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US-China trade war? Not likely

Payman Yazdani

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Commenting on recent the US and China tit-for-tat tariff disputes, Prof. Larry Backer says that the deep structures of economic integration cannot be undone by a series of shocks with offers of renegotiation.

As the US and China ratchet up a tit-for-tat tariff dispute, it has been said often in the last few weeks that no one wins a trade war.

The issue was discussed with Larry Backer, Professor of Law and International Affairs in Penn State University.

How will President Trump’s decision to boost tariffs impact US domestic steel and aluminum producers?

My apologies, the answer to this question will be the longest of this interview precisely because the simplest questions may pose the subtlest problems. In contrast to many experts, and others, who might be eager to provide a simple and direct answer to this simple and direct question, I can only offer complexity and contingency. At the greatest level of generalization, it is not clear, even to experts and policymakers, whether the tariff boost will have a positive or negative effect. Steel and aluminum production are now part of integrated production chains only a portion of which concerns steel and aluminum production. The idea appears to be that the tariffs will protect US based steel and aluminum production by making the import of like products more expensive—and thus US producers will substitute domestic production over foreign. That may well work for domestic production and consumption but may not work for domestic production for export—especially where other states match the tariff to equalize pricing (and reduce the foreign subsidy) that the tariff represents. And yet domestic production and consumption is an important element of US macro-economic policy and may produce positive short-term effects in terms of domestic investment and employment.

Yet the tariff discussion must also be understood within a more complex context produced by the deep embedding within global production and ownership chains. The key here is that there is no identity between the location of production (in this case steel and aluminum production) and the nationality of ownership (that is, the “citizenship” of the apex enterprise that owns or controls the steel or aluminum production chain with respect to which production might be located in any number of states). It has been reported, for example, that some US companies may be negatively affected because they are subsidiaries of foreign enterprises from which, for example they receive steel for finishing and then export. And the effect will have little to do with the nationality of the owners of steel production. Consider the irony of these tariffs if, as a result, foreign owned enterprises establish factories in the US for steel production, boosting US production while repatriating the profits of that enterprise back to the home states of parent company. That insight, in turn, produces some variations in the answer to the question you posed.

Larry Backer

First, even if the tariffs have an effect (positive or negative), it is not clear that the extent of that effect will be large. Again, the issue of tariffs can only be viewed in a vacuum within the cloistered towers of those who find such detached analysis useful for purposes of advancing policy without relation to real world effects. Thus, the amplitude of the effect may be difficult to distill apart from the ecology within which tariffs may have both direct and indirect effects.  This provides an opportunity to seek to distill effects using a variety of techniques all of which will be dependent of a set of assumptions and approaches that might well skew the results in ways that serve objectives. These effects, of course, are further complicated by the distinction between the effects on domestic production (an objective of the tariffs, of course) and the effects of the nationality of the benefits of this production. It is not clear how one deals with the situation where domestic production increases (and increases local economies) while the profits of that production are repatriated elsewhere.

Second, even if there is significant effect, it is not clear whether the effect will be generally felt or will affect different parts of the country, and different industrial sectors differently. To speak of the effects of the tariff boost generally produces an answer that aggregates effect. But aggregated effects only serve political interests, it does not reflect the reality within a large country like ours.  It is much more likely that the effects will be felt differently, positively and negatively in different parts of the country and with respect to different industries and companies. Yet that might well have been the point—to ensure a targeted boost to economic activity within specific portions of the US with the hope that this boost in activity will then have indirect effect over a broader area.

Third, the answer to the question must take into account the time horizons for change and the sectors with respect to which differing time horizons might matter. Thus, for example, to the extent that the tariff is meant to foster greater steel and aluminum production, that effect will take years to be felt in terms of actual significant increases in production. Also important here is the question whether that production can be sustained. Tariffs as subsidies may have an immediate effect on decisions to invest in production (and hire labor to aid in its production), but eventually the sector and the heightened production will have to be economically viable—especially since over the middle and long term global consumers and producers may adjust their activities to take the tariffs into account.

Fourth, on the other hand, the immediate effects of the tariffs have already been felt—not in the changes to the location of steel and aluminum production (inside or outside the US), but in the reactions of financial markets, lenders, political leaders and the like. And perhaps that is the most telling part of tariff policy in the contemporary age—tariffs appear to have greater effects on global finance than on global production, on the allocation or distribution of the placement of portions of the production of commodities (in the long term), and on its value in mobilizing mass opinion to some political end or other. In that respect, tariffs may not pose the same problems that they produced a century ago in the European inter-War period. Globalization has substantially reduced the power of tariffs precisely because the borders necessary to make them effective have been substantially eroded—and it is unlikely that they will be reconstructed in the manner of 1920s thinking.

