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‘America First’ vs. Global Financial Stability

M Waqas Jan

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The recently concluded annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank group, held in Indonesia last weekend, has highlighted a series of concerning trends with regard to the global economy. It has subsequently left many considering the impacts of a possible global recession that may be looming ahead in the next of couple of years to come.  These fears were evident in the worldwide sell-off in global equities last Thursday that has been widely attributed to the IMF revising down its global growth forecast in its World Economic Outlook (WEO) report. The report highlighted growth in a number of developed economies as having plateaued, with rising trade tensions and policy uncertainty greatly contributing to the slow-down. This includes the ongoing trade war between the US and China, as well as the numerous uncertainties pervading within the Euro-Zone.

All of this has had a significant knock-on effect on emerging markets, including Pakistan which has already been struggling with massive fiscal and current account deficits amid rampant inflationary pressures.  With tensions between the United States and China still on the rise, Pakistan presents a notable example of how deteriorating global macro-economic conditions have been exacerbated by rising geo-political tensions between these two global powers.

For instance, it took Imran Khan’s fledgling government months to accept the reality of another IMF bailout (Pakistan’s 13th in the last 30 years) despite its $68 billion investment commitment with China. This is because the US, being the largest contributor of funds to the IMF has increasingly politicized this bailout in light of its own deteriorating relations with China.  In fact, the US has directly blamed China for Pakistan’s recent debt woes referring to what has been come to known as China’s ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’. The argument being that the massive loans being doled out by China to developing countries under its Belt & Road Initiative are leading to unsustainable debt levels, eroding their sovereignty while expanding China’s hold over them. Pakistan’s loan obligations to China as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor are presented as a case in point.

Despite both Pakistan’s and China’s protests to the contrary, it is widely expected that some of the IMF’s conditions attached to Pakistan’s requested bailout are thus likely to include greater scrutiny and revisions regarding the CPEC initiative. This is likely to form part of the US’s overall objective of limiting and constraining China’s influence over Pakistan and the wider region.  The impact this would have on Pakistan however is likely to prove critical considering its precarious economic as well as geo-political position. Not only would the IMF’s conditions limit the new government’s ability to maneuver its economy around an increasingly unstable world financial system; it would also delay the much needed infrastructure projects being planned and implemented under CPEC with Chinese assistance.  Therefore, the very purpose of the IMF bailout which is to provide some semblance of stability to Pakistan’s ailing economy, would embroil it deeper in uncertainty as a direct result of the US’s unilateral push against China.

It is worth noting here that during its annual meeting, the IMF clearly voiced its concerns regarding escalating trade tensions between the US and China. While calling for increased dialogue and a careful examination of debt induced risks across the world, the IMF seems to be warning both sides over the fragility of prevailing global economic conditions. At the same meeting, China too echoed these concerns and called for increased dialogue with the US to promote open trade and growth. As a country that has for the last few decades championed globalization, China’s vision of shared global growth and win-win partnerships in emerging markets such as Pakistan, have however been directly challenged by the US. A US, that is in contrast aggressively willing to defend the prevailing status quo, as part of President Trump’s mantra of ‘America First’. Hence it was no surprise that US representatives, in response to these concerns brought up by the IMF and China, have continued to downplay the risks of their policies on global economic stability.

With respect to China and numerous emerging markets such as Pakistan, the fact still remains that the world financial system is currently replete with risks and uncertainty as a direct result of US policy. All of this is occurring while the US President continues to boast about surging US equities and record employment figures as a direct outcome of these policies. While the US economy has experienced sustained growth since the 2008 financial crisis, markets and business cycles have a way of correcting themselves, especially when world leaders themselves point to overbought and overextended conditions.

If the US economy truly is on the cusp of a potential downturn, then present geo-political tensions are more than likely to exacerbate the impacts of an impending global recession. For Pakistan, with its precariously low foreign currency reserves and an unsustainable debt to GDP ratio, such a recession is likely to bring on even bigger problems than any of the potential cuts the IMF may propose on CPEC. Thus, while the US may limit China’s rise as an economic power in the short-term, it does so at the expense of emerging markets and global economic stability in the long-run. This lack of foresight is likely to hurt the US more as it realizes how economies cannot exist within a vacuum in an increasingly interdependent world.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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Economy

How to build your entrepreneurial mindset today

MD Staff

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An entrepreneurial mindset is a way of life. Even if you aren’t starting your own business, an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that no problem is insurmountable: you can overcome challenges through perseverance and resilience.

