue state such as restricting their movement, seizing their overseas assets and crippling their businesses to exert pressure. Military and non-essential goods may continue to be restricted completely. In fact, recent studies have demonstrated the comparative effectiveness of targeted sanctions to influence state policy, as compared to general sanctions, with reduced human cost on the powerless sections of the society of the target country.

Moreover, even in this proposed model, comprehensive economic sanctions may be employed, if necessary, with the approval of the UN Security Council, which still has the authority to exercise use of force, under the UN Charter.

Conclusion

In summary, it is clear from an effects-based perspective, that comprehensive economic sanctions are comparable to direct military intervention such as a blockade.  Economic sanctions should thus be brought into the ambit of an act of war, and international legal safeguards on use of force should be applied.

A calibrated standard to determine a ‘legal’ economic sanction not amounting to an act of war, would allow the use of sanctions in a regulated, proportionate manner, to minimise their human costs and respect the rights of economically weaker states.

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Yen Becomes the Next Eye of the Storm in the International Capital Market

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With the recent acceleration of interest rate hikes of the Federal Reserve, the yen is under increasing pressure while the U.S. dollar index remains high. This, in turn, causes the Japanese currency to show a trend of continuous depreciation. The exchange rate of the yen against the U.S. dollar broke through the key node of JPY 135, reaching a high of JPY 136 on June 21. On June 23, USD/JPY continued to hover around a 24-year high of 136. Earlier this week, at one point, the exchange rate of the dollar against the yen reached the highest since October 1998 to JPY 136.70.

Since the beginning of this year, the yen has depreciated by more than 18% against the dollar, and its depreciation rate ranks among the top among the G10 countries. The changes brought about by the devaluation of the yen have greatly changed its role as a traditional safe-haven currency, and it has increasingly become the center of focus for speculation.

With the continuous depreciation of the yen, Japanese government bonds have also shown a gradual downward trend, and have repeatedly exceeded the 0.25% yield ceiling of the Bank of Japan (BOJ)’s yield curve control (YCC). Although the BOJ has repeatedly increased its purchases to maintain the yield of the bonds, this is still insufficient to help the currency exchange rate at the same time. Consequently, the current speculative attack on the yen and Japanese government bonds has become an opportunity that hedge funds are keen on. Indeed, the market has been paying attention to such speculation on the BOJ in the bond market. Although the central bank has implemented the strategy of unlimited purchases of Japanese government bonds since March to drive down long-term interest rates, the market is still skeptical that it can hold the bottom line, hence the commencement of the so-called “widow-maker”.

The main reason for such a situation is the widening of the monetary policy gap between the United States and the BOJ. As the Fed began to tighten monetary policy, simultaneously raising interest rates and shrinking its balance sheet, the BOJ still adhered to the quantitative easing policy, which is one of the “three arrows” of Abenomics. On the one hand, it maintains negative interest rates, and on the other hand, it continues to inject yen liquidity into the market by purchasing yen assets. However, with the recent rise in global inflation, Japan’s inflation has achieved the 2% target that has been difficult to achieve for many years. In April this year, Japan’s inflation rate reached 2%, with the core inflation rate being 2.1%. Driven by the depreciation of the yen and rising international energy prices, the country’s inflation may reach 2.5% in May, and the core inflation will remain at the level of 2.1%. This is arguably the achievement of the BOJ’s policy goals for many years. However, the achievement of this target is largely dependent on the depreciation of the Japanese currency, rather than the increase in demand. Under the pressure of inflationary pressure brought about by the depreciation of the yen and the rising yield of Japanese government bonds, whether the BOJ can adjust its policy and whether it can maintain the strategy of yield curve control is the key concern for the market institutions. Some analysts believe that when other central banks abroad are making a choice between economic growth and controlling inflation, the BOJ has to face a choice between the yen and Japanese bonds.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda have both stated that they do not want the sharp depreciation of the yen to continue and will pay attention to the trend of the foreign exchange market. That being said, there is no perceivable specific action to intervene in the market, and the market could very well let the yen depreciate. The depreciation of the yen has always been considered positive for the Japanese economy and its stock market, while Abenomics also saw it as a key means to boost inflation and stimulate the economy. Nonetheless, many institutions and scholars have repeatedly pointed out that the situation this year has been very different from the beginning of Abenomics. The damage to the Japanese economy caused by inflation and the depreciation of the yen is far greater than the gain. In the past two years, both the Japanese economy and the Nikkei have been “decoupling” from the trend of the yen. Economist Nouriel Roubini, touted as “Dr. Doom”, recently warned that if the yen exchange rate falls further to 140, it will bring serious inflation problems to the BOJ, and the central bank will be forced to make policy adjustments, abandoning aggressive monetary policies such as zero interest rates and YCC. This means that the BOJ’s policy shift has come under increasing pressure, and is being anticipated and bet on by more and more markets. This has turned the yen from a safe-haven currency to the eye of the storm, so to speak, in the current market game.

Yet, if the Japanese central bank abandons the quantitative easing policy that has been implemented for years, there will also be huge impact on the market. Some analysts opine that the YCC of the BOJ is the last anchor of the old global yield curve structure that utilizes arbitrage conditions, as well as the liquidity of the dollar and yen. If this is dismantled, the impact will be global, and it will place even more pressure on bond yields in the United States, Europe, and Asia. On the Asian side, the South Korean won, the Philippine peso, the Hong Kong dollar, and the Chinese yuan are also under pressure from rising bond yields and currency depreciation. If the BOJ’s policy changes, the consequences will be so terrifying that it may very well be the last straw to bringing down the global capital market.

Final analysis conclusion:

With the widening policy differences between the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan, as well as with the rising inflation in Japan, the yen continues to depreciate. This has turned it from a traditionally safe-haven currency into the eye of the storm within the international capital market. The game between the market and the BOJ has caused the Japanese central bank’s future policy choice to become a global focus. Regardless of what the outcome might be, it will certainly have a huge impact on the market.

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