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Back to IMF: Whither Pakistan’s Medina Model

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Pakistan has been availing International Monetary Fund loan packages without stricto sensuo acting upon reforms since late 1980s. Its finance minister is now horn-locked with the International Monetary Fund ferreting out strings, a tangled skein, to a US$ 6 billion to $12 billion bailout package.    Pakistan could complete one IMF package that ended in 2016. That too with a number of requirements relaxed.

IMF’s worries

The thorny questions hovering over the instant package are opaque US$ 60 billion Chinese loans (diversion of IMF dollars to China), trimming unbridled spending,  nurturing  bloated state-owned corporations,  inaction against tax dodgers (low tax-to-Gross Domestic Product ratio), sluggish textile exports (lost out to Bangladesh), and US$7.6 billion debt-stricken energy sector. Besides, current-account and budget gaps have swelled to more than 5 percent of gross domestic product and foreign-currency reserves have plunged to the lowest in almost four years. In response authorities have devalued the rupee five times since December and hiked interest rates the most in Asia. The GDP growth of about 5.2 per cent in 2018 rolled down to 2.9 per cent in 2019 and a further decline to 2.8 in 2020.Inflation jumped from 3.9 per cent in 2018 to over 7.6 per cent in 2019. Already grey listed, Pakistan is fighting tooth and nail to wriggle out of stigma notwithstanding virulent Indian pressure to freeze it so.  

Interest-free Medina-model rhetoric

Pakistan had to go to the IMF doorstep despite cricketer-turned-prime minister Imran Khan’s reluctance. He was enamoured of Medina model as every Muslim should. Both Islam and Marxism did away with `interest’ as primum mobile of capital formation. But, Alas! Imran had to wake up about bitter reality of the economic world around. Much to his chagrin, even chairman of Pakistan’s Islamic Ideology Council has warned (October 22, 2018) him against `romanticism’.  He urged the government to set up a task force to realize a “Medina State” and suggested the formation of a task force to realize this vision., The whole of Pakistan,  with wistful eyes, looks forward to fulfillment of this dream of `new Pakistan’.

We now live in a different world.

Unlike Medina, today’s Pakistan is a complex state. Shortly after his arrival at Medina, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) built a mosque and a market place there. Like the mosque, the market place could not be privatised. There was free entry and exit of traders (akin to perfect competition under micro-economics) and caravans to the market. No monopolies, duopolies and cartels! A section of the market caravanserai was reserved for foreign traders. The whole world could sell their goods there free of any taxes.  

Some clever local traders tried to take advantage of robust trade. They used to buy caravan camel loads outside the Medina (before they reached Medina), and sell it at dictated price. Islam outlawed this practice as talaqqiur rukaban (seeing faces of riders).  Islam prohibited all types of future trading involving element of uncertainty (advance purchase of raw tree-fruit, fish in the pond, and so on). Islam prohibited usury (riba) in all its forms (loan giving at agreed interest taffazzul, or loan profiting due to delay naseea). When Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) tried to exchange his coarse-quality dates with fine-quality dates the Holy Prophet forbade him. He told him to sell his dates for cash and buy better dates at prevailing price. The Prophet did not live in a 300-kanal-and-10-marla house (like Pakistan’s prime minister). Nor did he, like our numerous politicians, own assets abroad. He bequeathed a dozen swords but no precious metals (Golda Meier). Islam globalized free-market mechanism (laissez faire). It changed attitudes and avaricious mindsets. Being a dominant religion, Islam dictated its own terms of trade.

To fulfil its promises, Pakistan’s government budgeted public-sector development- programme outlay of only Rs. 800 billion for the federation and only Rs 850 billion for the provinces. The government has a Hobson choice. With India, at daggers drawn, could it divert security allocation to welfare? Some writers described Pakistan as a `garrison state’.

For an economic turnaround, Pakistan’s visionary prime minister has to shun rhetoric, and decide upon suitable economic policies. It needs to look at the economic world around, beyond Medina.

