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CPEC: Whether a Debt Trap for Pakistan or Not?

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April 2015, was a historic month for the Sino-Pakistan relations when China and Pakistan signed an agreement worth $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor That with the passage of time increased and reached $62 billion.The time tested, and deep-rooted Sino-Pak relations would go down into the annals of history as an everlasting era of bilateral bonding and mutual trust. This high significance corridor runs through one of the most vital geostrategic locations in South Asia.As far as the first phase of CPEC is concerned, the recent statistics show that it is going satisfactory in which Pakistan has completed some significant energy projects. Now Islamabad aims to improve its transmission system so that it can cut down on the outages. Similarly, infrastructure projects such as motorways are going well.

According to ISPR Official Documentary on the progress of CPEC, the multi-beneficial CPEC opened for trade purposes on October 2016. On that date, a convoy of 95 trucks left the Sust dry port for their journey across the CPEC right up to Gwadar Port. Besides, Pakistan Army and other law enforcement agencies made full proof security arrangements for safe transportation of these trucks along the CPEC. Also, the safe passage of these convoys to Gwadar is a hallmark to the untiring efforts of the government of Pakistan and Pakistan Army. Besides, the success has not come up easy today while passing through the Khunjrab Pass where the altitude reached 4700 meters, one reminded of 800 Pakistan Army and 300 Chinese engineers were laid their lives for this dream to come true. After the successful completion of phase one Pakistan is going into phase two which is going to be industrialization, modernization of agriculture, livelihoods, the concentration of special economic zones, and relocation of industry especially labour-intensive costs are going up.

Concerning the success of CPEC, many scholars, writers, and experts shared their views such as Former Amb. Abdul Razak Daood, a Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said that CPEC headed in the right direction and it is not a debt trap instead of a project of peace, prosperity, development and job creation for Pakistan. Meanwhile, Saad Hashmi, Economy Expert at Topline Securities, expressed that CPEC was not going to become a debt trap for Pakistan rather a game-changer through its progress and stability. He further argued that when Islamabad would spend all that money in power projects, infrastructure and industries resultantly the GDP growth of Pakistan would improve on that bases Islamabad could quickly return its loans. Such as,Neelum-Jhelum Plant (a largest overseas hydropower project) that provides 500 million kWh of electricity a year, this will alleviate 15% of power shortfall in Pakistan along with generating Rs45 billion or $400 million.

When it comes to the criticism over CPEC as a debt trap by the countries such as the US and India, their disparagement does not base on facts rather personal grudges with Islamabad and Beijing. As US assistant secretary for South Asia, Alice Wells criticized that project and called it debt trap, but both Pakistan and China denied her allegations. In this regard, the Planning Commission of Pakistan told that “the debt repayments will start in 2021 with about $300-400 million annually and gradually peak to about $3.5 billion by the fiscal year 2024-25 before tapering off with total repayments to be completed in 25 years.” It further explained that “CPEC is not imposing any immediate burden concerning loans repayment and energy sector outflows.” It shows that Islamabad can return its loans from the benefits of the investment to the economy of Pakistan. Besides, CPEC is “an engine for economic growth and expects to increase Pakistan’s GDP growth by 2 to 3pc.” That is why CPEC is considered not a ‘debt-trap but a boon for Pakistan. If China lends money to Pakistan at one of the lowest interest rates in the world, how can it be a debt-trap?

On 23rd of July 2018, a statement by the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan showed that CPEC had achieved significant progress in the last five years. It further explained that “CPEC has effectively alleviated energy crisis and infrastructure shortage that Pakistan considers as two bottlenecks in its development, and played a positive role in maintaining the relatively high economic growth in the country.” Also, Noor Ahmed, secretary of the Economic Affairs Division of Pakistan, told that share of Chinese loan is about 10 per cent of total foreign debt while the country’s total external debt is about $106 billion. Meanwhile, the remaining 89-90 per cent foreign debt is from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Paris Club, and other western organizations.

According to the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reform, CPEC has so far created 75,000 direct jobs, and it has the potential to further generate 800,000 to 1,500,000 posts till 2030. The progress of the CPEC projects portrays that it is going to be beneficial for Pakistan instead of a debt trap. Such as Yao Jing, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, expressed his views by saying “Beijing would only proceed with projects that Pakistan wanted, this is Pakistan’s economy, this is their society.”Pakistan has to return the Chinese loans by 2037-38 that is much time, and Islamabad could quickly generate massive money from the completed projects, in this regard, it will be feasible for it to return its loans from the profits of successful projects under CPEC. These projects aim to generate a considerable amount of money resultantly strengthening the economy and GDP of Pakistan.

