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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 Rial has practically been replaced by Toman in daily transactions as the result of the cumulative inflation over the recent years.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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Economy

Bangladesh’s Graduation: A Ray of Hope for India’s Garment Industry?

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Authors: Ms. Prerana Manral and Mr. Shreyansh Singh*

A report was released by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 8th highlighting the implications of graduation of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) on their trade participation. By virtue of their status as LDCs, these countries enjoy access to international support measures such as development financing, preferential market access, technical assistance etc. WTO also obliges LDCs with certain carve outs such as Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) to increase their participation in global trade.  The LDCs are graduated to developing country status if they meet the threshold levels for at least two of the three indicators i.e. Gross National Income (GNI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) for two consecutive triennial reviews. Interestingly, in 2018 Bangladesh became the first country to meet the thresholds for all the three indicators and if it meets these thresholds again for the second triennial review in 2021, it will be eligible for graduation in 2024.

In such a scenario, Bangladesh will lose some of the benefits provided to LDCs by developing and developed countries like the preferential market access which presently accords Bangladesh a competitive edge over Indian products. One of the key labor-intensive sectors which contributes significantly to the exports of both Bangladesh and India is garments industry. In 2009, both the countries almost had an equivalent share in the world market, however in 2018 India was left far behind Bangladesh. India’s total garment exports stood at 21 billion USD whereas Bangladesh’s exports were at 40 billion USD in 2018. 

Bangladesh’s garment sector, due to its LDC status, currently enjoys a duty-free access to markets of Europe and other developed countries. Specifically in EU markets, goods from Bangladesh are covered under “Everything But Arms” (EBA) preferential arrangement which provides zero percent duty on all the products except arms and ammunition. On the other hand, India loses out due to 9% average tariff on garments under the Standard GSP scheme of EU. Further, under the SAFTA and APTA Agreements, India also provides similar duty-free market access to LDCs which along with the removal of quantitative restrictions has exponentially increased Bangladesh’s garments exports to India leading to a tough time for the domestic industry even in the internal market.

Source: Authors’ calculation based on data available on World Integrated Trade Solution

The major markets for India and Bangladesh garment exports are the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan. Trade estimates of garment products clearly show that India’s export in terms of value is significantly less than that of Bangladesh. Since 2010, India’s total share of exports grew by 9.4% whereas Bangladesh’s exports skyrocketed by 141% in these markets. The major reasons behind Bangladesh’s exemplary export performance are tariff exemptions and lower wage labor market which provides impetus to narrowly beat its competitors in the international market. The analysis done in the report reveals that 70% of Bangladesh’s overall export is covered under LDC-specific preferences.

At this juncture a possible graduation of Bangladesh will lead to termination of such preferential access granted exclusively to LDCs which may provide an opportunity for Indian exporters to grab a larger share. However, to maximize the gains arising from this development India needs to prepare a robust action-plan. Firstly, low cost inputs such as cheap power, land and raw materials will have far-reaching effects in enhancing the export competitiveness. Secondly, India should focus on mass scale production of garments in order to achieve economies of scale to bring down its cost of production. Presently, the production is limited majorly to small-scale enterprises which lack capital intensive technology. This in turn negatively affects the quality and time of production which are crucial factors in tapping the domestic and international markets. The improvement in these parameters would help Indian exporters to move up the value chain in terms of creating brand value for its superior quality products. Another overdue policy action could be cutting the import duties on high-quality machinery required for better production. In addition to this, a fiscal stimulus is required to boost the ecosystem in wake of Covid-19 pandemic.

Lastly, to offset the preferential access enjoyed by its competitors such as Vietnam, Bangladesh etc. India should identify its partners and strategically negotiate FTAs for lower tariffs and Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs) to obtain better market access for Indian exports. Needless to mention, India will only be able to reap the benefits arising from Bangladesh’s graduation (due in 2024) if it sows the right seeds today. Effectuating such policies especially at a time when corporate taxes are slashed to match that of India’s competitors along will definitely send a positive signal for investment in the sector from the top global garment companies.  

*Authors are Research Fellows at Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute for Foreign Trade. Views expressed are personal.

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Post-Pandemic Economies and Environment

Dr.Abid Rashid Gill

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The cleaner air in cities, the burgeoning biodiversity and dramatic shift to less pollution-intensive lifestyle across the globe indicate the scope of the environmental improvement that can be achieved in just days. This is what we need to adhere to navigate the current pandemics:COVID-19 and environmental degradation. The environmental issues as we know do not seem to wait for a more convenient time, we therefore must deal it and Covid-19 pandemic concurrently. It is a very fatal disease and has incited urgent response all over the world. The governments, businesses and industries have been forced to deal with the pandemic in an unprecedented way.

