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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

8 facts you don’t know about the money migrants send back home

MD Staff

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Here are eight things you might not know about the transformative power of these often small – yet major – contributions to sustainable development worldwide:

1. About one in nine people globally are supported by funds sent home by migrant workers

Currently, about one billion people in the world – or one in seven – are involved with remittances, either by sending or receiving them. Around 800 million in the world – or one in nine people– are recipients of these flows of money sent by their family members who have migrated for work.

2. What migrants send back home represents only 15 per cent of what they earn

On average, migrant workers send between US$200 and $300 home every one or two months. Contrary maybe to popular belief, this represents only 15 per cent of what they earn: the rest –85 per cent – stays in the countries where they actually earn the money, and is re-ingested into the local economy, or saved.

3. Remittances remain expensive to send

These international money transfers tend to be costly: on average, globally, currency conversions and fees amount to 7 per cent of the total amounts sent. To ensure that the funds can be put to better purposes, countries are aiming through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10.C to “reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent by 2030”.

Technical innovations, in particular mobile technologies, digitalization and blockchain can fundamentally transform the markets, coupled with a more conducive regulatory environment.

4. The money received is key in helping millions out of poverty

Although the money sent represents only 15 per cent of the money earned by migrants in the host countries, it is often a major part of a household’s total income in the countries of origin and, as such, represents a lifeline for millions of families.

“It is not about the money being sent home, it is about the impact on people’s lives,” explains Gilbert F. Houngbo, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD. “The small amounts of $200 or $300 that each migrant sends home make up about 60 per cent of the family’s household income, and this makes an enormous difference in their lives and the communities in which they live.”

It is estimated that three quarters of remittances are used to cover essential things: put food on the table and cover medical expenses, school fees or housing expenses. In addition, in times of crises, migrant workers tend to send more money home to cover loss of crops or family emergencies.

The rest, about 25 per cent of remittances – representing over $100 billion per year – can be either saved or invested in asset building or activities that generate income, jobs and transform economies, in particular in rural areas.

5. Specifically, remittances can help achieve at least seven of the 17 SDGs

When migrants send money back home, they contribute to several of the goals set in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. In particular: SDG 1, No Poverty; SDG 2, Zero Hunger; SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being; SDG 4, Quality Education; SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation; SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth; and SDG 10, Reduced Inequality.

If current trends continue, between 2015 and 2030, the timeframe of the 2030 Agenda, an estimated $8.5 trillion will be transferred by migrants to their communities of origin in developing countries. Of that amount, more than $2 trillion – a quarter — will either be saved or invested, a key aspect of sustainable development.

“Governments, regulators and the private sector have an important role to play in leveraging the effects of these flows and, in so doing, helping nearly one billion people to reach their own sustainable development goals by 2030,” IFAD’s Gilbert F. Houngbo stressed in a statement.

6. Half of the money sent goes straight to rural areas, where the world’s poorest live

Around half of global remittances go to rural areas, where three quarters of the world’s poor and food insecure live. It is estimated that globally, the accumulated flows to rural areas over the next five years will reach $1 trillion.

7. They are three times more important than international aid, and counting

Remittances are a private source of capital that’s over three times the amount of official development assistance (ODA) and foreign direct investment (FDI) combined.

In 2018, over 200 million migrant workers sent $689 billion back home to remittance reliant countries, of which $529 billion went to developing countries.

In addition, the amount of money sent by international migrant workers to their families in developing countries is expected to rise to over $550 billion in 2019, up some $20 billion from 2018, according to IFAD.

8. The UN is working to facilitate remittances worldwide

“It is fair to say that, in poor rural areas, remittances can help to make migration a choice rather than a necessity for so many young people and for future generations,” explained Mr. Houngbo.

As such, migrant contributions to development – through remittances and investments – is one of the Objectives of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December of last year.

With half of all flows going to rural areas in developing countries, IFAD, the UN’s agency mandated with agricultural development, is working to make the development impact of remittances even greater. The organisation’s Financing Facility for Remittances programme (FFR) was designed to promote innovative business models in order to lower transfer costs and provide financial services for migrants and their families. Through partnerships across several sectors, the programme runs initiatives to empower migrants and their families through financial education and inclusion, as well as migrant investment and entrepreneurship.

“Over the past decade, IFAD has invested in over 40 countries, supporting more than 60 projects aimed at leveraging the development impact of remittances for families and communities,” said Paul Winters, IFAD’s Associate Vice-President, in an event held on Friday at UN headquarters in New York.

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Guiding a new generation of learners on inclusive green economy

MD Staff

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As population numbers continue to grow and material resource use rises to unprecedented levels, the limits of today’s dominant model of economic growth have become increasingly apparent: extraction of material resources, including biomass, fossil fuels and non-metallic minerals has tripled since 1970, reaching an approximate 90 billion tonnes in 2019. A comprehensive overview of alternative economic models that center around environmental sustainability – published by UN Environment, the Zayed International Foundation for the Environment and Tongji University – hopes to help guide efforts to move to inclusive, green economies.

The official launch today of The Inclusive Green Economy: Policies and Practice marks the successful completion of a long-standing collaborative project.

Nineteen million premature deaths are estimated to occur each year due to environmental and infrastructure-related risks and natural-resource use. Resource extraction has also been identified as the leading cause of global biodiversity loss. This has led to an increasing number of countries to rethink their economic development model.

“Since Rio+20, an increasing number of countries are embarking on pathways towards inclusive green economies. I hope this book will help guide these efforts globally”,  Dr. Mohamad Ahmed Bin Fahad, Chairman of the Zayed International Foundation for the Environment highlighted in his welcome address at the launch.

