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Global economy faces a tightrope walk to recovery

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The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered the most severe recession in nearly a century and is causing enormous damage to people’s health, jobs and well-being, according to the OECD’s latest Economic Outlook.

As restrictions begin to ease, the path to economic recovery remains highly uncertain and vulnerable to a second wave of infections. Strengthening healthcare systems and supporting people and businesses to help adapt to a post-Covid world will be crucial, it says.

The containment measures brought in by most governments were necessary to slow the spread of the virus and limit the death toll, but they have also closed down business activity in many sectors and caused widespread economic hardship.

Policymakers have used a vast array of exceptional measures to support healthcare systems and people’s incomes, as well as to help businesses and stabilise financial markets.

With little prospect of a vaccine becoming widely available this year, and faced with unprecedented uncertainty,  the OECD has taken the unusual step of presenting two equally likely scenarios – one in which the virus is brought under control, and one in which a second global outbreak hits before the end of 2020.

If a second outbreak occurs triggering a return to lockdowns, world economic output is forecast to plummet 7.6% this year, before climbing back 2.8% in 2021. At its peak, unemployment in the OECD economies would be more than double the rate prior to the outbreaks, with little recovery in jobs next year.

If a second wave of infections is avoided, global economic activity is expected to fall by 6% in 2020 and OECD unemployment to climb to 9.2% from 5.4% in 2019.

The economic impact of strict and relatively lengthy lockdowns in Europe will be particularly harsh. Euro area GDP is expected to plunge by 11½% this year if a second wave breaks out, and by over 9% even if a second hit is avoided, while GDP in the United States will take a hit of 8.5% and 7.3% respectively, and Japan 7.3% and 6%. Emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia and South Africa, meanwhile, face particular challenges of strained health systems, adding to the difficulties caused by a collapse in commodity prices, and their economies plunging by 9.1%, 10%, and 8.2% respectively in case of a double hit scenario, and 7.4%, 8% and 7.5% in case of a single hit. China’s and India’s GDPs will be relatively less affected, with a decrease of 3.7% and 7.3% respectively in case of a double hit and 2.6% and 3.7% in case of a single hit.

In both scenarios, the recovery, after an initial, rapid resumption of activity, will take a long time to bring output back to pre-pandemic levels, and the crisis will leave long-lasting scars – a fall in living standards, high unemployment and weak investment. Job losses in the most affected sectors, such as tourism, hospitality and entertainment, will particularly hit low-skilled, young, and informal workers.

The Outlook says government support to help people and business in the hard-hit sectors will need to evolve but to remain substantial.

Speaking ahead of a special OECD Roundtable Ministerial Meeting chaired by Spain’s Vice-President of the Government and Minister for Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation Nadia Calviño, to discuss policy responses to the pandemic, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said: “Uncertainty is clearly extreme in the current context, but the implications of that for macroeconomic policies are not symmetric. Policy-makers were right not to be too slow to introduce emergency measures, and they should now guard against being too quick to withdraw them”.

“How governments act today will shape the post-Covid world for years to come,” he added. “This is true not only domestically, where the right policies can foster a resilient, inclusive and sustainable recovery, but also in terms of how countries co-operate to tackle global challenges together. International co-operation, a weak point so far in the policy response, can create confidence and have important positive spillover effects.”

Presenting the Outlook, OECD Chief Economist Laurence Boone said: “Extraordinary policies will be needed to walk the tightrope towards recovery. Restarting economic activity while avoiding a second outbreak requires flexible and agile policymaking.” She said the safety nets and support currently provided for badly hit sectors would need to be adapted to help businesses and workers move to new activities.

“Higher public debt cannot be avoided, but debt-financed spending should be well-targeted to support the most vulnerable and provide the investment needed for a transition to a more resilient and sustainable economy,” she said.

“Governments must seize this opportunity to build a fairer economy, making competition and regulation smarter, modernising taxes, government spending and social protection,” she added. “Prosperity comes from dialogue and co-operation. This holds true at the national and global level.”

The Outlook calls for stronger international co-operation to help end the pandemic more quickly, speed up the economic recovery, and avoid harming the catch-up process of emerging-market economies and developing countries. It also argues for encouraging more resilient supply chains, including larger holdings of stocks and more diversification of sources locally and internationally.

