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Italy’s current economic crisis

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The day of reckoning has now come for the Italian economic crisis, worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the related lockdown.

As the Italian Statistical Institute (ISTAT) showed, 34% of Italian production has been negatively affected. The activity and operations of 2.2 million companies, accounting for 49% of the total, have also been suspended, but 65% of the entire export business has been closed.

This means that Italy’s economic system is changing.

All this has stopped – hopefully temporarily – the work of 7.4 million employees (44.3% of the total number of private employees not directly working in offices) and, along with the fear of coronavirus, it has obviously had a snowball effect, which has soon greatly reduced the confidence rate of consumers and businesses.

Production has been stopped for 34.2% of companies and the same holds true for 27.1% of value added.

 Therefore, considering the general lockdown envisaged, the fall in jobs currently affects 385,000 workers, 46,000 of whom are irregular, to the tune of 9 billion euros of wages.

The most affected sectors have been catering and accommodation (-11.3%), logistics, transport and trade (-2.7%).

 With sectoral closures envisaged until June, the overall reduction in value added amounts to 4.5%.

 The employees affected by definitive closures will be 900,000 approximately, 103,000 of whom are irregular, for a total amount of 20.8 billion euros of lost wages.

That is where the complex and long-standing E.U. issue comes in.

If we consider all the possible and already proposed E.U. funds, we are talking about 100 billion euro of resources, while it is very likely that Italy may have a “firepower” to generate credits and funds up to 300 billion euros. It would need them all and probably they will not be enough.

We should also consider the future 172 billion euros from the Recovery Fund.

The Conte II government has so far mobilized – albeit with badly drafted, superficial and even naïve rules and regulations – about 75 billion euros of resources, all based on budget deficit.

The so-called Cura Italia decree of last March “mobilized” 25 billion euros and 55 billion euros were mobilized with the recovery Decree of last May.

Certainly not everyone has yet reached this money – sometimes not even many of them. The funding to companies -shambolic and all foolishly used through the banking system, which is structurally inefficient – reminds us of what a great Lombard entrepreneur used to say years ago: “What do we industrialists ask of the State? That it gets out of the way”.

 The European Funds from SURE, the European Investment Bank and the European Stability Mechanism will mobilize about 270 billion euros throughout the European Union, with a share for Italy equal to 96 billion euros.

They are certainly not enough to rebuild the production system and compensate for damage.

 SURE is currently worth around 20 billion euros for Italy alone, but only to finance the Redundancy Fund, while 40 billion euros will be the Italian share of the 200 billion funds provided by the EIB only for SMEs.

 Therefore, Italy will go into debt – albeit on favourable terms -but not to get what it really needs.

 The rest will certainly have to be borrowed on the financial markets and with our own public debt securities which, however, at maturity will be secondary to the ESM or EIB loans.

Another key problem is that if and when – but it will happen anyway- the standard rules of the Stability Pact are back in place, we will be left with a very high debt, but still liable to all the reprimands of both the “markets” and the E.U. which, at that juncture, may also revise the terms and conditions of the loans already in place.

 For Italy, the Recovery Fund could make available the above stated 172 billion euros, of which 90 billion of loans and 81 billion of grants.

At the end of 2020, however, the Italian public debt will rise by as many as 15 points of GDP.

Why? Firstly, because the denominator will obviously be lower: the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus crisis will be much wider than the one occurred in 2008, with a very severe 5.3% decrease compared to the GDP recorded in 2008.

Currently Confindustria, the General Confederation of Italian Industry, estimates a 6% drop in Gross Domestic Product, while Goldman Sachs estimates a 11.6% fall.

 Obviously there is also the inevitable increase in public spending, which is another public debt problem, hoping that speculation will stay calm – which is unlikely. There will also be a sharp drop in tax revenue.

 For example, it is estimated that 20% of the professionals registered with professionals Rolls and Associations risks being forced out of the market. It is no small matter. Other associations in the sector provide similar data.

