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India Needs to Maintain Reform Momentum to Reverse Current Economic Slowdown

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India needs to continue to implement critical reforms in key areas such as health, labor, land, skills and finance to come out stronger from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These reforms should aim at enhancing productivity of the Indian economy and spur private investments and exports, says a new World Bank report.

The India Development Update, released today, is a biannual flagship publication of the World Bank that takes stock of the Indian economy. The current issue describes the state of the Indian economy over the previous six months and places these in a longer-term and global context. It also provides a more in-depth analysis of selected economic and policy issues and highlights the economic reforms that India has been undertaking and needs to continue with in the medium to long-term. 

Outlook for the Indian economy

The World Bank projections in this report are from May 2020 when it projected the economy to contract by 3.2 percent in FY20/21, and rebound slowly in FY21/22. It further estimated that the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to have significant fiscal implications. The fiscal deficit of the central government is likely to increase to 6.6 percent of GDP in FY20/21 and is expected to remain elevated at 5.5 percent in the following year. Assuming that the states’ deficit is contained within 3.5-4.5 percent of GDP, the combined deficit could rise to around 11 percent in FY20/21. While there is a significant level of uncertainty around the projections, the general government debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to peak at around 89 percent in FY22/23 before gradually declining thereafter. 

The outlook comes predicated with several downside risks. Further challenges have emerged in recent weeks which are likely to weigh on the prospects in the near term. These risks include the virus continuing to spread; a further deterioration in the global outlook; and additional strains projected on the financial sector. Keeping these factors in mind, a steeper contraction may be projected in the revised outlook that will be available in October 2020.

“While the Government of India, with the support of the Reserve Bank, is continuing to take action to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a recognition of both the uncertainty of the nature of the economic revival globally and the emergence of opportunities opened by the current crisis,” said Junaid Ahmad, World Bank Country Director in India. “Countries that invest in sectoral reforms – infrastructure, labor and land, human capital — and ensure that their national systems are connected to the Global Value Chains, are more able to respond to uncertainties and are better placed to take advantage of any global shifts. Investing in these areas will give India the ability to navigate these uncertainties and be more competitive as the world emerges from the pandemic.”

Priority areas of reforms

COVID-19 has come at a time when the Indian economy had already been decelerating for nearly two years. The pandemic has exacerbated some of those challenges. Besides the immediate relief and recovery measures, the government has announced significant reform measures for agriculture, education, public sector, and micro, small and medium enterprises. The report says furthering such reforms will help put the economy back on a 7 percent growth path.

i) Strengthening fiscal reforms

In order to instill fiscal discipline in handling COVID-19 related implications, the report suggests India may:  

· Reassess subsidies to leverage any scope for efficiency gains;

· Evaluate how much can be borrowed domestically and externally;

· Generate nontax revenues more aggressively; and

· Link the repayment of new borrowings to disinvestment receipts.

ii) Financial sector reforms

To put the financial sector on a sounder footing, the report identifies specific areas of reform. These include:

Financial sector stability. The RBI’s continued focus on risk-based regulation and supervision will be important as the temporary forbearance measures are phased out. Further strengthening of financial sector safety nets; close monitoring of liquidity and capital buffers; and regulatory and institutional framework for debt restructuring and insolvency could help deal with any spike in non-performing loans.

Reforms in the Non-Banking Finance Company (NBFC) sector. Reforms in the NBFC sector are needed to support its role in channeling credit to the real sector. In order to diversify the funding base and to strengthen the NBFC sector, recently launched liquidity schemes for NBFCs could be institutionalized. It would also be important to continue strengthening risk-based regulation and oversight of NBFCs.

Deeper capital market reforms. Deeper capital markets are critical for increasing the availability of long-term finance. The report calls for the government to continue its focus on easing demand and supply side constraints, and to build on recent initiatives. The report also suggests revisiting investment guidelines for institutional investors to crowd in long-term finance and address asset liability mismatch issues.

Role of fintech. The fintech sector has the potential to close the gap in access to financial services and help firms, especially MSMEs, access much needed credit and liquidity. The report suggests mainstreaming fintech to reach firms faster and at a lower cost.

Moving to a more strategic public-sector footprint. Recent efforts including consolidation of public sector banks and strengthening of corporate governance are encouraging steps towards a more strategic public sector footprint. Moving forward, gradually scaling back the statutory requirement for state banks to provide liquidity, as well as the priority-sector lending policy, will help reduce market distortions.