Fifth, the impact will vary from the short to the long term. Most people may be tempted to consider the question in light of immediate or short-term impact. Indeed, global analytics have tended to increasingly favor short term thinking and reaction rather than long term or strategic responses or adjustment. And the short-term impact—politically—will be significant. One sees that already as the “usual suspects” have already aligned themselves and their media outlets to amplify their support or opposition to the tariffs, and to begin to seek to mobilize mass opinion to some end or other. Yet it is the long term strategic adjustments that are far more important and most likely to be missed by a media and analytic culture with a short attention span.

How will it actually impact the aluminum and steel industries globally then?

There are two answers here. The direct answer is that impact will be a function of the way industry and states respond. Industry might be able to avoid the effects of the tariff by strategic shifting of the operations of their global production chains to minimize the effects of the tariffs—but such adjustments might take time. States, on the other hand, are less flexible. They will either support their own industries or risk losing them. If they do not reciprocate tariffs, they might be induced to apply enough support to their industries to wash out the price effects of tariffs. The indirect answer, however, may be more important. The impact to states and enterprises will depend on the ability of both to mitigate the effects of tariffs through changes in the ownership of the producers of tariffed goods. Thus, for example, if Chinese enterprises own or can acquire (direct or indirectly) steel and aluminum production facilities in the US, the net effect of the tariff will be small. Over the long term, and in the absence of waivers from tariff, there may be a gradual shift of production—but not necessarily to the US Instead the shift may move production to other states which have successfully negotiated tariff waivers.

You’ve mentioned some of the beneficiaries behind his decision are their other internal or external beneficiaries in addition to the companies in America, or is it just wholly these American companies who are going to benefit from this decision?

What is an American company today? The notion of national companies is now essentially obsolete in a context in which most economic activity is connected to global flows of production. Companies of a variety of nationalities are organized to manage and participate in global production (in steel and aluminum and other products). The economic enterprise that tends to manage or control the process of production and the role of other enterprises within that production process tends to be characterized as the representative or incarnation of a multinational enterprise, and to lend its nationality to that system of global production. But realistically, that represents an oversimplification of the realities of production. Thus, American apex companies may benefit from the tariffs.

On the other hand, US apex companies who have invested heavily in steel and aluminum production enterprises outside the US may suffer. Conversely, a Russian or Chinese enterprise that owned steel or aluminum production facilities in the US might profit significantly from the tariffs.  Because of this quite large divide between the nationality of the place of production and the nationality of the ownership of production (up the production chain) it is difficult in many cases to point to a generalizable nationality for winners and losers.  And that is the great insight of this effort—states can control generally the production of things within their territory and use their borders to exact a cost of entry (or exit).  But that control of the consequences of production within or outside a state has absolutely nothing to say about the nationality for the beneficiaries of these policies.  If all steel production abroad is owned by US companies, then steel import tariffs would affect US companies negatively because it adds costs to their global allocation of the elements of their production chains.

How much will this decision to increase tariffs affect countries like China, Japan and South Korea then?

There are two questions here.  The first deals with reciprocal tariffs. This is a simple one—if the US raises tariffs on aluminum and steel, then other countries would seek to do the same on US steel and aluminum. Yet the impact on the US may be negligible if it is a net importer of these products. And thus, more effective may be what I might call retaliatory tariffs. Thus, if the US imposes tariffs on steel and aluminum that affects national industries elsewhere, those states might impose duties on US agricultural products or some other product in a sector where US exports are large. But in a global economy that might only produce short term pain, as those in control of production chains can, at some cost, realign their trade routes in ways that might soften the blows of tariffs. And again, where one thinks only of short term effect, one misses the essential element of a more benign long-term effect within a global context in which capital and investment still moves fairly freely. And, indeed, rather than approach the imposition of tariffs with retaliatory tariffs, China, Japan and Korea would be better off buying US: steel manufacturers, increasing production of un-tariffed steel and then exporting that commodity for finishing in their own home states.

How likely is the European Union to retaliate by imposing tariffs on US products?