Here are five things you can remember to build an entrepreneurial mindset today. If you’re aged between 18-30, why not start by applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019? Stay tuned—the competition is opening soon!

Transform problems into opportunities

There are so many clues in everyday life. Is there anything that you experience daily that frustrates you? Perhaps it is the prominence of unsustainable materials in your local shop and restaurants, such as plastic straws or unnecessary food packaging? Often, alternatives to problems do exist, but no one has thought of connecting them in specific circumstances. A good example is supplying restaurants and bars with paper straws. Entrepreneurial mindsets apply a lens which identifies problems not as negative issues but as opportunities to be solved, towards creating value in our economy.

Dare to dream and believe in yourself

If you can dream it and believe it, you are halfway there. How big you can dream is a component of your potential for success. Everyone has ideas—but daring to dream big, and then believing in yourself to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and bring them to reality, takes effort. This year, why not push yourself to think creatively? You could come up with a problem once a week, and each week, come up with one matching solution, for example. The key is to think outside the box, to think of a problem as a potential solution.

Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about

Solving problems, especially those associated with the environment, can be daunting. You will constantly be faced with challenges in your journey to change the world. Some environmental challenges feel so large—like those brought about by climate change. But helping to break down large issues into smaller ones which everyone can take steps to solve, is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Remember that you are capable. Find problems that you are passionate about solving and connect with others passionate about solving them too. This will help you through the tough times to stay motivated.

Go for it and don’t take no for an answer

We all have the foundations of an entrepreneurial mindset. We can all identify problems and think up ideas about how to solve them. Being an entrepreneur pushes you to go out there and take actions to achieve them. Often, this process forces you to think through a specific problem in more detail. It helps you to truly understand pathways towards a solution which others might not have thought about. An idea does not have application in the real world if it is not hammered out in real situations. Part of being an entrepreneur requires following this process, identifying real experiences which can be made better or more efficient, and talking with other people who experience similar challenges to find solutions. Using the resources you have at your disposal will force you to be creative. Keep improving your solution. As you go on, you will eventually gain traction and interest. From there, the possibilities are endless.

Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure

Eric Ries from the lean startup says that entrepreneurship is “management under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Forging your own path to solve a problem that no one has solved before is scary—things change constantly. There will be many obstacles and there will be failure. But an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that failures are opportunities to learn in disguise. An entrepreneurial mindset embraces uncertainty and learning, to leverage the opportunities that emerge from the space between them.

UN Environment

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Economy

Iran’s oil market facing the new sanctions era: What to expect

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After an expected hiatus in Iran’s oil exports to some of the country’s main customers following the reimposition of the US sanctions, once again the country’s old buyers are coming back to take advantage of the 180-day window which has been presented by the waivers granted in November.

Although it took some of these buyers more than a month to make necessary arrangements or to contemplate on the matter, it seems that finally the convenience of buying oil from Iran has outweighed the skepticism overshadowing Iranian oil industry.

With the customers coming back everything was seemed to be, once again, in favor of Iran’s oil industry, however the US government’s disappointing comments last weekend could change all the equations for Iran’s oil market in the months to come.

“The United States is not looking to grant more waivers for Iranian oil imports after the reimposition of US sanctions.” Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, told an industry conference in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.

Considering this new stand, the immediate question which comes to mind is what would become Iran’s oil market after the 180-day period is over? To answer this question two main aspects should be taken into account, one is the consideration of Iran’s ability to bypass the sanctions and the second is the possibility of Iranian oil customers being pushed away in the wake of difficulties resulted from the sanctions.

Iran’s capabilities

Even though at first the markets were almost certain about the severe impact of Trump’s plans on Iranian oil industry, but the surprising decision on granting eight countries waivers to continue buying Iranian oil significantly mitigated the harsh outlook.