Hence, if we assume a 6% GDP reduction, the debt-to-GDP ratio would rise from the 135% of late 2019 to at least over 153% at the end of 2020.

 With an11% GDP fall, the debt-to-GDP ratio in late 2020 would be equal to 163%.

Obviously, in such a context, even pending the suspension of the Stability Pact, Italy’s debt would be very hard to support.

Here the problem also lies in primary surplus. According to our data, even if we assume a limited 2.5% GDP rebound in 2021, with an unchanged cost of debt (2.6% in this case) there would be the absolute need for primary surpluses of at least 2.3% and 2.6%, respectively, in the case being studied of a 9% fall in GDP and also in case of an 11% collapse.

 In other words, the government should cut public spending always below 40 billion euros compared to taxation. This is impossible.

Therefore, we must necessarily monetise the extra-deficit with the ECB -monetise and not postpone payment until maturity – but for a very long period of time and for amounts that will probably be much higher than the current ones. It will also be necessary to issue common E.U. debt securities.

 Otherwise the markets, which have already laughed at a currency that has not even a common taxation and a single public budget rule, will pounce on the poor wretched Euro and destroy it.

 Then there is the ECB. On June 4, 2020 it announced the expansion of the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program (PEPP) from 750 to 1,350 billion euros and also its extension until June 2021 and, in any case, until the end of the emergency situation.

However, there is additional data to analyse. Firstly, the current PEPP share mobilized for each E.U. Member State in the March-May 2020 quarter still corresponds, in essence, to the capital key.

The capital key is the mechanism whereby the ECB purchases sovereign debt in proportion to each country’s ECB share. The key is calculated according to the size of a Member State in relation to the European Union as a whole. The size is measured by population and gross domestic product in equal parts. In this way, each national Central Bank has a fair share in the ECB’s total capital.

 With two significant exceptions for the time being: France in a negative senseand Italy in a positive sense.

In other words, France is actually supporting Italy’s public debt. Obviously it cannot last long.

Even in the Italian debt case, however, the PEPP share does not seem to be as high as usually believed.

 The maximum absorption has long been recorded by the TLTRO purchase programme. Indeed, these are short-term operations and the markets know they will end soon.

What next? There is no alternative option.

Let us not even talk about the possibility that, based on the pressure from the so-called “thrifty countries”, well led by Germany, this mechanism may stop all of a sudden.

There is also another factor that should be better studied in Italy, namely the ruling of the German Constitutional Court based in Karlsruhe.

As made it very clear by the German Constitutional Court, it concerns the ECB programme known as Public Sector Purchase Programme (PSPP).

Created in 2015, it is still operational. It is not yet known for how much longer, to the delight of speculators.

On points of law, the German Constitutional Court challenged the 2018 judgment of the European Court of Justice, in which the Luxembourg judges considered the ECB’s intervention unlawful, but rather deemed that the E.U. Court should only confine itself to the actions and deeds manifestly exceeding the limits set by the Treaties and the ECB Statute.

 Therefore, the issue at stake in the current Karlsruhe ruling concerns the principle of proportionality (Article 5 TEU).

Based on the principle of proportionality, in fact, the E.U. can take action in “shared competence areas” (which are listed in Article 4 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, but can rather be better achieved at E.U. level.

Certainly the monetary policy strictly falls within the E.U. and ECB competence, but the ECB’s action has inevitable repercussions on economic policy, which is in any case a shared competence area.

Hence, as the Karlsruhe judges maintain, the issue lies in defining whether the ECB enjoys independence even in relation to the treaties establishing it or whether the ECB itself should in any case follow the principles of the E.U. system to which it belongs.

 In essence, it is a matter of keeping fiscal and monetary policy still separate, and this is scientifically difficult. The dream of every badly aged and old-fashioned monetarist.

In essence, however, the Karlsruhe ruling tells us that the Euro area is sub-optimal(as we already knew, since Robert Mundell’s model certainly does not apply to the E.U. and the Euro) and is in any case not representative.

We have already known it, too, and indeed for a long time.