This is an excellent question.  While the initial emotional response, one fanned by the global media, might have tilted toward retaliatory tariffs on vulnerable US products, that course may not be followed once tempers are calmed.  The principle reason for this is that the Trump Administration has made it clear that it would entertain bilateral negotiations on waivers of tariffs.  This is not a small matter.  Indeed, one can see in this Tariff imposition-negotiated waiver approach an essential feature of the Trump Administration’s movement away from its old approach of globalized system building multilateralism to the new America First Initiative. Thus, consider the dynamics of the tariff imposition in context.  The United States has commenced building its own trade network in a manner that links up with the US enterprise’s management or control of certain production chains.

That requires a reorienting of trade relations from a multilateral form without a center to an aggregated bilateral form with the US at the center.  To effect this reorientation of the foundations of trade the US must first re-center its position in global trade networks (not all of them but those of vital interest or with respect to which there is an ambition). To that end, certain shocks are necessary. These include withdrawal form multilateral agreements (including Paris and TPP) and the disruption of old free trade alignments. But mere withdrawal does not produce re-centering—the offer to renegotiate the terms of bilateral relations (and in the process restore relations or waive action) is the driving element of realignment. At the end of the process, if carried out systematically and with a clear long term vision, the US might well produce a trading system that looks substantially the same as the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative. If that is the case, then the future of global trade is not manifested in tariffs, but through these tariff and other shocks, a new global trade system, built around control of production chains, will emerge in which most roads lead either to Washington, or to Beijing.

Will Mr. Trump’s acts result in a trade war between the US and world’s other economic powers? What can be the consequences of such possible war for world?

No trade war is likely. The deep structures of economic integration cannot be undone by a series of shocks with offers of renegotiation. And trade war does not seem to be the intent (though one must disregard certain of the President’s tweets to acquire assurance on that point). And America First Initiative is not the same as the isolationist policies adopted from near the end of the 1920s—it is rather the reverse, the effort to encourage muscular expansion but now oriented from key home states, rather than by building a community of similarly situated actors all competing in the global markets for engagement with portions of emerging production chains. And indeed, while the ineptitude of national leaders might, through comedies of errors and personal vanity, move key states toward trade wars, the result would not further state power. Trade wars are particularly dangerous in contemporary politics precisely because they would produce two types of instability. First, trade wars would produce instability among the lower reaches of production chains. Those states would suffer substantial impacts in employment that would lead to political unrest, and more likely substantial migration that would then destabilize neighbors and eventually the apex states to which migration will flow, particularly in the West. Second, trade wars would destabilize apex nations as well. The stability of the political orders in the United States and China depend in large part on the fulfillment of a promise of a baseline economic prosperity. Where that disappears then both states might well be subject to the vagaries of populism which, though it might not overthrow either’s system in a formal sense, would substantially corrupt them.

The US and the Europeans cooperation after world war was based on trade, security and military regimes like NATO. Don’t you think possible trade war between the US and Europe can spill over other security and military fields, too?

I agree, of course, that a trade war would spill over to other vectors of state to state relations. But only suicidal states and mad leaders without substantial popular or institutional checks, could possibly move the US-EU relationship dangerously in that direction. The US and its European allies have had tiffs and have made grand gestures of disapproval against each other with some regularity since the 1960s. One need only remember the antics of Charles De Gaulle (quite effective both within Europe and in the effect on NATO relations). And in any case, the bad behavior of states on the periphery of the US-EU “entente” may ensure the strength of the core alliance militarily and work against economic policy foolishness.

Rising of rightist in Europe is a threat to the future of the EU and from the other side this can result in more independent trade relation without the EU considerations. Considering this fact how do you see the future of EU?

Many people fear the ghosts of the past, and even more people believe that it is important to fight past battles over and over.  But like the analogy with the trade wars of the 1920s, analogies with the rise of fascist movements in Europe in the 1930s may be misapplied in this case. Yes, indeed, the ultra-right movements have risen again after several generations of muscular suppression in Europe, and ridicule (effective) in the US But that suppression, in part, might well have contributed to the re-emergence of the virus of right wing extremism in the face of a largely unchecked left wing extremism that has tended to be the darling of the political and intellectual sets in the US and Europe since the great social rebellions of 1968.

