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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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China needs further reforms to make growth sustainable, greener and more inclusive

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The Chinese economy continues to slow as it rebalances, with headwinds including trade frictions and the weakening global economy undermining exports and creating new uncertainties. Policy should focus on long-term strategies to move the economy towards greater domestic consumption and services, enhancing economic efficiency and ensuring that future growth is sustainable, greener and more inclusive, according to a new report from the OECD.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of China looks at the factors behind the economic slowdown as well as policies that can boost the quality of future growth and ensure that it is more equitably distributed. Despite the slowdown, the Survey projects growth above 6% this year and next, and sees continuing convergence with more advanced economies.  

The Survey, presented in Beijing by OECD Deputy Secretary-General Ludger Schuknecht, underlines the rising financial risks from high corporate debt and recommends that China prioritises the creation of a single product and labour market to boost productivity and inclusiveness.

“China continues to be the major driver of world economic growth and convergence with advanced economies continues, despite the slowdown,” Mr Schuknecht said. “Yet China is at a crossroads, facing serious domestic and external challenges to maintaining its strong position over the long-term. Policy should seek to ensure a better functioning economy that delivers stable and inclusive growth for all.”

The Survey underlines the need for more balanced trade and investment. Policy should aim to further lower import tariffs and dismantle non-tariff barriers and barriers on the entry and conduct of foreign firms, in particular requirements to form joint ventures or transfer technology.

While much has been done to address financial risks, China’s ongoing fiscal stimulus should avoid directing credit to state-owned enterprises and local governments, the Survey said. Debt ceilings should take into account sub-national government revenues.

Prudent fiscal policy should channel funds to areas where returns are highest, such as education, health and social security systems, while avoiding misallocation of capital by allowing banks to better price risks. Risk perception could be sharpened by orderly defaults. The quality, coverage and timeliness of fiscal reporting can be improved, the Survey said.

The Survey sees wide scope to improve efficiency across the economy, notably by reducing the internal barriers that hinder product market competition and labour mobility. Strengthening the rule of law, restricting the power of administrative departments and providing clear and detailed implementation rules limiting their discretionary powers would reduce protectionism at the local level. Anti-monopoly rules and enforcement can be strengthened and public procurement processes could be made more transparent, technology-neutral and open to all players.

Other measures to boost economic efficiency highlighted by the Survey include stronger protection of intellectual property rights; gradual removal of implicit guarantees to state-owned enterprises, allowing them to default; and reduction of state ownership in commercially-oriented, non-strategic sectors.

To ensure equal opportunities, the Survey recommends China to distribute more evenly high-quality education and health care in order to reduce incentives to move to mega-cities. Gradually easing restrictions on access to public services for city residents without the hukou (residency permit) and eventually delinking service provision from the hukou would also help improve equity. Centralised financing of key spending items, such as wage bills in education and health, reforms to the floor and ceiling for social security contributions and wider tax reform should be pursued.

To make growth greener, the Survey suggests China enforce environmental regulations more strictly, raise fines for polluters and boost environmental taxation, particularly on fossil fuels. Putting an end to the construction of coal-fired power plants and increasing investment in pollution treatment facilities, urban water treatment and rural sanitation is also necessary.

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Bhutan’s Economy to Moderately Grow in 2019 and 2020 on Strong Hydropower and Tourism Outlooks

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Economic growth in Bhutan is forecast to strengthen moderately, buoyed by the industry and services sectors, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.

The Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2019, ADB’s flagship annual economic publication, forecasts the economy to grow at 5.7% this year and 6.0% in 2020. This is following the slipping of growth for a second year running to 5.5% in fiscal year (FY) 2018 on slower hydropower construction and temporary decline in electric power production.

“The expected commissioning of the Mangdechhu hydropower plant, strengthening of private spending, and increased government spending following the formation of a new government to implement the Twelfth Five-Year Plan will greatly contribute to growth,” said ADB Country Director for Bhutan Ms. Kanokpan Lao-Araya. “Inflationary pressure is anticipated following the recent announcement of expected pay rise of the public servants in Bhutan. A downside risk to growth forecasts would be any further delay in commissioning or lower-than-expected production capacity of the Mangdechhu hydropower plant.”

Inflation is expected to rise moderately from 3.6% in FY2018 to 3.8% in FY2019 before edging up to 4.0% in FY2020 as initial benefits from India’s goods and service tax (GST) taper and Indian inflation trends higher. Lower international oil price forecasts will help keep inflation at bay, but the planned revisions to civil service salaries and minimum wage might push up inflation, once implemented.

