The “Italian Strategic Fund” (FSI) was established on July 28, 2011, with the then Economy Minister, Giulio Tremonti, and with the collaboration of the Treasury Director General, Vittorio Grilli, under the chairmanship of Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP), led at the time by Franco Bassanini, as well as with the support of CDP’s CEO, Giovanni GornoTempini.
From the outset, like many but not all the several Strategic Funds existing in the world, the FSI has been a holding company with the primary aim of supporting strategic Italian companies.
Strategic companies in terms of products, important for processes, decisive for technologies, essential for Italy’s cutting-edge technologies, like the Defence companies.
In this case, what does it really mean to be a “strategic company”?
The various schools of thought diverge on this point, but we could find a good definition by recalling that strategic companies are those essential for the medium-long term planning of the major and most promising sector of Italy’s industrial system.
The idea of the FSI was also to favour the maximum efficiency of some companies and, in particular, to stimulate the enhancement of their ability to “compete” at international level.
Initially, the FSI share capital was ridiculously low, i.e. one billion Euros, which rose almost immediately to 4 billion Euros.
However, in the initial projects and still today, the company’s endowment could have reached 7 billion Euros. Probably still too little.
Like all the similar funds currently operating in the world today, the Italian Strategic Fund is targeted to sound companies which, however, need a new capital injection.
Certainly, unlike before the great technological revolution of the Web and of logistic telecommunications, it is currently hard to speak about “national champions” as we had at the time of Renault or Fiat or, possibly, Autostrade.
Nowadays, with the Global Value Chains (GVCs), it is even hard to identify the direct nationality of products that we all consider characteristic and typical of a given nation.
With a view to understanding GVCs, we need to think above all about the geographical distribution of companies. All small and medium-sized enterprises. The other less known side of Schumacher’s “small is beautiful”.
In the classic model of “delayed development”, which was generally accepted until the 1970s, the shift of the global production centre from the EU and the USA to Asia was interpreted only as the creation of a structural dependence of the non-Western peripheries on the Eurasian production centre.
The Marxist derivation of this model was Arghiri Emmanuel’s brilliant theory of unequal exchange, also developed in the early 1960s.
That was the origin of the theory of the world division between “rich” and “poor” countries. Currently, however, with the evident presence of world overproduction (and of financial securities to cover it) at the origin of the present economic crisis, since 2016there has been a tendency to think, instead, that there is an even more heuristic model, called “compressed development”.
Compressed development would be a criterion that puts at the centre of its interest the heterogeneity of the individual countries participating in the Global Value Chains, thus also taking into account the extraordinary difference in power of the large multinational companies compared to the infinite “peripheral” and often non-Western SMEs.
Hence the SMEs as essential factors of the new international division of labour, but depending on a higher system of GVC managers that is a cartel in individual sectors and a political and industrial agreement between different sectors.
Hence, while it is true that the highest value-added segments tend to still remain in the old Euro-American centre – although China is currently showing us a different strategy – it is equally true that a model explaining Global Value Chains with the old criterion of “comparative advantages” and asymmetry between centre and periphery no longer stands the test of time.
Hence what is the national economic interest? It is currently hard to answer this question.
We are partially helped by Hecksler-Ohlin’s theory stating that a “nation mainly exports goods requiring factors of production it has in abundance (labour, specialized technology, capital) and that it can most efficiently and plentifully produce”.
Therefore, the share of comparative advantages stems from the composition of its primary production formula, which is selected by the global competition of SMEs compared to those who monopolistically control global chains. It also stems from the national governments’ ability to create temporary advantages in GVCs, resulting from the definition of specific strategies and the “joint” approach of private companies.
This is currently Italy’s productive point.
To bring some of Italy’s big national champions into the geopolitical rather than economic oligopoly of the global companies leading the main Global Value Chains, so as to later organize the “voluntary” mechanisms that permit the hegemony of Italian SMEs in the various sectoral markets.
Recently my friend Paolo Savona has spoken about the “return of the State as master”, but the future will enable us to have only two real forms of control of global value chains: either with a top-down approach, by producing universal enterprises that lead the chains, or with a bottom-up approach, by organizing the groups of SMEs that prevail – with public and private support – over their competitors in the division created by GVCs.