That cultural moment plays differently in Eastern Europe, of course, and produces a return to the comforts of authoritarian nationalism that can easily be characterized as either left or right to suit the agenda of the commentator. At some point balance must be restored, of course, or the EU will flounder. And that may be likely in the medium term. For the moment, however, the rise of rightists as against an unchecked culture of leftism may produce the sort of instability that marked the early Weimar Republic. But at its base, the EU is suffering a version of 2nd generation malaise. The rising elite never experienced the trauma that produced European solidarity in the face of a half century during which Europe virtually committed suicide. They do not know hunger, and fear, nor do they worry about the penetration of larger powers to undermine their own autonomy and independence (those are worries left for the detritus of empire). And thus, they can indulge the privilege of dismissing the institutional structures on which their own prosperity and security are based. To that end, indeed, it is not the rise of the right, but the effects of ennui, that may have a substantial deleterious effect on the solidity of the EU.

The US also recently imposed tariffs and other measures against the People’s Republic of China.  Do you see the possibility of a trade war or more adversarial relations between the US and China with respect to trade issues?

I would suggest that the recent and very quick tariff exchange between the United States and the People’s Republic of China illustrates the character of these tariff moves by the Trump Administration and the way that they have been received once governments finish producing the appropriate responses required for public consumption by their internal and external audiences. Consider what happened when in mid-March 2018 President Trump moved to levy tariffs on up to $60 billion of Chinese imports, in addition to those imposed on solar panels, steel and aluminum. Initially, the Chinese reacted aggressively and publicly in the expected way, utilizing all of their networks to aid in that effort. The Chinese indicated an intention to levy tariffs on about $3 billion of US imports, including soybeans or aircraft, major trade goods.

The effect was immediate—global financial markets fell dramatically over the course of a week. Yet, after the necessary public drama, one discovered that the tariffs imposed on both sides appeared to serve as an invitation for both the US and China to begin to renegotiate their trade relations. The Americans sent a letter indicating the changes that they sought in the wake of the tariff impositions, with an emphasis on trade and intellectual property issues, including what for the US amounted to coercive technology and know-how transfer rules. Premier Li Keqiang spoke publicly about the need for China and the United States to continue negotiations and reiterated pledges to better open their internal markets and perhaps to target purchases of specified US goods. Negotiations continue.

When news leaked of those steps, global markets responded appropriately. And thus one can begin to see the contours of the way in which tariffs have become an instrument rather than the objective of trade policy. The US may now use tariffs as a critically important tool in the reframing of US trade policy in the form of the “America First” Initiative. The object is not to destroy trade—the US President and his advisors have been very clear about that (it is only that people have chosen not to listen)—but to reframe the basis of the global trading system from the forms that emerged after the 2nd World War to a new form whose characteristics will be shaped both by the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative and its American counterpart, the “America First” Initiative.

It was the Iranian leadership itself which almost a decade ago pointed to the end of the post-World War II era and its structures.  Few paid attention at the time.  That was a pity. For it seems that in retrospect they were correct and that the global community will continue to see manifestations of the new system emerge as the first order powers realign their visions, reach accommodations with each other and reorder the hierarchies of power and production for the first part of this century.

First published in our partner Mehr News Agency

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WTO’s ‘Crown Jewel’ Under Existential Crisis: Problem Explained

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World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international body that acts as a watchdog keeping an eye on the rules of trade between nations. WTO came into operation in 1995 and was founded as a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was incorporated in 1948. It acts as a forum where WTO members discuss and negotiate trade issues. Moreover, it works in the form of different multilateral as well as plurilateral WTO agreements. These agreements live at the heart of WTO as they deal with different aspects of trade policy.  Agreements like General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs; General Agreement on Trade in Services; The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights etc. forms the centerpiece of WTO.  Through these agreements, one WTO member enters into obligations and formulates the relation of reciprocity with the other WTO member.

Undeniably, the Dispute Settlement System (DSS) that works under the WTO is considered to be the ‘crown jewel’. No matter how stringent the laws are, unless they couldn’t be enforced, they are of not much worth. DSS functions as an effective mechanism to settle disputes and to enforce obligations in case of violation by any WTO member.  The ration d’etre of giving birth to DSS was to ensure settlement of disputes in a timely and structured manner.  DSS is committed to impede and further mitigate trade imbalances between stronger and weaker players by having their disputes to be settled on the verge of rules and not power. Since the day it came into force in 1995, 595 disputes have been brought before the DSS and out of which 350+ disputes are settled.

