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Wide-ranging reforms needed to ensure Italy’s economic recovery

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Stronger, more inclusive and sustainable growth, better job opportunities and a reduction in the level of public debt in Italy require a comprehensive programme of far-reaching reforms while maintaining the important measures taken in recent years, according to a new OECD report.

The latest Economic Survey of Italy says the country’s GDP is expected to fall by around 0.2% this year before growing 0.5% in 2020. GDP per capita is broadly at the same level of 20 years ago and poverty remains high, especially among the young. Low productivity growth and wide social and regional inequalities are long-standing challenges which need to be tackled vigorously. The public debt as a share of GDP remains high, at 134%, and a source of risks.

The report says Italians generally have high levels of well-being in areas such as work-life balance, social connections and health, but not in others such as environmental quality, education and skills.

To support stronger employment and productivity growth, improve well-being, and help to put the debt-to-GDP ratio on a downward path, the Survey proposes an ambitious reform package. According to OECD simulations, by 2030, annual GDP growth would increase from 0.6% under current policies to above 1.5% if such reforms were implemented. The report identifies strengthening the effectiveness and efficiency of the public administration and justice system among the reforms proposed that would have the biggest impact on GDP.

The government’s 2019 budget rightly aims to help the poor through the new Citizen’s Income (Reddito di cittadinanza), says the report, but it will be important not to weaken work incentives so as to avoid poverty traps. The high level of the Citizen’s Income benefit – relative to other OECD countries – might discourage people from finding jobs in the formal sector, especially in regions where wages are lower. To counter this problem the report proposes to introduce an in-work benefit system and lower the Citizen’s Income benefit.

The survey adds that the effectiveness of the Citizen’s Income will depend critically on marked improvements in job search and training programmes. It welcomes the additional resources allocated to public employment services but warns that improvements will require a detailed plan to revamp their operations through more extensive use of information and technology, and profiling tools.

The report also warns that the reduction in the retirement age – to 62 with at least 38 years of contributions – though only temporary, could lower economic growth in the medium term by reducing work among older people and worsen intergenerational inequality.

The number of people in work has risen to 58% of the working age population, but Italy’s employment rate is still one of the lowest among OECD countries, especially for women. Big differences in employment rates explain much of the disparities in living standards between regions. Job quality is also relatively low. An increasing share of new jobs are temporary and the mismatch between people’s skills and the work they do is high.

Reform action taken in recent years, such as increasing autonomy and resources in schools (Buona scuola), Industry 4.0 and the Jobs Act have started to address some of the country’s challenges and it will be important not to backtrack on them. At the same time, it will be necessary to boost productivity growth by increasing competition in markets that are still protected such as local public services, enhancing administration efficiency and reducing barriers to entrepreneurship.

Presenting the report in Rome, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said: “The Italian economy has many strengths. Exports, private consumption, investment flows and a dynamic manufacturing sector have driven growth in recent years while labour market reforms have helped raise the employment rate by 3 percentage points since 2015.”

“But the country continues to face important economic and social challenges,” he added. “Tackling them requires a multi-year reform package to achieve stronger, more inclusive and sustainable growth, and revive confidence in the capacity to reform.”

Without sustainable public spending and taxation policies, the room to improve infrastructure, help the poor and deliver the services people expect will inevitably narrow, the report says. Designing budgets within the EU Growth and Stability Pact, which should be implemented in a pragmatic way, would help strengthen the credibility of Italian fiscal policy and reduce its risk premium. Lower government bond yields would also help safeguard the stability of banks. The health of the banking sector has improved markedly as banks’ non-performing loans have declined and the sector is being rationalised and consolidated.

Public spending needs to become more efficient and better targeted through designing and implementing spending reviews in the budget making process. The tax system needs to be made fairer through improved voluntary compliance, avoiding repeated amnesties and fighting evasion forcefully.

With public investment having fallen as a share of GDP in recent years, the report recommends speedier implementation of the new public procurement code, which it says is well thought out. Simplifying the most complex aspects of the new code should not weaken the power of the anti-corruption authority.

To help reduce wide regional divides across Italy, improved coordination is needed between central and local bodies – whose capacity needs to be strengthened – to ensure more effective spending of regional development and EU cohesion funds. 