However, all the latest statistical analyses show us that in the Euro area countries there have been massive and now excessive share transfers of State entities, as well as liberalisations, often of goods and services which are – even in the free-trade and liberal economic tradition – “natural monopolies”, but with a significant slowdown in share transfers and divestments, which in Italy, France and Germany started as early as the early 2000s.
Furthermore, Ronald Reagan – the politician epitomizing the free-trade and liberal revival – had not at all cut public spending in general, but had cut the traditional spending for civilian Welfare, with a view to favouring his specific military Welfare.
A deficit military spending, which had no immediate inflationary repercussions, but rather acted as a technological stimulus for innovation, also in civilian enterprises.
Without “inclusive institutions”, however, i.e. without stable public organizations enabling sufficient segments of the population to have access to some wealth, all modern States tend to be relegated to be failed States, thus becoming easy prey for their structural and global geoeconomic opponents – and even at the lowest possible cost.
This is what – inter alia – Sovereign Funds are for.
In fact, they ensure the public or semi-public ownership of the enterprises that a State and a society choose – moment by moment – to guide their economic and social future in the medium-long term.
Hence the Sovereign Funds must be protected from the raids of possible and real competitors. Raids are continuous, while growth projects are temporary.
It should be recalled that in Gilpin’s opinion, the “aim of economic activities is to provide benefits to consumers, not to strengthen the State security”.
But the State security is also a primary asset, which allows to quickly eliminate adverse geoeconomic actions and hence avoid the immediate colonization of the development potential of a State and of a society.
Edward Luttwakhas also rigthly said that any economic globalization is always strategically dangerous, since it inevitably leads to what he calls “paroxysmal competition”, which is an inevitable feature of turbo-capitalism: a very rapid increase in the size and speed of trade, always combined with post-Cold War globalization, which does not accept any geographical limit to its expansion.
If turbo-capitalism stops, it immediately melts away under the sun of value realization.
The excessive trade speed mimics its actual productivity and the size of trade sometimes masks its very low value which, however, is maintained thanks to excessive speed, which does not allow the rational and technical assessment of risks.
Hence, against the Hobbesian state of bellum omnium contra omnes typical of turbo-capitalism, which usually does not sufficiently invest in product or process innovation, we need to think of two solutions, called the State of Economic Intelligence or the Geoeconomic State.
Paolo Savona and Carlo Jean have spoken of the ever-increasing role of economic intelligence, which should become the axis of every modern State’s economic, financial and productive choices.
Without Sovereign Funds, however, there is no economic intelligence.
Hence we need to firmly keep a sector, at least one, which is comparatively very advanced, but above all export-led, and which is also protected with all the non-tariff mechanisms that are now commonly used in everyday economic warfare.
This is the reason why, for at least five years all the major Western countries have been rethinking their old deindustrialization and delocalization policies, which often deprive societies and States of the necessary systems for controlling global, financial and productive flows. Not to mention the fiscal deprivation and over-costs for maintaining structural unemployment.
In the evolution of the most recent international trade theory, we have even gone so far as to develop a Strategic Trade Theory, a model underlining the companies’ and State’s ability to improve the trade balance by working strategically -i.e. in the medium-long term – in imperfect global markets.
The oligopolistic markets are always those where leading products or services are developed, usually with public investment in Research and Development.
This is the true nature of the Keynesian model: the State funds what is not yet profitable, but the private sector deals mainly with “mature” or growing companies, which have already found their market.
Hence we also need the theory of the Innovating State, i.e. the Entrepreneurial State, recently developed by Mariana Mazzuccato.
The State imagined by Mazzuccato explores the whole scenario of business risk, thus creating above all new markets. In particular, the State creates the markets in which we need to have strong investment in situations of maximum uncertainty, thus acting as a risk taker and hence later as a market shaper.
The “Administrative State” is a public administration “serving” private individuals, but the Entrepreneurial-Innovating State is the one that does not make the unemployed people dig the classic Keynesian holes, in the inevitable periods of production contraction, which is above all – Marxistically – tendential over-production.
But, if anything, the Entrepreneurial-Innovating State invests in new high-quality technologies, which create original markets where, in fact, the Entrepreneurial State controls the future oligopoly. Another role of Sovereign Funds.