The writer is working as a Research Associate at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), a non-partisan think-tank based out of Islamabad, and Ph.D. scholar in the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad,Pakistan.

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Portugal’s crisis management: “Economic patriotism” should not be tied to ideological beliefs

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The economic policy of the Hungarian government has provoked fierce criticism in the last decade, as it deviated from the neoliberal mainstream and followed a patriotic path, putting Hungarian interests in the foreground. While many link this style of political economy to the conservative position of the Orbán-government, in Portugal, a left-wing administration followed a similarly patriotic line to overcome the symptoms of the Eurozone crisis, showcasing that economic patriotism is not tied to ideologies, but is merely responsible thinking.

The catastrophic path of austerity

According to the theory of austerity, the government by implying austerity measures, “puts its finances in order”, hence the state does not become indebted and consequently investors’ confidence in the economy returns. However, if we think about what we really mean by austerity (tax increases, wage cuts, budget constraints, etc.), even the theory itself sounds counterproductive. Not surprisingly, this theoretical counter productivity has been demonstrated in practice in several cases.

One of the best examples is the case of Portugal, which along with Greece and other Southern-European nations was probably hit the hardest by the financial crunch. While all of the “GIPS” (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) entered a steer recession, Portugal somehow managed to overcome it more successfully than its regional peers, but before that, it felt the bitter taste of neoliberal structural reforms.

Although the case of Portugal was not as traumatic as the ones of its Southern-European counterparts, in order to keep its debt under control, stabilize its banks and introduce “growth-friendly” reforms, Lisbon negotiated a € 78 billion bailout package in 2011, in exchange for a rigid austerity program aimed at the 2011-2014 period, orchestrated by the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB), the infamous “Troika”.

The neoliberal recipe did not differ much from that of Greece, and the then ruling Passos Coelho conservative government faithfully followed the structural reforms demanded by the “group of three”: working hours increased, number of bank holidays fell, holiday bonuses were abolished, wages and pensions have also been cut by 20 per cent, while public spending on health and education was drastically cut, and due to escalating privatizations, public assets have also been sold off quickly.

Despite the fact that by 2014 the country’s budget deficit as a share of the GDP had fallen to 4.5 per cent from the staggering11.2 per cent recorded in 2011 and the current account showed a surplus – as domestic demand fell apart, forcing companies to export –Portugal was still on the brink of social and economic collapse.

Public debt soared to more than 130 per cent of the GDP, tens of thousands of businesses went bankrupt, unemployment rose to 17 per cent and skyrocketed to 40 per cent amongst the youth. As a result, many talented Portuguese fled abroad, with an estimated 150,000 nationals emigrating in a single year.

The post-2015 turnaround

Things only began to change in 2015, when the Portuguese elected Anotnio Costa as Prime Minister, who was the mayor of Lisbon under the years of the crunch. Shortly after his election, Merkel encouraged the center-left politician to follow the neoliberal prescription proposed by the “Troika”, while her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, underlined that Portugal would make a “serious mistake” if it decided not to follow the neoliberal doctrine and would eventually be forced to negotiate another rescue package.

Not being intimidated by such “threats”, Costa ditched austerity without hesitation, restored working hours, cut taxes and raised the minimum wage by 20 percent in the course of just two years. Obviously, his unpopular position made him crush with Brussels, as his government allowed the budget deficit to reach 4.4 per cent, compared to the agreed 2.7 per cent target. However, in May 2016, the Commission granted Costa another year to comply, and since then Portugal has consistently exceeded its deficit targets.

Tourism also largely assisted the post-15 recovery, to which the government placed great emphasis, so that in 2017 the number of visitors rose to a record high, reaching 12.7 million. Concurrently, Portugal has significantly improved the international reputation of its businesses and products, which contributed to increasing the country’s export revenues and attracting foreign investment.

Furthermore, Costa has raised social spending and at the same time planned to invest state revenues in transport, environmental infrastructure and energy, initiatives that could be extremely beneficial, as they would not only significantly improve the country’s sustainability, but also boost job creation, something that yet again indicates how important public investment is to an economy.

Additionally, Portugal has become an undervalued tech-hub, with plenty of start-ups offering good employment opportunities in addition to fostering innovation. The government with several initiatives, seeks to create a business-friendly ecosystem for them, under which they can thrive and boost the economy to the largest extent. It is thus not surprising, that Portugal has been the fastest growing country in Europe when it comes to the number of programmers.

Finally, one of the Costa’s top priorities, has been to lure back emigrated Portuguese who moved abroad during the crisis. To this end, tax cuts are offered to Portuguese citizens who choose to return home.