 The Euro is now a handicap for most E.U. Member States except Germany.

 The system of fixed rates with the European currency enables Germany to be increasingly competitive on the export side, in the absence of mechanisms to readjust foreign trade balances.

 Moreover, there is not even a real and homogeneous tax policy in the E.U.Member States, not to mention the ban on funding the Member States’ debt, which was established as far as the Maastricht Treaty.

With a view to avoiding this ECB funding mechanism, which may be rational but is illegal under the E.U. Treaties, Germany basically asks us to sell the public debt securities purchased by the ECB before their maturity.

That is fine, but it only means that a Member State’s debt can never be cancelled by purchasing the securities through its Central Bank.

Hence the securities continue to exist and be painstakingly renewed or possibly continue to re-enter the market.

Facts are facts, however, and without Mario Draghi’s quantitative easing (QE), France, for example, could certainly not have 32% of its public debt been bought back by the Eurosystem.

 When all E.U.Member States’ securities reach maturity, other ones are always purchased, so that the exposure remains around 33% and Germany is happy with this strict compliance with the law.

This 33% limit is self-imposed by the ECB so as to avoid one of the Karlsruhe conditions, i.e. the national voting thresholds, within the ECB, for rescheduling the debt of an individual State.

 It should be noted, however, that the ECB funds the absorption of E.U. countries’ public debt with the creation of money ex nihilo, like all Central Banks in the world. Nevertheless,this is still explicitly prohibited by the Treaties, but is barely justified, at legal level, with the aim of curbing inflation.

 An economic ideology which is now very old-style, but still very fashionable within the European Central Bank.

The various ECB sovereign debt purchase programmes are already worth over 1,000 billion euros, accounting for 8% of the entire Euro area.

However, with a view to really operating in this area, the ECB must also get rid of the German Constitutional Court’s first ruling of 2017, namely the 33% limit and hence the obligation to put the purchased securities back into circulation immediately after the end of the pandemic.

Reselling, on the secondary market, the securities still maturing would cancel all the monetisation benefits, but a new PEPP will be needed in the future, without quantitative limits and for a long period of time.

 And the ruling of the German Constitutional Court and Germany itself, with or without “Nordic” or “thrifty” watchdogs, will certainly get in the way. Hence for Italy (and France) there will not be much room for manoeuvre.

 The Fourth Reich is advancing not with the overheated “Tiger” tanks or with the Pervitinephedrine drugs, but with the monetary game on a non-rational currency.

Germany, however, said a very clear “no” to this process of debt repurchase and absorption, precisely with the Karlsruhe ruling of May 5.

The current PEPP is already outlawed under German law. We need to remember it or Germany will make us remember it.

 Italy, however, will not survive within the Euro area without QE, PEPP or any other trickery may be devised by the European Central Bank. The same holds true for France, although it still does not say so clearly.

 When, at the end of the three months allowed by the ruling of the German Constitutional Court, the Bundesbank withdraws from the purchase operations, it will obviously start again to put several thousand Bunds purchased with the ECB back on the market.

The sales of these securities will make rates rise in Germany, an increase that will be counteracted by the flight of Italian and French capital to buy German debt.

 At that juncture, Germany itself will autonomously carry out controls on capital, which is tantamount to paving the way for its exit from the Euro.

 What about the United States? At the end of 2019, before the lockdown, the share of speculative debt at high default risk amounted to 5,200 billion U.S. dollars.

Over the last two months of Covid-19 crisis, 1,600 companies a day have gone bankrupt in the United States, while consumer debt – a sort of crazy magic wand for American spending – has decreased by at least 2 billion U.S. dollars per month.

It is a severe drop for those who foolishly live on debt, not to mention that in late 2019 consumption was worth 75% of the U.S. GDP.

Therefore, considering the close correlation existing between consumer credit and consumption – and hence GDP – in the United States, there will almost certainly be a further crisis in companies’ solvency there.