“The recent liquidity and performance issues in the financial sector, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, present policymakers with a strong reason — and an opportunity — to accelerate efforts towards building a more efficient, stable, and market-oriented financial system,” said Poonam Gupta, Lead Economist, World Bank and Dhruv Sharma, Senior Economist, World Bank and co-authors of the report. “It is encouraging that the government is moving to a more selective and strategic public sector footprint in the financial sector. International experience shows this can boost the banking sector’s ability to support credit, facilitate effective financial intermediation, and reduce fiscal exposure.” 

The current crisis has also brought to the forefront new economic opportunities in the areas of digital technology, retail, health-technology and education-technology services; and global demand in areas such as pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and protective gear. These opportunities can provide new growth levers for India, the report adds.

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Philippines: Reducing Inequality Key to Becoming a Middle-Class Society Free of Poverty

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Policies that support employment and workers, raise education quality and improve access, boost rural development, and strengthen social protection can reduce inequality, thus enhancing Filipino peoples’ chances for improving their well-being.

In a report titled “Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in the Philippines: Past, Present, and Prospects for the Future” released today, the World Bank said that the Philippines has made important gains in poverty reduction. Driven by high growth rates and the expansion of jobs outside agriculture, poverty fell by two-thirds—from 49.2 percent in 1985 to 16.7 percent in 2018. By 2018, the middle class had expanded to nearly 12 million people and the economically secure population had risen to 44 million.

Yet inequality remains high: the top 1 percent of earners together capture 17 percent of national income, with only 14 percent being shared by the bottom 50 percent. With an income Gini coefficient of 42.3 percent in 2018, the Philippines had one of the highest rates of income inequality in East Asia.

“The Philippines aims to become a middle-class society free of poverty by 2040, but we know from global experience that no country has managed to make this transition while maintaining high levels of inequality,” said Ndiamé Diop, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. “Inequality of opportunity and low mobility across generations wastes human potential and slowdown innovation, which is crucial for building a competitive and prosperous economy that will in turn improve the well-being and quality of life of all Filipinos.”

The report highlights that the expansion of secondary education, mobility to better-paying jobs, access to basic services, and government social assistance have started to reduce inequality since the mid-2000s. However, unequal opportunities, slow access to tertiary education among low-income households, inequality in returns to college education, and social norms putting the heavier burden of childcare on women has slowed down the narrowing of inequality in the Philippines.

Despite the strong recovery of growth and the labor market, COVID-19 pandemic has partly reversed decades-long gains in reducing poverty and inequality in the Philippines. It halted economic growth momentum in 2020, and unemployment shot up in industries that require in-person work. In 2021, the national poverty rate rose to 18.1 percent despite government assistance.

Recovery in the Philippines is uneven across the income distribution and the poorest who suffered the most from COVID have yet to fully recover their incomes. With food prices going up, many families coped by reducing their consumption, including eating less. These coping strategies can have serious consequences on the health and nutrition of children in these vulnerable households.

The report says that inequality starts even before birth and is perpetuated over the life cycle. It starts with maternal nutrition and health during pregnancy. Differences continue into childhood, where disparities in access to health care, proper nutrition, safe drinking water, sanitation, and quality education determine the extent to which a child’s human capital develops.

“Inequality shapes outcomes later in life, such as employment opportunities and income, which in turn influence how much support adult Filipinos are able to provide for their children to help maximize their potential,” said Nadia Belhaj Hassine Belghith, Senior Economist with the East Asia Poverty Global Practice covering Thailand and the Philippines who led the study.

The report says that policy priorities to reduce inequality in the Philippines can be structured around three themes, including healing the pandemic’s scars and building resilience, setting the stage for a vibrant and inclusive recovery, and promoting greater equality of opportunity.

Healing pandemic’s scars will require promoting greater vaccine booster uptake, overcoming the learning loss due to COVID-19, strengthening social assistance, unemployment insurance programs for the informal sector, and taming inflation.

Setting the stage for vibrant recovery entails reskilling of workers, promoting entrepreneurship, increasing the participation of women in the labor force, and raising the productivity of agriculture.

Promoting greater equality of opportunity entails increasing access to quality health care, increasing equality of opportunity in education, and improving access to quality housing, among others. Equality of opportunity needs to target the lagging regions and other people disadvantaged in accessing these because of the circumstances of their birth.

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Germany in secret talks to buy Iranian oil: report

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An Israeli paper has claimed that Germany is in “secret” talks with Tehran to buy Iranian oil as part of its efforts to wean itself off Russia’s energy supplies.