In a sum, since Costa stepped into office, Portugal has undergone a rapid recovery: economic growth has returned, unemployment has fallen radically, the public debt was also set on a downgrading path, while the budget remained well-balanced despite the increased spending, with Costa himself explaining that “sound public accounts are compatible with social cohesion”. Even Schäuble acknowledged Portugal’scrisis management, by actually calling Mário Centeno – the finance minister of the Costa government – the “Cristiano Ronaldo” of finance ministers.

Of course, not everything is bright and wonderful, as the country has emerged from a large crisis, the effects of which cannot be eliminated in just a few years. Public debt is still amongst the highest in the EU and several other challenges lie ahead for the South-European nation, especially by taking into consideration that the world economy just entered yet another crisis.

Furthermore, according to many, it was not Costa who led the recovery, but Portugal passively benefited from a strong recovery in Europe, falling oil prices, an explosion in tourism and a sharp drop in debt repayment costs. Indeed, it has to be taken into account that Portugal entered the recession in a relatively better position than many of its spatial counterparts and the relatively high quality of its domestic institutional infrastructure and policy-adaptation capacity aided the previous government to efficiently complete the memorandum of understanding (MoU) as early as 2015. Nevertheless, this is not a sufficient reason to discredit the post-2015 government’s efforts and justify the harsh austerity measures implied by the Troika. Taking into account that austerity never really provided decent results, it becomes evident that Costa’s policies were quite effective.

Economic patriotism should not be connected to ideologies

While in the case of Hungary and Poland “economic patriotism” has been fiercely criticized despite its prosperous results, this spite tendency has been an outcome of strong politicization in economic policy analysis. Even though the political context is verily important, it is also crucial to interpret economic policy independently, in order to take away valuable lessons and identify mistakes. Political bias is not a fortunate thing, as it is absolute and nullifies debate and hence development.

The case of Portugal is a perfect example, as it provides sound evidence, that a patriotic economic policy can be exercised by governments from all across the political spectrum and that the notion should not be connected to political and ideological beliefs. The left-wing Costa-government with its policy-making demonstrated that a solution always exists and that requires a brave, strong and decisive government, that pursues its own plan in the interests of the ‘patrie’, regardless of its positioning.

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The Question Of Prosperity

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Galloping economic woes, prejudice, injustice, poverty, low literacy rate, gender disparity and women rights, deteriorating health system, corruption, nepotism, terrorism, political instability, insecure property rights, looming energy crisis and various other similar hindrances constrain any state or country to be retrograded. Here questions arise that how do these obstacles take place? How do they affect the prosperity of any country? No history, geography, or culture spawns them. Simply the answer is institutions that a country possesses.

Institutions ramify into two types: inclusive and extractive. Inclusive political institutions make power broadly distributed in country or state and constrain its arbitrary exercise. Such political institutions also make it harder for others to usurp rights and undermine the cornerstone of inclusive institutions, which create inclusive economic institutions that feature secure property rights, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provide a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also permits the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their career. On the contrary, extractive political institutions accord clout in hands of few narrow elite and they have few constrains to exert their clout and engineer extractive economic institutions that can specifically benefit few people of the ruling elite or few people in the country.

Inclusive institutions are proportional to the prosperity and social and economic development. Multifarious countries in the world are great examples of this. Taking North and South Korea; both countries garnered their sovereignty in same year 1945, but they adopted different ways to govern the countries. North Korea under the stewardship of Kim Il-sung established dictatorship by 1947, and rolled out a rigid form of centrally planned economy as part of the so-called Juche system; private property was outlawed, markets were banned, and freedoms were curtailed not only in marketplace but also in every sphere of North Korea’s lives- besides those who used to be part of the very small ruling elite around Kim Il-sung and later his son and his successor Kim Jong-Il. Contrariwise, South Korea was led and its preliminary politico-economic institutions were orchestrated by the Harvard and Princeton-educated. Staunchly anticommunist Rhee and his successor General Park Chung-Hee secured their places in history as authoritarian presidents, but both governed a market economy where private property was recognised. After 1961, Park effectively taken measures that caused the state behind rapid economic growth; he established inclusive institutions which encouraged investment and trade. South Korean politicians prioritised to invest in most crucial segment of advancement that is education. South Korean companies were quick to take advantage of educated population; the policies encouraged investment and industrialisation, exports and the transfer of technology. South Korea quickly became a “Miracle Economy” and one of the most rapidly growing nations of the world. Just in fifty years there was conspicuous distinction between both countries not because of their culture, geography, or history but only due to institutions both countries had adopted.