DSS is governed by the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) through the rules incorporated in Disputes Settlement Understanding (DSU).  The DSS works as a two-tier redressal forum and is the most important and busiest international tribunal having a binding authority on the parties to the dispute once they adopt the report of findings. On the first level comes the Consultation as per Article 4 of the DSU rules. Article 4 states that “each WTO member undertakes to accord sympathetic consideration to and afford adequate opportunity for consultation regarding any representations made by another Member concerning measures affecting the operation of any covered agreement taken within the territory of the former.” Therefore, Consultation is mandatory before any dispute is addressed to DSB. Once the consultation is failed, the complaining party can request the DSB under Article 6 for the establishment of a panel body that shall aim to settle the disputes between the parties.

On the top of the hierarchy comes the appellate body which shall hear the appeal from panel cases. Any party to the dispute can formally notify DSB of its decision to appeal. Under Article 17 of the DSU rules, DSB shall establish a standing appellate body. Unlike the Panel body, the appellate body is a permanent body composed of seven persons out of which three shall serve on any one case. These members are appointed for a term of four years. It is the duty of DSB to ensure that the vacancies shall be filled as they arise so as to confirm the smooth and timely functioning of the hierarchical mechanism of dispute redressal. Principally, the decision under DSB is taken through consensus methodology. Article 2.4 of DSU explains this method stating that “the consensus is said to be achieved when no WTO member, present at the meeting, formally opposes to the proposed decision”.

The genesis of the crisis is attributable to the U.S. who through its non-consensus has blocked the selection procedure to fill the vacancies alarming in the Appellate Body. The minimum requirement for Appellate Body to function is at least three persons out of total strength of seven. However, on 11th December 2019, the term of two of the remaining three members came to an end. At present, the Appellate Body has only one member and thus, it is dysfunctional and the resolution mechanism has brought to a grinding halt. The political façade started long back in 2017 when the U.S. cleared its intention of not allowing the selection procedure to taken place in order to fill the vacancies in the Appellate Body. Nonetheless, the Appellate Body continued its function as the compositional requirement was manageable due to the tenure of three of its members remaining but ultimately the crisis knocked the doors of WTO in the last month of 2019.

Although, at present, the composition of the Panel Body has not been interjected and the process of addressing disputes through Panel Body is still in continuance. However, the problem is as per the trends, in 67 percent of the cases, one of the parties to the dispute appeals the finding of the panel body and thus; when the Appellate Body is itself dysfunctional, the order remains non-binding and the whole mechanism of the dispute resolution is disrupted severing the gravity of the political disaster. The reasons for the U.S. to block the normal functioning of the Appellate Body have been shared with other countries as well. Fortunately, no other country has repelled in the way the U.S. is exclaiming to address the loopholes. The dissatisfaction of the U.S. administration with the WTO is not a secret anymore when Mr. Donald Trump labeled the WTO as ‘disaster’ for their nation.

The reason for the U.S. to express dissatisfaction is because of the overreaching power that Appellate Body enjoys. To combat that, on a lighter note, the U.S. has shown a preference of going back to the non-binding dispute settlement system that was prevalent at the time of GATT, 1948. Ironically, it was the U.S. who during the Uruguay round of negotiations (1986-1994) pressured and voted for creating a dispute redressal system that is binding and enforceable, however as the tables have turned now and the Appellate Body has become an irksome affair for the U.S.

The central issue of the U.S. to cordon the appointment revolves around the problem ofjudicial overreach.  To elaborate the claim, the U.S. believes that the dispute settlement system interprets the WTO rules in such a way that instead of simplifying, it rather creates new obligations for the WTO members. What the U.S. believes is that the Appellate Body drifts away from its original mandate due to its practice of issuing decisions that either burden the WTO members with new obligations or diminishes the right they enjoyed earlier.

Further, the U.S. has raised the objections against the procedural irregularities by the Appellate Body. Entangling the issues of the procedure, firstly, the U.S.has pointed out the contradiction of the DSU rules adopted by the WTO members and the Appellate Body Working procedure which are drawn up by the Appellate Body itself. As per the Rule 15 of the latter, it allows the Appellate Body members to remain on board and to continue to serve on appeals which are pending during their terms; however, as per Article 17.9 of the former, a member enjoys the position for a fixed four-year term. Thus, the Appellate Body working procedures violate the provisional requirement as laid down in DSU rules.