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Emerging and Developing Economies Less Prepared Now for a Deeper Downturn

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Emerging and developing economies are less well positioned today to withstand a deeper global downturn, should it occur, than they were before the 2009 global recession, although they now have more resilient policy frameworks to respond, a new World Bank Group study of the global recession and its aftermath finds.

With multiple risks to global growth clouding the outlook, there is concern whether emerging and developing economies can effectively respond to a deeper economic slowdown as they were able to do during the 2009 global recession. The new study by the World Bank Group, A Decade after the Global Recession, compares emerging market and developing economies’ preparedness then and now, and finds reason both for concern and for optimism.

“The big lesson of the past decade is clear, you need to be prepared for the unexpected,” said World Bank Group Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu. “Developing countries need to urgently boost resilience and growth, by building human and physical capital, streamlining business regulations, and strengthening institutions.”

Since the 2009 global recession, emerging and developing economies have become more vulnerable to external shocks in an environment of mounting debt and weakening long-term growth prospects, the study finds.

However, at the same time, many emerging market and developing economies now have stronger policy frameworks, such as fiscal rules and inflation targeting monetary policy regimes, than during earlier financial crises and global recessions. Meanwhile, international financial sector regulation has strengthened.

“Policy frameworks in many emerging and developing economies have become more resilient, for example through inflation targeting regimes and fiscal rules,” said World Bank Prospects Group Director Ayhan Kose. “However, in light of downside risks and elevated vulnerabilities, policymakers should prepare their economies to mitigate the impact of adverse shocks and ensure that policy space is available to act when such shocks occur, as they inevitably will.”

The World Bank Group’s response to the global recession was unprecedent in both financing volume and country coverage, and prioritized the areas of finance, infrastructure, fiscal management, and social protection. The Bank introduced new crisis response facilities to improve its assistance to developing economies and improved its monitoring of global macroeconomic developments to more effectively flag risks.

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Africa: Urgent action needed to mobilise domestic resources as tax revenues plateau

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The average tax-to-GDP ratio for the 26 countries participating in the new edition of Revenue Statistics in Africa was unchanged at 17.2% for the third consecutive year in 2017. This was lower than the averages for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) at 22.8% and for the OECD at 34.2%, underlining the need for urgent action to enhance domestic revenue mobilisation in Africa.

The 26 countries covered in Revenue Statistics in Africa 2019, released today in Tunis at the African Union’s 13th Session of the Committee of Directors-General of National Statistics Offices, represent nearly three-quarters of Africa’s GDP. The report shows that tax-to-GDP ratios varied widely across these countries in 2017, ranging from 5.7% in Nigeria to 31.5% in the Seychelles. This fourth edition has grown from 21 to 26 countries and includes Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania, Nigeria and the Seychelles for the first time.

While tax revenues plateaued as a percentage of GDP for the Africa (26) in 2017, non-tax revenues (primarily rents and royalties from natural resources, as well as grants) continued to decline and were lower than tax revenues in all but three of the 26 countries: Botswana, the Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea. Between 2010 and 2017, an increase in tax revenues equivalent to 1.9% of GDP on average was offset by a decline in non-tax revenues from 7.5% of GDP to 5.7% of GDP.

African economies continue to rely heavily on taxes on goods and services, which accounted for 53.7% of total tax revenues across the 26 countries. Within this category, value-added taxes (VAT) accounted for 29.4% of total tax revenues. Meanwhile, corporate income taxes (CIT) generated 18.6% of total tax revenues – a higher proportion than in LAC and in the OECD – and were equivalent to 2.8% of GDP in 2017. This is the same level as in 2016, halting the decline in CIT as a percentage of GDP since 2013.

Overall, the tax structure across participating countries has evolved over the past decade, with VAT and personal income tax (PIT) accounting for a higher proportion of revenue generation in 2017 relative to 2008, on average. However, PIT (15.4% of total tax revenues) and social security contributions (8.1% of total tax revenues) remain low in Africa. Reforms to broaden the personal tax base, remove harmful and regressive subsidies, and expand social insurance coverage can assist in domestic resource mobilisation efforts while contributing to inclusive growth.