 Since 2008 FED’s interventions have been worth 7,000 billion U.S. dollars, and the financial assets on the U.S. market are worth approximately 120 trillion dollars, i.e. 5.5 times the North American GDP.

Hence, not even the United States will give us a chance to find a way out or an exit strategy.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Economy

Can e-commerce help save the planet?

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If you have logged onto Google Flights recently, you might have noticed a small change in the page’s layout. Alongside the usual sortable categories, like price, duration, and departure time, there is a new field: CO2 emissions.

Launched in October 2021, the column gives would-be travellers an estimate of how much carbon dioxide they will be responsible for emitting.

“When you’re choosing among flights of similar cost or timing, you can also factor carbon emissions into your decision,” wrote Google’s Vice President of Travel Products, Richard Holden.

Google is part of a wave of digital companies, including Amazon, and Ant Financial, encouraging consumers to make more sustainable choices by offering eco-friendly filter options, outlining the environmental impact of products, and leveraging engagement strategies used in video games.

Experts say these digital nudges can help increase awareness about environmental threats and the uptake of solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   

“Our consumption practices are putting tremendous pressure on the planet, driving climate change, stoking pollution and pushing species towards extinction,” says David Jensen, Digital Transformation Coordinator with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“We need to make better decisions about the things we buy and trips we take,” he added. “These green digital nudges help consumers make better decisions as well as collectively drive businesses to adopt sustainable practices through consumer pressure.”

Global reach

At least 1.5 billion people consume products and services through e-commerce platforms, and global e-commerce sales reached US$26.7 trillion in 2019, according to a recent UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report.

Meanwhile, 4.5 billion people are on social media and 2.5 billion play online games. These tallies mean digital platforms could influence green behaviors at a planetary scale, says Jensen.

One example is UNEP-led Playing for the Planet Alliance, which places green activations in games. UNEP’s Little Book of Green Nudges has also led to more than 130 universities piloting 40 different nudges to shift behaviour.

A 2020 study by Globescan involving many of the world’s largest retailers found that seven out of 10 consumers want to become more sustainable. However, only three out of 10 have been able to change their lifestyles.

E-commerce providers can help close this gap.

“The algorithms and filters that underpin e-commerce platforms must begin to nudge sustainable and net-zero products and services by default,” said Jensen. “Sustainable consumption should be a core part of the shopping experience empowering people to make choices that align with their values.”

Embedding sustainability in tech

Many groups are trying to leverage this opportunity to make the world a more sustainable place.

The Green Digital Finance Alliance (GDFA), launched by Ant Group and UNEP, aims to enhance financing for sustainable development through digital platforms and fintech applications. It launched the Every Action Counts Coalition, a global network of digital, financial, retail investment, e-commerce and consumer goods companies. The coalition aims to help 1 billion people make greener choices and take action for the planet by 2025 through online tools and platforms.

We will bring like-minded members together to experiment with new innovative business models that empower everyone to become a green digital champion,” says Marianne Haahr, GDFA Executive Director.

In one example, GDFA member Mastercard, in collaboration with the fintech company Doconomy, provides shoppers with a personalized carbon footprint tracker to inform their spending decisions.

In the UK, Mastercard is partnering with HELPFUL to offer incentives for purchasing products from a list of over 150 sustainable brands.

Mobile apps like Ant Forest, by Ant Group, are also using a combination of incentives and digital engagement models to urge 600 million people make sustainable choices. Users are rewarded for low-carbon decisions through green energy points they can use to plant real trees. So far, the Ant Forest app has resulted in 122 million trees being planted, reducing carbon emissions by over 6 million tons.

Three e-commerce titans are also aiming to support greener lifestyles. Amazon has adopted the Climate Pledge Friendly initiative to help at least 100 million people find climate-friendly products that carry at least one of 32 different environmental certifications.

SAP’s Ariba platform is the largest digital business-to-business network on the planet. It has also embraced the idea of “procuring with purpose,” offering a detailed look at corporate supply chains so potential partners can assess the social, economic and environmental impact of transactions.