The second procedural issue raised by the U.S. deals with the violation of completing the report by Appellate Body within the time frame of 90 days as prescribed by the DSU rules. The US has pointed out that the extraordinary delay violates the mandate of a speedy trial and further it negates the right of the complaining party as well as the party brought to dispute due to the hauling of their economies to a hiatus. It is the belief of the U.S. that the prospective incapacitation of the Appellate Body is undoubtedly a menace for the WTO and its members because once the report of panel body is appealed, it cannot be made enforceable unless the appellate body decides and thus, it holds the country for the indefinite timeframe not authorizing the party to retaliate on whose favour the panel body decided the dispute.

It is indisputable that the DSS need to undergo a series of reform in order to gain the lost confidence. Unfortunately, the step taken by the U.S. has been termed as harsh and politically motivated. One move of the U.S. has paralyzed the ability of the ‘crown jewel’ to resolve international trade disputes. Even going against the decision of the U.S. and outcasting the consensus power it holds won’t serve the purpose as the U.S. is an important player of WTO and if the U.S. is not a party to it; the WTO would be synonymous to a toothless tiger. 

Nevertheless, arbitration under Article 25 of the DSU rules can act as an alternative to the hierarchal redressal system, as well as, solving disputes through bilateral agreements can be another alternative during the time of this existential crisis. The proposed idea of forming a Multi-party Interim Appellate arrangement will not succumb for long because the U.S. will not be its part and as it is certain, U.S. forms a considerable part of international trade, thus, there will again be a situation of deadlock. Moreover, choosing such interim mechanisms for the long run can raise a threat to the uniformity of rulings that WTO embraces. All in all, WTO is currently under jeopardy and it can be the beginning of the end if a solution to the crisis is not found in a timely manner. As of now, the Supreme Court of the international Trade ceases to exist and is in a life or death moment.

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How Local Governments in China can Utilize New Infrastructure Policy to Promote Development

Chan Kung

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Authors: Chan Kung and Wei Hongxu*

In an effort to promote economic recovery, the central government, local governments, and enterprises have placed high expectations on the investment of new infrastructure, hoping it would promote the development of the digital economy, so as to enhance the internal driving force of economic development. Especially when the scale of local special bonds is expected to be increased and again issued ahead of schedule, many local governments hope to seize the opportunity of digital economy development and increase investment in new infrastructure areas to drive regional economic development. Unlike the conventional economy and conventional infrastructure investment, the new infrastructure is not a simple way to boost investment, but rather to help the conventional industries realize digital and intelligent transformation as soon as possible, and to create new consumption, new manufacturing, and new services. While the new infrastructure investment brings a new economic model, it is different from the past in terms of content, mode, and financing channels. It requires local governments to make corresponding changes with market-oriented thinking.

New infrastructure investment is not only the demand side of local users, but also the supply side of technology investment. From the perspective of the scope of new infrastructure, new infrastructure projects include 5G base stations, ultra-high voltage (UHV) electricity, industrial Internet, intercity high-speed railway, intercity rail transit, new energy vehicle charging piles, artificial intelligence, and Big Data centers. At present, rail transit and new energy infrastructure are not much different from conventional infrastructure investment. The degree of local participation of UHV electricity is limited, while the investment in other aspects, such as 5G base stations and Big Data centers, is relatively mature in technology and has good market supply capacity. In other aspects, it is more necessary to start from the aspects of technology research and industrial cultivation, and to invest in projects that encourage innovation and industrial park construction. Therefore, this requires not only clear investment objectives on the demand side, but also needs to expand the supply side such as technology research and application at the same time, which undoubtedly increases the complexity of new infrastructure investment.

At the same time, the sources and financing channels of new infrastructure investment still need to be explored. Recently, local governments in China have begun planning to finance new infrastructure projects through issuing special bonds, and many local governments have put new infrastructure projects on their agenda. Some market analysts believe that at present, 5G is still mainly invested in base stations. Generally, telecommunications companies such as China Unicom and Mobile Communications can invest on their own without issuing special bonds, thereby the special bonds can be invested in projects related to data centers. However, such projects are only available in first-tier cities, and there are not many such projects in second-tier, third-tier, fourth-tier, and fifth-tier cities. New infrastructure projects should be more market-driven and local governments should avoid excessive involvement via direct investment in industrial projects. Local governments also need to promote the public-private partnership (PPP) model and introduce more social capital to improve efficiency and broaden financing sources.

