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Thailand’s Growth Moderates as Global Risks Intensify

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Thailand’s economic growth began to moderate in early 2019 in the context of weaker global growth. The country’s growth rate is projected to fall from 4.1 percent in 2018 to 3.5 percent in 2019, according to the World Bank’s Thailand Economic Monitor, released today.

Exports contracted by 4 percent in the first quarter of 2019 —the first quarterly contraction in three years. Private investment and household consumption continued to grow close to their three-year high, helped by low inflation, increasing employment and rising recurrent fiscal spending. At the same time, public investment weakened as the implementation of “megaprojects” slowed due to election-related delays. As a result, the economy’s pace of expansion slowed to 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2019, falling below 3 percent for the first time since mid-2015.

The World Bank projects growth to gradually increase from the expected 3.5 percent in 2019 to 3.6 and 3.7 percent in 2020 and 2021, assuming private consumption can be sustained, and public investment accelerates.  

“Policy continuity and the implementation of planned public infrastructure projects in the Eastern Economic Corridor will be of vital importance to sustain growth, said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand, “Increased regional integration and making better use of Thailand’s strategic location could support trade in goods and services.”

Prolonged political uncertainty is a key risk for Thailand’s economic outlook going forward. Lingering doubts about the cohesiveness of the newly established 19-party coalition government could adversely impact investor and consumer confidence and contribute to a further delay in the timely implementation of large public infrastructure projects. Externally, ongoing trade tensions between the US and China could further weaken demand for Thailand’s exports and discourage private investment in export-oriented industries.

This edition of the Thailand Economic Monitor highlights the importance of harnessing financial technology (fintech) for financial inclusion. Thailand has made large strides in expanding access to financial services. Today, 82 percent of Thai adults have a formal bank account and the gender gap is small. However, the report finds that challenges remain in the quality of digital financial services, as well as in access to broadband services.

“Expansion of digital services to the underserved would bring about new economic opportunities and support a reduction of inequality as envisaged in Thailand’s national strategy,” said Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank Senior Economist for Thailand. “As fintech activities continue to grow in Thailand, inter-governmental collaboration and building a supportive environment for a sound fintech ecosystem would be important.”

Among the report’s policy recommendations to leverage the full potential of fintech are: lifting barriers to firms seeking to enter the financial sector; encouraging collaboration between traditional banks and fintech firms; improving coordination among regulators for example on regulatory sandboxes; encouraging public-private and private-private collaboration; and supporting initiatives such as incubators and early-stage seed funding vehicles, as well as providing matching grants to help a fintech firms to take off in Thailand.

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Korea: Keep supporting people and the economy until recovery fully under way

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Korea has limited the damage to its economy from the COVID-19 crisis with swift and effective measures to contain the virus and protect households and businesses. Support for workers and the export-dependent economy should continue, given falling employment and the risk of prolonged disruption to trade and global value chains, according to a new OECD report.

Thanks to the government’s prompt response to the pandemic, Korea is experiencing the shallowest recession among OECD countries. However, the recovery will be slow and uncertainty remains high, says the latest OECD Economic Survey of Korea. The Survey recommends continuing economic support measures to households and business until a recovery is fully under way, while ensuring that fiscal plans preserve long-term fiscal sustainability. Income support should be targeted to low-income households, and skills training should be offered even beyond the crisis to help vulnerable people who lost their job find employment in new areas.

Sound public finances mean there is room for fiscal stimulus. The Survey suggests focusing investment in some of the areas featuring in the recent Korean New Deal, such as 5G telecommunication and artificial intelligence. Reforming regulations, cutting barriers to competition and encouraging innovation could help to diffuse new technologies through the economy and lift productivity.

The Survey projects a rebound in activity after the sizeable drop in the first half of 2020, with a 0.8% contraction in 2020 and 3.1% growth in 2021, absent a resurgence of the pandemic. While domestic-oriented activity is normalising gradually, the global recession is holding back exports and investment. A second global wave of infections would delay the recovery: GDP would then contract by 2% in 2020, and growth reach only 1.4% in 2021.

Further disruptions in world trade and global value chains would hurt the Korean economy, which depends heavily on exports and is deeply integrated in global value chains. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis is creating financial risks, notwithstanding a wide range of policy interventions, as rising unemployment and loss of income affect debt reimbursement by households and small businesses, while uncertainty increases financial market volatility.

The Survey examines the looming pressures of an ageing population, with Korea’s old-age dependency ratio set to be the highest of any OECD country by 2060. It notes that the share of elderly people in relative poverty – defined as living on less than half of the median household income of the total population – is the highest among OECD countries. It recommends further increasing the basic old-age pension and focusing it on people in absolute poverty, as well as addressing high unemployment among disadvantaged groups and the wide gender wage gap. Along with stronger social protection, easing labour market regulations would promote productivity and reduce labour market duality.

A Survey chapter on the digital economy looks at the potential to boost productivity and well-being by building on the country’s outstanding digital infrastructure and IT technology and addressing digital skills gaps and the digital gap between large and small firms. The Survey recommends building on the system of regulatory sandboxes – where regulatory obligations can be partly waived to encourage innovation in products or business models – to improve product market regulations. It also recommends facilitating the use of telemedicine to boost productivity and well-being.

