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Global economy to see ‘steady’ growth of three per cent in 2019 despite risks

MD Staff

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The global economy grew at a “steady” 3.1 per cent last year and similar levels of growth are expected in 2019, but these headline figures mask growth that is uneven and often failing to reach where it is most needed, the UN’s chief economist warned on Monday

“We still have relatively strong growth, but we do see rising risks on the horizon and an increasing likelihood that some of these risks might actually materialize,” said Elliott Harris, United Nations Chief Economist, in comments coinciding with the launch of the World Economic Situation and Prospects 2019 (WESP) report.

Among these looming dangers, accelerating trade tensions are already “having an impact” on global trade and employment, Mr. Harris told UN News.

In addition, rising national debt is also crippling many countries’ ability to provide basic services, but this and other risks – such as those from climate change and waning support for international cooperation – could be avoided or minimized if countries worked together to do so, the UN’s top economist insisted.

With mounting pressures in the areas of international trade, international development finance and tackling climate change, the report underscores that strengthening global cooperation is central to advancing sustainable development.

Yet, these threats come at a time when international cooperation and governance are more important than ever – many of the challenges laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are global by nature and require collective and cooperative action. Waning support for multilateralism also raises questions around the capacity for collaborative policy action in the event of a widespread global shock.

UN report spotlights ‘uneven progress’

According to the WESP report, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, more than half the world’s economies saw growth accelerate in 2017 and 2018.

Developed economies grew at 2.2 per cent in both years, while unemployment rates dropped.

Among developing economies, East Asia and South Asia saw the strongest gains in 2018, at 5.8 per cent and 5.6 per cent respectively, while commodity-exporting countries continued their “gradual recovery”.

This improvement was particularly true for fuel-rich emerging nations, despite high debt levels caused by a fall in commodity prices, in 2014-15.

Although the overall picture among developing economies is largely positive, many are nonetheless experiencing “uneven progress”, the UN report cautioned, amid falling individual (per capita) wealth in several nations.

“Further declines or weak per capita growth are anticipated in 2019 in Central, Southern and West Africa, Western Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean – homes to nearly a quarter of the global population living in extreme poverty,” it noted.

And even where growth is strong, it is “often driven by core industrial and urban regions”, the WESP 2019 report continued, such that rural areas are being left behind.

To overcome this, and for poverty to be eradicated by 2030, the UN report suggests that there will need to be “both double-digit growth in Africa” along with “steep reductions” in unequal pay levels.

US-China trade tensions

On the issue of trade tensions, it noted that these had led to a fall in global trade levels in 2018, from 5.3 per cent in 2017, to 3.8 per cent.

And as a result of the United States-China uncertainty, the expectation is that trade volumes in 2019 “will be lower” still, Mr. Harris suggested.

Government subsidies have to some extent softened the impact of the tariff hikes in the US and China – whose growth is expected to decrease from 6.6 per cent in 2018 to 6.3 per cent this year – but the risk is that developing economies may suffer the fallout too, unless the dispute is settled.

“If the trade dispute becomes more widespread, we will likely to see disruptions of global value change,” Mr. Harris explained. “Bear in mind that the participation of global trade has been one of the ways that developing countries have participated in the rising global prosperity and have accelerated their own developments. So, anything that disrupts that, of course, (will) have a negative impact on their abilities to increase their levels of prosperity and to develop sustainably.”

This cautionary assessment is telling because the US in 2018 contributed more to global trade than Japan or the European Union, according to UN economists at UNCTAD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, which contributed to the WESP 2019 report.

Rising interest rates in the US – or a strengthening of the dollar – could also make matters worse for fragile emerging economies, the WESP report noted, adding that many low-income countries have already seen a “substantial rise” in interest repayments on their debt.

These include Lebanon and Sri Lanka, where over 40 per cent of Government revenue is spent servicing its debt, as well as Pakistan and Jamaica, where around a quarter of their budget is used to pay interest on national debt, representing a major constraint on public services.

Slow, steady growth in EU, but ‘Brexit’ looms

On the European Union’s prospects, the WESP report estimates growth of two per cent for the next two years, with much stronger performances, potentially, from States who became members since 2004.

The pack is led by Poland, which saw its economy grow by five per cent in 2018.

The bloc’s biggest economy, Germany, is set to see more moderate growth however, at 1.8 per cent, amid potential disruption to the domestic car industry from “new technologies, new competitors and significant legal and financial consequences from past sales practices related to the diesel technology”.