Now, nearly three months after the reimpostion of the US sanctions on Iran, the market has witnessed that the Iranian oil exports are not plunged as much as expected.

Although due to the confidentiality of Iran’s crude oil sales data, especially in the sanctions era, there is not an exact report for the level of the country’s oil exports in recent months, however based on the estimations presented by institutes which track Iranian oil vessels, the country’s oil exports stood at near 1.1 to 1.3 million barrels per day in November and December.

Furthermore, considering the exempted countries which are going to resume their oil purchasers from January, and the new approaches which Iran is taking to sell its oil like offering oil at energy exchanges or finding new customers, the country can definitely maintain an even higher level of exports in the months to come.

According to a FGE report, Iran will ship 1.08 million barrels per day in January and exports 1.115 million barrels per day in February.

We should not also forget Iran’s experience in bypassing sanctions to sale its oil. As I mentioned before, Iran has acquired certain ways to bypass sanctions and sell its oil even during the sanctions.

Iranian oil buyers

Nearly two months after the US granted eight countries waivers to continue purchasing oil from Iran, recently some of the Asian buyers have signaled willingness for resuming oil imports from the country.

China, India and South Korea have placed orders for loadings in January or February and Japanese refineries have also expressed hope to resume shipping in Iranian oil as from late January provided that some final clearance and paperwork were made.

As reported by S&P Global, the presidents of Japan’s JXTG Holdings and Cosmo Oil stated that they aim to load Iranian barrels at the end of January upon making some final clearances.

“Cosmo Oil aims to load around 1.8 million barrels of Iranian crude at the end of this month” the report read.

Last week, head of South Korea’s SK Innovation, which owns South Korea’s biggest oil refiner SK Energy also told Reuters that South Korean oil buyers are expected to restart Iranian oil imports in late January or early February.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has also stated recently that the Asian country will continue importing Iranian oil. According to data provided by FACTS Global Energy Group (FGE), four Indian refineries namely, Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, HMEL and HPCL have placed orders for 321,000 barrels of Iranian oil in February.

Regarding Greece, Italy, and Taiwan which were exempted from the US sanctions, no news has been officially out since November.

Even though Europe opposed Trump’s actions, and have reassured Iran’s government that they want the nuclear deal to continue, refiners in the green continent have had little choice but to comply with sanctions. The US can cut off access to their financial system for any company judged to be doing business with Iran.

The customer preferences

With all that said, there are still other considerations which should be taken into account to have a rather clear view of what to expect for the future of Iranian oil.

The fact that it took near two months for some of the Asian buyers of Iranian oil to make necessary arrangements to come back to Iran’s market, is an indication of the hardships that the customers of Iranian oil will be facing in trade with Iran.

The heavy bureaucratic process which the exempted countries have to go through in order to buy Iranian oil, could push some of the more cautious customers like Japan and even South Korea away from Iran.

Most Asian customers of Iranian oil are very sensitive and conservative in their relations with the United States, and this is likely to be a barrier in the way of their energy relations with Iran.

Japan is a clear example of this situation; despite being granted sanction waiver the Japanese refineries have conditioned the resumption of their purchases upon “making some final clearances”.

Regarding Iranian oil buyers’ future decisions, yet another fact that should be taken into account is the reality that with Saudi Arabia, Russia and US producing almost at their peak, and with prices hovering near $60 there is currently a lot of cheap oil in the market.

In such a market, it is natural that some of the Iranian oil customers prefer to purchase their oil from other oil suppliers instead of exposing themselves to the consequences of breaching the US sanctions.

So in the end, it all comes to the incentives which Iranian government is willing to provide to make its oil attractive enough to worth the risk.

It seems that the country has taken some steps in this regard, since earlier this month, the Iranian Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs and Trading Amir-Hossein Zamaninia said despite the US. sanctions more oil buyers have approached the country for negotiations.

“Despite US pressures on Iranian oil market, the number of potential buyers of Iranian oil has significantly increased due to a competitive market, greed and pursuit of more profit.” Zamaninia said.