Moreover, another model to gauge role of institutions in prosperity is comparison of Nogales of US and Mexico. US Nogales earn handsome annual income; they are highly educated; they possess up to the mark health system with high life expectancy by global standards; they are facilitated with better infrastructure, low crime rate, privilege to vote and safety of life. By contrast, the Mexican Nogales earn one-third of annual income of US Nogales; they have low literacy rate, high rate of infant mortality; they have roads in bad condition, law and order in worse condition, high crime rate and corruption. Here also the institutions formed by the Nogales of both countries are main reason for the differences in economic prosperity on the two sides of the border.

Similarly, Pakistan tackles with issues of institutions. Mostly, pro-colonial countries are predominantly inheritors of unco extractive politico-economic institutions, and colonialism is perhaps germane to Pakistan’s tailoring of institutions. Regretfully, Pakistan is inherited with colossally extractive institutions at birth. The new elite, comprising civilian-military complex and handful aristocrats, has managed to prolong colonial-era institutional legacy, which has led Pakistan to political instability, consequently, political instability begot inadequacy of incentives which are proportional to retro gradation of the country.

Additionally, a recent research of Economic Freedom of the World (WEF) by Fraser Institute depicts that the countries with inclusive institutions and most economic freedom are more developed and prosperous than the least economic free countries; countries were divided into four groups. Comparing most free quartile and least free quartile of the countries, the research portrayed that most free quartile earns even nine times more than least free quartile; most free quartile has two times more political and civil rights than least free quartile; most free quartile owes three times less gender disparity than least free quartile; life expectancy tops at 79. 40 years in most free quartile, whereas number stands at 65.20 in least free quartile. To conclude this, the economic freedom is sine quo non for any country to be prosperous, and economic freedom comes from inclusive institutions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has managed to get place in least free quartile.

In a nutshell, the institutions play pivotal role in prosperity and advancement, and are game changer for any country. Thereby, our current government should focus on institutions rather than other issues, so that Pakistan can shine among the world’s better economies. For accomplishing this highly necessary task government should take conducive measures right now.

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Taxing The Super-Rich To Help The Poor

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What was traditional became law in 1941 when Thanksgiving was designated as the fourth Thursday in November.  Large turkeys, plenty of trimmings and family gatherings became the norm. . . that is until this year of the self-isolated holiday.  Small turkeys disappeared fast leaving masses of 20 lb birds and presumably more leftovers and more waste.  Yes, w e belong to the lucky 13.5 percent in this world through an accident of birth.

Half of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 per day.  Of these, three quarters of a billion are in extreme poverty, classified as less than $1.90 per day.  Covid 19 has swelled these numbers by 114 million and the situation is dire.  Worst affected by poverty are the day laborers i.e. informal workers without a regular job.  Moreover, the ILO (International Labor Organization) estimates 200 million job losses from Covid.  It also notes that the average income of informal workers in places like Ethiopia, Haiti, and Malawi has already fallen by 82 percent. 

The US is not immune.  Adjusting for purchasing power the US Census Bureau classifies 11.1 percent of the population as poor with Covid exacerbating the situation.  Forty seven million have to rely on food banks including 16 million children.  Hardly surprising then that the US has the highest child mortality rate among the 20 OECD countries (major economies) as reported by the U.S. Health Affairs journal.  And life expectancy has shrunk by three years, affirms the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Even in Europe with its social net and social conscience, Covid 19 is estimated to increase poverty by about half if the pandemic lasts until the summer of 2021.  Italy alone, forecasts Caritas Italiana, will have a million more children living in poverty. 

In April of this year UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) warned that at least $2.5 billion was needed to lessen the impact of the impending crisis within the narrow purview of their remit. 

So where is the money to come from?  If taxing the rich is unlikely to pass in most legislatures for the most obvious of reasons — they paid for them to be there — how about taxing only the super-rich, the storied 1 percent?

The wealth of the billionaire class has surged.  While 45.5 million filed for unemployment in just three months, the U.S. added 29 more billionaires and the wealth of the billionaire class surged nearly 20 percent or $584 billion, from $2.948 to $3.531 trillion, during the same period.  Just the top five billionaires, namely, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison increased their wealth by a whopping $101.7 billion between March 18 and June 17 of this year.  Bezos and Zuckerberg alone made $76 billion or almost three-quarters.  To be fair one has to point out that the stock market took a sudden dip in March from which it recovered to new highs. 

It’s shocking that just 10 percent of their $584 billion gain would have bailed out their compatriots classified as poor over the same period.  Is it time for a tax on the super rich?  Warren Buffett has often said that he needs to be taxed more.  The fact is a small extra tax would not make an iota of difference in their lives but would help out millions of the poor and also the economy because the latter are much more likely than the rich to spend the money.  

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