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Major Impact from COVID-19 to Thailand’s Economy, Vulnerable Households, Firms

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Thailand’s economy is expected to be impacted severely by the COVID-19 pandemic, shrinking by at least 5 percent in 2020 and taking more than two years to return to pre-COVID-19 GDP output levels, according to the World Bank’s latest Thailand Economic Monitor, released today. The COVID-19 pandemic shocked the economy especially in the second quarter of 2020 and has led already to widespread job losses, affecting middle-class households and the poor alike. 

While Thailand has been successful in stemming the tide of COVID-19 infections over the last three months, the economic impact has been severe. The tourism sector, which makes up close to 15 percent of Thailand’s GDP, has been hit hard, with a near cessation of international tourist arrivals since March 2020.

Exports are expected to decline by 6.3 percent in 2020, the sharpest quarterly contraction in five years, as demand for Thai goods abroad remains weakened by the global slowdown. Household consumption is projected to decline by 3.2 percent as movement restrictions and dwindling incomes limit consumer spending, especially in the second quarter of 2020.

As Thailand starts to ease mobility restrictions, domestic consumption, Thailand’s traditionally strongest driver of growth, may pick up in the second half of 2020 and in 2021, but economic recovery will be gradual and uncertain. In the baseline, the Thai economy is projected to grow by 4.1 percent in 2021 and by 3.6 percent in 2022, which represents a slow recovery to pre-COVID GDP output levels by mid-2022. The shape of the recovery is subject to considerable downside risks, including weaker global growth, feeble tourism, and continuing trade and supply chain disruptions.

“The strength of the economic recovery will depend in part on an effective policy response, in particular effective support to vulnerable households and firms,” said Birgit Hansl, World Bank Country Manager for Thailand. “As the recovery phase begins, a key challenge will be how to help people who lost their jobs reconnect with the labor market. Active labor market measures, such as wage-subsidies targeted to individuals in the most vulnerable sectors, and for on-the-job training to promote reemployment should be explored.”

An estimated 8.3 million workers will lose employment or income by the COVID-19 crisis, which has put many jobs, in particularly those related to tourism and services, at risk. The report finds that the number of economically insecure, or those living below USD 5.5 per day (in purchasing power terms), is projected to double from 4.7 million people in the first quarter to 9.7 million people in the second quarter of 2020. In particular, the share of economically insecure middle-class households with workers in the manufacturing and services sector will rise by three-fold, from 6 percent to 20 percent.

To protect vulnerable households, the report recommends extending social protection coverage to ensure that no gaps remain for the elderly and migrant workers. The report also recommends continuing cash transfers for the most vulnerable groups and, where possible, linking such transfers to training, mentoring, and other types of support that could create income-generating opportunities. Over the medium term, Thailand could consider establishing programs with universal benefits to help cushion against epidemic outbreaks as well as other negative shocks, complemented by more targeted programs for the poor.

“For vulnerable firms, the nature of support will need to shift from emergency relief to more support for productive firms that are still standing,” said Kiatipong Ariyapruchya, World Bank’s Senior Economist for Thailand. “This includes redirecting fiscal support from emergency measures to temporary job creation programs by easing firm participation in public procurement and public works.”

Going forward, interventions could revamp firm support programs focused on promoting firms and productivity growth, especially towards promoting investments for worker training, management training, and technology adoption. 

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‘Industry 4.0’ tech for post-COVID world, is driving inequality

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Developing countries must embrace ground-breaking technologies that have been a critical tool in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, or else face even greater inequalities than before, UN economic development  experts at UNCTAD said on Thursday.

“Very few countries create the technologies that drive this revolution – most of them are created in China and the US – but all countries will be affected by it”, said UNCTAD’s Shamika Sirimanne, head of Division on Technology and Logistics. “Almost none of the developing countries we studied is prepared for the consequences.”

The appeal, which is highlighted in a new UNCTAD report, relates to all things digital and connective, so-called “Industry 4.0” or “frontier technologies”, that include artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, nanotechnology and solar energy.

Gene editing, another fast-evolving sector, has demonstrated its worth in the last year, with the accelerated development of new coronavirus vaccines.

Drone aid

In developing countries, digital tools can be used to monitor ground water contamination, deliver medical supplies to remote communities via drones, or track diseases using big data, said UNCTAD’s Sirimanne.

But “most of these examples remain at pilot level, without ever being scaled-up to reach those most in need: the poor. To be successful, technology deployment must fulfil the five As: availability, affordability, awareness, accessibility, and the ability for effective use.”

Income gap widening

With an estimated market value of $350 billion today, the array of emerging digital solutions for life after COVID is likely to be worth over $3 trillion by 2025 – hence the need for developing countries to invest in training and infrastructure to be part of it, Sirimanne maintained.

“Most Industry 4.0 technologies that are being deployed in developed countries save labour in routine tasks affecting mid-level skill jobs. They reward digital skills and capital”, she said, pointing to the significant increase in the market value of the world’s leading digital platforms during the pandemic.

Innovation dividends

“The largest gains have been made by Amazon, Apple and Tencent,” Sirimanne continued. “This is not surprising given that a very small number of very large firms provided most of the digital solutions that we have used to cope with various lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Expressing optimism about the potential for developing countries to be carried along with the new wave of digitalisation rather than be swamped by it, the UNCTAD economist downplayed concerns that increasing workforce automation risked putting people in poorer countries out of a job.

