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Global Growth: Modest Pickup to 2.5% in 2020 amid Mounting Debt and Slowing Productivity Growth

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Global economic growth is forecast to edge up to 2.5% in 2020 as investment and trade gradually recover from last year’s significant weakness but downward risks persist, the World Bank says in its January 2020 Global Economic Prospects.

Growth among advanced economies as a group is anticipated to slip to 1.4% in 2020 in part due to continued softness in manufacturing. Growth in emerging market and developing economies is expected to accelerate this year to 4.1%. This rebound is not broad-based; instead, it assumes improved performance of a small group of large economies, some of which are emerging from a period of substantial weakness. About a third of emerging market and developing economies are projected to decelerate this year due to weaker-than-expected exports and investment.

 “With growth in emerging and developing economies likely to remain slow, policymakers should seize the opportunity to undertake structural reforms that boost broad-based growth, which is essential to poverty reduction,” said World Bank Group Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions, Ceyla Pazarbasioglu. “Steps to improve the business climate, the rule of law, debt management, and productivity can help achieve sustained growth.”

U.S. growth is forecast to slow to 1.8% this year, reflecting the negative impact of earlier tariff increases and elevated uncertainty. Euro Area growth is projected to slip to a downwardly revised 1% in 2020 amid weak industrial activity.

Downside risks to the global outlook predominate, and their materialization could slow growth substantially. These risks include a re-escalation of trade tensions and trade policy uncertainty, a sharper-than expected downturn in major economies, and financial turmoil in emerging market and developing economies. Even if the recovery in emerging and developing economy growth takes place as expected, per capita growth would remain well below long-term averages and well below levels necessary to achieve poverty alleviation goals.

 “Low global interest rates provide only a precarious protection against financial crises,” said World Bank Prospects Group Director Ayhan Kose. “The history of past waves of debt accumulation shows that these waves tend to have unhappy endings. In a fragile global environment, policy improvements are critical to minimize the risks associated with the current debt wave.”

Analytical sections in this edition of Global Economic Prospects address key current topics:

The Fourth Wave: Recent Debt Buildup in Emerging and Developing Economies: There have been four waves of debt accumulation in the last 50 years. The latest wave, which started in 2010, has seen the largest, fastest, and most broad-based increase in debt among the four. While current low levels of interest rates mitigate some of the risks associated with high debt, previous waves of broad-based debt accumulation ended with widespread financial crises. Policy options to reduce the likelihood of crises and lessen their impact should they materialize include building resilient monetary and fiscal frameworks, instituting robust supervisory and regulatory regimes, and following transparent debt management practices.

Fading Promise: How to Rekindle Productivity Growth: Productivity growth, a primary source of income growth and driver of poverty reduction, has slowed more broadly and steeply since the global financial crisis than at any time in four decades. In emerging market and developing economies, the slowdown has reflected weakness in investment and moderating efficiency gains as well as dwindling resource reallocation between sectors. The pace of improvements in many key drivers of labor productivity—including education and institutions—has slowed or stagnated since the global financial crisis.

Price Controls: Good Intentions, Bad Outcomes: The use of price controls is widespread in emerging market and developing economies. While sometimes used as a tool for social policy, price controls can dampen investment and growth, worsen poverty outcomes, cause countries to incur heavy fiscal burdens, and complicate the effective conduct of monetary policy. Replacing price controls with expanded and better-targeted social safety nets, reforms to encourage competition and a sound regulatory environment can be pro-poor and pro-growth.  

Low for How Much Longer? Inflation in Low-Income CountriesInflation in low-income countries has tumbled to a median of 3% in mid-2019 from 25% in 1994. The decline has been supported by more flexible exchange rate regimes, greater central bank independence, lower government debt, and a more benign external environment. However, to maintain low and stable inflation amid mounting fiscal pressures and the risk of exchange rate shocks, policymakers need to strengthen monetary policy frameworks and central bank capacity and replace price controls with more efficient policies.