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Korea: Keep supporting people and the economy until recovery fully under way

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Korea has limited the damage to its economy from the COVID-19 crisis with swift and effective measures to contain the virus and protect households and businesses. Support for workers and the export-dependent economy should continue, given falling employment and the risk of prolonged disruption to trade and global value chains, according to a new OECD report.

Thanks to the government’s prompt response to the pandemic, Korea is experiencing the shallowest recession among OECD countries. However, the recovery will be slow and uncertainty remains high, says the latest OECD Economic Survey of Korea. The Survey recommends continuing economic support measures to households and business until a recovery is fully under way, while ensuring that fiscal plans preserve long-term fiscal sustainability. Income support should be targeted to low-income households, and skills training should be offered even beyond the crisis to help vulnerable people who lost their job find employment in new areas.

Sound public finances mean there is room for fiscal stimulus. The Survey suggests focusing investment in some of the areas featuring in the recent Korean New Deal, such as 5G telecommunication and artificial intelligence. Reforming regulations, cutting barriers to competition and encouraging innovation could help to diffuse new technologies through the economy and lift productivity.

The Survey projects a rebound in activity after the sizeable drop in the first half of 2020, with a 0.8% contraction in 2020 and 3.1% growth in 2021, absent a resurgence of the pandemic. While domestic-oriented activity is normalising gradually, the global recession is holding back exports and investment. A second global wave of infections would delay the recovery: GDP would then contract by 2% in 2020, and growth reach only 1.4% in 2021.

Further disruptions in world trade and global value chains would hurt the Korean economy, which depends heavily on exports and is deeply integrated in global value chains. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis is creating financial risks, notwithstanding a wide range of policy interventions, as rising unemployment and loss of income affect debt reimbursement by households and small businesses, while uncertainty increases financial market volatility.

The Survey examines the looming pressures of an ageing population, with Korea’s old-age dependency ratio set to be the highest of any OECD country by 2060. It notes that the share of elderly people in relative poverty – defined as living on less than half of the median household income of the total population – is the highest among OECD countries. It recommends further increasing the basic old-age pension and focusing it on people in absolute poverty, as well as addressing high unemployment among disadvantaged groups and the wide gender wage gap. Along with stronger social protection, easing labour market regulations would promote productivity and reduce labour market duality.

A Survey chapter on the digital economy looks at the potential to boost productivity and well-being by building on the country’s outstanding digital infrastructure and IT technology and addressing digital skills gaps and the digital gap between large and small firms. The Survey recommends building on the system of regulatory sandboxes – where regulatory obligations can be partly waived to encourage innovation in products or business models – to improve product market regulations. It also recommends facilitating the use of telemedicine to boost productivity and well-being.

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MDBs’ Annual Climate Finance Passes $61 Billion

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Climate financing by seven of the world’s largest multilateral development banks (MDBs) totaled $61.6 billion in 2019, with $41.5 billion (67%) in low- and middle-income economies, according to the 2019 Joint Report on Multilateral Development Banks’ Climate Finance.

In addition to its traditional focus on low- and middle-income countries, the 2019 report expands the scope of reporting for the first time to all countries of operations.

Some $46.6 billion, or 76% of total financing for the year, was devoted to climate change mitigation investments that aim to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and slow down global warming.

The remaining $15 billion, or 24%, was invested in adaptation efforts to help countries build resilience to the mounting impacts of climate change, including worsening droughts and more extreme weather events from extreme flooding to rising sea levels.

The report combines data from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the African Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank Group, the World Bank Group and—for the first time—the Islamic Development Bank, which joined the working group in October 2017. In 2019, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank also joined MDB working groups, and its data is presented separately in the report.

Additional climate funds channeled through MDBs—such as from the Climate Investment Funds, the Global Environment Facility Trust Fund, the Global Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Fund, the European Union’s Funds for Climate Action, and the Green Climate Fund—also play an important role in boosting MDB climate financing. In 2019, the MDBs reported a further $102.7 billion in net climate cofinancing from public and private sources. This raised the total climate activity financed by MDBs in 2019 to $164.3 billion.

