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U.S: Extending support and lowering regulatory barriers could energize the recovery from Covid-19

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Swift action by the U.S. government has helped shield households and businesses from the immediate economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as efforts continue to bring the spread of the virus under control. Continuing this exceptional support to unemployed workers and struggling firms – while taking steps to lower barriers to labor mobility and competition – would help to strengthen the recovery, share the benefits across society, and reduce the risk of long-lasting scars, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of the United States says that even as some businesses reopen with the lifting of coronavirus confinement measures, hard-hit sectors like hospitality and leisure will continue to need support, as will newly unemployed or displaced workers who may need to look for jobs in different sectors. The recent extension of the US Paycheck Protection Program by five weeks to August 8 is a welcome move to help small businesses struggling with the crisis. Extending exceptional unemployment benefits beyond the end-July cut-off date would offer a similar lifeline to the millions of households at risk of falling into poverty, as would assistance for job search (such as employment placement services) and support for geographic mobility.

“The U.S. economy is battling a health and economic shock that threatens to set back the significant economic achievements of the past decade and leave permanent scars,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “Exceptional support to people and businesses should be continued as long as it is needed. And helping people to return to work by removing unnecessary regulatory hurdles to employment and mobility would energize the recovery and help ward off a drop in living standards and equality.”

The Survey projects only a gradual recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic brought a decade-long expansion to an abrupt halt and knocked the employment-to-population ratio to its lowest level on record. The best-case scenario sees GDP growth recovering to 4.1% in 2021 after a drop of 7.3% in 2020, whereas a second wave of outbreak scenario would see GDP growth at just 1.9% in 2021 after an 8.5% drop in 2020.

Improving health policy co-ordination across levels of government, ensuring health insurance systems do not let large population groups fall through the gaps that exist between different programs, and reducing regulatory barriers, would all help to tackle the ongoing health crisis from Covid-19. To minimize the risk of a second wave prompting another large-scale lockdown of the economy, developing testing, tracking, tracing and isolating procedures will be key. Augmenting the capacity of health systems and identifying people who have acquired antibodies will help mitigate the economic impact of a second wave.

On the economic front, all efforts should focus on reviving growth and jobs for the long-term, with concrete policy measures to remove barriers hindering access to employment and future opportunities.

Addressing occupational licensing and non-competition covenants in job contracts that impose barriers to job mobility on roughly one in five workers, particularly those from low-skilled or disadvantaged groups, is a top priority. While regulation is important to ensure the safety and quality of services for workers and consumers, state-level labor market regulation has contributed to a decline in labor market fluidity since the late 1990s, alongside a period of sluggish productivity growth. (See Survey Chapter 3 for an analysis of variations in licensing stringency by state.)

States should be encouraged to delicense occupations where there are limited concerns for public health or safety and act against anticompetitive behavior. Federal law can be used to impose recognition of out-of-State licensures, allowing States to set stricter requirements only if they can prove it is necessary to protect the public. People who face difficulties finding work, for example those without a college education, should be supported through more flexible rules on job qualifications and access to adult training.

Restrictive building policies have also created a barrier to labor mobility just as a shift from industry to high-tech and services is changing the country’s economic geography and creating a need for more elastic housing supply. In the current climate, it is all the more important that people can move easily to take up new jobs. Tax incentives can be a way to loosen over-restrictive building laws, the Survey says.

The Survey also notes that vulnerabilities in the highly leveraged corporate sector will need to be monitored. Over time, given the pre-existing pressures of an ageing population, reforms to pension and healthcare spending to reduce cost pressures and inefficiencies and measures to broaden the tax base will be needed to ensure long-run sustainability of public debt.

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World trade reaches all-time high, but 2022 outlook ‘uncertain’

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Global trade is expected to be worth about $28 trillion this year – an increase of 23 per cent compared with 2020 – but the outlook for 2022 remains very uncertain, UN economists said on Tuesday.

This strong growth in demand – for goods, as opposed to services – is largely the result of pandemic restrictions easing, but also from economic stimulus packages and sharp increases in the price of raw materials.

According to UN trade and development body UNCTAD, although worldwide commerce stabilized during the second half of 2021, trade in goods went on to reach record levels between July and September.

Services still sluggish

In line with this overall increase, the services sector picked up too, but it has remained below 2019 levels.

From a regional perspective, trade growth remained uneven for the first half of the year, but it had a “broader” reach in the three months that followed, UNCTAD’s Global Trade update said.

Trade flows continued to increase more strongly for developing countries in comparison to developed economies overall in the third quarter of the year, moreover.

The report valued the global goods trade at $5.6 trillion in the third quarter of this year, which is a new all-time record, while services stood at about $1.5 trillion.

For the remainder of this year, UNCTAD has forecast slower growth for the trade in goods but “a more positive trend for services”, albeit from a lower starting point.

Among the factors contributing to uncertainty about next year, UNCTAD cited China’s “below expectations” growth in the third quarter of 2021.

“Lower-than-expected economic growth rates are generally reflected in more downcast global trade trends,” UNCTAD noted, while also pointing to inflationary pressures” that may also negatively impact national economies and international trade flows.

The UN body’s global trade outlook also noted that “many economies, including those in the European Union”, continue to face COVID-19-related disruption which may affect consumer demand in 2022.

Semiconductor stress test

In addition to the “large and unpredictable swings in demand” that have characterized 2021, high fuel prices have also caused shipping costs to spiral and contributed to supply shortages.

This has contributed to backlogs across major supply chains that could continue into next year and could even “reshape trade flows across the world”, UNCTAD cautioned.