Mentioning “pursuit of more profit” indicates that Iran is probably going to provide its customers with remarkable discounts or provide them with long-term payment plans which considering the current situation in the market seems to be the best decision at the moment.

First published in our partner MNA

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Iran: Currency reconversion not a turning point in economic reformation

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One of Iran’s main economic policies, under the framework of the sixth five-year development plan, is modification of banking system and reformation of monetary policies, moving forward toward which the Rouhani administration put forward the plan to shift the national currency from Rial to Toman earlier in December 2016 by eliminating specific number of zeroes.

However, the administration decided to postpone implementation of currency reconversion policy in 2016 due to some reasons including the expressed concerns about the time unfitting economic conditions which would ignite inflation and economic instability.

The policy basically seeks to facilitate monetary transactions among the Iranians and match the currency being transcribed in official documents and banking bills (rial) with the one utilized in real daily lives of Iranians (toman). Rial has practically been replaced by Toman in daily transactions as the result of the cumulative inflation over the recent years.

On Saturday, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) submitted the bill on lopping off four zeroes of the national currency to the cabinet, the act which drew public attention to the issue again, forming a chorus of criticism and speculations.

Through its proposed bill, the CBI seems primarily able to re-empower the depreciated national currency, tangibly decrease the ever-increasing liquidity volume, and make a nominal reduction in prices of goods and services in the country.

The most remarkable achievements of implementing the bill, however, would be a psychological one among the society.  Shifting from rial, the free market exchange rate of which is presently about 110,000 against the U.S. dollar, by cutting four zeroes to toman may cover the psychological aspects of the inflationary impacts of rial devaluation, which has unprecedentedly increased prices in Iran. It is said to be able to recover national currency’s value against U.S. dollar to some extent and cool down the inflated prices, as well.

Omitting zeroes from the national currency would surely facilitate calculations and money transfers in daily transactions and would seemingly retaliate for the sharp recent rial devaluation but it should not be expected to improve Iranians purchasing power at all.

It would not have any specific impact on economic indices, inflation, investments, job creation or demand and supply, either.

As a matter of fact, economic stability and single-digit inflation rate are the most significant prerequisites of implementing currency reconversion while Iran is experiencing none of the named factors.

Currency reconversion per se would have an inflationary effect. To curb its inflationary impact, it must be done simultaneous with taking contractionary measures and modifications in monetary policies.

In addition, printing new banknotes and injecting them to the market would impose an amount of costs on the shoulder of the central bank.

Addressing the issue in an interview with the Tehran Times, the Iranian economist and President of Iran World Trade Center Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour said that “the government aims to hit several targets with one shot.”

“It seeks to control money and liquidity volume in the society i.e. cutting four zeroes would change the present 17 quadrillion rials (about $404 billion) of liquidity down to 1.7 trillion rials (about $40.4 million) overnight,” he explained, “but the zeroes will incrementally come back and liquidity will be increased over time, in case CBI continues printing fiat money.”

“The act would appease the public opinion just for a short time when they see the price numbers of the goods and services are decreased but after a while when their income also comes with lower zeroes, they will find out that what has happened has not improved their commonwealth,” he added.

“There is no reason for us to consider a national currency with less zeroes a more valuable one,” Sabzalipour said, “having a strong economy is not necessary related to having a national currency with low number of zeroes but to positive trade balance and high quality of the nation’s livelihood.”

“The decided monetary reconversion is mere a political and a psychological move,” he underscored.

What the government is getting prepared to do should not be expected as a revolutionary step in Iran’s economic and banking reformations, that would bring the nation a better livelihood and a more prosperous economy.

It is a postponed measure that has not been implemented in previous years due to lack of proper economic conditions and it is being done under the circumstances that the country is experiencing the toughest economic conditions in its history thanks to the U.S.-led draconian sanctions and when a rampant inflation rate is expected for the upcoming Iranian year.

The costly currency reconversion would, for sure, facilitate money transfer and calculations in daily transactions and also reduce the volume of exchanged paper money and etc., but its effect would be neutralized and the omitted zeroes would snap back one after the other in the long-run, in case of monetary mismanagement or any other unpredicted international, political or economic event which would threaten the economy.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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