Interest outlawed under Pakistan’s constitution

Under preamble to Pak constitution `sovereignty’ belongs to Allah Almighty, not to people themselves as under US constitution. The elected representative can wield authority within defined religious limits. Interest is outlawed under

Article 38 (f) of the Constitution of Pakistan, quoted heretofore _ Article 38 (Promotion of social and economic well-being of the people) The State shall…(f) eliminate riba

[economic interest]

as early as possible. The Islamic preamble (Objectives Resolution) was inserted in draft constitution under Pakistan’s prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s influence. Unlike Pakistan’s most `leaders’, Liaquat Ali Khan was financially scrupulous. Aside from his honesty, Liaquat Ali Khan could not foresee he would be the first to sow seeds of religious discord. Jamsheed Marker, in his book Cover Point, observes ` charge against Liaquat was that he moved the Objectives Resolution, which declared Pakistan to be an ‘Islamic State’ (ibid. p. 33)”. Unlike the US and many other secular constitutions, the Objectives Resolution (now Preamble to 1973 Constitution) states `sovereignty belongs to Allah Almighty’. The golden words of the constitution were warped to continue an interest-based economy. We pay interest on our international loans and international transactions. Do we live in an interactive world or in an ivory tower? Isn’t Islamisation old wine in new bottle?

Follow-up to `Interest’ outlawed

The Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan enforced Shariah Governance Regulations 2018. This regulation is follow-up to Article 38 (f) of the Constitution of Pakistan, and Senate’s resolution No. 393 (July 9, 2018) for abolition of riba (usury).

(extortionist interest) and normal interest/profit are indistinguishable. They disallow even saving bank-accounts. They point out that riba is anathema both as `addition’ (taffazzul) and due to `delay'(nas’ee) consequent upon fluctuating purchasing power.

The regulation is welcome but there are unanswered questions about Islamisation of finance in Pakistan. We pay interest on our loans and international transactions. The sheiks put their money in Western banks and earn hefty interest thereon.

Future trading is hub of modern commerce. Yet, it is forbidden under Islam. At International Islamic University, I learned that Islamic law of contract does not even allow advance contracts concerning raw fish, fruit, or anything involving element of `uncertainty’. Islam does not allow even tallaqi-ur-rukbaan (buying camel-loads of goods from caravan before they had reached Madina open-market. Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him) forbade Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) to exchange poor-quality dates with superior-quality dates. He was advised to sell off his dates in open market for cash and then buy better-quality dates with money so earned.

Interest-based real world

Complex `interest’-based world

Gnawing reality of complex interest-based economic world has now dawned on the government. To quote a Murphy Law `nothing is as simple as it seems at first’. Pakistan needs to review the whole gamut of its economic structure (feudal lords, industrial robber barons, money launderers, and their ilk) and International Monetary Fund conditions. In his lifetime, even our Holy Prophet had to engage in commercial partnerships with the non-Muslim also.

Even Marx did not live in Utopia. He, also, constantly searched for solutions to the problems of the real world around. Disgusted at the simplistic interpretations of his ideas, he cried in boutade: “If this is Marxism, what is certain is that I am not a Marxist”. Keynese offered panacea of deficit financing with concomitant inflation to swerve 1930-Depression unemployment and stagnation. He also reacted to mis-interpretation of his ideas, saying `I am not a Keynesian’.

Keynesian theories preceded a lot of discussion about Gold Exchange Standard, stable prices.  To create more money, deficit financing (paper money) was resorted to. As a result the hydra-headed monster of inflation was unleashed. Keynes believed inflation was a `short run phenomenon typical of a full- employment stagnant economy’. But, it became a long run phenomenon. Keynes postulated `With perfectly free competition, there will always be a strong tendency for wage relates to be so related to demand that everyone is employed at level of full employment’. When Keynes was asked about persistence of inflation (too much money chasing too few goods), he replied `In the long run we are all dead’. Post-Keynesian economists coined the term `stagflation’ to explain the phenomenon. With visible massive joblessness, Pakistan is far from a full-employment economy. The paltry household income has to bear the brunt of forced reduction in purchasing power due to rising price level, or falling rupee value.

We adopted floated exchange rate that ballooned our debt burden. No economist has ever applied his mind to effect, positive or negative, of international debt burden on Pakistan economy. No-one ever visualized even the idea of `odious debts’.