Regional Outlooks:

East Asia and Pacific: Growth in the region is projected to ease to 5.7% in 2020, reflecting a further moderate slowdown in China to 5.9% this year amid continued domestic and external headwinds, including the lingering impact of trade tensions. Regional growth excluding China is projected to slightly recover to 4.9%, as domestic demand benefits from generally supportive financial conditions amid low inflation and robust capital flows in some countries (Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam), and as large public infrastructure projects come onstream (the Philippines and Thailand). Regional growth will also benefit from the reduced global trade policy uncertainty and a moderate, even if still subdued, recovery of global trade. Regional data.

Europe and Central Asia: Regional growth is expected to firm to 2.6% in 2020, assuming stabilization of key commodity prices and Euro Area growth and recovery in Turkey (to 3%) and Russia (to 1.6%). Economies in Central Europe are anticipated to slow to 3.4% as fiscal support wanes and as demographic pressures persist, while countries in Central Asia are projected to grow at a robust pace on the back of structural reform progress. Growth is projected to firm in the Western Balkans to 3.6% — although the aftermath of devastating earthquakes could weigh on the outlook — and decelerate in the South Caucasus to 3.1%. Regional data.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Regional growth is expected to rise to 1.8% in 2020, as growth in the largest economies strengthens and domestic demand picks up at the regional level. In Brazil, more robust investor confidence, together with a gradual easing of lending and labor market conditions, is expected to support an acceleration in growth to 2%. Growth in Mexico is seen rising to 1.2% as less policy uncertainty contributes to a pickup in investment, while Argentina is anticipated to contract by a slower 1.3%. In Colombia, progress on infrastructure projects is forecast to help support a rise in growth to 3.6%. Growth in Central America is projected to firm to 3% thanks to easing credit conditions in Costa Rica and relief from setbacks to construction projects in Panama. Growth in the Caribbean is expected to accelerate to 5.6%, predominantly due to offshore oil production developments in Guyana. Regional data.

Middle East and North Africa: Regional growth is projected to accelerate to a modest 2.4% in 2020, largely on higher investment and stronger business climates. Among oil exporters, growth is expected to pick up to 2%. Infrastructure investment and business climate reforms are seen advancing growth among the Gulf Cooperation Council economies to 2.2%. Iran’s economy is expected to stabilize after a contractionary year as the impact of US sanctions tapers and oil production and exports stabilize, while Algeria’s growth is anticipated to rise to 1.9% as policy uncertainty abates and investment picks up. Growth in oil importers is expected to rise to 4.4%. Higher investment and private consumption are expected to support a rise to 5.8% in FY2020 growth in Egypt. Regional data.

South Asia: Growth in the region is expected to rise to 5.5% in 2020, assuming a modest rebound in domestic demand and as economic activity benefits from policy accommodation in India and Sri Lanka and improved business confidence and support from infrastructure investments in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. In India, where weakness in credit from non-bank financial companies is expected to linger, growth is projected to slow to 5% in FY 2019/20, which ends March 31 and recover to 5.8% the following fiscal year. In Pakistan’s growth is expected to rise to 3% in the next fiscal year after bottoming out at 2.4% in FY2019/20, which ends June 30. In Bangladesh, growth is expected to ease to 7.2% in FY2019/2020, which ends June 30, and edge up to 7.3% the following fiscal year. Growth in Sri Lanka is forecast to rise to 3.3%. Regional data

Sub-Saharan Africa: Regional growth is expected to pick up to 2.9% in 2020, assuming investor confidence improves in some large economies, energy bottlenecks ease, a pickup in oil production contributes to recovery in oil exporters and robust growth continues among agricultural commodity exporters. The forecast is weaker than previously expected reflecting softer demand from key trading partners, lower commodity prices, and adverse domestic developments in several countries. In South Africa, growth is expected to pick up to 0.9%, assuming the new administration’s reform agenda gathers pace, policy uncertainty wanes, and investment gradually recovers. Growth in Nigeria expected to edge up to 2.1% as the macroeconomic framework is not conducive to confidence. Growth in Angola is anticipated to accelerate to 1.5%, assuming that ongoing reforms provide greater macroeconomic stability, improve the business environment, and bolster private investment. In the West African Economic and Monetary Union, growth is expected to hold steady at 6.4%. In Kenya, growth is seen edging up to 6%.