Technically, however, the Funds are investment funds which manage financial asset portfolios denominated in foreign currencies, according to the global rules of what we currently call the grey economy.
In theory, the Funds are divided between those which invest resources coming from raw materials or oil and gas (SWF Commodity) and all the others which, instead, invest surpluses coming from the currency surpluses of the trade balances.
This is clearly our case.
According to the “Santiago Principles”, a code for Sovereign Funds developed based on the International Monetary Fund’s indications, the Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) are “special purpose” investment funds owned by national governments.
Therefore, SWFs have five primary characteristics: a) they are always held by a Sovereign State; b) they make investment in foreign currency; c) they carry out their activities over a long term, with low indebtedness and without withdrawals or distribution of profit to participants; d) their accounting is strictly separate from that of Central Banks and Finance Ministries; e) they carry out research for investment with returns above the risk-free rate.
The first real Sovereign Funds were the Kuwait Investment Authority, created in 1953, to obviously invest the capital originating from the extraction and sale of local oil, as well as the old Revenue Equalization Reverse Fund, set up by the British administration of the then colony of the Gilbert Islands, the current Republic of Kiribati, to invest the surplus from the sale of phosphates.
The secret agreement between Kissinger and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, after the Yom Kippur war, later channelled the extraordinary surpluses stemming from the very significant increase in the OPEC oil barrel price into US government bonds. Hence petrodollars were created.
In the phase following the booming prices of some fundamental raw materials when, in fact, oil prices plunged, namely in the 1980s, the Sovereign Funds became the primary instrument for diversifying investment and hence for the financial stability of the countries producing raw materials (or commercial surpluses) which had already adopted them.
From then until 2005, the Sovereign Funds became the main instrument, for Asian countries in particular, to accumulate and use the foreign currency reserves arriving in the Asian countries which were more export-led and more linked to the US dollar cycle.
To avoid having to resort to the often dangerous therapies of the International Monetary Fund, especially when the global reference currency fell, the top Asian export-led countries combined their industrial expansion policies with specific exchange rate policies, which tended to accumulate very large foreign currency funds.
Obviously that happened only to avoid the manipulation of currency markets in a condition of objective weakness created by an exclusively export-oriented economy – with exports to countries having a very strong currency.
In 1978 the SWF Temasek, the “historic” Singapore investment fund, came up with the idea of using Sovereign Funds for that purpose.
Temasek invested its considerable surpluses in the acquisition of companies and financial holdings in the Asian area directly bordering on Singapore, thus making the city-State – which was also the first model for Deng Xiaping’s Four Modernizations – overcome its structural limits, thus protecting it from enemy and adverse operations on its exchange rates and on its productive system.
Finally, from the beginning of the great subprime crisis, the Funds have spread mainly in the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and also in some “First World” countries, especially to acquire minority shareholdings or to carry out hostile takeover operations towards competitors or potential penetrators of their national markets, possibly even with dumping actions – and it would not be the first time.
In 2020 SWFs are supposed to reach, worldwide, an amount of managed assets of approximately 15 trillion US dollars.
75% of the capital managed by the Funds is currently concentrated on the top 10 operators. Obviously the SWF market is highly oligopolistic and the top 10 operators are now all Middle East or Asian entities.
The history of modern European Sovereign Funds began with Sarkozy’s Presidency in France.
As early as 2008, the French centre-right leader set up the Fond Strategiqued’ Investissement (Strategic Investment Fund), based on two already existing financial structures, namely the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations(the State Bank handling official deposits, which is the equivalent of the prominent Italian investment bank known as Cassa Depositi e Prestiti) and the Fond de Réserve pour les Retraites(Pension Reserve Fund), with capitalisations – at the time – of 80 and 33.8 billion Euros respectively.
However, 51% of the new French Sovereign Fund was owned by the Caisse des Dépôts and the remaining 49% by the Agence des Participations d’État (Government Shareholding Agency).
The aim of the Fund created by Sarkozy was to invest mainly in French and foreign small and medium-sized enterprises, characterized by strong growth but having no longer access to standard market financing (although we do not know why).
The French Fund also set in when the company was overtly threatened by a hostile takeover, or any acquisition, by foreign companies.
The French Fund could also intervene directly in the capital of innovative industries.