Pak government discourages savings

Keynes postulated savings are equal to investment. But, Pakistan discourage savings and encourage consumerism by reducing profit on saving deposits, and increasing taxes on small savings. Locke and others say government can’t tax without taxpayer’s consent. In Pakistan, the govt. picks people’s pockets through withholding taxes and reduction in National Saving Schemes profits. Even unissued bonds lying in Pakistan’s State Bank vaults are included in each draw.  The prizes on such bonds are devoured by State Bank, a body corporate, without buying them. Pakistan’s hidden economy is more than the monetized one. It needs to evolve politico-religious milieu and macro-economic theories that suit our country best. It should promote savings while blocking illegal cash flows by introducing magnetic-card transactions in everyday life.

Pakistan’s burgeoning interest-based debt burden

External Debt in Pakistan increased to US$ 95097 million in the second quarter of 2018 from US$ 91761 million in the first quarter of 2018. External Debt in Pakistan averaged US$ 54065.23 million from 2002 until 2018, reaching an all-time peak of 95097 US$ Million in the second quarter of 2018 from a record low of US$ 33172 million in the third quarter of 2004. International Monetary Fund expects Pakistan’s external debt to climb to US$103 billion by June 2019. Pakistan Government Debt to GDP 1994-2018 presents a dismal picture. Pakistan recorded a government debt equivalent to 67.20 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2017. Government Debt to Gross Domestic Product in Pakistan averaged 69.30 percent from 1994 until 2017. It reached peak of 87.90 percent in 2001 and a record low of 56.40 percent in 2007. Successive Pakistan governments treated loans as free lunches. They never abode by revised Fiscal Responsibility and Debt Limitation Act. Nor did our State Bank warn them about the dangerous situation. State Bank however passively reported, every Pakistani owed over Rs115, 000 as the country’s burden of total debt and liabilities increased to Rs. 23.14 trillion by the end of December 31, 2016.

Pakistan’s debts not payable being `odious’?

Pakistan’s debt burden has a political tinge. For joining anti-Soviet-Union alliances (South-East Asian Treaty Organisation and Central Treaty Organisation), the USA rewarded Pakistan by showering grants on Pakistan. The grants evaporated into streams of low-interest loan which ballooned as Pakistan complied with forced devaluations or adopted floating exchange rate. Soon, the donors forgot Pakistan’s contribution to break-up of the `Soviet Union’. They used coalition support funds and our debt-servicing liability as `do more’ mantra levers.

Apparently, all Pakistani debts are odious as they were thrust upon praetorian regimes to bring them within anti-Communist (South East Asian Treaty Organisation, Central Treaty Organisation) or anti-`terrorist’ fold.  To avoid unilateral refusal of a country to repay odious debts, UN Security Council should ex ante [or ex post] declare which debts are `odious’ (Jayachandaran and Kremer, 2004). Alternatively, the USA should itself write off our `bad’ debts.

But Pakistan and its adversaries are entrapped in a prisoner’s dilemma. The dilemma explains why two completely rational players might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. .The ` prisoners’ dilemma’ was developed by RAND Corporation scientists Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher and was formalized by Albert W. Tucker, a Princeton mathematician.

No demand raised for forgiveness of `odious debts

Several IMF and US state department delegations visited Pakistan. But, Pakistan could not tell them point-blank about non-liability to service politically-stringed debts. The government’s dilemma in Pakistan is that defence and anti-terrorism outlays (26 per cent) plus debt-service charges leave little in national kitty for welfare. Solution lies in debt forgiveness by donors (James K. Boyce and Madakene O’Donnell(eds.), Peace and the Public Purse.2008. New Delhi. Viva Books p, 251).

Debt forgiveness promotes growth

Debt forgiveness (or relief) helps stabilise weak democracies, though corrupt, despotic and incompetent.  Research shows that debt relief promotes economic growth and boosts foreign investment. Sachs (1989) inferred that debt service costs discourage domestic and foreign investment. Kanbur (2000), also, concluded that debt is a drag on private investment.

In fact, economists have questioned justification of paying debts given to prop up a regime congenial to a dominant country.  They hold that a nation is not obliged to pay such `odious debts’ (a personal liability) showered upon a praetorian individual (p. 252 ibid.). Legally also, any liability financial or quasi-nonfinancial, contracted under duress, is null and void.

No economist to steer economy

Economics is mumbo jumbo to Pakistan’s finance minister. Renowned economist Atif Mian could not take over as finance minister because of uproar against his Ahmediyya/Qadiani religious belief. In protest, another cabinet-slot nominee Khwaja Asim also regretted to assume office formally (though continuing informal help ).