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COVID-19 is reversing the important gains made over the last decade for women

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Progress for women in work could be back at 2017 levels by the end of 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to analysis conducted for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index, which measures female economic empowerment across 33 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries*.  The evidence emerging globally is that the damage from COVID-19 and government response and recovery policies, is disproportionately being felt by women.

For nine years, countries across the OECD* made consistent gains towards women’s economic empowerment. However, due to COVID-19 this trend will now be reversed, with the Index estimated to fall 2.1 points between 2019 and 2021, according to analysis undertaken for PwC’s annual Women in Work Index. The Index will not begin to recover until 2022, where it should gain back 0.8 points. 

In order to undo the damage caused by COVID-19 to women in work – even by 2030, progress towards gender equality needs to be twice as fast as its historical rate.

Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader, People and Organization at PwC, said:

“The setbacks that we are experiencing with COVID-19 in terms of the workforce tell a worrisome story. While the impacts are being felt by everyone across the globe, we are seeing women exiting the workforce at a faster rate than men. Women carry a heavier burden than men of unpaid care and domestic work. This has increased during the pandemic, and it is limiting women’s time and options to contribute to the economy. In the labour market, more women work in hard-hit human contact-intensive service sectors  – such as accomodation and food services, and retail trade. With social distancing and lockdowns, these sectors have seen unprecedented job losses.”   

Between 2019 and 2020, the annual OECD unemployment rate increased by 1.7 percentage points for women (from 5.7% in 2019 to 7.4% in 2020). In the US, the female unemployment rate increased sharply from 4% in March 2020 to 16% in April 2020. The female unemployment rate stayed high for the remainder of 2020, ending the year in December 2020 at 6.7%, 3 percentage points higher than in December 2019.  In the UK, the full impact of job losses from COVID-19 is yet to be realised due to job retention schemes, but furlough data shows that women are at greater risk of losing their jobs when these schemes come to an end. Between July and October 2020, a total of 15.3 million jobs were furloughed in the UK. For furloughed jobs for which gender was known, 52% of these were women’s jobs, despite women only making up 48% of the workforce.*** 

The disproportionate burden of unpaid childcare falls on women

Before COVID-19 hit, women on average spent six more hours than men on unpaid childcare every week (according to research by UN Women). During COVID-19, women have taken on an even greater share and now spend 7.7 more hours per week on unpaid childcare than men**  – this ‘second shift’ equates to 31.5 hours per week; almost as much an extra full-time job. 

This increase in unpaid labour has already reduced women’s contribution to the economy. If this extra burden lasts, it will cause more women to leave the labour market permanently, reversing progress towards gender equality and reducing productivity in the economy. 

While some women may choose to leave the workforce temporarily due to COVID-19 with the intention to return post-pandemic, research shows that career breaks have long-term impacts on women’s labour market prospects, and women will return to lower paid and lower skilled positions. 

PwC Women in Work 2021 Index (performance prior to COVID-19 pandemic)

Iceland continues to hold the top spot on the Index out of OECD countries. It is a consistent strong performer in female labour force participation (84%), has a small participation rate gap (5%), and even smaller female unemployment rate (3%).  

Greece saw the largest increase in terms of Index score between 2018 and 2019, driven by improvement in all labour market indicators except for the share of full-time female employees. On the contrary, Portugal experienced the largest decline in Index score between 2018 and 2019 due to a widening of its gender pay gap by 5 percentage points.

New Zealand and Slovenia both increased their rankings on the Index by one position. New Zealand saw an upward trend across all five indicators and has risen by 5 spots on the Index over the course of nine years. Government policy and a history of female representation in political institutions have helped to drive these gains. Slovenia’s improvement was driven by a fall in the participation rate gap and in female unemployment, as well as an increase in the share of full-time female employment. 

If OECD countries increased their rates of female employment to match Sweden’s (consistently the top performer), the gain to GDP would be over US$6 trillion per annum. The US, with one of the highest female unemployment rates, is expected to gain the most – as much as US$1.7 trillion per annum. 

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65% of Adults Think Race, Ethnicity or National Origin Affects Job Opportunities

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A recent Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey has found that 65% of all adults believe that, in their country, someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin influences their employment opportunities. When considering their own race, ethnicity, or national origin, more than one-third say it has impacted their personal employment opportunities.

