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Harbingers of global economic crisis

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The upcoming global and financial crisis has been much talked about in the world, but what no one is talking about is how to avoid this crisis, survive it or, most importantly, what to do next. Neither is anyone pointing to the erratic approach to ensuring a smoothly working global economic system that actually made this crisis inevitable.

Karl Marx is one of the thinkers who analyzed the systemic crisis of capitalism and devised a universal theory as a way of solving this crisis. Adapted to the national and religious specifics of various countries, this theory to a large extent determined the logic of the revolutionary socialist movements of the late-19th and early-20th century. However, does Karl Marx’s method of analyzing the nature of classical capitalism remain relevant today? Do we know about economics today more than Karl Marx did back in the 19th century or less? These are the questions experts taking part in the recent meeting of the Zinovyev Club in Moscow tried to answer.

Marx’s Precursors and Marxism: globalism, anti-globalism, and the “End of History”

Oleg Matveichev, a prominent political analyst, philosopher and professor of the Higher School of Economics Research University, spoke about Karl Marx’s predecessors, whose legacy must be analyzed because their thoughts about the nature of capitalism inspired Marx to devote his whole life to the study of its workings.

The first such precursor was Immanuel Kant. Even though he never wrote about economics per se, many of his writings give us an insight into his views on the economy. Oleg Matveichev calls the Konigsberg-based thinker one of the first globalists. And with good reason too, since many apologists of modern globalization never miss a chance to quote, almost word for word, Kant’s essay “Towards Eternal Peace,” while often failing to reflect on its original source.

According to Kant, the true reason for a state’s existence is to defend itself from outside enemies, and the genuine task of free states is to liberate others. Paradoxically, this connects directly to George Soros via Karl Popper, the founder of the “open society” theory.

Oleg Matveichev believes that Karl Popper was weaned on the ideas of neo-Kantianism, but while borrowing ethical issues from Kant, he carried them over to epistemology. According to Immanuel Kant, moral maxims are subject to categorical and hypothetical imperatives. This is exactly how Karl Popper theorized about science when he said that we only put forward hypotheses in our knowledge, and if so, these hypotheses should be falsified. Kant categorically rejected all sorts of planning and attempts to build a paradise on earth. Popper had no doubt whatsoever in the finiteness of any system and human design.

Although Johann Gottlieb Fichte was a direct adherent of Kant’s theory, he substantially revised the legacy of his predecessor. In his “Discourses on the Tendencies of the Modern Epoch,” Fichte argued that Kant was mistaken in defining the tendencies of modern-day globalization as a desire for eternal peace and the formation of a single space and a super-state. Conversely, while during the Middle Ages the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation was a prototype of a single Christian state, this has since given way to the creation of “nation states” with nationalism and separation becoming the main trends of this day and age.

In his work “The Closed Commercial State,” Fichte actually comes out as the founder of anti-globalism. His ideas had a strong impact on the great German economist Friedrich List, an ardent advocate of economic protectionism, who regarded a planned economy and state monopoly of foreign trade as key to a country’s success in the world.

To make this happen, it is necessary to calculate the number of people producing material “wealth,” then of the class of Nature-transforming “artists” as well as of managers, old people and children. At the same time, the trade balance should not be upset either way, since overdependence on imports will lead to a situation where outside players dictate their will to the country. Excessive dependence on exports is equally bad, as it is fraught with the loss of foreign markets and increased unemployment. Fichte proposed the concept of ownership of activity instead of ownership of things. Also, unlike Emmanuel Kant, who was an advocate of universal publicity, Fichte embraced the idea of keeping state secrets.

Unlike his predecessors, Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, once a believer in Adam Smith’s theory, left behind a trove of works related to economic activity. To better understand his logic, one should read his oeuvre, titled “Phenomenology of the Spirit,” especially the part about the so-called “master-and-slave” dialectic. This would also explain how Karl Marx, who in his early years was fascinated by Hegel’s philosophy, found his place in the great Hegelian system.

According to Hegel, there are two types of self-awareness that have clashed throughout the course of history, and only the one ready to defend its rightfulness to the last has prevailed, becoming the “master”. Because slaves are not allowed to fight, they labor on, while their masters wage war. This is the fundamental principle of a feudal society. However, the process of the master’s degradation eventually becomes increasingly evident since, according to Hegel, “he has nothing to do with the product, does not process it, and does not feel Nature’s dependent status.” Conversely, the slave, who processes Nature, is gradually becoming his own master. The result is a sort of a coup which, however, does not change the whole matrix.

It will do so only when the master realizes that as long as he owns a slave he is not master in the true sense of the word. As soon as the tendency towards universal liberation sets in, the “master-and-slave” dialectic dies out ushering in the end of history. According to Hegel, the more civilized European nations (including the Germanic ones) will bring about the end of history, which can last forever. This logic brings us  to the legacy of Francis Fukuyama, who, at the close of the 20th century, devised his concept of the “end of history,” based on the writings of the Russian neo-Hegelian émigré thinker Alexander Kozhev.