Pakistan’s economy: Back to basic

Economics remains a match between limited resources vis-à-vis unlimited wants (Lionel Robbins). What are our resources or factors of production (land, labour and socio-economic milieu, capital and organisation)?  Through what system these resources could interplay to start capital accumulation (growth/development/technical progress) in our country?

Our agriculture is exposed to vagaries of nature (floods, famines, etc.). Besides, productivity of our agricultural sector is low because of disguised unemployment (farmers produce less as compared to their ilk in advanced countries).

People are shy of investing in productive capacity because they could earn more in marketing and other business lines (even in real estate).

We have to determine optimal balance between public and private sectors. We have to balance constraints of security and welfare.

Manufacturing sector, not agriculture, produced Asian Tigers. Studies reflect that there is

correlation between manufacturing sector and economic development in our country. We need to adopt such polices as make manufacturing primum mobile of our economic development.Let some industries be croissance des fleures and improve some nuclei (one school, one university, one hospital) before expecting to transform the whole country through a magic wand (Waterston, Development Planning: Lesson of Experience).

Lessons for an economic turnaround

We need to realize that economics is a social, an inexact, science, but responsive to dynamic environment. Keynesian post-1930-Great-Depression macro-economic policies understood that unemployment is not due to un- or under-utilised productive capacity. It is due to under-spending and lack of effective demand to buy over-produced goods.

Mega housing project to promote capital formation Pakistan government has announced to build a million houses under Naya Housing Project . The scheme smacks of Ragnar Nurkse (Capital formation in underdeveloped countries). Will effective demand increased through mega housing projects will spill over into increased buying of goods imported from China and other countries?

A faulty project

To solve any problem, its nitty-gritty (features) should be first identified: (a) Shelter-providers are highly stratified. (b) Defence Housing Authority caters for shelter needs of military officers. It strictly adheres to its formula of allotment of flats and plots. But, it excludes `civilians paid out of defence services estimates’ (c) The Federal Government Employees Housing Foundation (and affiliate Pakistan Housing Authority) is supposed to allot plots to retired employees. But, it does not follow the date-of-birth criteria. Now only Grade 22 employees (including judges) get plots. Those in Grade 17 to 21(septuagenarians like me or even octogenarians and nonagenarians) may die without a plot or a flat.  (d) The FGEHF misuses hardship clause which favours not so hard-up people. For instance, a Customs collector on deputation to National Accountability Bureau was quickly obliged with a plot. He was allotted plot first and asked to submit illness certificate later (e)  It is eerie that FGEHF’s definition of `employees’, now, has infinity as its limit. It includes non-employees like legal fraternity, including Supreme Court Bar Association. (f) According to media reports, the FGEHF reeks of corruption and favouritism. (g) Shelter for general public needs careful study, beyond rhetoric of market demand and supply _ The Korangi Town Project, Lyari Expressway Projects, Khuda Ki Basti, ‘Home Ownership Scheme for the People’(1964), and ‘The National Housing Policy’ 2001.Trusting FGEHF for `naya housing’? `A cat’s a cat and that’s that’. The new government should have the nerve to merge all shelter providers (in khaki and mufti) and devise a national housing policy, instead of focusing on `houses’.

China should change consumerist Pakistan into a productive economy

Let China help expand Pakistan’s manufacturing capacity and thereby reduce unemployment in Pakistan. All policymakers should act in unison. They include policy formulators (prime minister, finance minister, et. al), policy detailers (chief economic adviser, statisticians) and technocrats. The policy-makers should decide upon balance of priority. agriculture or industry, “closed” economy with import substitution, “living within means” and balanced budget or deficit budget. Will increased spending “crowd in” or “crowd out” private investment? Monetary policy objectives and the role of the central bank_ stability of employment and inflation, growth rate, balance-of-payments issues Role of foreign-direct investment and “non-bank financial institutions? Their impact on capital formation, consumption trends, and other macroeconomic aspects.

Technocrats, being apolitical unlike policy formulators, could implement policies single-mindedly. Our precious borrowed dollars should not be frittered away into increased imports.

Pakistan’s economic system?

