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MENA Faces Another Year of Subdued Growth, with Bolder Reforms Needed to Boost Private Sector

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Economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is projected to slow to 0.6% this year compared with 1.2% last year, according to a new World Bank report. The growth forecast for 2019 is revised down by 0.8 percentage points from the April 2019 projection due to lower oil prices since April 2019 and a larger-than expected contraction in Iran. MENA’s economic outlook is subject to substantial downside risks—most notably, intensified global economic headwinds and rising geopolitical tensions.

The latest edition of the MENA Economic Update titled “Reaching New Heights: Promoting Fair Competition in the Middle East and North Africa” discusses the current sluggish growth due to conservative oil production outputs, weak global demand for oil, and a larger-than-expected contraction in Iran. On the other hand, a boost in non-oil activities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates), most prominently in construction, partially offset the dampening effect on the region’s average growth numbers as a result of Iran’s economic contraction.

Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) continues to lead growth in the region as its overall macroeconomic environment has improved following the country’s exchange rate, fiscal, and energy reforms. As a result, Egypt’s economy grew to 5.4% in the first half of 2019, up from 5.2% in 2018.

“Countries in the region have implemented bold reforms to restore macroeconomic stability, but the projected growth rate is a fraction of what is needed to create enough jobs for the fast-growing, working-age population,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region. “It is time for courageous and far-sighted leadership to deepen the reforms, to bring down the barriers to competition and to unlock the enormous potential of the region’s 400 million people as a source of collective demand that could drive growth and jobs.

In the medium-term, the World Bank expects real GDP in the MENA region to grow at 2.6% in 2020 and 2.9% in 2021. The projected pickup in growth is largely driven by increasing infrastructure investment in GCC countries and the recovery in Iran’s economy as the effects of current sanctions wane.

However, the report warns that a further escalation in regional tensions could severely weaken Iran’s economy and spill over to other countries in the region. While rising oil prices would benefit many regional oil exporters in the short run, the overall impact would be to hurt regional trade, investment, and spending on infrastructure.

In addition to providing economic growth forecasts for each country, the report highlights how unfair competition results from markets dominated by state-owned enterprises and politically-connected firms which deters private investment, reducing the number of jobs and preventing countless talented young people from prospering.

“The lack of fair competition is holding back the development of the region’s private sector, which history has shown to be the source of broad-based growth and jobs,” said Rabah Arezki, World Bank MENA Chief Economist. “Countries in the region have an opportunity to transform their economies by levelling the economic playing field, and creating business environments that encourage risk-taking and reward innovation and higher productivity.”

Unleashing regional demand accompanied by arm’s length regulation that fosters competition and fights anti-competitive practices could prevent the perpetuation of oligarchies—the powerful few who often seize control of liberalization attempts, with the unfortunate result that the idea of reform is sullied among the citizens. The report calls for strengthening competition laws and enforcement agencies. It also calls for more efficient management leading to potential corporatizing of state-owned enterprises, promoting the private sector, and setting up watchdogs to rebalance contestability between them.

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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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Austria: Reforms will be necessary to uphold high well-being levels

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Austria stands out for its high levels of economic and social well-being. Preserving these will require reforms to improve competition in the service sector, increase access to risk capital for firms of all sizes, encourage more women and migrants into the workforce and lengthen work lives to reflect the ageing population, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Austria, presented in Vienna by the OECD’s Director of Country Studies Alvaro Pereira, projects GDP growth of 1.4% for 2019 and 1.3% for 2020. The 2020 projection is down from 1.6% forecast by the OECD in May, though the 2019 projection is unchanged, as recruitment bottlenecks, weakening external demand – especially from key markets Germany and Italy – and global trade tensions dampen Austria’s outlook.

The report’s key recommendations include linking the retirement age to life expectancy, which has risen steadily while Austrians are still retiring much earlier than the OECD average. The effective retirement age in Austria is notably lower than in neighbouring Germany and Switzerland. Austria’s labour participation rate is also low, especially among older women.

To increase the incentives to stay in work, the report recommends Austria do more to reduce its high levels of tax and social security on labour income, particularly for low earners, relative to most other OECD countries. This could be balanced by shifting to alternative sources of taxation such as environmental, consumption, inheritance and wealth taxes.

Reducing barriers to entry in key sectors ranging from service professions and specialist manufacturing to rail and freight transport and pharmaceutical distribution could bolster competition and economic dynamism. The small and medium-sized businesses that dominate Austria’s economy would benefit from greater access to venture capital and a better developed equity market. A reform planned by the outgoing government to address the debt-bias in the corporate tax system would help level the playing field between debt and equity financing.

The report recommends making access to quality childcare, early childhood education and all-day schooling for older children a legal entitlement throughout the country, to make it easier for new mothers to return to work and improve their career prospects. While this is a challenge given Austria’s geography, it would also contribute to more equal opportunities in the education system.

Austria has one of the highest shares of migrants in its workforce of OECD countries. This means migrants play an important role in meeting robust demand for labour yet the country also has a major challenge in trying to integrate low-skilled immigrants. Increasing the availability of language courses and adult skills training would help to address this.

The report also calls for Austria to increase its focus on environmental issues, for example by increasing carbon prices, which are low by international standards, and improving town planning to address the rising environmental impact of urban sprawl.

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