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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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Confident in managing liquidity, organizations still face challenges forecasting

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Most responding C-suite and other executives (84.6%) feel confident in their organizations’ abilities to manage cash and liquidity, according to a Deloitte poll. But as uncertainty persists, it’s important for organizations to continue to improve and strengthen their cash and liquidity management abilities so as not to provide a false sense of security.

 “With increased disruption from the pandemic, it’s important for executives to build long-term, sustainable strategies for liquidity versus focusing on short-term fixes which can provide a false sense of security. Bettering processes like forecasting can help give better visibility into cash-flows which in turn can help attain liquidity objectives.”

While forecasting can help give organizations better visibility into their financials, doing so has been difficult for many organizations amid the pandemic. Respondents stated that forecasting was either their top challenge (13.8%) or among their top challenges (54%) with liquidity and cash management during COVID-19.

“The pandemic has shifted executives’ focus from long-term planning to addressing more immediate business concerns—putting forecasting capabilities into the spotlight, which has shown weak points in these efforts. Gaining better visibility into forecasting to fully understand the liquidity impacts in their business is critical in navigating a path forward,” Jackson continued.

Advanced technologies are here to help but few are taking advantage

With forecasting challenging executives, especially in a time of increased disruption, leveraging advanced technologies can help. However, only 13.5% of respondents stated they are currently doing so and 18.8% of respondents plan to implement in the next 12 months. Almost half of respondents (46.8%) stated that they have no plans to use advanced technology in their liquidity management efforts.

Jackson said, “Utilizing technologies like advanced analytics can help executives save time and gain valuable insight that might not have otherwise been available—identifying trends and issues throughout areas like forecasting efforts. Ultimately, advanced technologies can help executives evaluate the most strategic ways to strengthen their liquidity.”

Through disruption, organizations are regularly updating liquidity management efforts
Executives stated that their organizations are updating cash flow and liquidity management plans in a regular cadence. Nearly a third (31.4%) of respondents are updating their plans monthly and nearly a quarter (24.5%) are updating their plans on a weekly basis. Only 7.2% of respondents stated they were not making changes to their cash flow and liquidity management plans.

Jackson concluded, “Efforts in managing cash flow and liquidity have usually been reserved for companies in distress. However, with the pandemic and increased disruption, these efforts are now relevant for almost every organization. Executives should recognize that now is the time to act by updating or creating better processes, gaining visibility and enhancing capabilities to make proactive and informed decisions that affect liquidity.”

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Family businesses risk missing the mark on ESG – PwC

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In a year where business has had to transform the way it meets the needs of society and the environment, family owned businesses risk falling behind, according to a new global survey of 2,801 family business owners. 

While more than half (55%) of respondents saw the potential for their business to lead on sustainability, only 37% have a defined strategy in place. European and American businesses are lagging their Asian counterparts in their commitment to prioritising sustainability in their strategy. 79% of respondents in mainland China and 78% in Japan reported ‘putting sustainability at the heart of everything we do’ compared to 23% of US and 39% in the UK. Larger businesses and those owned by later generations also buck the trend, with greater focus on sustainability.

This reluctance to embrace sustainability comes despite the fact family owned businesses are highly likely to see a responsibility to society. Over 80% engage in proactive social responsibility activity, and 71% sought to retain as many staff as possible during the pandemic. Nor is it a function of economic pessimism – less than half (46%) expect sales to fall despite the pandemic and survey respondents felt optimistic about their business’ abilities to withstand and continue to grow in 2021 and 2022.

Instead, the issue is an increasingly out-of-date conception of how businesses should respond to society, with 76% in the US and 60% in the UK placing greater emphasis on their direct contribution, often through philanthropic initiatives, rather than through a strategic approach to ESG matters. Family businesses are also somewhat insulated from the investor pressure that is currently pushing public companies to put ESG at the heart of their long term plans for commercial success.