During Ayub era, capitalist growth had a free hand.  That led to rise of 22 nouveau rich families. A university mapped them in `Concentration of wealth and economic power in Pakistan’. Dr. Mahbubul Haq, himself the architect of laissez faire growth strategy, identified his mistakes in `Seven Sins of Economic Planners in Pakistan’. During post-Ayub period, we experimented with Bhutto-brand socialism. Later we embraced Islamic mode of financing mostly by packing old wine in new bottle (PLS sharing for `interest’, modarba,  musharika for partnership, so on). At the same time we kept paying debt service and contracting new loans under capitalist international system.

The downtrodden remained so in our Islamic system. The international exploitative capitalist system, on the other hand, delivered goods. Rapid economic growth with substantial amelioration in lot of the common man.  Soviet brand collectivism collapsed into oblivion.

Capitalism accepts inequality in incomes as a fait accompli. So do studies by political philosophers like Aristotle, Tacitus, Moska, Michel, Marx, Pareto and C. Wright Mill. Yet, sans uniform health care, education, and other basic facilities to masses, life in Pakistan is more miserable than in the West. Why? Soul searching needed by rulers and ruled alike.

Islamic modernism

A fetter to Pakistan’s rapid economic growth is debate between radical Islamists (fundamentalists) and liberal reformers The liberals, like Farag Fuda and Abu Zayd (Egypt), read the sources of Islamic sharia in terms of time and place (historical relativism). They advocate reading holy texts in our own terms, interpreting them in accordance with spirit and intentions. The radials (conservatives) regarded the liberals as heretics or apostates. Farag was murdered in 1992 and Abu-Zayd exiled in following years.

The conservatives say `Islam is complete’. The man in the street sees no undisputed Islamic model in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan or anywhere. We `circumcised’ some banking, civil and criminal laws to show case them as Islamic. For instance, we introduced PLS, modarba, musharika. Practically, there was no tangible impact on society, economy or polity. In international aid and trade, we conformed to secular principles. We continued to interest-based loans and pay debt service. Islamic punishments, introduced by Ziaul Haq had questionable impact. Sami Zubaida points out in his book Law and Power in the Islamic World (p. 224), “It is ironic that so-called Islamic punishments are described as `medieval’, when in fact, medieval jurists and judges showed great restraint   in their application while modern dictators flaunt them as a religious legitimacy”.

The Islamisation of laws is regarded by critics as hypocritical. Pakistanis have a long list of Constitutional rights. But, a proviso makes them non-enforceable through courts. Pakistan’s qanun-shahadat (evidence law) defines qualifications of a witness (tazkia-tus-shahood). But, it softens its Palladian to accept any witness if the ideal witness is not available. The less said about sadiq and ameen clauses, the better. Under these clauses, even a three time priminister was sacked by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. 

A judge has to decide according to law not according to his conscience and divine authority. An example is ban on gambling like circuses by one judge. The decision was turned down on appeal as it is Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, not the court to adjudicate such matter.

Conclusion

Pakistan could not emerge as an Asian tiger because of indecision about what system to follow. The vested interests, particularly religious obscurantists, often smother dissent from so called enlightened moderators. Rampant sectarianism in Pakistan with concomitant effects on economy is an offshoot of lacunae in religious interpretations by vested interests.

Pakistan has abolished interest (riba) in accordance with its fundamental law. Yet its banking sector and international transctions are interest based.

Let Pakistan face the truth. It needs to evolve and show case a politico-economic model of Islam that is compatible with international practices. Or else, dispense with hypocritical patchwork, and go for secularist IMF model.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing free-lance for over five decades. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus (ISBN: 9781301505944). He holds degrees in economics, business administration, and law.

Economy

Omicron Variant: Implications on Global Economy

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The prolonged battering of the Covid-19 has been considerably hitting the world economy. While vaccination and a receding in the cases of the cases in virus transmission has provided   brief respite to   the countries that are grappling with the recurring surge of the virus, the resurfacing of another virulent   mutation termed as  Omicron sounds ominous for the future of the world economy .Against this backdrop, this article projects the plausible economic ramifications of the new strand of the virus on the global economy.