Karl Marx, for his part, argues that “the end of history” Hegel wrote about is somewhat premature – simply because what Hegel had in mind was only the political liberation of man, while economic domination hasn’t gone anywhere.  The end of history (Communism) will come only after the economic imbalance between people has been eliminated as a result of a politico-economic revolution. Here Karl Marx was drawing, in part, on the legacy of Fichte, and the criticism that Kantians leveled against him at the time, were leveled against Marxists in the 20th century, including by Friedrich von Hayek who, just like Popper, believed in the finiteness of any human design and of any cycles of economic and social activity.

Modern economics and the relevance of Marxism

Is the Marxist dialectic relevant today? According to Higher School of Economics Professor Dmitry Yevstafyev, an economic theory hinges on two parameters: time (today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow) and space (private, sectoral, regional, or universal).

People usually think about economic theory when a new economic crisis is looming but hasn’t actually struck yet, and that the tension being felt on the global, regional and national level has not yet found its way out. Marxism as a theory stems from disputes swirling around the central question of the latter part of the 19th century: “Where will classical industrial capitalism go from now?” This explains the longevity of this theory, which gained so much prominence in the 20th century.

Dmitry Yevstafyev regards the current economic space as a non-linear and multi-vector one. Almost every serious analyst agrees that the existing economic system is teetering precariously on the brink of a massive global economic crisis, the consequences of which will be highly unpredictable, but most likely dire nonetheless. And here Marx’s theory, especially its economic part, can do little to help since it is extremely linear. It was an attempt to characterize the economic mainstream of that time, though a unidirectional, single-vector one, which implied no significant derivatives or deviations. That being said, Karl Marx did acknowledge, however, the multilateral nature of the economic development of his day and age. It was with this understanding in mind that he introduced the term “Asian mode of production,” which gave rise to a discussion that became a major headache for Soviet philosophers and political economists.

According to Yevstafyev, the linear nature of Karl Marx’s teaching will limit the possibilities of using this methodology in the future. On the other hand, it is hard to deny the fact that in modern economic science vulgarization of liberal approaches in the economy and fetishization of numerical indicators has reached the point of absurdity. Economists often try to present a holistic picture of global progress based on individual economic indicators. It should be noted here that mathematical liberalism was relevant when the process of globalization was on the rise. However, with the globalization area shrinking as it has done the past few years, very serious problems arise.

Could the methodology that Karl Marx used to characterize the 19th century capitalism and Vladimir Lenin – to describe the early-20th century capitalism, be applied to the capitalism that exists today?

Doing this would be extremely difficult since we are dealing with a very hybrid economic environment, which is greatly complicated by non-economic factors. What we are dealing with today is, in fact, a pseudo-economic system, which uses the language of liberal theories to legitimize itself.

That being said, however, classical Marxism may well be applied to new industrial countries and the so-called “reverse industrialization” states where post-industrial structures are being dismantled and replaced by industrial ones. Even though such cases are few and far between, looking at Marx’s theory from this angle, one could see a phenomenon that is not typical of Marxism. According to Karl Marx, a more progressive economic system is bound to prevail over a less progressive one. However, we have seen a competition between post-industrial or pre-post-industrial countries (such as Germany) and new industrial ones (mainly South Korea, China, and India). “I don’t think that this progressiveness has good chances of being implemented in the long haul,” Dmitry Yevstafyev noted.

With the upcoming global crisis threatening to exacerbate all the internal contradictions of modern-day capitalism, Dmitry Yevstafyev believes that Karl Marx’s methodology still remains relevant today.

The expert outlined the main specifics of the modern-day capitalist system. The first has to do with the idea of the so-called “fluid property,” which ultimately leads to the emancipation of the worker from property and the proprietor from management. The second is a systematic, man-made pauperization of society, as well as the growing number of part-time citizens as the most vulnerable social stratum. The factor of the information society will play a major role too.

Finally, from the standpoint of the geo-economic situation, there is one major problem that can’t be ignored, and this is the emergence of several “gray zones” with diffusive forms of economic and social interaction where existing economic and social institutions are being replaced by others. Such zones will serve as breeding grounds for new forms of human activity.

From an economic point of view, post-crisis capitalism will, just like its present version, be all about intra-group competition for control over mechanisms for extracting rent – natural, logistic and technological. On a social plane, however, multi-vector and multidirectional development will increase. As a result, instead of a global, highly standardized social and cross-cultural mainstream we will see the growing role of the multi-vector approach. Thus we may witness the emergence and sustained existence of a post-industrial version of capitalism based on trade relations of a network and sub-state nature, instead of industrial enterprises and financial institutions.

According to Dmitry Yevstafyev, a global economic crisis could be set off by a variety of factors, not least by problems emerging in the local financial market without any war.

