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Stimulating the economy sustainably after coronavirus

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Authors: Yao Zhe and Wu Yixiu*

As the Covid-19 outbreak stabilises in China, the central government is starting to talk about protecting the economy as well as mitigating the virus.

On 3 February, the politburo standing committee called for China to “tackle the epidemic with one hand, and develop the economy with the other”, and continue working “to realise the year’s economic and social goals”. It reiterated this approach on 12 February.

This year marks the end of the 13th Five Year Plan, which includes the goal of creating a “moderately prosperous society”. Over the plan period (2016-20), national GDP and average incomes were meant to double compared to 2010. For that to happen, GDP would need to grow around 6% this year. There is no doubt the government will produce a stimulus package to help. But a programme focused on infrastructure such as railways and roads will hamper the country’s transition to a sustainable economy.

Heavy industry on the mend

Covid-19 led to the extension of the Chinese New Year holidays to almost a month, which affected all parts of the economy. For heavy industry, the biggest uncertainty was demand. Downstream manufacturers and property developers have been slow to get back to work and the economy in general is sluggish. With demand not yet recovered, output of the raw materials produced by heavy industry, such as steel and aluminium, has fallen, though not precipitously. Steel mill utilisation rates remain at a normal level of about 70%, with no major reduction in output. First quarter steel output is expected to be down about 3%.

The return to work has picked up since 10 February. Coal consumption at six major power plants has increased slowly but steadily, indicating industry is getting back on track. Work on key infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges resumed on 15 February, with considerable fanfare. Experts answering questions online for the Ministry of Ecology and Environment said that despite widespread stoppages in construction, services and labour-intensive manufacturing, the heavy industries that supply these sectors continued to operate through the Chinese New Year and beyond. It’s not economical, for example, to stop furnaces in a steel factory for a week or two, so these continued to burn while producing less steel.

The analyst Lauri Myllyvirta pointed out that China has excess heavy industrial capacity and the sector will be able to ramp up to meet any increased demand, with industrial output and power consumption soon recovering. Experts have said the epidemic will mean a significant but short-term drop in energy consumption by heavy industry in the first quarter of the year, until the epidemic is brought under control.

Signs of an infrastructure-focused stimulus

Covid-19 is a new challenge for a Chinese economy already facing a slowdown. The government’s usual response to economic pressure is to use public spending to promote investment, particularly in infrastructure, and there are signs this will again be the case.

Tens of trillions of yuan of investment is planned in major projects across China this year, according to figures in the Economic Information Daily. The latest figures indicate that among the batch of special-purpose bonds (SPBs) issued by local governments earlier in the year, about 67% are to the infrastructure sector. SPBs are designed to help local governments inject funds into specific projects, such as irrigation and toll roads, to help boost their economies. Since January, local governments have issued about 950 billion yuan (US$136 billion) of SPBs, accounting for about 73.6% of the front-loaded SPB quota for this year.

Transport and energy infrastructure – including gas pipelines, oil refineries and nuclear power plants – are well represented in the project lists that some provinces have published. For example, Jiangsu province plans to invest 220 billion yuan (US$30 billion) in infrastructure out of the 540 billion yuan that is going into 240 major projects. Of the 233 major projects listed by Shandong province, 25 are road or rail construction and 16 are building projects. Meanwhile, Yunnan province announced an infrastructure construction plan at a recent press conference on Covid-19, including 100 billion yuan for high-speed rail.

Economic analysts expect to see infrastructure investment in China climb by as much as 8% to 9% this year.

Lauri Myllyvirta has calculated that the extended holiday cut China’s carbon emissions in the first two weeks of the lunar new year by a quarter year-on-year. These climate savings may be offset by a government stimulus package favouring infrastructure projects. According to Zhang Shuwei, director of the Draworld Environment Research Center: “If the government eases monetary policy and boosts infrastructure construction, we may see a nationwide increase in the energy intensity of the economy. It’s likely that energy consumption will not be affected, or will even jump quite a bit.”

If an economic stimulus is unavoidable, it should at least be targeted and not run contrary to China’s efforts to improve the structure of the economy. The service sector, which has been rocked by Covid-19, accounts for 54% of China’s GDP and provides huge numbers of jobs. Support tailored to it will be crucial for rebuilding resilience and confidence, and is in line with China’s economic transition.

Sustainable stimulus?

Chinese economists often debate how best to direct public finances in order to stimulate the economy. The coronavirus has brought something new to that discussion, by highlighting that public services like hospitals and schools suffer from a lack of resources and capacity to respond to emergencies.

Former mayor of Chongqing, Huang Qifan, wrote that government spending has long favoured transportation and construction, while overlooking public facilities and services. Huang believes spending on the latter would be a more effective way to boost GDP while also meeting public needs. He thinks government spending should incentivise consumption of public goods and services “to promote sustainable and high-quality economic growth.”

Heilongjiang and Jiangsu provinces are adding public health and other “catch-up” projects to their list of major projects, with funding support for those chosen. Nationally, the decision on whether to make improving the public health and emergency response systems a key target for government investment will be a test for policymakers.

Covid-19 is believed to have spread to humans via wild animal consumption. The public is now more aware of the importance to health of living in better harmony with the natural world. What is less recognised is that as well as bringing us disease, the overexploitation of nature also brings systemic risks that could cause disastrous “black swan” events. Four of the five major risks listed in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report are environmental: climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme weather and the water crisis. As these risks interact rather than stand alone, they could cause a chain reaction.

If we are to increase our resilience, we need to fully understand these risks and ensure the facilities and mechanisms to respond are in place to prevent incidents escalating catastrophically. Environmental risks, like public health risks, need major investment to guard against. There are two aspects to this investment: one is spending on restoring our damaged environment and minimising further damage; the second is investment in environmentally-friendly technologies and industries that can change our mode of economic growth – to increase the “compatibility” of our society and economy with the environment.

How will we restore the economy once the epidemic has passed? If we direct government spending to high-carbon infrastructure construction and heavy industry, as usual, we will place ourselves at huge climate risk. This kind of investment is clearly not sustainable.

According to Zhang Shuwei: “The key is what we see when we look back at the lessons of the epidemic. Will we focus solely on the joy of victory, or acquire an awe at how nature, society and ourselves rely on each other? Our answer will lead us down different paths.”

From our partner chinadialogue

*Wu Yixiu is team leader of chinadialogue’s Strategic Climate Communication Initiatives. Before joining the team she was campaign manager with Greenpeace East Asia responsible for international policies. She also worked as a reporter at the English Service of China Radio International. Yixiu holds a B.A. in History in Fudan University and a master’s degree in Journalism from University of Westminster, London.

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The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate

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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.

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Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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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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US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.

The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.

The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.

Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!

Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.

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