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East Asia and Pacific: Growth Slows as Trade Tensions and Global Uncertainties Intensify

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Growth in developing East Asian and Pacific economies is expected to slow from 6.3 percent in 2018 to 5.8 percent in 2019 and to 5.7 and 5.6 percent in 2020 and 2021, respectively, reflecting a broad-based decline in export growth and manufacturing activity.  

Weakening global demand, including from China, and heightened uncertainty around ongoing US-China trade tensions has led to a decline in exports and investment growth, testing the resilience of the region, according to Weathering Growing Risks, the October 2019 edition of the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Economic Update, released today.

In Mongolia, growth momentum has continued in the first half of 2019, as GDP rose to 7.3 percent from 6.8 percent in 2018. This robust performance has largely been supported by a strong coal sector and increased private investment. In addition, improved market confidence following the continuous support from multilateral banks as part of a $5.5 billion multi-donor support package, skillful management of the macroeconomy, especially on the fiscal side, and steady progress on structural reforms contributed to the strong performance. In the near to medium term, the country’s growth outlook remains positive. However, the report cautions of the risks including political uncertainty, commodity price shocks, cross-border bottlenecks, implementation delay mega projects and slower implementation of banking sector reforms.

In the region excluding China, consumption growth remained steady, though slightly lower than the same period last year, supported by monetary and fiscal policies. Growth in the smaller economies of the region, however, remained robust, reflecting country-specific circumstances including steady growth in the tourism, real estate, and extractive sectors.

“As growth slows, so does the rate of poverty reduction,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and the Pacific. “We now estimate that almost a quarter of the population of developing East Asia and the Pacific lives below the upper-middle-income poverty line of US$5.50 a day. This includes nearly 7 million more people than we projected in April, when regional growth was looking more robust.”

The report makes clear that increasing trade tensions pose a long-term threat to regional growth.  While some countries have hoped to benefit from a reconfiguration of the global trade landscape, the inflexibility of global value chains limits the upside for countries in the region in the near term.

“While companies are searching for ways to avoid tariffs, it will be difficult for countries in developing East Asia and the Pacific to replace China’s role in global value chains in the short-term due to inadequate infrastructure and small scales of production,” said Andrew Mason, World Bank Lead Economist for East Asia and the Pacific.

The report warns that downside risks to the region’s growth prospects have intensified. Prolonged trade tensions between China and the United States would continue to hurt investment growth, given high levels of uncertainty. A faster-than-expected slowdown in China, the Euro Area and the United States, as well as a disorderly Brexit, could further weaken the external demand for the region’s exports.

High and rising debt levels in some countries are also putting limits on their abilities to use fiscal and monetary policies to ease the impacts of the slowdown. In addition, any abrupt changes in global financial conditions could translate into higher borrowing costs for the region, dampening credit growth and further weighing on private investment and economic growth in the region.

To weather growing risks, the report recommends that countries with sufficient policy space use fiscal and/or monetary measures to help stimulate their economies, while guarding fiscal and debt sustainability. Countries in the region will also benefit from staying the course on trade openness and by deepening regional trade integration.

The ongoing US-China trade dispute, along with slowing global growth, also increase the need for countries in the region to undertake reforms to improve their productivity and boost growth. This includes regulatory reforms that improve the trade and investment climate to attract investment and facilitate the movement of goods, technology, and know-how.

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COVID-19 could see over 200 million more pushed into extreme poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

An additional 207 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030, due to the severe longterm impact of the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the total number to more than a billion, a new study from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has found. 

According to the study, released on Thursday, such a “high damage” scenario would mean a protracted recovery from COVID-19, anticipating that 80 per cent of the pandemic-induced economic crisis would continue over a decade. 

Not a foregone conclusion 

The gloomy scenario, is however, “not a foregone conclusion”. 

A tight focus on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), could slow the rise of extreme poverty – lifting 146 million from its grip – and even exceed the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic, UNDP said

Such an ambitious but feasible “SDG push” scenario would also narrow the gender poverty gap, and reduce the female poverty headcount, even taking into account the current impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency added. 

A “Baseline COVID” scenario, based on current mortality rates and the most recent growth projections by the International Monetary Fund, would result in 44 million more people living in extreme poverty by 2030 compared to the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic. 

COVID-19 ‘a tipping point’ 

Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “tipping point” and the future would depend on decisions made today. 

“As this new poverty research highlights, the COVID-19 pandemic is a tipping point, and the choices leaders take now could take the world in very different directions. We have an opportunity to invest in a decade of action that not only helps people recover from COVID-19, but that re-sets the development path of people and planet towards a fairer, resilient and green future.” 

The concerted SDG interventions suggested by the study combine behavioural changes through nudges for both governments and citizens, such as improved effectiveness and efficiency in governance and changes in consumption patterns of food, energy and water.  

The proposed interventions also focus on global collaboration for climate action, additional investments in COVID-19 recovery, and the need for improved broadband access and technology innovation. 

The study was jointly prepared by UNDP and the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver. It assesses the impact of different COVID-19 recovery scenarios on sustainable development, and evaluates multidimensional effects of the pandemic over the next ten years. 

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Cut fossil fuels production to ward off ‘catastrophic’ warming

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Countries must decrease production of fossil fuels by 6 per cent per year, between 2020 and 2030, if the world is to avert “catastrophic” global temperature rise, a new UN-backed report has found. 