The Jerusalem Post quoted the chief economist for the partially state-owned bank LBBW in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg as saying that Germany is engaged in secret talks with the Islamic Republic to buy Iranian oil.

“Intensive talks are already being held behind the scenes with Venezuela, Iran or Algeria to cover Germany’s oil and gasoline needs,” said Moritz Kraemer, the chief economist of the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW).

Bernd Wagner, a spokesman for LBBW, told the Jerusalem Post that “as a matter of principle, LBBW does not conduct any Iran-related business.”

When asked about Kraemer’s statement about secret talks with Iran, Wagner said, “There seems to be a misunderstanding. The chief economist is talking about the national economy, not about LBBW’s business. We have a very clear distinction here.”

No official announcements have so far been made about the alleged secret talks between Tehran and Berlin. But tensions have been on the rise between the two sides over German officials’ statements regarding Iran’s internal developments. 

On Monday, the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the German ambassador to Tehran, Hans-Udo Muzel, over German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s “meddlesome” remarks about Iran.

“Following the meddlesome and irresponsible statements of the German chancellor towards the Islamic Republic, Hans-Udo Muzel the German ambassador to Tehran was summoned to the foreign ministry on Monday,” the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The statement added, “During the session, the director general of the west European affairs of the foreign ministry condemned the irresponsible statement of the German official. He conveyed strong protest of the Islamic Republic of Iran about Germany’s destructive approach towards the domestic developments of Iran to the German envoy.”

It continued, “The foreign ministry official said the German side should bear the consequences of the continuation of such non-constructive statements and acts on the future of the mutual ties. He stressed that the Islamic Republic of Iran is monitoring the stances and actions of the other sides with dignity and grandeur, taking into account its national interests, and will give them proportionate responses.”

The statement concluded, “The German ambassador, for his part, said he will convey the message of the Islamic Republic of Iran to his government at the earliest. During the meeting the formal notice of protest of the Islamic Republic was handed over to the German ambassador.”

Tehran Times

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India’s Urban Infrastructure Needs to Cross $840 Billion Over Next 15 Years

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A new World Bank report estimates that India will need to invest $840 billion over the next 15 years—or an average of $55 billion per annum—into urban infrastructure if it is to effectively meet the needs of its fast-growing urban population. The report, titled “Financing India’s Urban Infrastructure Needs: Constraints to Commercial Financing and Prospects for Policy Action” underlines the urgent need to leverage more private and commercial investments to meet emerging financial gaps.

By 2036, 600 million people will be living in urban cities in India, representing 40 percent of the population. This is likely to put additional pressure on the already stretched urban infrastructure and services of Indian cities – with more demand for clean drinking water, reliable power supply, efficient and safe road transport amongst others. Currently, the central and state governments finance over 75 percent of city infrastructure, while urban local bodies (ULB) finance 15 percent through their own surplus revenues.

Only 5 percent of the infrastructure needs of Indian cities are currently being financed through private sources. With government’s current (2018) annual urban infrastructure investments topping at $16 billion, much of the gap will require private financing. 

“Cities in India need large amounts of financing to promote green, smart, inclusive, and sustainable urbanization. Creating a conducive environment for ULBs, especially large and creditworthy ones, to borrow more from private sources will therefore be critical to ensuring that cities are able to improve living standards of their growing populations in a sustainable manner,” said Auguste Tano Kouamé, Country Director, World Bank, India.

The new report recommends expanding the capacities of city agencies to deliver infrastructure projects at scale. Currently, the 10 largest ULBs were able to spend only two-thirds of their total capital budget over three recent fiscal years. A weak regulatory environment and weak revenue collection also adds to the challenge of cities accessing more private financing. Between 2011 and 2018, urban property tax stood at 0.15 percent of GDP compared to an average of 0.3-0.6 percent of GDP for low- and middle-income countries. Low service charges for municipal services also undermines their financial viability and attractiveness to private investment.

Over the medium term, the report suggests a series of structural reforms including those in the taxation policy and fiscal transfer system – which can allow cities to leverage more private financing. In the short term, it identifies a set of large high-potential cities that have the ability to raise higher volumes of private financing.

“The Government of Indiacan play an important role in removing market frictions that cities face in accessing private financing. The World Bank report proposes a range of measures that can be taken by city, state, and federal agencies to bend the arc towards a future in which private commercial finance becomes a much bigger part of the solution to India’s urban investment challenge,” said Roland White, Global Lead, City Management and Finance, World Bank, and co-author of the report. 

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