Peter Englisch, global family business leader at PwC says,

‘It is clear that family businesses globally have a strong commitment to a wider social purpose. But there is a growing pressure from customers, lenders, shareholders and even employees, to demonstrate a meaningful impact around sustainability and wider ESG issues. Many listed companies have started to respond but this survey indicates that family businesses have a more traditional approach to social contribution.

‘Family businesses must adapt to changing expectations and, by failing to do so, are creating a potential business risk. This is not just about stating a commitment to doing good, but setting meaningful targets and reporting that demonstrate a clear sense of their values and purpose when it comes to helping economies and societies build back better.’

Growth

The survey suggests family businesses have weathered the pandemic relatively well. Less than half (46%) expect sales to fall despite the pandemic and survey respondents felt optimistic about their business’ abilities to withstand and continue to grow in 2021 and 2022.

Family business lagging on digital transformation

Even though 80% of family businesses adapted to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by enabling home working for employees, there are also concerns about their overall strength when it comes to digital transformation.

62% of respondents described their digital capabilities as ‘not strong,’ with a further 19% describing it as a work in progress. 

Yet here there are clear generational differences: 41% of businesses that describe themselves as digitally strong are 3rd or 4th generation, and Next Gens have taken an increased role in 46% of digitally strong businesses.

Peter Englisch says,

‘It is a concern that family businesses are lagging behind the curve. There is clear evidence that having strong digital capabilities enables agility and success and that they have a similar enthusiasm for sustainability

‘Businesses should consider how they can engage the experience and fresh insight of Next Gens when it comes to prioritising their digital journey.’

The governance gap

While family businesses report good levels of trust, transparency and communication, the survey highlights the benefits of a professional governance structure. While 79% say they have some form of governance procedure or policy in place, the figures fall dramatically when it comes to important areas: just over a quarter state they have a family constitution or protocol, while only 15% have established conflict resolution mechanisms.

Peter Englisch says,

‘Family harmony should never be taken for granted – it’s something that must be worked on and planned for, with the same focus and professionalism that’s applied to business strategy and operational decisions.

‘There are growing concerns from regulators around the world about family business succession, especially with a third of 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation businesses expecting the next generation to become majority shareholders in the next five years.

‘It is therefore vitally important that businesses take a lead on ensuring they have formal processes in place they can ensure stability and continuity in the long run.’. 

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Services trade restrictions increased in 2020, compounding COVID-19 economic shock

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The global regulatory environment for services trade became more restrictive in 2020, with new barriers compounding the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic on exporters, according to a new OECD report.

OECD Services Trade Restrictiveness Index (STRI): Policy trends up to 2021 shows an increasing pace in the erection of new barriers to services trade across all major sectors. New restrictions are affecting services traded through a range of commercial establishments, in sectors including computer services, commercial banking and broadcasting. Global services trade fell by 24% in the third quarter of 2020 compared to a year ago, a small uptick from the 30% year-on-year decline registered in the second quarter.

While the overall trend was toward greater restrictiveness, governments around the world did lower barriers to cross-border digital trade in 2020, as part of the overarching policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic. More facilitation measures for digital trade were issued than in previous years, helping remote working and online business operations.

“We have experienced a major shift in trade during the pandemic,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said. “Transport and travel have collapsed, but digitally-delivered trade and enabling services such as telecommunications have contributed to the resilience of our economies. Lifting restrictions to trade in services will be critical as governments seek to put the global economy on the road to a strong, inclusive and sustainable recovery.”

The report, which covers services trade regulations in 48 countries, representing more than 80% of global services exports, identifies top performers in terms of regulatory best practices, including Czech Republic, Latvia, the Netherlands, Japan, Lithuania and the United Kingdom. It also highlights recent reform efforts in Brazil, China, Iceland, Indonesia and Kazakhstan.

National and collective action to ease barriers to services trade can reduce trade costs for firms that provide services across borders. On average across sectors and countries, services trade costs could decline by more than 15% after 3-5 years if countries could close half of the regulatory gaps with best performers. An ambitious services trade agenda, including new services market access commitments in comprehensive trade and investment agreements, can drive such gains, the report said. 

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