France is also set to see lower-than-average growth (1.8 per cent), linked to its weaker export outlook, while the UK (1.4 per cent) is projected to pay for trade uncertainty linked to its plans to exit the EU, or Brexit, with “companies moving assets or diverting investment from the UK to the EU”, WESP 2019 notes.

The ‘Brexit’ fallout may also be felt outside the EU, the UN report warns, with a possible “10-15 per cent decline in funding available to EU accession countries”.

Commonwealth States, Central Europe slso see ‘modest growth’

In most Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which includes Russia, most saw accelerating growth and slowing inflation last year, amid “supportive” commodity prices.

Despite this, overall growth is forecast to slow “modestly” this year to two per cent, and 2.5 per cent in 2020, WESP 2019 suggests, amid concerns that strong expansion in smaller economies may be unsustainable, while lower public spending is expected in others.

Focusing on Russia, the UN report notes that lifting the value-added tax (VAT) rate may encourage inflation and curb household spending, while ongoing sanctions could deter investment from abroad.

Other large commodity-exporting countries, such as Brazil and Nigeria, should see a “moderate pickup “in growth in 2019-2020, “albeit from a low base”.

Noting robust growth in Central Asia’s Tajikistan, thanks to increased aluminium and gold exports, WESP 2019 also suggests a much more positive future for the whole region, once China’s Belt and Road initiative becomes operational.

Frequently hailed as a 21st century version of the ancient Silk Road trade route, the region “should benefit from … upgrades to countries’ railway, road and energy infrastructure, improved connections with China and Europe, and better market access,” the report explains.

Elsewhere, South-Eastern Europe saw faster growth in 2018 and its overall gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to expand by 3.7 per cent in 2019 and 2020.

Serbia, the region’s largest economy, benefited from double-digit growth in investment amid strong performances in farming and construction, while Albania also saw “solid” economic performance, WESP 2019 noted, before cautioning that longer-term improvements risk being “constrained”, unless there are improvements in industrial infrastructure and dependence on foreign financing.

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Portugal can use its economic recovery to build up resilience

MD Staff

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Portugal’s economic recovery is now well established, with GDP back to pre-crisis levels, a substantially lower unemployment rate and renewed investment and domestic consumption now joining a robust export sector to drive the economy. Efforts should now focus on reducing vulnerabilities to build resilience to future shocks, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Portugal forecasts GDP growth for 2019 and 2020 of 2.1% and 1.9% respectively. A drop in the unemployment rate to below 7% and rising earnings are driving consumption, adding to the economic lift from tourism and manufacturing, which were behind much of the 60% rise in export volumes that the Portuguese economy experienced from 2009 to 2017.

The Survey, presented in Lisbon by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría alongside Portuguese Minister Assistant to the Prime Minister and for the Economy Pedro Siza Vieira and Deputy Minister and Secretary of State of Finance Ricardo Mourinho Félix, says Portugal should now take the opportunity to further shore up its public finances and banking sector.

To improve living standards and address still-high levels of poverty and inequality, Portugal should also aim to raise productivity, which has stalled in recent years, and get the long-term unemployed back into jobs.

At around 120% of GDP, Portugal’s public debt is falling but still among the highest in the OECD, limiting the country’s ability to respond to external shocks. Reducing the debt will require ongoing fiscal consolidation and further measures to offset the rising costs of ageing, including optimising health spending and further reducing pathways to early retirement. On the revenue side, the tax base could be broadened by reducing consumption tax exemptions and expanding the use of environmental taxes.

In the banking sector, there is a need to reduce the share of non-performing loans, which have declined since a peak in 2016 but remain high by OECD standards.

“Portugal has made tremendous progress restoring its economy to health since the financial crisis, but challenges remain in public finances and the financial sector,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “The more Portugal can do to build up resilience while its economy is turning over nicely, the better it will be able to weather any future shock, ensuring the sustainability and inclusiveness of its economic recovery.”

External risks to Portugal’s outlook could include a slowdown in economic activity in major trading partners and future rises in Eurozone interest rates.

The Survey includes a thematic chapter on efficiency in the judicial system and its effect on productivity and economic performance. It notes that despite reforms to reduce the time needed to resolve a civil or commercial case in the court system, cases still typically run longer than in other OECD countries. The report also highlights the importance of continuing efforts to foster integrity and promote transparency in both the public and business sectors, as a key priority.