“The growing flow of MDB climate finance shows our joint resolve to take on climate change and, in the face of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, it is more important than ever to ‘build back better’ in a low carbon and climate resilient way,” said the Director General of ADB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department Woochong Um. “The report shows that climate finance provided by and through the MDBs is providing increasing support for these needed transitions.”

In 2019, ADB committed almost $7.1 billion in climate finance (more than $5.5 billion for mitigation and $1.5 billion for adaptation). This included $705 million from external resources, including multilateral climate funds. Further, ADB mobilized $8.8 billion of climate cofinancing.

The report shows that the MDBs are on track to deliver on their increased climate finance commitments. In 2019, the MDBs committed their global annual climate financing to reach $65 billion by 2025—with $50 billion for low- and middle-income countries—and that MDB adaptation finance would double to $18 billion by 2025. The MDBs have reported on climate finance since 2011, based on a jointly developed methodology for climate finance tracking.

The 2019 Joint Report on Multilateral Development Banks’ Climate Finance is published in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused significant social and economic disruption, temporarily reducing global carbon emissions to 2006 levels.

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Public Transport Can Bounce Back from COVID-19 with New and Green Technology

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Public transport must adapt to a “new normal” in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and adopt technologies that will render it more green and resilient to future disasters, according to a new report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The report, Guidance Note on COVID-19 and Transport in Asia and the Pacific, details the profound impact of the pandemic on transport, as swift lockdowns forced millions this year to work from home overnight, schools to shift to e-learning, and consumers to flock to online shopping and food delivery.

While public transit may have been previously perceived as a mostly green, efficient, and affordable mode of travel, initial trends in cities that have re-opened have indicated that public transit is still considered to be relatively unsafe and is not bouncing back as quickly as the use of private vehicles, cycling, and walking.

“The two key challenges ahead are addressing capacity on public transport to maintain safe distancing requirements, and how best to regain public confidence to return to public transport,” said Bambang Susantono, ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. “In the short term, more effort is needed to reassure public transport users of safety and demonstrate clean and safe public transport. In the longer term, technological advances, big data, artificial intelligence, digitalization, automation, renewables and electric power can potentially offer fresh innovations to tackle changing needs, giving rise to smarter cities.”

While drastic lockdown measures around the world have brought world economies to their knees, satellites have recorded data on how the concentrations of CO2 and air pollutants have fallen drastically, bringing clear blue skies to many cities.

But as cities have reopened, traffic levels have increased. For example, Beijing traffic levels, by early April 2020, exceeded the same period in 2019. If this trend is seen on a wide scale, it could set back decades of effort in promoting sustainable development and more efficient means of urban mobility.

The report says there is a short window of opportunity for cities to promote the adoption of low-carbon alternatives to lock-in the improved air quality conditions gained during the peak of the pandemic lockdown. Public transport can play an important role through more active promotion of clean vehicles, provision of quality travel alternatives in public transport, and a better environment for non-motorized modes such as walking and cycling to enhance overall health and wellbeing.

The confidence of passengers on public transport should be restored through protective measures such as cleaning, thermal scanning, tracking and face covering, the report says. Further study to explore how protective and preventive measures can be stepped up to allow relaxation of safe distancing requirements would help mitigate capacity challenges. A possible future trend may be consolidation of services and rationalization of routes to better serve the emerging travel demand patterns and practices.

As countries enter the “recovery” phase, further preventive and precautionary operating measures and advanced technology should be implemented to enable contactless processes and facilitate an agile response. Demand management measures can facilitate crowd control in public transport systems and airports. As a complementary measure, non-motorized transport capacity could be expanded to absorb spillover demand from public transport.

Since mass public transport is the lifeblood of most economies, government policies and financial support are essential during this period, to enable public transport operators to stay viable and continue to support the movement of passengers and goods in a sustainable way.

For ADB, which committed last year $7 billion to the transport sector, behavioral trends linked to COVID-19 may require a review of the short-term viability of passenger transport and operational performance to meet changing demand for public transit systems. “Regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic it is clear that developing Asia will continue to have a large need for additional transport infrastructure and services,” the report concludes. “It would take several years before the projects currently in the pipeline would be operational and much can happen during these years.”

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