The economic downward trajectory occasioned by the Covid-19 has been unprecedented in recent global history. While the economic depression of 2007-08 proved disastrous for the world economy, the toll   emanating from Covid-19 pandemic and consequent   economic stagnation has surpassed all the previous   economic plunge .In fact, some analysts have gone to the extent of   comparing the Covid-19 induced economic depression with the great depression of the 1920s.However, whether the far reaching repercussions of the Covid-19 on the global economy will be as momentous is still remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the   profound   economic jolt triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is poised to reverberate across the world through shaping socio-economic and political events

The scar inflicted by a protracted economic recession owing to Covid-19 is apparent in the arduous path of economic rejuvenation in the western countries and eastern countries alike. Virtually every country is grappling with the toll that Covid-19 has incurred in the economy. The western countries are finding it   difficult to retrieve the losses that Covid-19 has precipitated. Although the swift vaccination of the western countries at the expense of the developing countries has provided a fleeting lull in their battle against Covid-19,it seem however the virus has resurfaced with increasing virulence in order to offset whatever gain these embattled countries managed to garner in their fight against Covid-19.

The skyrocketing and unprecedented inflation of the western countries coupled with a plummeted consumer confidence has meant a prolonged period of stagnation of their economies. However, in the wake of vaccination induced temporary respite in the viral cases, the economies rebounded strongly from the pits of economic recession. However, these hard-earned   gains will be reversed in the event of the advent of any new strand of the virus. Already, the delta variant which originated in India had triggered a spate of Covid-19 flare-ups in the United   States and United Kingdom. Against this backdrop, the Omicron variant is set to aggravate the   economic woes of the western countries and in turn the world.

While the western countries are reeling from economic stagnation, the developing and underdeveloped countries are confronting many abysmal realities due to their prevailing economic backwardness. Their economic plight has been lingering in want of adequate vaccination due to the apathetic stance of the western countries and global governance institutions .Therefore, while the western countries has rebounded from the Covid-19 induces economic predicaments, the difficulties confronted by the developing countries has continued unabated. While the influence of advanced countries and their less advanced counterparts in world-economy is inextricably tied, the callous attitude of the developed countries to the vaccination of countries in Asia and South Asia turn out to   be sheer lack of economic prudence.

While western countries are considered as the economic hub of the world, it is however the developing countries on which the vital supply chains of the world economy hinges on. Therefore, the tardy pace of vaccination in these countries is prejudicial to the global economic stability. The economic ramification of the slow pace of vaccination is twofold for the world economy. Firstly, the slow vaccination hinders the revival of the economic activities in the developing countries thereby obstructing the supply chain of the commodities .This supply chain crisis has ripple effect in the western economies. The recent predicament of inflation and attending macroeconomic woes in countries like the United States and United Kingdom is manifestation of the supply chain crisis plaguing the world economy. Due to the paucity of commodities and raw materials, the prices of necessary goods has escalated in the western countries which has plummeted consumer confidence and triggered a vicious cycle of stagflation in the economy that is reminiscent of the 1970s when a similar crisis in oil supply has  precipitated economic downturn in the western economies.

Secondly, the slow rate of vaccination also run the risk of allowing the virus to mutating to newer and much virulent variants and due to the unfettered communication as a result of globalization the emergence of any new variant doesn’t remain in the confines of any border rather proliferate like wildfire and precipitate global crisis. Therefore, the lack of vaccination or slack pace therefore has global repercussions. Therefore, it is judicious of the developed countries to concentrate efforts in contributing to the vaccination of the less developed countries which will yield good results for their economy.

The ubiquitous mechanism in battling Covid-19 remains one of containment that entails halting economic and other activities and insulating the countries from other countries through imposing border controls, curbs on air communication and other stringent measures echoing protectionist attitude. However, these measures are antithetical to the spirit of the globalization and global trade. While lockdowns and other protectionist measures yield temporary improvement in the Covid  cases, it is not viable in the longer term. Besides, lockdowns have deleterious ramifications on the economy and further aggravate economic rebounding of the developed countries and developing countries alike. Therefore, efforts should be aimed at preventing the Covid cases rather than grappling with the Covid with a knee-jerk policy of improvisation. .

Moreover,Covid-19 has already occasioned far-reaching economic fallout in the world economy. Indications abound regarding the fact that the world economy is verging on profound and prolonged recession. Against the backdrop of ominous predictions and slackening growth and painful inflation of the world economy, the prospects of the world economy due the advent of a new variant remain mired in obscurity. It can be concluded that the economic repercussions of yet another novel variant will be momentous and will offset hard-earned growth of the countries .Unlike previous precedent of haphazard policy and knee-jerk policy solutions, this time around the countries need to undertake challenge much prudently and should concentrate all of their efforts aiming at universal vaccination of all countries so as to prevent the resurfacing of similar virulent viral strands.