A second thematic chapter focuses on Portugal’s export performance. With exports still relatively low as a share of GDP, it recommends doing more to improve competitiveness on international markets, to open up to external trade and to participate in global value chains. This could include removing barriers to competition, to further encourage exporting firms to compete on price and quality, and making efforts to improve domestic infrastructure and skills.

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Navigating Sri Lanka’s Demographic Change

MD Staff

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The latest edition of the World Bank’s Sri Lanka Development Update (SLDU) finds the island in a challenging macroeconomic landscape. The post-conflict high growth momentum has decelerated. A volatile global environment and structurally weak competitiveness continue to weaken growth and external sector performance. High interest costs mask limited fiscal improvement.

The report’s special focus examines the challenges associated with a change in demographic composition and suggests that a multi-year program of policy reforms and institutional strengthening could help prepare Sri Lanka for the decades ahead.

The SLDU, which analyses key developments in Sri Lanka’s economy over the past six months, notes that while post-conflict growth has decelerated, the outlook remains stable, conditional on political stability and reform implementation.

Sri Lanka is stepping up to the plate at a time when the global environment remains turbulent. Key reforms, such as the implementation of the Inland Revenue Law, passing of the Active Liability Management Act, are helping to prepare for heightened external debt refinancing risks in 2019 and beyond.

It is important to consolidate on previous reforms to ensure maximum benefits,” says Fernando Im, an author of the SLDU and the senior country economist for Sri Lanka-Maldives. He explains that future reforms could yield high development impacts, such as further strengthening public finance management and supporting the implementation of a social registry to improve coverage and targeting of social safety nets.

Below are some of the recent developments highlighted in the report:

Sri Lanka’s debt portfolio carries significant risks

At an estimated 83 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, Sri Lanka’s central government debt level is high. As the country approached upper middle-income status, it has been borrowing on more commercial terms with increased cost and risk.

The majority of foreign currency denominated debt is now largely made up of market borrowings including International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) and Sri Lanka Development Bonds (SLDBs), which in 2017 accounted for 53 percent, up from just 3 percent of total foreign currency denominated debt in 2000.

In total, maturities of bullet repayments on Eurobonds from 2019 to 2023 and from 2025 to 2028 alone amount to USD 12.15 billion. The SLDU notes that this is new territory for the country and could expose the island nation to refinancing risks.

In response, the government has adopted policies designed to address these risks, however, the slow progress of key structural reforms remains a cause for concern. It is hoped that improvements in debt management will help manage costs and risks of the portfolio, develop the domestic financial market and improve access to finance.

Despite the fast poverty reduction, there remain areas with significant poverty

Over the past two decades, Sri Lanka’s economy expanded at a rapid pace and the country has done much to address extreme poverty with a decline from 15.4 percent in 2013 to 9.7 percent in 2016, as measured against the World Bank’s international poverty line of $3.20 per day for lower middle-income countries.

Measures, such as the expansion of the Samurdhi programme in 2015, offered dividends although better targeting of social assistance would have resulted in larger gains. However, it is vital to note that a large number of people remain just a small shock away from falling back into poverty, says the report, noting that adverse weather conditions have become increasingly influential in recent years.

Critically, there is a disparity between various districts, with the highest poverty headcount being reported in the Northern and Eastern provinces, where regions like Ratnapura, Kandy and Badulla account for more than a quarter of the poor population combined. It is clear, Sri Lanka must design different strategies to address the varied issues around human capital, basic services, the availability of jobs and access to markets.

Sri Lanka is undergoing profound demographic change – the country needs to do more to prepare

Like many other countries in the world, Sri Lanka is staring down a dramatic demographic shift – Sri Lanka’s share of working-age population peaked in 2005 and it is expected to gradually decline over time. This has implications for labor supply, service delivery in sectors such as health and education, and of course for pensions, employment and public finances overall.

A particular concern are the limited savings and instructional support mechanisms in place to support this rapidly expanding elderly population. Increasing costs mean that programs such as the Public Servants Pension Scheme (PSPS) could struggle to deliver on their benefit promises over the long run, while the EPF – the employer-based defined contribution saving scheme for formal private sector workers – appears inadequate to meet the costs associated with over two decades of retirement.