The online survey was conducted between 22 January and 5 February 2021, among more than 20,000 adults in 27 countries. It also reveals that 60% of adults think that someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin plays a role in education opportunities, access to housing, and access to social services.

As Black History Month in the United States draws to a close, awareness of the impacts of race, ethnicity and national origin on opportunities in life is exceptionally high. It follows a tumultuous year when the pandemic put inequality into the spotlight, and events in the US sparked international protests as long-simmering, systemic racial inequities came to the forefront.

Of those surveyed, 46% say the events of the past year have increased differences in opportunities as well as access to housing, education, employment and/or social services in their country. In comparison, 43% say the events have had no impact on differences and 12% say they have decreased differences.

About 60% of respondents in Latin America, Spain and South Africa, and nearly half in France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sweden, Belgium and the US say recent events have increased race, ethnicity, or national origin-based differences in opportunities in their country, compared to only about one in three in Germany, Poland and Saudi Arabia, one in four in China, and one in seven in Russia.

Perceptions versus the reported personal experience of inequality also vary significantly in countries. Compared with the 27-country average for all four types of opportunities measured, several countries stand out.

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‘Industry 4.0’ tech for post-COVID world, is driving inequality

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Developing countries must embrace ground-breaking technologies that have been a critical tool in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, or else face even greater inequalities than before, UN economic development  experts at UNCTAD said on Thursday.

“Very few countries create the technologies that drive this revolution – most of them are created in China and the US – but all countries will be affected by it”, said UNCTAD’s Shamika Sirimanne, head of Division on Technology and Logistics. “Almost none of the developing countries we studied is prepared for the consequences.”

The appeal, which is highlighted in a new UNCTAD report, relates to all things digital and connective, so-called “Industry 4.0” or “frontier technologies”, that include artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, nanotechnology and solar energy.

Gene editing, another fast-evolving sector, has demonstrated its worth in the last year, with the accelerated development of new coronavirus vaccines.

Drone aid

In developing countries, digital tools can be used to monitor ground water contamination, deliver medical supplies to remote communities via drones, or track diseases using big data, said UNCTAD’s Sirimanne.

But “most of these examples remain at pilot level, without ever being scaled-up to reach those most in need: the poor. To be successful, technology deployment must fulfil the five As: availability, affordability, awareness, accessibility, and the ability for effective use.”

Income gap widening

With an estimated market value of $350 billion today, the array of emerging digital solutions for life after COVID is likely to be worth over $3 trillion by 2025 – hence the need for developing countries to invest in training and infrastructure to be part of it, Sirimanne maintained.

“Most Industry 4.0 technologies that are being deployed in developed countries save labour in routine tasks affecting mid-level skill jobs. They reward digital skills and capital”, she said, pointing to the significant increase in the market value of the world’s leading digital platforms during the pandemic.

Innovation dividends

“The largest gains have been made by Amazon, Apple and Tencent,” Sirimanne continued. “This is not surprising given that a very small number of very large firms provided most of the digital solutions that we have used to cope with various lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Expressing optimism about the potential for developing countries to be carried along with the new wave of digitalisation rather than be swamped by it, the UNCTAD economist downplayed concerns that increasing workforce automation risked putting people in poorer countries out of a job.

This is because “not all tasks in a job are automated, and, most importantly, that new products, tasks, professions, and economic activities are created throughout the economy”, Sirimanne said.

‘Job polarization’

“The low wages …for skills in developing countries plus the demographic trends will not create economic incentives to replace labour in manufacturing – not yet.”

According to UNCTAD, over the past two decades, the expansion in high and low-wage jobs – a phenomenon known as “job polarization” – has led to only a single-digit reduction in medium-skilled jobs in developed and developing countries (of four and six per cent respectively).

“So, it is expected that low and lower-middle income developing countries will be less exposed to potential negative effects of AI and robots on job polarization”, Sirimanne explained.

Nonetheless, the UN trade and development body cautioned that there appeared to be little sign of galloping inequality slowing down in the new digital age, pointing to data indicating that the income gap between developed and developing countries is $40,749 in real terms today, up from $17,000 in 1970.

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