Enhancing the efficiency of VAT systems can also provide higher and more sustainable revenues, and improve distributional or environmental outcomes. Environmental taxes are found to represent a small but increasing share of tax revenues in Africa and can have an important role in raising revenues and encouraging the transition to a low-carbon economy. Property taxes are shown to be much lower in Africa than in LAC and in the OECD but have the potential to play a key role in funding better local services. Equally, improvements in governance and spending may also lead to higher revenues by improving tax morale and making citizens more willing to pay taxes.

A special feature assesses the potential impact of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) on the level and structure of tax revenues, drawing on the detailed data on these revenues in this report. While AfCFTA is likely to strengthen Africa’s economic growth and increase tax revenues in the medium-to-long term, the elimination of taxes on trade within the region will likely reduce revenues in the short term. Trade taxes accounted for 11.8% of total taxation on average in 2017 across the 26 countries in this report.  Low-income and least developed countries in the region tend to rely more on trade taxes and are more vulnerable to the short-term impact of reduced trade taxes, underlining the importance of the flexibility mechanisms envisaged by the AfCFTA.

Revenue Statistics in Africa is a joint initiative between the African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF), the African Union Commission (AUC) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and its Development Centre, with the technical support of the African Development Bank (AfDB), the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and the Cercle de Réflexion et d’Échange des Dirigeants des Administrations fiscales (CREDAF) and the financial support of the European Union.

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Brazil must immediately end threats to independence and capacity of law enforcement to fight corruption

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The OECD Working Group on Bribery urges Brazil, one of the founding Parties to the Anti-Bribery Convention since 1997, to preserve the full capacity and independence of law enforcement authorities to investigate and prosecute foreign bribery and corruption. Despite being recognised by the Working Group for its significant anti-corruption enforcement efforts following its previous evaluation in 2014, there are now concerns that Brazil, due to recent action taken by the legislative and judiciary branches, risks backsliding on progress achieved, that could seriously jeopardise Brazil’s ability to meet its obligations under the Anti-Bribery Convention.

The Working Group has continuously alerted Brazil since 2016 of risks posed by attempts to broaden the definition of what constitutes abuses of authority by judges and prosecutors. Despite these warnings, a Law on abuses of authority (13. 869/2019) characterised by vague concepts will enter into force in January 2020. The Working Group has also expressed concerns that, following injunctions of the Supreme Court, limitations on the use of reports by Financial Intelligence Unit, Federal Revenues and other administrative agencies in criminal investigations might seriously hamper Brazil’s ability to detect and effectively fight corruption. This, combined with other actions by the Supreme Court and the Federal Auditor’s Court that are likely to have an effect on concluded foreign bribery cases, could constitute a serious push back in Brazil’s exemplary fight against corruption.

On 12-13 November 2019, a High-Level Mission of the OECD Working Group on Bribery discussed these issues in Brasilia with Minister of the Office of the Comptroller General Wagner de Campos Rosário, Minister of Justice Sérgio Moro, Attorney General André Mendonça, Deputy Prosecutor General of the Republic Hindemburgo Chateaubriand, President of the Supreme Court José Antonio Dias Toffoli, Senator Marcos do Val, as well as with the Chair of Brazil-OECD Parliamentary Group and Leader of the Government Deputy Vitor Hugo along with members of this Group. However, the High-Level Mission could not meet as scheduled with Prosecutor General of the Republic Augusto Aras, and with the Presidents of the Commission of Constitution and Justice of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

“Despite disappointing last minute cancellations of key high level representatives, we appreciate the readiness of the Brazilian authorities to meet with us to discuss outstanding issues related to law enforcement capacity and independence in foreign bribery cases,” said Drago Kos, Chair of the Working Group on Bribery. “However, we are quite alarmed that what Brazil had managed to achieve in recent years in the fight against corruption may now be seriously jeopardised. Brazil must strive toward reinforcing its framework and legal tools to fight foreign bribery, not weaken them.”

“The OECD high-level mission is a relevant initiative, as it brings a comprehensive analysis of the landscape of the fight against corruption in the country” said Minister of the Office of the Comptroller General Wagner de Campos Rosário. “Brazil has evolved considerably in recent years in the fight against corruption. The enactment of the corporate liability law (Law 12.846/2013), the establishment of leniency agreements, and the adoption of integrity plans in federal agencies and entities are important progresses. Nonetheless, this is a continuous process of improvement and we will always be seeking to improve our controls and mechanisms to combat the evil of corruption, thereby ensuring the delivery of better quality public services to citizens.”

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