As can be expected formidable challenges exist, but improving various aspects of delivery systems will prove critical to broadening worker coverage. By prioritising educational attainment, addressing the skills mismatch that hurts new graduates in the market, and nurturing entrepreneurship, younger people could be encouraged to participate in the workforce. Finally, improving female labour force participation could also help buffer the adverse impacts of demographic factors on growth.

World Bank

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Poor working conditions are main global employment challenge

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Poor quality employment is the main issue for global labour markets, with millions of people forced to accept inadequate working conditions, according to a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO).

New data gathered for the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2019  (WESO) show that a majority of the 3.3 billion people employed globally in 2018 had inadequate economic security, material well-being and equality of opportunity. What’s more, progress in reducing unemployment globally is not being reflected in improvements in the quality of work.

The report, published by the ILO, cites the persistence of a number of major deficits in decent work, warning that, at the current rate of progress, attaining the goal of decent work for all, as set out in the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs), particularly SDG 8 , seems unrealistic for many countries.

“SDG 8 is not just about full employment but the quality of that employment,” said Deborah Greenfield, ILO Deputy Director-General for Policy. “Equality and decent work are two of the pillars underpinning sustainable development.”

The report cautions that some new business models, including those enabled by new technologies, threaten to undermine existing labour market achievements – in areas such as improving employment formality and security, social protection and labour standards – unless policy-makers meet the challenge.

“Being in employment does not always guarantee a decent living,” said Damian Grimshaw, ILO Director of Research. “For instance, a full 700 million people are living in extreme or moderate poverty despite having employment.”

Among the issues highlighted is the lack of progress in closing the gender gap in labour force participation. Only 48 per cent of women are in the labour force, compared to 75 per cent of men. Women also make up far more of the potential, underutilized, labour force. Another issue is the persistence of informal employment, with a staggering 2 billion workers – 61 per cent of the world’s workforce – categorized as such. Also of concern is that more than one in five young people (under 25) are not in employment, education or training, compromising their future employment prospects.

The annual report also highlights some pockets of progress. Should the world economy manage to avoid a significant downturn, unemployment is projected to decline further in many countries. There has also been a great decrease in working poverty in the last 30 years, especially in middle-income countries, and a rise in the number of people in education or training.

Main regional findings

Africa

Only 4.5 per cent of the region’s working age population is unemployed, with 60 per cent employed. However, rather than indicating a well-functioning labour market, this is because many workers have no choice but to take poor quality work, lacking security, decent pay and social protection.

The labour force is projected to expand by more than 14 million per year. Economic growth rates until 2020 are expected to be too low to create enough quality jobs for this fast-growing labour force.

Northern America

Unemployment is expected to reach its lowest level, 4.1 per cent in 2019.

Both employment growth and economic activity are projected to begin declining in 2020.

People with basic education are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with advanced education.

The sub-region is a leader in digital labour platforms. Close monitoring of such work is a growing issue for policy-makers.

Latin America and the Caribbean

Despite rebounding economic growth, employment is expected to rise by only 1.4 per cent per year in 2019 and 2020.

The relatively slow fall in regional unemployment figures is a result of different labour market conditions in individual countries.

Informality and poor job quality remain pervasive in all types of employment.

Arab States

Regional unemployment is projected to remain stable at 7.3 per cent until 2020, with unemployment in non-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries reaching double that of the GCC.

Migrant workers account for 41 per cent of total regional employment, and in GCC countries more than half of all workers are migrants, on average.

The women’s unemployment rate, at 15.6 per cent, is three times that of men. Youth are also disproportionately affected and the youth unemployment rate is four times the adult rate.

Asia and the Pacific

Economic growth continues, albeit at a slower rate than in previous years.

The regional unemployment rate is projected to remain at around 3.6 per cent until 2020, below the global average.

Structural transformation has moved workers out of agriculture, but this has not created significant improvements in job quality; a large proportion of workers lack job security, written contracts and income stability.

While social protection has been significantly extended in some countries, it remains extremely low in those countries with the highest poverty rates.

Europe and Central Asia

In Northern, Southern and Western Europe, unemployment is at its lowest in a decade and is set to continue falling until 2020.

In Eastern Europe the number of people in employment is expected to shrink by 0.7 per cent in both 2019 and 2020, but a simultaneously shrinking labour force means the unemployment rate will fall.

Long-term unemployment is as high as 40 per cent in some countries.

Informality remains widespread, at 43 per cent, in Central and Western Asia.

Working poverty, poor job quality and persistent labour market inequalities remain concerns.

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