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MDBs’ Annual Climate Finance Passes $61 Billion

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Climate financing by seven of the world’s largest multilateral development banks (MDBs) totaled $61.6 billion in 2019, with $41.5 billion (67%) in low- and middle-income economies, according to the 2019 Joint Report on Multilateral Development Banks’ Climate Finance.

In addition to its traditional focus on low- and middle-income countries, the 2019 report expands the scope of reporting for the first time to all countries of operations.

Some $46.6 billion, or 76% of total financing for the year, was devoted to climate change mitigation investments that aim to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and slow down global warming.

The remaining $15 billion, or 24%, was invested in adaptation efforts to help countries build resilience to the mounting impacts of climate change, including worsening droughts and more extreme weather events from extreme flooding to rising sea levels.

The report combines data from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the African Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank Group, the World Bank Group and—for the first time—the Islamic Development Bank, which joined the working group in October 2017. In 2019, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank also joined MDB working groups, and its data is presented separately in the report.

Additional climate funds channeled through MDBs—such as from the Climate Investment Funds, the Global Environment Facility Trust Fund, the Global Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Fund, the European Union’s Funds for Climate Action, and the Green Climate Fund—also play an important role in boosting MDB climate financing. In 2019, the MDBs reported a further $102.7 billion in net climate cofinancing from public and private sources. This raised the total climate activity financed by MDBs in 2019 to $164.3 billion.

“The growing flow of MDB climate finance shows our joint resolve to take on climate change and, in the face of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it is more important than ever to ‘build back better’ in a low carbon and climate resilient way,” said the Director General of ADB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department Woochong Um. “The report shows that climate finance provided by and through the MDBs is providing increasing support for these needed transitions.”

In 2019, ADB committed almost $7.1 billion in climate finance (more than $5.5 billion for mitigation and $1.5 billion for adaptation). This included $705 million from external resources, including multilateral climate funds. Further, ADB mobilized $8.8 billion of climate cofinancing.

The report shows that the MDBs are on track to deliver on their increased climate finance commitments. In 2019, the MDBs committed their global annual climate financing to reach $65 billion by 2025—with $50 billion for low- and middle-income countries—and that MDB adaptation finance would double to $18 billion by 2025. The MDBs have reported on climate finance since 2011, based on a jointly developed methodology for climate finance tracking.

The 2019 Joint Report on Multilateral Development Banks’ Climate Finance is published in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused significant social and economic disruption, temporarily reducing global carbon emissions to 2006 levels.

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Public Transport Can Bounce Back from COVID-19 with New and Green Technology

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Public transport must adapt to a “new normal” in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and adopt technologies that will render it more green and resilient to future disasters, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The report, Guidance Note on COVID-19 and Transport in Asia and the Pacific, details the profound impact of the pandemic on transport, as swift lockdowns forced millions this year to work from home overnight, schools to shift to e-learning, and consumers to flock to online shopping and food delivery.

While public transit may have been previously perceived as a mostly green, efficient, and affordable mode of travel, initial trends in cities that have re-opened have indicated that public transit is still considered to be relatively unsafe and is not bouncing back as quickly as the use of private vehicles, cycling, and walking.

“The two key challenges ahead are addressing capacity on public transport to maintain safe distancing requirements, and how best to regain public confidence to return to public transport,” said Bambang Susantono, ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. “In the short term, more effort is needed to reassure public transport users of safety and demonstrate clean and safe public transport. In the longer term, technological advances, big data, artificial intelligence, digitalization, automation, renewables and electric power can potentially offer fresh innovations to tackle changing needs, giving rise to smarter cities.”

While drastic lockdown measures around the world have brought world economies to their knees, satellites have recorded data on how the concentrations of CO2 and air pollutants have fallen drastically, bringing clear blue skies to many cities.

But as cities have reopened, traffic levels have increased. For example, Beijing traffic levels, by early April 2020, exceeded the same period in 2019. If this trend is seen on a wide scale, it could set back decades of effort in promoting sustainable development and more efficient means of urban mobility.

The report says there is a short window of opportunity for cities to promote the adoption of low-carbon alternatives to lock-in the improved air quality conditions gained during the peak of the pandemic lockdown. Public transport can play an important role through more active promotion of clean vehicles, provision of quality travel alternatives in public transport, and a better environment for non-motorized modes such as walking and cycling to enhance overall health and wellbeing.

The confidence of passengers on public transport should be restored through protective measures such as cleaning, thermal scanning, tracking and face covering, the report says. Further study to explore how protective and preventive measures can be stepped up to allow relaxation of safe distancing requirements would help mitigate capacity challenges. A possible future trend may be consolidation of services and rationalization of routes to better serve the emerging travel demand patterns and practices.

As countries enter the “recovery” phase, further preventive and precautionary operating measures and advanced technology should be implemented to enable contactless processes and facilitate an agile response. Demand management measures can facilitate crowd control in public transport systems and airports. As a complementary measure, non-motorized transport capacity could be expanded to absorb spillover demand from public transport.

Since mass public transport is the lifeblood of most economies, government policies and financial support are essential during this period, to enable public transport operators to stay viable and continue to support the movement of passengers and goods in a sustainable way.

For ADB, which committed last year $7 billion to the transport sector, behavioral trends linked to COVID-19 may require a review of the short-term viability of passenger transport and operational performance to meet changing demand for public transit systems. “Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic it is clear that developing Asia will continue to have a large need for additional transport infrastructure and services,” the report concludes. “It would take several years before the projects currently in the pipeline would be operational and much can happen during these years.”

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