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Economy

A Good Transport System Supercharges the Economic Engine

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The infrastructure bill in the U.S. has been signed into law.  At the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), they are celebrating the fruition of a couple of decades, at least, of hard work publicizing the decaying infrastructure and lobbying for a fix-it bill.  Countless delegations have visited the White House and met with staff to present their case.  And something for their efforts is better than nothing. 

They also started a grading system, giving an overall grade — currently C minus, a notch above the previous one.  The bill seeks improvement in roads, bridges and transit although it falls short of the ASCE estimates for what is needed.  For example, the bill contains $39 billion for transit (ASCE grade of D minus) but there is a backlog of $176 billion that is needed.  Given Republican opposition to spending and the compromises made to pass the bill, the administration got what they could — they can always fight for more later. 

This opposition against infrastructure spending is somewhat incomprehensible because it generates jobs and grows the economy.  Too much spending, too fast has inflationary potential but that is caused by too much money chasing too few goods, usually not when there is a tangible product — improved transit, roads and bridges in this case.  And then there are also other ways of checking inflation. 

This bill is a start but still a long way from having high speed cross-country electric trains as in other major industrialized countries.  These are the least polluting and especially less than airplanes which emit six times more CO2 per passenger mile. 

Why is the U.S. so lagging in high-speed rail when compared with Europe and Japan?  Distances are one reason given although these are a function of time.  No one would have thought of commuting 30 miles each way to work in the 19th century but it is not uncommon now for some to be quite willing to sit 45 minutes each way on a train for the pleasure of living in the greenery of suburbia. 

The bill also includes $110 billion for roads and bridges.  Unfortunately the backlog of repair has left 42.7 percent of roads in sub-standard condition costing motorists an estimated $130 billion per year in extra vehicle repair and maintenance.  Some $435 billion is now needed to repair existing roads plus $125 billion for bridges, $120 billion for system expansion and $105 billion for system enhancements like increasing safety — a necessary improvement given a changing environment such as an increase in bicycle traffic.  Allowing for round-off discrepancies, the total amounts to $786 billion (in the funding and future need section of reference).  Increases in severe weather events have also had their effect, causing damage to roadways and further burdening the repair budget.  

New technologies (in the innovation section of reference) like advanced pavement monitoring on key roads, using moisture and temperature sensors embedded in the roadway, now make it possible to assess pavements quickly without impacting road users.  This leads to earlier repair and in addition new materials increase the life cycle.  Much of this requires increased investment up front to take advantage of the new innovations. 

Above all one can never afford to forget that a good transport system acts like a supercharger for the economic engine.

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Economy

Another Look at the Prospects of a Eurasian Digital Platform

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In view of the idiosyncratic features of Eurasia with respect to the gravity of distance, a common Eurasian platform for digital economic agreements may allow the region to attenuate the effects of distance and severe economic fragmentation — most notably in the regulatory sphere — emanating from the sheer size of Eurasia and the multiplicity of regional integration arrangements. By consolidating regional, bilateral, as well as corporate alliances, a common Eurasian digital platform would allow its members to introduce greater consistency and compatibility into the existing set of digital economic agreements, thus providing the conditions for multilateralising existing digital arrangements and for creating new digital economic accords.

One of the ways to create a digital “platform of platforms” for Eurasia that is to include platforms for regional integration arrangements, regional development banks and regional financing arrangements (RFAs) of the countries of Eurasia.

  • The platform for regional integration arrangements would work towards advancing greater inter-operability into the digital platforms of Eurasia’s regional groupings such as the EU, the EAEU, ASEAN, RCEP, EFTA, BIMSTEC, SAFTA, GCC.
  • The platform for regional development banks and funds such as EDB, EIB, ADB, EBRD, SDF, CAF would focus on building project portfolios in the area of digital cooperation/digital connectivity/digital inclusiveness and work to advance digital economic agreements (DEAs) on the basis of the existing digital arrangements concluded by countries such as Singapore.
  • The platform for regional financing arrangements (ESM, EFSD, Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, Arab Monetary Fund) would focus on the coordination of anti-crisis measures, the creation of ex-ante anti-crisis response mechanisms based on the use of “big data” and forward looking indicators obtained through digital cooperation and data exchange.

