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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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Emerging East Asia Bond Markets Continue Growth Despite Risks

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Emerging East Asia’s local currency bond market expanded steadily in the second quarter of 2019 despite downside risks stemming from ongoing trade conflicts, a faster-than-expected economic slowdown in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and moderating global growth, according to the latest issue of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Asia Bond Monitor.

“Foreign investment in emerging East Asia remains stable but there are still considerable potential risks. Financial stability in the region could be undermined if global investors change their views on emerging markets,” said ADB Chief Economist Mr. Yasuyuki Sawada. “Governments in the region would do well to continue to deepen local currency bond markets so they can act as a reliable local source of funding.”

Emerging East Asia comprises the PRC; Hong Kong, China; Indonesia; the Republic of Korea; Malaysia; the Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; and Viet Nam.

Despite the risks, foreign investment in emerging East Asia’s bond markets remained stable in the second quarter. Foreign holdings of local currency bonds rose in the PRC on expectations of additional economic stimulus from the government, and in Indonesia on the back of a credit ratings upgrade. Holdings fell in the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines on a variety of domestic factors.

Local currency bonds outstanding in emerging East Asia totaled $15.3 trillion at the end of June, up 3.5% in US dollar terms from the end of March this year and 14.2% higher than the end of June 2018. Bond issuance in emerging East Asia totaled $1.6 trillion in the second quarter, 12.2% higher than in the first quarter due to strong issuance of government bonds and a recovery in corporate bonds issuance.

At the end of June, there were $9.4 trillion in local currency government bonds outstanding, 13.6% higher than at end June 2018. The stock of corporate bonds was $5.8 trillion, up 15% compared with end June 2018.

The PRC remained emerging East Asia’s largest bond market, accounting for 75.3% of the region’s total outstanding paper. In the PRC, the stock of local government bonds expanded 5.4% on a quarter-on-quarter basis, the fastest of any bond category in the PRC, following directives for local governments to accelerate the issuance and use of special bonds to support economic growth and finance infrastructure and other development projects. At the end of June, the PRC’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio was 84.6% versus 78.8% at the end of June 2018.

The Asia Bond Monitor includes three discussion boxes that focus on the impact of US monetary policy uncertainty in emerging market currencies; the importance of domestic capital markets as a source of financing for corporates in emerging markets; and the challenges faced by financial markets on the use of other benchmark interest rates as they transition away from the widely used London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR.

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Iceland’s slowdown underlines the need to fix structural issues

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Sound macroeconomic policies and favourable external conditions have enabled Iceland’s economy to emerge stronger from a decade of post-crisis management. Yet the impact on growth from a drop in tourist arrivals and seafood exports underlines the need for reforms to open up and diversify the economy and improve its resiliency to sectoral shocks, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Iceland.

The Survey, presented in Reykjavik by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría alongside Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson and Minister of Education, Science and Culture Lilja Dogg Alfredsdottir, takes stock of Iceland’s progress on improving fiscal and monetary policy, reducing debt and building up financial buffers. Today Iceland enjoys sustainable public finances, high employment and one of the lowest levels of income inequality of OECD countries.

A lack of structural reform has left Iceland heavily dependent on volatile sectors however. Tourism ballooned over the past decade, overtaking aluminium and fishing to account for 40% of export income and 10% of GDP, but has stalled since the insolvency of a low-cost Icelandic airline. Seafood exports are also down. After several years above 3%, the OECD projects Iceland’s GDP growth will drop to 0.2% in 2019 before rebounding to 2.2% in 2020.

“Iceland’s resurgence since the financial crisis to reach some of the highest living standards of OECD countries has been remarkable. It is a beautiful example of how a robust economy can co-exist with an egalitarian society,” said Mr Gurría. “However this slowdown shows that now is the time to go structural and to further open up the economy. Iceland should focus on reducing regulatory red tape and restrictions on foreign investment.”

Among Iceland’s structural challenges, competitiveness is declining as wages rise faster than productivity. The competitive edge gained after the 2008 crisis has vanished. Foreign direct investment is low, due in part to a high regulatory burden.

The Survey recommends reducing over-regulation, especially in services and for foreign investment, where restrictions are among the highest in the OECD, and lightening the administrative burden for start-ups. Iceland is already working with the OECD to improve its competition policy. Wage settlements across the economy should be in line with productivity growth, and fiscal prudence should be exercised through the current slowdown in order to further reduce the public debt.

In the tourism sector, the Survey suggests considering measures to improve sustainability given that – whether the downturn proves to be temporary or longer lasting – Iceland is already at six foreign tourists a year for each resident and may already have reached a point where the negative social and environmental impacts exceed the economic benefits.