“If the crisis starts with an economic collapse, you will take fewer risks. But from the standpoint of exercising control, the best option would be to take greater risks, but start with military action,” the expert noted.

first published in our partner International Affairs

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Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.

Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.

The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.

Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.

Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.

Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.

The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.

How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?

Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.

First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.

Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.

Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.

Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.

Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.

None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.

Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.

I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.

First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank

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US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.

The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.

Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!

Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.

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Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action

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Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt, Giovanni Ruta*

Trading commenced on China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) on Friday. With a trading volume of about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 12 percent of the total global CO2 emissions, the ETS is now the world’s largest carbon market.

While the traded emission volume is large, the first trading day opened, as expected, with a relatively modest price of 48 yuan ($7.4) per ton of CO2. Though this is higher than the global average, which is about $2 per ton, it is much lower than carbon prices in the European Union market where the cost per ton of CO2 recently exceeded $50.

Large volume but low price

The ETS has the potential to play an important role in achieving, and accelerating China’s long-term climate goals — of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Under the plan, about 2,200 of China’s largest coal and gas-fired power plants have been allocated free emission rights based on their historical emissions, power output and carbon intensity.

Facilities that cut emissions quickly will be able to sell excess allowances for a profit, while those that exceed their initial allowance will have to pay to purchase additional emission rights or pay a fine. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions will promote investment in low-carbon technologies and equipment, while carbon trading will ensure emissions are first cut where it is least costly, minimizing abatement costs. This sounds plain and simple, but it will take time for the market to develop and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions.
The initial phase of market development is focused on building credible emissions disclosure and verification systems — the basic infrastructure of any functioning carbon market — encouraging facilities to accurately monitor and report their emissions rather than constraining them. Consequently, allocations given to power companies have been relatively generous, and are tied to power output rather than being set at absolute levels.

Also, the requirements of each individual facility to obtain additional emission rights are capped at 20 percent above the initial allowance and fines for non-compliance are relatively low. This means carbon prices initially are likely to remain relatively low, mitigating the immediate financial impact on power producers and giving them time to adjust.

For carbon trading to develop into a significant policy tool, total emissions and individual allowances will need to tighten over time. Estimates by Tsinghua University suggest that carbon prices will need to be raised to $300-$350 per ton by 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality. And our research at the World Bank suggest a broadly applied carbon price of $50 could help reduce China’s CO2 emissions by almost 25 percent compared with business as usual over the coming decade, while also significantly contributing to reduced air pollution.

Communicating a predictable path for annual emission cap reductions will allow power producers to factor future carbon price increases into their investment decisions today. In addition, experience from the longest-established EU market shows that there are benefits to smoothing out cyclical fluctuations in demand.

For example, carbon emissions naturally decline during periods of lower economic activity. In order to prevent this from affecting carbon prices, the EU introduced a stability reserve mechanism in 2019 to reduce the surplus of allowances and stabilize prices in the market.

Besides, to facilitate the energy transition away from coal, allowances would eventually need to be set at an absolute, mass-based level, which is applied uniformly to all types of power plants — as is done in the EU and other carbon markets.

The current carbon-intensity based allocation mechanism encourages improving efficiency in existing coal power plants and is intended to safeguard reliable energy supply, but it creates few incentives for power producers to divest away from coal.

The effectiveness of the ETS in creating appropriate price incentives would be further enhanced if combined with deeper structural reforms in power markets to allow competitive renewable energy to gain market share.

As the market develops, carbon pricing should become an economy-wide instrument. The power sector accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions, but to meet China’s climate goals, mitigation actions are needed in all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the authorities plan to expand the ETS to petro-chemicals, steel and other heavy industries over time.

In other carbon intensive sectors, such as transport, agriculture and construction, emissions trading will be technically challenging because monitoring and verification of emissions is difficult. Faced with similar challenges, several EU member states have introduced complementary carbon taxes applied to sectors not covered by an ETS. Such carbon excise taxes are a relatively simple and efficient instrument, charged in proportion to the carbon content of fuel and a set carbon price.

Finally, while free allowances are still given to some sectors in the EU and other more mature national carbon markets, the majority of initial annual emission rights are auctioned off. This not only ensures consistent market-based price signals, but generates public revenue that can be recycled back into the economy to subsidize abatement costs, offset negative social impacts or rebalance the tax mix by cutting taxes on labor, general consumption or profits.

So far, China’s carbon reduction efforts have relied largely on regulations and administrative targets. Friday’s launch of the national ETS has laid the foundation for a more market-based policy approach. If deployed effectively, China’s carbon market will create powerful incentives to stimulate investment and innovation, accelerate the retirement of less-efficient coal-fired plants, drive down the cost of emission reduction, while generating resources to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy.

(Martin Raiser is the World Bank country director for China, Sebastian Eckardt is the World Bank’s lead economist for China, and Giovanni Ruta is a lead environmental economist of the World Bank.)

(first published on China Daily via World Bank)

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