As early as 2008, however, the Italian intelligence Services have focused on the very strong need to protect the national know-how, considering that the operational plans of other Sovereign Funds interested in Italy could be useful for acquiring specific technologies.
It has already happened: in the machine tools, agri-food, specialized pharmaceutics and fine mechanics sectors, Italy’s top large SMEs have already been acquired by French, German and Chinese companies.
In their report to Parliament in 2010, the Italian intelligence Services already spoke of a “liquidity threat” to Italy’s companies.
The foreign private equity funds, in fact, are mainly targeted to banking, biotechnology, energy, entertainment and even online gaming companies.
Currently, however, the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti has two instruments to support companies, especially the technologically advanced ones: the Italian Strategic Fund – now CDP Private Equity – and the Italian Investment Fund.
The latter was launched in 2010, with the collaboration of some private banks, and – as usual – it is targeted primarily to small and medium-sized enterprises.
It has two operating structures: the Venture Capital Fund for innovative start-ups and the Minibond Fund, which supports the bond issues of small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Italian Strategic Fund – 90% of which is held by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti(CDP) and the remaining 10% by FINTECNA, which is in any case fully owned by CDP – was launched in 2011 with a capital of 4.4 billion Euros and, as already mentioned, rose to 7 billion Euros.
However, why setting limits?
The Italian Strategic Fund was born with a negative experience to be made good, considering that those were the years of the takeovers for Parmalat, which had just been redressed financially, and for Bulgari, not to mention the future and possible “friendly” sales – well hyped by the Italian media- of Alitalia and Edison.
The Italian Strategic Fund dealt mainly with medium-large companies having “significant national interest”, while, from the beginning, it created strong ties with Qatar Holding, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the Kuwait Investment Authority and the Korea Investment Corporation.
Moreover, in 2012 the Italian Strategic Fund signed an agreement with Qatar Holding LLC for the creation of a joint venture, called IQ Made in Italy Venture, to invest in the typical Made in Italy companies.
The idea, which has not yet fully materialized, was to create a “luxury district”.
The Maastricht restrictions on the so-called “State aid” always make it difficult for the Italian Strategic Fund to operate. It would possibly need an arm abroad, capable of operating on our companies without EU constraints. It would also be necessary to deem it legitimate for the Italian Strategic Fund to invest in companies of significant national interest, but regardless of the average return on the capital invested in the medium term.
Therefore, unlike the old twentieth century economic statism, the Italian Strategic Fund invests in healthy companies and it plays -quietly and without nervousness – the role of minority shareholder. It also follows the private criteria of investment profitability and efficiency and does not follow the natural distortions, often originated by public entities, but also by powerful private entities, to manipulate production formulas and intermediate markets.
Hence rethinking and expanding the Fund’s operations, or possibly creating specific areas of intervention for the Fund, would be an excellent evolution of the fundamental policy lines on which the Italian Strategic Fund was conceived.
Bangladesh-Myanmar Economic Ties: Addressing the Next Generation Challenges
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have developed through phases of cooperation and conflict. Conflict in this case is not meant in the sense of confrontation, but only in the sense of conflict of interests and resultant diplomatic face-offs. Myanmar is the only other neighbor that Bangladesh has on its border besides India. It is the potential gateway for an alternative land route opening towards China and South-East Asia other than the sea. Historically, these two countries have geographic and cultural linkages. These two bordering countries, located in separate geopolitical regions, have huge possibilities in developing their bilateral economic relations. At the initial phase of their statehood, both countries undertook numerous constructive initiatives to improve their relations. Nevertheless, different bilateral disputes and challenges troubled entire range of cooperation. Subsequent to these challenges, Bangladesh and Myanmar have started negotiation process on key dubious issues. The economic rationales over political tensions in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations prevail with new prospects and opportunities.
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations officially began from 13 January 1972, the date on which Myanmar, as the sixth state, recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. They signed several agreements on trade and business such as general trade agreement in 1973. The two countries later initiated formal trade relations on 05 September 1995. To increase demand for Bangladeshi products in Myanmar, Bangladesh opened trade exhibitions from 1995 to 1996 in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar. However, that pleasant bilateral economic relations did not last for long, rather was soon interrupted mainly by Myanmar’s long term authoritarian rule and isolationist economic policy. In the twenty-first century, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are expected to move towards greater economic cooperation facilitated by two significant factors. First, the victory of Myanmar’s pro-democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2011 has considerably brought new dimensions in the relations. Although this relation is now at stake since the state power has been taken over by military. Second, the peaceful settlement of Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime dispute in 2012 added new dimension in their economic relations.