“Digital transformation is an opportunity to rethink how our business models can contribute to sustainability and how we can achieve full environmental transparency and accountability across our entire value chain,” said SAP’s Chief Sustainability Officer Daniel Schmid.

UNEP’s Jensen says a crucial next step would be for mobile phone operating systems to adopt standards that would allow apps to share environment and carbon footprint information.

“This would enable people to seamlessly calculate their footprints across all applications to develop insights and change behaviours,” Jensen said. “Everyone needs access to an individual’ environmental dashboard’ to truly understand their impact and options for more sustainable living.”

Need for common standards

As platforms begin to encode sustainability into their algorithms and product recommendations, common standards are needed to ensure reliability and public trust, say experts. 

Indeed, many online retailers are claiming to do more for the environment than they actually are. A January analysis by the European Commission and European national consumer authorities found that in 42 per cent, sustainability claims were exaggerated or false.

To help change that, UNEP serves as the secretariat of the One Planet network, a global community of practitioners, policymakers and experts that encourages sustainable consumption and production.

In November, the One Planet network issued guidance material for e-commerce platforms that outlines how to better inform consumers and enable more sustainable consumption, based on 10 principles from UNEP and the International Trade Centre.

The European Union is also pioneering core standards for digital sustainability through digital product passports that contain relevant information on a product’s origin, composition, environmental and carbon performance.

“Digital product passports will be an essential tool to strengthen consumer protection and increase the level of trust and rigour to environmental performance claims,” says Jensen. “They are the next frontier on the pathway to planetary sustainability in the digital age.”

UNEP

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Economy

2022: Small Medium Business & Economic Development Errors

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Calling Michelangelo: would Michelangelo erect a skyscraper or can an architect liberate David from a rock of marble? When visibly damaged are the global economies, already drowning their citizenry, how can their economic development departments in hands of those who never ever created a single SME or ran a business, expect anything else from them other than lingering economic agonies?

The day pandemic ends; immediately, on the next day, the panic on the center stage would be the struggling economies across the world.  On the small medium business economic fronts, despite, already accepted globally, as the largest tax contributor to any nation. Visible worldwide, already abandoned and ignored without any specific solutions, there is something strategically wrong with upskilling exporters and reskilling manufacturers or the building growth of small medium business economies. The SME sectors in most nations are in serious trouble but are their economic development rightly balanced?   

Matching Mindsets: Across the world, hard working citizens across the world pursue their goals and some end up with a job seeker mindset and some job creator mindset; both are good. Here is a globally proven fact; job seekers help build enterprises but job creators are the ones who create that enterprise in the first place. Study in your neighborhoods anywhere across the world and discover the difference.

Visible on LinkedIn: Today, on the SME economic development fronts of the world, clearly visible on their LinkedIn profiles, the related Ministries, mandated government departments, trade-groups, chambers, trade associations and export promotion agencies are primarily led by job seeker mindsets and academic or bureaucratic mentality. Check all this on LinkedIn profiles of economic development teams anywhere across the world.

Will jumbo-pilots do heart transplant, after all, economic performance depends on matching right competency; Needed today, post pandemic economic recovery demands skilled warriors with mastery of national mobilization to decipher SME creation and scalability of diversified SME verticals on digital platforms of upskilling for global age exportability. This fact has hindered any serious progress on such fronts during the last decade. The absence of any significant progress on digitization, national mobilization of entrepreneurialism and upskilling of exportability are clear proofs of a tragically one-sided mindset.

Is it a cruise holiday, or what? Today, the estimated numbers of all frontline economic development team members across 200 nations are roughly enough to fill the world-largest-cruise-ship Symphony that holds 6200 guests. If 99.9% of them are job-seeker mindsets, how can the global economic development fraternity sleep tonight? As many billion people already rely on their performances, some two billion in a critical economic crisis, plus one billion starving and fighting deep poverty. If this is what is holding grassroots prosperity for the last decade, when will be the best time to push the red panic button? 