Even for new infrastructure projects funded by special bonds, attention should be paid to the financing capacity of the projects to avoid adding to the financial burden. There are two main ideas for the new infrastructure special bond declaration projects in many provinces. One is to build a digital information application platform at the county and district level based on the resources of the provincial and municipal cloud platforms. The second is to promote the optimization and upgrading of conventional infrastructure projects with the theme of digital and wisdom. Some local finance people worry that many of these projects are packaged around the concept of “new infrastructure” and are mostly non-yielding or low-yielding projects that may require the government to cover future bond payments. Therefore, the special bond for new infrastructure construction should be invested in public welfare projects that can generate income, rather than public welfare projects that do not.

At the same time, there are new requirements for investment entities in new infrastructure investment. Some financial institutions said that after the issuance of new infrastructure special bonds, most of them will eventually be invested in local urban projects. However, local urban projects were good at conventional infrastructure construction, unfamiliar with new infrastructure construction, and lacks experience in new infrastructure project operation. If we speed up the construction of new infrastructure projects without considering the actual situation, it will easily lead to the mismatch between the capacity and the project requirements, and drag on the development of local governments and enterprises. In particular, unlike conventional investment in forming fixed assets, a considerable part of new infrastructure investment in research, personnel training, and other forms of intangible assets will be formed. The conventional urban investment model does not have the ability to use and dispose of these assets. At the same time, the large amount of hardware equipment invested in the new infrastructure is different from the conventional “iron and steel foundation”. Its wear and tear, operation, and upgrading all require continuous follow-up investment, which cannot be “invested all at once.” These are also not available in some conventional urban investment enterprises. If the local government cultivates and supports relevant enterprises by means of industrial investment, it needs more consideration in terms of income distribution and asset management. Such investment cannot be simply measured by the unit of land and capital, but more in the form of equity investment such as industrial funds and venture capital. In this respect, the local government needs to have the investment entities and relevant personnel with the ability to invest in relevant industries.

Different from the past, local governments need to play their roles in market construction and maintenance, investment entities, and end-users in promoting new infrastructure investment and the development of the digital economy. In the cultivation of the digital market, market demand, and the maintenance of the market order, local governments should play the role as a supervisor, take the development of the market as the guide, and develop the local digital market. In terms of investment, it is necessary to start with basic research and development and personnel training, promote market-oriented investment and technological innovation to enhance the competitiveness of the digital industry. In terms of end-users, it is necessary to integrate their own digital resources, establish a public digital space, and expand digital demand with the digital transformation of public services and government affairs as the direction. These three new roles are the basic problems to be solved in the process of promoting new infrastructure.

While much attention has been paid to new infrastructure, the reality is that, in terms of overall size, it needs to be recognized that infrastructure investment is still dominated by conventional infrastructure projects, with new infrastructure as defined by the market accounting for less than 15%. ANBOUND is not a proponent of separating infrastructure from the old and the new, so one cannot fully “bet” on new infrastructure to revive the post-pandemic economy. From the perspective of economic development trends and current reality, the role of new infrastructure is to promote the coordinated and integrated development of digital technology to industry and regional economy. Therefore, local governments need to make good use of fiscal expansion policies and financing tools to build new infrastructure, rather than investing for investment’s sake, they need to pay attention to the trend of economic digitization and promote the market efficiency and the expansion of market space.

Final analysis conclusion:

Promoting economic recovery and the development of the digital economy with new infrastructure are the keys to current macro policies. In this regard, local governments need to pay attention to the differences between the new infrastructure and the conventional infrastructure model, and they need to make corresponding adjustments in the investment model and development thinking so as to give full play to the efficiency of the digital economy.

*Wei Hongxu, graduated from the School of Mathematics of Peking University with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Birmingham, UK in 2010 and is a researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank with headquarters in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound

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‘Business as unusual’: How COVID-19 could change the future of work

MD Staff

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Millions of people around the world have been working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic and now experts are asking whether this “business as unusual” could be the future of work, at least for those people whose job doesn’t require them to be tied to a particular location.

UN News spoke to Susan Hayter, a Senior Technical Adviser on the Future of Work at the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, about how COVID-19 could change our working lives.

What are the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the workplace in developed countries, once the immediate crisis is over?
Before the pandemic, there was already a lot of discussion on the implications of technology for the future of work. The message was clear: the future of work is not pre-determined, it is up to us to shape it. 

However, that future has arrived sooner than anticipated as many countries, companies and workers shifted to remote working in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19, dramatically changing how we work. Remote virtual meetings are now commonplace and economic activity has increased on a range of digital platforms. 