On public finances, the Survey notes that the contribution of public spending to growth has declined since the 2008 crisis. It recommends extending spending reviews to core policy areas like education and health care, and applying more rigorous cost-benefit analysis to spending plans as two ways to improve the effectiveness of public investment.

The Survey also discusses the need to address a decline in high-school student performance and better match adult skills to the labour market. Iceland has a highly equitable education system and a large share of its workforce educated to tertiary level, but it could increase vocational training and make the education system more responsive to the labour market to avoid having people overqualified or possessing the wrong skills for jobs.

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Agricultural Innovation & Technology Hold Key to Poverty Reduction in Developing Countries

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Developing countries need to dramatically increase agricultural innovation and the use of technology by farmers, to eliminate poverty, meet the rising demand for food, and cope with the adverse effects of climate change, says a new World Bank report released today.

The relative stagnation in agricultural productivity in recent decades, particularly in South Asia and Africa where the vast majority of the poor live, underscores the need for new ideas to improve rural livelihoods. Renewed investment to increase new knowledge and ensure its adoption can help harness the large potential gains to be made in agricultural productivity and, hence, income, says the Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity Growth in Agriculture report.

It notes that nearly 80 percent of the world’s extreme poor live in rural areas, with most relying on farming for their livelihood. Poverty reduction efforts, thus, need an intensive focus on raising agricultural productivity, which has the largest impact of any sector on poverty reduction, roughly twice that of manufacturing.

“Boosting productivity in the agriculture sector can lead to more and better jobs while enabling more people to move off-farm to cities to pursue other opportunities. This requires comprehensive reform of domestic agricultural innovation systems, more effective public spending and the cultivation of inclusive agricultural value chains with an increased role for the private sector,” said World Bank Group Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu. “New technologies are improving access to and costs of information, finance and insurance in all sectors, including agriculture. This can help raise the productivity of low skilled farmers, but only with the right incentives and capabilities to develop and scale these technologies,” she added.

The report examines the drivers and constraints to agricultural productivity and provides pragmatic policy advice. It notes that while in East Asia, crop yields have increased six-fold in the past four decades, contributing to the dramatic reduction in poverty in China and other East Asian countries, it has only doubled in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, with corresponding disappointing reductions in poverty.    

In addition, climate change, together with a deteriorating natural resource base, will hit agriculture hard, impacting the poor and vulnerable, precisely in Africa and South Asia.

The key driver for increasing agricultural productivity and rising incomes is the adoption of innovative technologies and practices by farmers. This will enable farmers to raise yields, manage inputs more efficiently, adopt new crops and production systems, improve the quality of their products, conserve natural resources, and adapt to climate challenges.  

However, the world is facing a widening research and development (R&D) spending gap, even as government funding for agriculture is reaching new heights. In developed countries, investment in agricultural R&D was equivalent to 3.25 percent of agricultural GDP in 2011, compared with 0.52 percent in developing counties. Among the latter group, Brazil and China invested relatively high amounts into agricultural R&D, while Africa and South Asia had the lowest spending relative to agricultural GDP. In fact, in half of African countries, R&D spending is actually declining.

Governments need to consider both public and private research and technology transfer in strengthening their overall innovation system. Repurposing the current public support for agriculture offers a significant opportunity to revitalize public agricultural research systems, invest in agricultural higher education, and create the enabling conditions to leverage private sector R&D. The private sector, in turn, can stimulate more rapid access to new technologies for farmers. In developed countries, private companies contribute about half the total R&D spending targeting the needs of farmers, and as much as one-quarter in large emerging economies, such as China, India, and Brazil. Policy tools to encourage more private R&D in agriculture include reducing restrictions on market participation, encouraging competition, removing onerous regulations, and strengthening intellectual property rights.

“Agriculture in Africa and South Asia faces an innovation paradox. While the economic returns to and growth effects of R&D and knowledge diffusion are documented to be very high, research spending is decreasing in critical areas of the world and local universities and think tanks are not keeping up. Policy makers in developing countries need to give careful attention to reversing these trends and improving the broader enabling environment to encourage private sector contribution as well,” said World Bank Chief Economist for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, William Maloney, who is the lead author of the report.

While new communication technologies make improving access to information, finance and insurance more feasible than before, small farmers face major barriers to adopting the new technologies that such research efforts yield.  

“Poor information about new technologies, absence of insurance and capital markets, high market transaction costs, land tenure insecurities and lack of transportation infrastructure are inhibiting adoption and diffusion of new technologies among farmers. Together with increased R&D spending, sustained efforts are needed to remove these barriers,” said World Bank Global Director for Agriculture and Food, Martien Van Nieuwkoop.

Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity in Agriculture is the fourth volume in the World Bank’s Productivity Project series, which examines the ‘productivity paradox’ of a persistent slowdown in productivity growth despite technological advancements. To access Harvesting Prosperity: Technology and Productivity in Agriculture report and related products:

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