According to the experts, this pandemic has provided us with the opportunities to deal with other crises also. We can take a transnational leap towards a sustainable society that produce minimum wastes and emissions. How we deal with current pandemic will also set our environmental trajectory for the centuries to come. The changes in our behaviour that we are experiencing nowadays and some of which may instilus permanently have a far-reaching impact on the environment. Our consumption and travel patron are more responsible: driving less car, attending online meetings rather than taking flights. Equally, it indicates that considerable dent on emissions and wastes products can be made without disturbing too much economic growth.

However, according to International Renewable News Agency (IRENA), for the long-run substantial reduction in the emissions of the toxins, huge and lasting changes are needed in the way how energy is produced and consumed. Though China and India two major growing economies, observed 25% and 30% reduction respectively during the months of lockdown. However, a shift towards low-emission society cannot be accomplished only via individual choices instead it involves reimagining the ways our urbane centres are built and organised, how roads are laid out so that moving without cars become easier, how provisions for walking, cycling and public transport is mad. There is a need for complete overhauling theway we grow, manufacture, trade, consumes and the way we travel.

Cities of Western Europe have been leading this transition by introducing innovative infrastructure projects: Milan has allocated 35 Km street for pedestrians and cyclists; Brussels has created 40km of a new path for cyclists and France has subsided cycling. Also, the Mayor of London started taking measures to build a car and buses free streets and bridges. Similarly, many cities are working on the circular economy where wastes are minimized through reuse and recycling. Following the footsteps of these cities, Pakistan also needs to devise pro-environmental urbane policies and mobility models.

Many studies such asYaron Ogen, 220 and  Dario Caro, 220 indicate a strong link between COVID-19 death rate and an increase in emissions. Especially in North Italy and Spain, the high death rate from COVID-19 is seen to be associated with high air pollution in cities. Curtailing the pollution, therefore, would reduce general health burden and prevent any future pandemic may not prove to be so lethal. It has been learnt from the pandemic that early actions to contain the virus were more effective than trying to deter when the virus has spread. The same is also true for the environmental issues as Prof. Stern of Brentford claimed in 2006 that “countries needed to spend 1% of their GDP to stop greenhouse gases rising to dangerous levels. Failure to do this would lead to damage costing much more, the report warned – at least 5% and perhaps more than 20% of global GDP”.

Eventually, it is time for governments to forge with the private sectors to produce a sustainable economy. After this pandemic is over, the businesses, the industry, and individuals would plead to governments for state support. The governments should have an agenda of a sustainable economy while pouring money into the economy as aid packages. Governments should use this opportunity and must take a long view to utilize the stimulus packages. To an extent, the impact of COVID-19 on the environment is the functions of a kind of fiscal stimulus will be adopted in post-pandemic. Ideally, we should avoid a post-2008-09 financial crisis when fiscal measures of China government boosted the emissions by 6% (World Bank,2020). Rather, a more successful model of South Korea should be borrowed where stimulus package of 2008 included investment in natural conversation, energy efficiency, renewable energies, and sustainable transportations.

The COVID-19 virus is a global issue that requires a global response asall states are sharing data, experiences, equipment, and resources to deal with this pandemic. This same spirit of international collaboration is needed to produce the viable solution of the environmental issues. An inclusive global programme collaborated by rich and poor nations that ensures sustainable production can ensure low-emissions economies across the globe. The post-pandemic economies should be navigated in a way that protects people and planet and avoids any ecological destruction that leads to viral diseases. This pandemic can be taken as a mandate to build a new world from its broken parts.

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Long lockdowns and the status of Indian MSMEs

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Recently, when the Government of India decided to classify institutions as Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) they were trying to set up an incentive structure to usher a new era of growth. The incentives announced are in the form of attractive cheap loans, fewer compliance standards, tax benefits, and host of other freebies. The intended scheme wanted to keep growing — from Micro to Small and Small to Medium, and the support system and put the nation on a path of self-sufficiency .