The Big Fallacy of “Access to Finance” Notion: The goals of banking and every major institution on over-fanaticized notions of intricate banking, taxation are of little or no value as SME of the world are not primarily looking for “Access to Capital” they are rather seeking answers and dialogue with entrepreneurial job creator mindsets. SME management and economic development is not about fancy PDF studies of recycled data and extra rubber stamps to convince that lip service is working. No, it is not working right across the world.

SME are also not looking for government loans. They do not require expensive programs offered on Tax relief, as they make no profit, they do not require free financial audits, as they already know what their financial problems are and they also do that require mechanical surveys created by bureaucracies asking the wrong questions. This is the state of SME recovery and economic development outputs and lingering of sufferings.

SME development teams across the world now require mandatory direct SME ownership experiences

The New Hypothesis 2022: The new hypothesis challenges any program on the small medium business development fronts unless in the right hands and right mindsets they are only damaging the national economy. Upon satisfactory research and study, create right equilibrium and bring job seeker and job creator mindsets to collaborate for desired results. As a start 50-50, balances are good targets, however, anything less than 10% active participation of the job creator mindset at any frontline mandated SME Ministry, department, agency or trade groups automatically raises red flags and is deemed ineffective and irrelevant. 

The accidental economists: The hypothesis, further challenges, around the world, economic institutes of sorts, already, focused on past, present and future of local and global economy. Although brilliant in their own rights and great job seekers, they too lack the entrepreneurial job creator mindsets and have no experience of creating enterprises at large. Brilliantly tabulating data creating colorful illustrative charts, but seriously void of specific solutions, justifiably as their profession rejects speculations, however, such bodies never ready to bring such disruptive issues in fear of creating conflicts amongst their own job seeker fraternities. The March of Displaced cometh, the cries of the replaced by automation get louder, the anger of talented misplaced by wrong mindsets becomes visible. Act accordingly

The trail of silence: Academia will neither, as they know well their own myopic job seeker mindset. In a world where facial recognition used to select desired groups, pronouns to right gatherings, social media to isolate voting, but on economic survival fronts where, either print currency or buy riot gears or both, a new norm; unforgiveable is the treatment of small medium business economies and mishmash support of growth. Last century, laborious and procedural skills were precious, this century surrounded by extreme automation; mindsets are now very precious.  

Global-age of national mobilization: Start with a constructive open-minded collaborative narrative, demonstrate open courage to allow entrepreneurial points of views heard and critically analyze ideas on mobilization of small mid size business economies. Applying the same new hypotheses across all high potential contributors to SME growth, like national trade groups, associations and chambers as their frontline economic developers must also balance with the job creator mindset otherwise they too become irrelevant. Such ideas are not just criticism rather survival strategies. Across the world, this is a new revolution to arm SME with the right skills to become masters of trade and exports, something abandoned by their economic policies. To further discuss or debate at Cabinet Level explore how Expothon is making footprints on new SME thinking and tabling new deployment strategies. Expothon is also planning a global series of virtual events to uplift SME economies in dozens of selected nations.

Two wheels of the same cart: Silence on such matters is not a good sign. Address candidly; allow both mindsets to debate on how and why as the future becomes workless and how and why small medium business sectors can become the driving engine of new economic progress. Job seekers and job creators are two wheels of the same cart; right assembly will take us far on this economic growth passage. Face the new global age with new confidence. Let the nation witness leadership on mobilization of entrepreneurialism and see a tide of SME growth rise. The rest is easy.

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Economy

Rebalancing Act: China’s 2022 Outlook

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Authors: Ibrahim Chowdhury, Ekaterine T. Vashakmadze and Li Yusha

After a strong rebound last year, the world economy is entering a challenging 2022. The advanced economies have recovered rapidly thanks to big stimulus packages and rapid progress with vaccination, but many developing countries continue to struggle.

The spread of new variants amid large inequalities in vaccination rates, elevated food and commodity prices, volatile asset markets, the prospect of policy tightening in the United States and other advanced economies, and continued geopolitical tensions provide a challenging backdrop for developing countries, as the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report published today highlights.