Geopolitical factors may also play a role in this change, as regional trade within Africa and within the Asia-Pacific area increases on the one hand, “diverting trade away from other routes”.

Similarly, efforts towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable economy may also affect international trade, by disincentivizing high carbon products.

The need to protect countries’ own strategic interests and weaknesses in specific sectors could also influence trade in 2022, UNCTAD noted, amid a shortage of microprocessors called semiconductors that “has already disrupted many industries, notably the automotive sector”.

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the semiconductor industry has been facing headwind due to unanticipated surges in demand and persisting supply constraints…If persistent, this shortage could continue to negatively affect production and trade in many manufacturing sectors.”

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Small Businesses Adapting to Rapidly Changing Economic Landscape

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The World Economic Forum has long been at the forefront of recognizing the strategic importance of sustainable value creation objectives for business. While interest has mostly focused on how large corporations contribute to the global economy and sustainable development objectives, small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often overlooked as major drivers of economic activity, as well as social and environmental progress around the world.

A new report released today finds factors that previously disadvantaged SMEs can lead them to new opportunities. Nine case studies from multiple industries and regions highlight what SMEs can do to increase their future readiness.

Developed in collaboration with the National University of Singapore Business School, the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and Entrepreneurs’ Organization, the report also finds that SMEs are lagging behind in terms of societal impact. Although there is a clear need to operate in line with sustainability goals, many SMEs have yet to include explicit strategies and performance measurement centred on societal impact.

The top challenges cited by SME executives include talent acquisition and retention (for 52.5% respondents), survival and expansion (43.8%), funding and access to capital (35.7%), non-supportive policy environment (21%), the difficulty of maintaining a strong culture and clear company purpose and value (20%).

SMEs can leverage their size, networks, people and the strengths of technology to support their goals of sustainable growth, positive societal impact and robust adaptive capacity. While it is essential for SMEs and the wider economy to increase their future readiness, they can thrive only insofar as the necessary supporting infrastructure and regulatory frameworks exist.

“We hope this will inspire and encourage SMEs and mid-sized companies to harness their potential in becoming a major driver of sustainable and inclusive economic growth and innovation by focusing on several core dimensions of future readiness,” said Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum.

“Through this report, the Forum aims to highlight the significant role SMEs can play not just locally but also globally. The New Champions Community is a step towards bringing these smaller companies into the forefront of global discourse around socioeconomic development and engaging them in a community of forward-thinking companies from across the world,” said Stephan Mergenthaler, Head of Strategic Intelligence and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

The report aims to develop a deeper understanding of organizational capabilities and orientations needed for SMEs to successfully generate lasting financial growth, affect society and the environment positively, and develop high levels of resilience and agility.

It relies on robust research methods and combines rigorous primary and secondary research. The takeaways and conclusions presented in the research have been derived from an analysis of over 200 peer-reviewed articles and engagement of more than 300 CEOs and founders of SMEs through surveys and in-depth interviews.

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France: Invest in skills, digitalisation and the green transition to strengthen the recovery

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Swift and effective government support has helped France to rebound rapidly from its COVID19-induced recession. Using the country’s announced Recovery and Investment Plans to invest in education, worker training, and the green and digital transitions should result in stronger and more resilient growth, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of France says that while it is important not to prematurely withdraw support for households and firms, as the recovery gains traction support measures should increasingly be targeted at the most viable businesses and sectors and should favour investment. Professional training and support for workers transitioning to new jobs should be strengthened to ease labour market shortages and address the mismatch between skills and the needs of the business sector.

“France’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been swift and effective, enabling it to emerge from the health crisis with jobs and household incomes well protected and its economic capacity largely preserved,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said, launching the Survey alongside French Minister of Economy, Finance and Recovery Bruno Le Maire. “A rigorous implementation of the government’s Recovery and Investment Plans will help to turn the rebound into lasting sustained growth, building a greener, more digital and more resilient economy.”

After an 8.0% contraction in economic activity in 2020, the Survey projects a strong GDP rebound of 6.8% in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022 as domestic demand resumes. This follows a period of slower growth in France in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 crisis marked by weak gains in productivity and living standards. Low-skilled and young workers face difficulties in accessing the labour market and unequal opportunities have weakened inter-generational social mobility. The pandemic has also exposed a lag among small and medium-sized enterprises in adopting digital technologies.

These structural weaknesses can only be addressed through reforms, the Survey says. It calls for renewed efforts to boost skills to help sustain jobs and productivity growth. A combination of labour market, taxation and spending reforms could lead to a tangible increase in living standards in the years ahead, according to the Survey. 

It is particularly important to use the recovery period to improve the fiscal framework and notably the effectiveness of public spending through reviews and better allocation of resources, the Survey says. France’s public spending as a share of GDP is the highest of OECD countries, and the high level of social expenditures, notably on pensions, as well as looming pressure from an ageing population makes it vital to rebalance spending towards more investment. This would support growth and help to stabilise and then gradually lower the public debt-to-GDP ratio. 

The government has already pursued important reforms to reduce labour market segmentation and strengthen active labour market policies. Ensuring broad access to retraining and enforcing high quality standards for lifelong training courses would boost employment opportunities.

France has made the transition towards a greener economy a pillar of its recovery plan, and it is vital that this leads to increased private investment in green infrastructure and technology. Greater incentives are needed to drive behavioural changes within businesses and households. To be fully effective, this should extend to all available policy instruments, including regulation and R&D as well as progressively aligning carbon prices across sectors, albeit alongside complementary measures. To avoid unfair impacts on people and sectors, it is essential to support vulnerable households and firms, through targeted measures, for example help-to-buy schemes for clean vehicles and equipment.

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