Current account deficit will continue to narrow further to a forecast of 16.9% of gross domestic product in FY2019, mainly on declining imports with the slowing of hydropower construction and a 6-month hiatus in capital expenditure as the country transitioned to a new administration. It is expected to shrink further in FY2020, as higher imports because of the picking up of government investment is offset by high export revenue from the full-year operation of the Mangdechhu hydropower plant.

Strengthening domestic resources toward better funding of development remains a challenge. With the expected graduation of Bhutan from the United Nations’ least developed country status in 2023, access to concessional official development assistance will increasingly be limited. Reforms have been undertaken to strengthen the mobilization of revenues to fund development. These include the creation of a stabilization fund to ensure even distribution of expenditure, a GST regime which is planned to be adopted in 2020, and reforms on provision of fiscal incentives. Fiscal incentives have been costly for the government with forgone revenue amounting to 17% of tax collected in 2017 only. Reduction of fiscal incentives, particularly tax reforms could be explored to raise government revenues, discourage the entry of footloose opportunists, while not deterring investors who see solid business opportunities in the country. Further, Bhutan needs to simplify the provision and administration of incentives without compromising the level of investment. As a complement to revenue reforms, public financial management needs further strengthening to ensure the proper collection and administration of revenue.

ADB has been supporting Bhutan since 1982, with strong emphasis on renewable energy production, transport connectivity, and key urban infrastructure projects. ADB has committed loans totaling $534.06 million, grants worth $269.22 million, and technical assistance amounting to $53.75 million for Bhutan. In 2018, it approved four projects, including two grant projects focusing on human resource development, particularly on skills and health development. Overall assistance aims to help generate revenue, support inclusive growth, and promote environmental sustainability.

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SMEs turning to alternative financing instruments as growth slows in bank lending

MD Staff

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Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are turning to non-bank financing sources at a faster pace than in the past, as bank lending to them has risen less than expected given today’s favourable credit conditions and business environment.

Financing SMEs and Entrepreneurs 2019: An OECD Scoreboard finds that online peer-to-peer lending and equity crowdfunding increased significantly in 2017, especially in countries with small markets. China, the United Kingdom and the United States continued to have the biggest online alternative finance markets for businesses. Venture capital investments were up in most countries, and the number of SME listings expanded by more than 13% in 2017, with total SME market capitalisation up 16.7%.

SMEs and entrepreneurs constitute the backbone of OECD economies, accounting for 60% of total employment and 50-60% of value added. They are key to strengthening productivity, delivering inclusive growth and helping economies adapt to changes like the digital transition, ageing populations and the changing future of work. This eighth annual edition of the OECD’s SME financing Scoreboard provides data on debt, equity, asset-based finance and financing conditions in 46 countries and an overview of policy measures to ease SMEs’ access to finance.

“Uptake of alternative financing instruments by SMEs is growing like never before, while bank lending to SMEs is growing less strongly. We need to monitor these developments closely to ensure that SMEs are well-equipped to invest and contribute to productivity growth,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the Scoreboard in Washington alongside Chilean Central Bank Governor Mario Marcel on the margins of the IMF/World Bank Spring meetings.

“Policy makers around the world have a key role to play to increase SME access to a diverse set of financing instruments. We are glad that the policy initiatives of the government of Chile are successfully strengthening access to credit and equity for SMEs, and reducing payment delays,” said Governor Marcel.

The 2019 Scoreboard finds that asset-based financing also grew, with leasing and hire purchase activities up by a median rate of 6.2%.

SME loans grew at a median of close to 5% in a majority of middle income countries in 2017, while SME lending stagnated in the United States and the United Kingdom, and fell in European countries most affected by the financial crisis over the same period.

Credit conditions and interest rates remained favourable. The median value of the average interest rate charged to SMEs fell for the 7th year in a row, and SME bankruptcies dropped for the fourth consecutive year in 2017. On the other hand, some segments of SMEs continued to face difficulties in accessing finance. This is the case in particular for micro-enterprises, innovative ventures, start-ups and young firms.

Countries continued to do more to foster SME access to bank and alternative sources of finance by adapting regulations and introducing targeted policies to support Fintech. Credit guarantees, the most widespread instrument to ease SMEs’ access to finance, have been expanded in scale and volume, and better targeted to specific firms. The OECD is working to further expand the evidence base on SME access to finance and support governments in improving their policies in this area.

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