The global context will also weigh on China’s outlook in 2022, by dampening export performance, a key growth driver last year. Following a strong 8 percent cyclical rebound in 2021, the World Bank expects growth in China to slow to 5.1 percent in 2022, closer to its potential — the sustainable growth rate of output at full capacity.

Indeed, growth in the second half of 2021 was below this level, and so our forecast assumes a modest amount of policy loosening. Although we expect momentum to pick up, our outlook is subject to domestic in addition to global downside risks. Renewed domestic COVID-19 outbreaks, including the new Omicron variant and other highly transmittable variants, could require more broad-based and longer-lasting restrictions, leading to larger disruptions in economic activity. A severe and prolonged downturn in the real estate sector could have significant economy-wide reverberations.

In the face of these headwinds, China’s policymakers should nonetheless keep a steady hand. Our latest China Economic Update argues that the old playbook of boosting domestic demand through investment-led stimulus will merely exacerbate risks in the real estate sector and reap increasingly lower returns as China’s stock of public infrastructure approaches its saturation point.

Instead, to achieve sustained growth, China needs to stick to the challenging path of rebalancing its economy along three dimensions: first, the shift from external demand to domestic demand and from investment and industry-led growth to greater reliance on consumption and services; second, a greater role for markets and the private sector in driving innovation and the allocation of capital and talent; and third, the transition from a high to a low-carbon economy.

None of these rebalancing acts are easy. However, as the China Economic Update points out, structural reforms could help reduce the trade-offs involved in transitioning to a new path of high-quality growth.

First, fiscal reforms could aim to create a more progressive tax system while boosting social safety nets and spending on health and education. This would help lower precautionary household savings and thereby support the rebalancing toward domestic consumption, while also reducing income inequality among households.

Second, following tightening anti-monopoly provisions aimed at digital platforms, and a range of restrictions imposed on online consumer services, the authorities could consider shifting their attention to remaining barriers to market competition more broadly to spur innovation and productivity growth.

A further opening-up of the protected services sector, for example, could improve access to high-quality services and support the rebalancing toward high-value service jobs (a special focus of the World Bank report). Eliminating remaining restrictions on labor mobility by abolishing the hukou, China’s system of household registration, for all urban areas would equally support the growth of vibrant service economies in China’s largest cities.

Third, the wider use of carbon pricing, for example, through an expansion of the scope and tightening of the emissions trading system rules, as well power sector reforms to encourage the penetration and nationwide trade and dispatch of renewables, would not only generate environmental benefits but also contribute to China’s economic transformation to a more sustainable and innovation-based growth model.

In addition, a more robust corporate and bank resolution framework would contribute to mitigating moral hazards, thereby reducing the trade-offs between monetary policy easing and financial risk management. Addressing distortions in the access to credit — reflected in persistent spreads between private and State borrowers — could support the shift to more innovation-driven, private sector-led growth.

Productivity growth in China during the past four decades of reform and opening-up has been private-sector led. The scope for future productivity gains through the diffusion of modern technologies and practices among smaller private companies remains large. Realizing these gains will require a level playing field with State-owned enterprises.

While the latter have played an instrumental role during the pandemic to stabilize employment, deliver key services and, in some cases, close local government budget gaps, their ability to drive the next phase of growth is questionable given lower profits and productivity growth rates in the past.

In 2022, the authorities will face a significantly more challenging policy environment. They will need to remain vigilant and ready to recalibrate financial and monetary policies to ensure the difficulties in the real estate sector don’t spill over into broader economic distress. Recent policy loosening suggests the policymakers are well aware of these risks.

However, in aiming to keep growth on a steady path close to potential, they will need to be similarly alert to the risk of accumulating ever greater levels of corporate and local government debt. The transition to high-quality growth will require economic rebalancing toward consumption, services, and green investments. If the past is any guide to the future, the reliance on markets and private sector initiative is China’s best bet to achieve the required structural change swiftly and at minimum cost.

First published on China Daily, via World Bank

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