This is because “not all tasks in a job are automated, and, most importantly, that new products, tasks, professions, and economic activities are created throughout the economy”, Sirimanne said.

‘Job polarization’

“The low wages …for skills in developing countries plus the demographic trends will not create economic incentives to replace labour in manufacturing – not yet.”

According to UNCTAD, over the past two decades, the expansion in high and low-wage jobs – a phenomenon known as “job polarization” – has led to only a single-digit reduction in medium-skilled jobs in developed and developing countries (of four and six per cent respectively).

“So, it is expected that low and lower-middle income developing countries will be less exposed to potential negative effects of AI and robots on job polarization”, Sirimanne explained.

Nonetheless, the UN trade and development body cautioned that there appeared to be little sign of galloping inequality slowing down in the new digital age, pointing to data indicating that the income gap between developed and developing countries is $40,749 in real terms today, up from $17,000 in 1970.

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Greater Innovation Critical to Driving Sustained Economic Recovery in East Asia

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Innovation is critical to productivity growth and economic progress in developing East Asia in a rapidly changing world, according to a new World Bank report launched today.

Countries in developing East Asia have an impressive record of sustained growth and poverty reduction.  But slowing productivity growth, uncertainties in global trade, and technological advances are increasing the need to transition to new and better modes of production to sustain economic performance.

To support policy makers in meeting this challenge, The Innovation Imperative for Developing East Asia examines the state of innovation in the region, analyzes the key constraints firms face in innovating, and lays out an agenda for action to spur innovation-led growth.

A large body of evidence links innovation to higher productivity,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, along with the fast-evolving global environment, have raised urgency for governments in the region to promote greater innovation through better policies.

While developing East Asia is home to several high-profile innovators, data presented in the report show that most countries in the region (except China) innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels. Most firms operate far from the technological frontier. And the region is falling behind the advanced economies in the breadth and intensity of new technology use.

“Aside from some noteworthy examples, the vast majority of firms in developing East Asia are currently not innovating,” said Xavier Cirera, a lead author of the report. “A broad-based model of innovation is thus needed – that supports a large mass of firms in adopting new technologies, while also enabling more-sophisticated firms to undertake projects at the cutting edge.”

The report identifies several factors that impede innovation in the region, including inadequate information on new technologies, uncertainty about returns to innovation projects, weak firm capabilities, insufficient staff skills, and limited financing options. Moreover, countries’ innovation policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.

To spur innovation, the report argues that countries need to reorient policy to promote diffusion of existing technologies, not just invention; support innovation in the services sectors, not just manufacturing; and strengthen firms’ innovation capabilities. Taking this broader view of innovation policy will be critical to enabling productivity gains among a broader swath of firms in the region.

“It is important for governments in the region to support innovation in services, given their rising importance in these economies – not only for better service quality but increasingly as key inputs for manufacturing,” said Andrew Mason, also a lead author of the report.

Countries also need to strengthen key complementary factors for innovation, including workers’ skills and instruments to finance innovation projects. Building stronger links between national research institutions and firms will also be critical to fostering innovation-led growth in the region.

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Sea transport is primary route for counterfeiters

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More than half of the total value of counterfeit goods seized around the world are shipped by sea, according to a new OECD-EUIPO report.

Misuse of Containerized Maritime Shipping In the Global Trade of Counterfeits says that seaborne transport accounts for more than 80% of the volume of merchandise traded between countries, and more than 70% of the total value of trade.

Containerships carried 56% of the total value of seized counterfeits in 2016. The People’s Republic of China was the largest provenance economy for container shipments, making up 79% of the total value of maritime containers containing fakes and seized worldwide. India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are also among the top provenance economies for counterfeit and pirated goods traded worldwide.

Between 2014 and 2016, 82% of the seized value of counterfeit perfumes and cosmetics by customs authorities worldwide, 81% of the value of fake footwear and 73% of the value of customs seizures of fake foodstuff and toys and games concerned sea shipments. Additional analysis showed that over half of containers transported in 2016 by ships from economies known to be major sources of counterfeits entered the European Union through Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. There are also some EU countries, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Romania, with relatively low volumes of containers trade in general, but with a high level of imports from counterfeiting-intense economies.

To combat illicit trade, a number of risk-assessment and targeting methods have been adapted for containerised shipping, in particular to enforce against illicit trade in narcotics and hazardous and prohibited goods. But the analysis reveals that the illicit trade in counterfeits has not been a high priority for enforcement, as shipments of counterfeits are commonly perceived as “commercial trade infractions” rather than criminal activity. Consequently, existing enforcement efforts may not be adequately tailored to respond to this risk, according to the report.  Tailored and flexible governance solutions are required to strengthen risk-assessment and targeting methods against counterfeits.

As well as infringing trademarks and copyright, counterfeit and pirated goods entail health and safety risks, product malfunctions and loss of income for companies and governments. Earlier OECD-EUIPO work has shown that imports of counterfeit and pirated goods amounted to up to USD 509 billion in 2016, or around 3.3% of global trade.

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