These three platforms can reinforce one another and can be further complemented by country-level and corporate-level platforms to form a Eurasian ecosystem of digital cooperation and inter-operability.

Such a Eurasian “platform of platforms” is:

  • Digital: it advances digital cooperation, including digital trade at the level of countries and regions
  • Regional: it places particular emphasis on building cooperation in areas that have hitherto lacked coordination, namely among regional integration arrangements and their development institutions
  • Scalable: it can be replicated in other parts of the world as well as at the global level via creating a regional layer of global governance

The current economic framework in Eurasia is fragmented and lacks the digital connectivity that would be predicated on cross-country and cross-regional digital agreements. This in turn limits the capability of countries to coordinate policies in areas such as trade, migration, digital economy development. A common platform would address the issue of the “digital gap” across the countries of Eurasia via promoting greater “digital inclusivity”, most notably with respect to the low-income developing economies. Such a common digital platform for Eurasia may prove to be particularly important for land-locked developing countries that face notable geographical/logistic barriers to trade.

Indeed, of all of the different parts of the global economy Eurasia stands to benefit the most from greater digital connectivity and inclusivity, given the prominence of the “distance factor” that constrains the intensity of economic cooperation within the region. The gravity of distance is particularly costly for Eurasia’s land-locked economies — in fact Eurasia harbours 26 out of 44 (59%) of all of the world’s landlocked countries. Moreover, the scale of “inwardness” of some of the regions of Eurasia in terms of geographical location is truly unique, whereby Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, while Bishkek is the farthest capital city from the coast in the world (all top-5 of the most distant capitals from the sea coast in the world are in Asia).

Existing research suggests that digital platforms may exert a sizeable effect in reducing the gravity of distance: as noted by Pierre-Louis Vézina, “distance between countries impedes international trade, but it matters 65% less for trade on the eBay platform than for traditional offline trade… The online world is flatter”. Yet another study focusing on the EU evaluated the importance of distance for e-commerce. This study of 721 regions in five countries of the European Union shows that while distance is not “dead” in e-commerce, there is evidence that express delivery in e-commerce reduces distance for cross-border demand.

Ways of measuring the effectiveness of a common platform would include the scale of liberalization and trade facilitation in digital trade across the Eurasian platform; increases in the size of the portfolio of joint investment projects related to the digital economy on the part of the region’s development institutions, increases in cross-border and cross-regional trade and investment associated with the digital economy. The number of multilateral digital economic agreements (DEAs) facilitated by the platform would be a measure of the contribution of the initiative to multilateralism. Another important metric is increases in connectivity arising from the creation of the platform — this would concern increases in digital connectivity/inclusivity, most notably in developing economies.

A common digital platform in Eurasia will serve to improve coordination across countries as well as regional integration arrangements and their development institutions. It will also serve to transform the landscape of trade agreements by facilitating the conclusion of digital economic agreements and multilateralising existing digital accords. The common platform will also advance international cooperation in the digital sphere and other areas pertaining to the Fourth Industrial Revolution to strengthen the response to the Covid pandemic and improve the region’s capabilities in the health care sphere as well as other areas pertaining to the development of human capital. A more cooperative framework for Eurasia that aims to emulate best practices and standards across the platform will also be conducive to longer-term cooperation, a more active use of ESG standards and greater emphasis placed on economic sustainability.

The creation of the Eurasian digital platform may be a step towards building a global network of cooperation on the basis of a “bottom-up” plurilateral cooperation among regional blocs rather than a “top-down” framework devised at the global level. Such an approach conforms with the principles contained in the WEF’s White paper on Globalization 4.0 that advocates the use of flexible plurilateral trade agreements as a way of further advancing trade openness in key areas, including in digital trade and e-commerce: “open plurilateral agreements of this nature are the most promising way available to update the trade rulebook without further fragmenting the world economy and weakening its crucial multilateral foundation”.

The formation of an open digital platform for Eurasia renders it amenable to replication at the level of not only regional arrangements, but also at the level of country-to-country cooperation as well as multilateral corporate platforms. An important aspect of the operation of such a platform is the principle of openness and inclusivity — whereby developing countries benefit from greater “digital inclusion” and the possibility to join digital alliances with advanced economies across Eurasia. In this way, the operation of such a platform contributes to a more sustainable and balanced economic paradigm across Eurasia.

From our partner RIAC

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