Released, on Wednesday, in the shadows of the coronavirus pandemic, the Production Gap Report also revealed that while the pandemic and resulting lockdowns led to “short-term drops” in coal, oil and gas production, pre-COVID plans and post-COVID stimulus measures point to a continuation of increasing fossil fuel production. 

“As we seek to reboot economies following the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in low-carbon energy and infrastructure will be good for jobs, for economies, for health, and for clean air,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  

“Governments must seize the opportunity to direct their economies and energy systems away from fossil fuels, and build back better towards a more just, sustainable, and resilient future.” 

The Production Gap Report, produced jointly by research institutions – Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Overseas Development Institute, and E3G – and UNEP, measures the “gap” between the aspirations of the Paris Agreement on climate change and countries’ planned production of coal, oil, and gas. 

The report also comes at a potential turning point, according to the author organizations, as the global pandemic prompts unprecedented government action – and as major economies, including China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions. 

‘Recover better together’ 

The 2020 edition found that the “production gap” remains large: countries plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature limit. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the report showed “without a doubt” that the production and use of fossil needs to decrease quickly if the world is to achieve Paris Agreement goals. 

“This is vital to ensure both a climate-safe future and strong, sustainable economies for all countries – including those most affected by the shift from grey to green,” he said. 

“Governments must work on diversifying their economies and supporting workers, including through COVID-19 recovery plans that do not lock in unsustainable fossil fuel pathways but instead share the benefits of green and sustainable recoveries. We can and must recover better together.” 

Use COVID-19 recovery plans 

The report outlined key areas of action, providing policymakers with options to start winding down fossil fuels as they enact COVID-19 recovery plans. 

“Governments should direct recovery funds towards economic diversification and a transition to clean energy that offers better long-term economic and employment potential,” said Ivetta Gerasimchuk, report co-author and lead for sustainable energy supplies at IISD. 

She also highlighted that the pandemic-driven demand shock and the plunge of oil prices this year once again demonstrated the vulnerability of many fossil-fuel-dependent regions and communities. 

“The only way out of this trap is diversification of these economies beyond fossil fuels,” Ms. Gerasimchuk added. 

A ‘clear’ solution 

The report also urged reduction of existing government support for fossil fuels, introduction of restrictions on production, and stimulus funds for green investments. 

Michael Lazarus, report co-author and the head of SEI’s US Center, underscored “research is abundantly clear, we face severe climate disruption if countries continue to produce fossil fuels at current levels, let alone at their planned increases.” 

“The research is similarly clear on the solution: government policies that decrease both the demand and supply for fossil fuels and support communities currently dependent on them. This report offers steps that governments can take today for a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.”  

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COVID-19’s impact on wages is only just getting started

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Global pressure on wages from COVID-19 will not stop with the arrival of a vaccine, the head of the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned on Wednesday, coinciding with a major report showing how the pandemic had slowed or reversed a trend of rising wages across the world, hitting women workers and the low-paid hardest.

“It’s going to be a long road back and I think it’s going to be turbulent and it’s going to be hard”, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, as he announced the findings of the ILO’s flagship Global Wage Report, which is published every two years.

‘Extraordinary blow’

Except for China, which was bouncing back remarkably quickly, most of the world would take a considerable period of time to get back to where it was before the pandemic, which had dealt an “extraordinary blow” to the world of work almost overnight.

“The aftermath is going to be long-lasting and there is a great deal, I think, of turbulence and uncertainty,” Mr. Ryder said. “We have to face up to the reality, at least a strong likelihood that… as wage subsidies and government interventions are reduced, as they will be over time, that we are likely to face continued downward pressure on wages.”

But he added that it was unlikely and in many ways undesirable that the world should simply try to return to how it was before the coronavirus struck.

Cruel revelation

“This pandemic has revealed in a very cruel way, I have to say, a lot of the structural vulnerabilities, precariousness, that is baked into the current world of work. And we need to take the opportunity – it’s almost indecent isn’t it, to speak of opportunity arising out of this mega global tragedy of the pandemic? – but we do have to extract from it, the types of opportunities that allow us to think about some of the fundamentals of the global economy and how we can, in the bounce back process, make it function better.”

The Global Wage Report showed how the pandemic has put pressure on wages, widening the gap between top earners and low-wage workers, with women and the low-paid bearing the brunt.

After four years when wages grew on average, by 0.4-0.9 per cent annually in advanced G20 economies and 3.5-4.5 per cent in emerging G20 economies, wage growth slowed or reversed in two-thirds of countries for which recent data was available.

Low-wage job disaster in the US

But the figures only reflect wages for those who have jobs, and in some countries, such as the United States, so many low-paid workers had lost their jobs that average wages appeared to have risen, a misleading picture.

The damage could have been worse if governments and central banks had not stepped in to dissuade companies from laying off workers during the pandemic lockdowns, the ILO report said. It said such measures had allowed millions of wage earners to retain all or part of their incomes, in contrast to the impact of the global financial crisis a decade ago.

‘Constructive social dialogue’

But for economies to start returning towards sustained and balanced growth, incomes and aggregate demand would need to be supported and enterprises would have to remain successful and sustainable.

“Constructive social dialogue will be key to success in achieving this goal”, the ILO report said.

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