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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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Small Businesses Adapting to Rapidly Changing Economic Landscape

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The World Economic Forum has long been at the forefront of recognizing the strategic importance of sustainable value creation objectives for business. While interest has mostly focused on how large corporations contribute to the global economy and sustainable development objectives, small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often overlooked as major drivers of economic activity, as well as social and environmental progress around the world.

A new report released today finds factors that previously disadvantaged SMEs can lead them to new opportunities. Nine case studies from multiple industries and regions highlight what SMEs can do to increase their future readiness.

Developed in collaboration with the National University of Singapore Business School, the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and Entrepreneurs’ Organization, the report also finds that SMEs are lagging behind in terms of societal impact. Although there is a clear need to operate in line with sustainability goals, many SMEs have yet to include explicit strategies and performance measurement centred on societal impact.

The top challenges cited by SME executives include talent acquisition and retention (for 52.5% respondents), survival and expansion (43.8%), funding and access to capital (35.7%), non-supportive policy environment (21%), the difficulty of maintaining a strong culture and clear company purpose and value (20%).

SMEs can leverage their size, networks, people and the strengths of technology to support their goals of sustainable growth, positive societal impact and robust adaptive capacity. While it is essential for SMEs and the wider economy to increase their future readiness, they can thrive only insofar as the necessary supporting infrastructure and regulatory frameworks exist.

“We hope this will inspire and encourage SMEs and mid-sized companies to harness their potential in becoming a major driver of sustainable and inclusive economic growth and innovation by focusing on several core dimensions of future readiness,” said Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum.

“Through this report, the Forum aims to highlight the significant role SMEs can play not just locally but also globally. The New Champions Community is a step towards bringing these smaller companies into the forefront of global discourse around socioeconomic development and engaging them in a community of forward-thinking companies from across the world,” said Stephan Mergenthaler, Head of Strategic Intelligence and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

The report aims to develop a deeper understanding of organizational capabilities and orientations needed for SMEs to successfully generate lasting financial growth, affect society and the environment positively, and develop high levels of resilience and agility.

It relies on robust research methods and combines rigorous primary and secondary research. The takeaways and conclusions presented in the research have been derived from an analysis of over 200 peer-reviewed articles and engagement of more than 300 CEOs and founders of SMEs through surveys and in-depth interviews.

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France: Invest in skills, digitalisation and the green transition to strengthen the recovery

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Swift and effective government support has helped France to rebound rapidly from its COVID19-induced recession. Using the country’s announced Recovery and Investment Plans to invest in education, worker training, and the green and digital transitions should result in stronger and more resilient growth, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of France says that while it is important not to prematurely withdraw support for households and firms, as the recovery gains traction support measures should increasingly be targeted at the most viable businesses and sectors and should favour investment. Professional training and support for workers transitioning to new jobs should be strengthened to ease labour market shortages and address the mismatch between skills and the needs of the business sector.

“France’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been swift and effective, enabling it to emerge from the health crisis with jobs and household incomes well protected and its economic capacity largely preserved,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said, launching the Survey alongside French Minister of Economy, Finance and Recovery Bruno Le Maire. “A rigorous implementation of the government’s Recovery and Investment Plans will help to turn the rebound into lasting sustained growth, building a greener, more digital and more resilient economy.”

After an 8.0% contraction in economic activity in 2020, the Survey projects a strong GDP rebound of 6.8% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022 as domestic demand resumes. This follows a period of slower growth in France in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 crisis marked by weak gains in productivity and living standards. Low-skilled and young workers face difficulties in accessing the labour market and unequal opportunities have weakened inter-generational social mobility. The pandemic has also exposed a lag among small and medium-sized enterprises in adopting digital technologies.

These structural weaknesses can only be addressed through reforms, the Survey says. It calls for renewed efforts to boost skills to help sustain jobs and productivity growth. A combination of labour market, taxation and spending reforms could lead to a tangible increase in living standards in the years ahead, according to the Survey. 

It is particularly important to use the recovery period to improve the fiscal framework and notably the effectiveness of public spending through reviews and better allocation of resources, the Survey says. France’s public spending as a share of GDP is the highest of OECD countries, and the high level of social expenditures, notably on pensions, as well as looming pressure from an ageing population makes it vital to rebalance spending towards more investment. This would support growth and help to stabilise and then gradually lower the public debt-to-GDP ratio. 

The government has already pursued important reforms to reduce labour market segmentation and strengthen active labour market policies. Ensuring broad access to retraining and enforcing high quality standards for lifelong training courses would boost employment opportunities.

France has made the transition towards a greener economy a pillar of its recovery plan, and it is vital that this leads to increased private investment in green infrastructure and technology. Greater incentives are needed to drive behavioural changes within businesses and households. To be fully effective, this should extend to all available policy instruments, including regulation and R&D as well as progressively aligning carbon prices across sectors, albeit alongside complementary measures. To avoid unfair impacts on people and sectors, it is essential to support vulnerable households and firms, through targeted measures, for example help-to-buy schemes for clean vehicles and equipment.

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People are increasingly worried about inequalities but divided on how to address them

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Photo: Arno Senoner/Unsplash

For a recovery from the COVID-19 crisis that is strong, sustainable but also fair, it will be key to tackle inequalities and promote equal opportunities. Yet while there is growing consensus that inequality is a problem, people are increasingly divided about its extent and what to do about it, according to a new OECD report.

Does Inequality Matter? says that most people are concerned about inequality. Four in five people in the OECD feel income disparities are too large in their country. People care about inequality of both outcomes and opportunities, as they perceive high income and earnings disparities as well as low social mobility. Moreover, concern over income and earnings disparities has risen in the last three decades, in line with the increase in income inequality.

People’s perceptions are not disconnected from reality. Along the lines of observed trends in income inequality, people believed, on average, that top earners earned 5 times as much as bottom earners in the late 1980s/early 1990s, while this perceived top-to-bottom earnings ratio has increased to 8 today, after having reached a peak of 10 during the Great Recession. Tolerance for inequality has also increased, though by less. Today people believe, on average, that top earners should earn 4 times as much as the bottom earners, up from 3 times in the late 1980s.

More than 6 out of 10 OECD citizens believe their government should do more to reduce income differences between rich and poor with taxes and transfers. The more people are concerned about inequality and perceive low social mobility, the higher their demand for redistribution.

However, beliefs about effectiveness of policies and determinants of inequalities matter. People are less likely to demand more redistribution if they believe that benefits are mistargeted, and they are less in favour of progressive taxation if they believe that corruption is widespread among public officials, prompting the misuse and misallocation of public benefits.

Demand for more progressive taxation is also lower where people believe that disparities are justified by differences in personal effort, rather than to circumstances beyond people’s control. For example, in 2018 in Poland 25% of people believe poverty is due to lack of effort rather than injustice or bad luck and 54% demand more progressive taxation, while in Germany that figure is 4% and 77%, respectively.

Yet, despite most people being concerned about inequality, they have strongly different beliefs about its extent and what to do about it. Within the average OECD country, one fourth of people thinks that more than 70% of the national income goes to the 10% richest households, contrary to another fourth who think that less than 30% goes to the richest households.

Furthermore, the large heterogeneity of people’s views on inequalities has grown in the last three decades, even among people with similar socio-economic characteristics. There is evidence of growing polarization: in most OECD countries there is an increasing gap between those who believe inequality is high and those who believe it is low. More unequal countries have a more divided public opinion: in Chile and the United States – two among the most unequal OECD countries – the perceptions about the extent of the top richest 10% shares diverge the most.

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