An inclusive green economy is defined by UN Environment as one that is low-carbon, efficient and clean in production, but also inclusive, based on sharing, circularity, collaboration, solidarity, resilience, opportunity and interdependence. The handbook aims to offer a comprehensive framework for analysing inclusive green economy issues, such as investing in natural capital and clean technologies, as well as policies to enable investments. 

“With this collection – based on a wide range of thinking on the transition to an inclusive green economy – we hope to provide a useful resource for students and other stakeholders” Fulai Sheng, co-editor of the publication, emphasised.

 “This new textbook makes an important contribution to our understanding of how poverty, inclusiveness and employment issues must be fully taken into account to ensure a fair and just transition to a green economy”, Steven Stone, Chief of UN Environment’s Resources and Markets Branch, said.

Commending UN Environment and its partners on their efforts, the Executive Director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), Nikhil Seth, further observed that “publications like the one launched today will be instrumental in transmitting novel ideas and concepts that can inspire leaders of tomorrow”.

Dr. Meshgan Al Awar, Secretary General of the Zayed Foundation and Co-Author of the textbook, summarized the implication and significance of this initiative by noting, “The Inclusive Green Economy textbook provides an inspiring framework for nations, organizations and individuals to follow and simulate as they endeavor in this direction”.

UN Environment

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Retirees worldwide will outlive their savings by a decade – and women will fare worse

MD Staff

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Retirees in six major economies can expect to outlive their savings by years. Women should prepare to bear the brunt of such shortfalls, going without retirement savings for at least two years longer than their male counterparts.

As government and employer-sponsored retirement plans are under strain globally, individuals have found themselves to be increasingly responsible for their retirement savings. Despite this, savings have not accelerated fast enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional retirement plans, suggests a new report by the World Economic Forum, Investing In (and for) Our Future.

In six economies analysed, most male retirees can expect to live past their savings by nearly a decade. Women can expect to go even longer without their savings, as they will likely live more than 10 years without retirement savings to rely on due to their longer average lifespans.

These shortfalls can vary greatly by country and gender; men in the United States are expected to outlive their savings by about eight years while women in Japan will live nearly 20 years past their savings account. Despite these vast differences, the average retiree in Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, or the US will not be able to last through retirement on savings alone.

Image: Investing in (and for) our Future, World Economic Forum

These shortfalls must be addressed, by both individuals and policy-makers, to ensure that seniors can enjoy life throughout their non-working years.

Governments must act to create retirement landscapes that prevent savings shortfalls. Currently, retirement policies in many countries, including India and China, can often hinder optimal retirement savings and investments.

Though governments should act, they would be wise to avoid implementing one-size-fits-all retirement policies as individual retirement needs can vary greatly from person to person. Instead, governments should change, or even roll back, their regulations to allow individuals to make investments that will increase their long-term returns.

A new report from the World Economic Forum identifies two key investment changes governments should allow so individuals can most effectively address their savings gaps. Both identified actions aim to optimize investment so retirement savers can achieve higher yields from their savings.

1. Consider risk from the perspective of someone saving for retirement

“The real risk people need to manage when investing in their future is the risk of outliving their retirement savings,” said Han Yik, Head of the Institutional Investors Industry, World Economic Forum. “As people are living longer, they must ensure they have enough retirement funds to last them through their longer lives. This requires investing with a long-term mindset earlier in life to increase total savings later on.”

Many people are far too risk-averse in their retirement investing. While consistent saving is important to build retirement money, being mindful of long-term returns on retirement portfolios is crucial to ensuring that an individual doesn’t outlive their savings. Many young to middle-age savers should change their risk outlook, understanding that outliving their savings is a far greater risk to them than short-term investment risk.

2. Diversify the investment of saving accounts, by geography and asset type

While focusing on long-term returns is often beneficial for retirement savers, diversification can preserve those returns by mitigating overall investment risk.

Currently, most retirement investment vehicles are largely based on traditional equity and fixed-income investments that have the advantages of being easy to value as well as having high liquidity. However, given the long-term nature of retirement savings, that liquidity comes at a cost. Although they require adequate understanding and sound financial advice, investment in alternative assets, particularly illiquid assets, can bring strong diversification benefits to a retirement investment portfolio.

In this area, again, policy-makers must ensure their retirement policies do not hamper the ability of individuals to make the best long-term choices for their portfolios. In most countries, default retirement options focus on liquidity and the ability to perform daily valuations at the expense of long-term growth. Governments should consider changing or even rolling back these regulations to allow retirement savers to invest in the assets best suited to their individual retirement goals.

In addition, many retirement portfolios also tend to have a heavy domestic focus. Diversifying the geography of investments in portfolios can reduce risk to home country economic events. By expanding the locations of their investments, retirement savers, particularly savers from smaller economies, can protect themselves from market or economic slumps in an individual economy while still maximizing their returns.

Decumulation, or spending in retirement, is another key area of well-being after the working years yet there is far less research dedicated to it.

For instance, today’s retirement spending projections are based on the rule that retirees will withdraw 4% of their portfolio each year they are retired. However, the World Economic Forum and Mercer suggest that this estimate does not match how retirees spend in the real world, with much higher spending in early retirement years and less as retirees age. This spending volatility highlights the need for new retirement solutions that both allow for flexible spending while also ensuring savings that last through retirement.

“With populations around the world living longer than ever before, we need far more creative decumulation solutions for longevity protection” says Rich Nuzum, President, Wealth at Mercer. “There are some alternative solutions emerging such as pooled annuity funds, but older individuals are going to need a more diverse range of financial tools to help protect against longevity risk.”

Some countries, such as the UK and the Netherlands, have begun to recognize the importance of robust policies for the decumulation period and are even considering rolling back regulations for retirement savings. However, there is much more to be done in this area to ensure that seniors can thrive during their period of enjoying the funds they have worked so hard to save over their working years.

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