As the restrictions are lifted, a question that is on everybody’s mind is whether this ‘business as unusual’ will become the ‘new normal’. A few large companies in developed economies have already said that what has been a large and unplanned pilot – remote teleworking – will become the standard way of organizing work. Employees need not commute to work again, unless they choose to do so.  

Is this a good thing?

This may indeed be cause to celebrate, for people and the planet. But the idea of an end to “The Office” is certainly overblown. The ILO estimates that in high-income countries 27 per cent of workers could work remotely from home. This does not mean that they will continue to work remotely. The question is how we can adapt work practices and reap the benefits of this experience with remote working – for employers and workers – while not losing the social and economic value of work as a place.   

In celebrating the innovations in work organization that have supported business continuity during the health crisis, we cannot forget that many will have lost their jobs or gone out of business as the pandemic has brought some industries to a standstill. For those returning to their place of work, the quality of work will be a key issue, in particular safe and healthy workplaces. 

What needs to happen next?

The degree of workers’ trust in the measures taken by employers to make workplaces safe, will no doubt have an impact on the return to work. Engagement with trade union representatives, where these exist, is a must. 

Everything from protocols for social distancing, monitoring and testing, and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) need to be discussed to make this work. 

For workers in the gig economy, such as food delivery and ride-hailing workers, work is not a place, but an activity performed for an income. The pandemic has revealed the false choice between flexibility and income security. These workers may have no or inadequate access to sick leave and unemployment-insurance benefits. We need to tap into the brave new world to ensure that their work is performed under conditions that are safe. 

How different do you expect the workplace in developing countries to look?

The ILO estimates a 60 per cent decline in the earnings of the almost 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy in the first month of the crisis.  These workers are simply not able to work remotely and face the impossible choice of risking life or livelihood. Some countries have adopted measures to shore up this essential income while also ensuring adequate hygiene and PPE for employees and customers, informal enterprises and workers. 

As companies begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the shift to remote work and their ability to tackle data security concerns, new opportunities may open up in services for developing countries with the necessary infrastructure. 

However, these off-shoring opportunities in activities such as software development and engineering to financial services, may be accompanied by the reshoring in of other jobs as companies seek to improve inventory management and the predictability of supply chains. 

This will have longer-term effects on employment in developing and emerging economies. The challenge is that while it will take time for new service sectors to mature, the negative impact of rising unemployment will be felt immediately. Inequalities in digital readiness may further inhibit countries from seizing these opportunities. 

What are the benefits and drawbacks of remote work?

The shift to remote work has enabled many companies to continue to operate and ensure the health and safety of their employees. Those able to make the transition to remote work during the health crisis have had the opportunity to share meals with their families. Work has become human-centred to accommodate homeschooling and child and elder care.  

Yet, the lines between working time and private time have become blurred for these individuals, causing an increase in stress and exposure to mental health risks

In the face of a dramatic economic downturn caused by the pandemic and surging unemployment figures, there are opportunities to leverage these changes in work organization to design new job-sharing schemes that allow for flexibility and save jobs. This may mean shorter work weeks or work-sharing arrangements to avoid furloughs in lean times, while reshaping working time arrangements to achieve better work-life balance in the longer-term.

The digital transformation of work and possibility to engage in remote work has also been accompanied by other benefits. It has presented possibilities for older, more experienced workers to prolong their working life on their terms and provided work opportunities for those in rural communities. However, for many others, it has compounded a sense of isolation and a loss of identity and purpose. The social value of work and the dignity and belonging we derive from it cannot be replaced by virtual rooms, no matter how casual our attire while we occupy them. 

To what extent will the pandemic entrench rising inequality?

 While the pandemic may represent a tipping point for the digital transformation of the workplace, it has also revealed deep fault lines. It is those in the upper income brackets who are the most likely to choose to work remotely, whereas those in the lowest have no choice; they will have to commute and are more likely to be time-poor as a result. 

Looking to the future, as digital and online work becomes the new normal, the demand for skilled workers is likely to rise along with their wages. The contributions of care-workers and other workers (e.g. teachers and staff in grocery stores) will be more highly valued than before. Yet, many low-paid workers whose wages have been stagnating in the face of declining union power and a shifting employment relationship are likely to see their incomes eroded even further as the ranks of the unemployed increase. 

Historically, economic shocks, pandemics and wars have exacerbated inequality. The remaining question is whether this one will be a tectonic shift with rising political and social instability, or a shock that leads us to reinforce the foundations of just societies and the principles of solidarity and democratic decision-making that move societies, labour markets and workplaces in the direction of equality. 

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