Change of classification criteria

In fact, the businesses are  classified as Micro, Small, or Medium depending on the kind of investments they were making in plant and machinery and  if we made investments of up to 5 Crore, then we are as a Small enterprise. But what happens when business is booming and there’s an incentive for us  to invest and expand. Well, without government intervention, we’d have lapped up this opportunity no questions asked. But now, we have to consider the downside. Because, as our transition from being Small to Medium, we’ll forego a few benefits. Benefits that  might not want to cede. Here likes the dilemma because when we  try and deceive the government into thinking we  are a Small enterprise when in fact we are not and we will  have to do is to keep making the investments we  need, but figure out ways to hide the investments on our  accounting books. That means the government will now have to spend additional resources in physically verifying your claims. In effect, the incentives that were designed to help MSMEs grow and become self-sufficient have now turned “perverse”. A move that was meant to promote investment and foster growth is now yielding terrible unintended consequences stifling all progress.

Scheme of the Government

So they began working on a proposal to change the classification criteria. They figured that total revenues would be a good metric since claims regarding revenue can easily be verified with the GST Sales data filed at the Goods and Service Tax portal. More importantly, entrepreneurs won’t have to worry about making new investments since the benefits are no longer tied to this metric. But the industry body representing MSEMs is not happy with this development. They lobbied and urged the government to keep the classification criteria intact but  when the government finally charged ahead and introduced turnover as an additional criterion. They even expanded the investment limit to ensure MSMEs don’t graduate out of benefits too soon. However, MSMEs in the service sector (IT and stuff) will also be classified along the same lines as their manufacturing counterparts. So no step-motherly treatment for the people in the service industry either. Besides the classification, the government also wants to get the big guns interested in the space. They want Venture Capitalists to walk in and buy ownership in promising upstarts. The plan is simple. Put together a mother fund with 10,000 crores from the government. And then disburse the funds from the mother entity to smaller daughter funds in a piecemeal fashion and try and get other investors on-board these smaller funds. If all goes well, the 10,000 crores from the government should attract an additional 40,000 crores from outside investors (PE/VCs) and this should give MSMEs some much-needed funding support. They are calling it the Fund of Funds.

However, in the present status of pandemic banks don’t want to offer another lifeline by extending new loans considering their own precarious situation. And they most certainly cannot contain the problem; since we are likely to see a spike in defaults owing to the fact that most MSMEs have shut shop completely since the lockdown. And if MSMEs can’t restart operations and fail en masse, we will have a systemic problem on our hands. So a government intervention was inevitable. And the finance minister finally announced 3 lakh crore worth of collateral—free loans for businesses, including MSMEs in a bid to plug the funding gap. If we are in a business with a loan burden on your hands, banks will now extend new loans of up to 20% of the total loan outstanding so that we  can restart operations. Now, we’ll have 4 years to repay this loan. Repayment obligations won’t kick in until the end of the first year. The government will stand as our guarantor in case we  default and they will compensate the banks in full interest and principal. So technically, banks should be more willing to lend to these institutions now.

Growing importance of agriculture

 Around 51 lakh people migrated to agriculture last year and this should be seen positively. In fact, we should actively pursue this endeavour and focus on making farming economically viable. Indian Agriculture, on an aggregate level,  has been unprofitable for a good while now. Monsoons are erratic. Irrigation infrastructure still needs work. Warehousing and storage problems still persist. The middlemen skim most of the profit and many farmers work with land parcels so tiny that they can almost never leverage benefits of scale. Meaning we have a small proportion of landowners who run an extremely profitable enterprise while a good chunk of the agrarian population  still live below the poverty line. The point is — there’s been very little incentive for people to continue and work the farmland. And as a consequence, many people migrated from rural hinterlands to urban centres en masse.

But now in the pandemic and long lockdown the  migration patterns have reversed.  There’s now more incentive for India’s labour population to return to agriculture. It’s become prosperous again. First, it is likely that employment did not actually increase in agriculture, but the sector merely absorbed the excess labour as it had no other place to go to. Farmers did not actually call out for more labour. But, family labour landed up in farms when they had no other place to go to. The real estate and construction sector, which is usually a provider of employment to low-skilled farm labourers who try to move out of the labour surplus farmlands, shed 4.6 million jobs between January-April 2018 and January-April 2019. This failure of the construction industry to absorb farm surplus labour is, possibly, the biggest reason why there is an increase in employment under agriculture. A family farm always has scope to absorb some unpaid labour although such additions may not increase any production or profit. There is always an extra patch of the farms to tend to or the need to take the cattle to graze a little farther. Farm work can be spread thinly over available labour and keep everyone “employed” when there is no alternate work available to them.And right now, with the lockdown in place, we are seeing it happen again. People are moving back to agriculture en masse because they have nowhere else to go. The only difference—it’s happening at a scale that almost seems unreal. This migration also has some very real policy implications.

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