Bangladesh and Myanmar don’t share a substantial volume of trade and neither is in the list of largest trading partners. Bangladesh’s total export and import with Myanmar is trifling compared to the total export and import and so do Myanmar’s. But gradually the trades between the countries are increasing and the trend is for the last 5 to 6 year is upward especially for Bangladesh; although Bangladesh is facing a negative trend in Balance of Payment. In 2018-2019 fiscal year, Bangladesh’s total export to Myanmar was $25.11 million which is more than double from that of the export in 2011-12. Bangladesh imported $90.91 million worth goods and services from Myanmar resulting in $65 Million deficit in Balance of Payment in 2018-2019 fiscal year. For the last six or seven years, Bangladesh’s Balance of Payment was continuously in deficit in case of trade with Myanmar. The outbreak of COVID-19, closure of border for eight months and recent coup in Myanmar have a negative impact on the trade between the countries.
Bangladesh mainly imports livestock, vegetable products including onion, prepared foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, plastics, raw hides and skin, leather, wood and articles of woods, footwear, textiles and artificial human hair from Myanmar. Recently, due to India’s ban on cattle export, Myanmar has emerged as a new exporter of live animals to Bangladesh especially during the Eid ul-Adha with a cheaper rate than India. On the hand, Bangladesh exports frozen foods, chemicals, leather, agro-products, jute products, knitwear, fish, timber and woven garments to Myanmar.
Unresolved Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s highly unpredictable political landscape, lack of bilateral connectivity, shadow economy created from illegal activities, distrust created due to different insurgent groups, maritime boundary dispute, illegal drugs and arms smuggling in border areas, skeptic mindset of the people in both fronts and alleged cross border movement of insurgents are acting as stumbling block in bolstering economic relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are yet to blossom in full swing. The agreement signed by Sheikh Hasina in 2011 to establish a Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation is definitely a proactive step for enhancing trade. People to people contact can be increased for building mutual confidence and trust. Frequent visit by business, civil society, military and civil administration delegates may be organized for better understanding and communication. Both countries may explore economic potential and address common interest for enhancing economic co-operation. In order to augment trade, both countries may ease visa restrictions, deregulate currency restrictions and establish smooth channel of financial transactions. Coastal shipping (especially cargo vessels between Chittagong and Sittwe), air and road connectivity may be developed to inflate trade and tourism. Bangladesh and Myanmar may establish “Point of Contact” to facilitate first-hand information exchange for greater openness. Initiative may be taken to sign Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) within the ambit of which potential export items from both countries would be allowed to enter duty free. In recent year, Bangladesh was badly affected by many unilateral decisions of India such as onion crisis. Myanmar can serve as an alternative import source of crops and animals for Bangladesh to lessen dependence upon India.
Myanmar’s currency is highly devaluated for a long time due to its political turmoil and sanctions by the west. Myanmar can strengthen its currency value by escalating trade volume with Bangladesh. These two countries can fortify their local economy in boarder areas by establishing border haats. Cooperation between these two countries on “Blue Economy” may be source of strategic advantages mainly by exporting marine goods and service. Last but not the least, the peaceful settlement of maritime boundary disputes between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2012 may be capitalized to add new dimension in their bilateral economic relations. Both nations can expand trade and investment by utilizing the Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).
With the start of a new phase in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, which has put the bilateral relations on an upswing, it is only natural that both sides should try to give a boost to bilateral trade. Bilateral trade is not challenge free but the issue is far easier to resolve than others. At the same time, closer economic ties could also help in resolving other bilateral disputes. For Myanmar, as it is facing currency devaluation and losing market, increased trade volume will make their economy vibrant. For Bangladesh, it is a good opportunity to use the momentum to minimize trade deficits and reduce dependency on any specific country.
The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.
The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.
Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22.
Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.
Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.
The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.
Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery
Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.
Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.
The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.
Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.
Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.
Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.
The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.
How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?
Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.
First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.
Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.
Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.
Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.
Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.
None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.
Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.
I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.
First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank
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