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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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Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

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The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination. However, emerging evidence suggests that much more could have been done in advance to bolster resilience and many actions may have undermined trust and transparency between governments and their citizens, according to a new OECD report.

Government at a Glance 2021 says that one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic is that governments will need to respond to future crises at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency. “Looking forward, we must focus simultaneously on promoting the economic recovery and avoiding democratic decline” said OECD Director of Public Governance Elsa Pilichowski. “Reinforcing democracy should be one of our highest priorities.”

 Countries have introduced thousands of emergency regulations, often on a fast track. Some alleviation of standards is inevitable in an emergency, but must be limited in scope and time to avoid damaging citizen perceptions of the competence, openness, transparency, and fairness of government.

 Governments should step up their efforts in three areas to boost trust and transparency and reinforce democracy:

 Tackling misinformation is key. Even with a boost in trust in government sparked by the pandemic in 2020, on average only 51% of people in OECD countries for which data is available trusted their government. There is a risk that some people and groups may be dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes.

 It is crucial to enhance representation and participation in a fair and transparent manner. Governments must seek to promote inclusion and diversity, support the representation of young people, women and other under-represented groups in public life and policy consultation. Fine-tuning consultation and engagement practices could improve transparency and trust in public institutions, says the report. Governments must also level the playing field in lobbying. Less than half of countries have transparency requirements covering most of the actors that regularly engage in lobbying.

 Strengthening governance must be prioritised to tackle global challenges while harnessing the potential of new technologies. In 2018, only half of OECD countries had a specific government institution tasked with identifying novel, unforeseen or complex crises. To be fit for the future, and secure the foundations of democracy, governments must be ready to act at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency.

 Governments must also learn to spend better, according to Government at a Glance 2021. OECD countries are providing large amounts of support to citizens and businesses during this crisis: measures ongoing or announced as of March 2021 represented, roughly, 16.4% of GDP in additional spending or foregone revenues, and up to 10.5% of GDP via other means. Governments will need to review public spending to increase efficiency, ensure that spending priorities match people’s needs, and improve the quality of public services.

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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19

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Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead with a labour reform to facilitate adaptation in a fast-changing economic environment, and investing in digital skills and infrastructure, will be crucial to revive employment and build a sustainable recovery, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Sweden.

The pandemic triggered a severe recession in Sweden, despite mild distancing measures and swift government action to protect people and businesses. GDP fell by less than in many other European economies in 2020, thanks to reinforced short-time work, compensation to firms for lost revenue and measures to prop up the financial system, but unemployment still rose sharply. Solid public finances provided room for further stimulus in 2021 to buttress the recovery.

 The Survey recommends maintaining targeted support to people and firms until the pandemic subsides, then focusing on strengthening vocational training and skills and increasing investment in areas like high-speed internet and low-carbon transport. Addressing regional inequality, which is low but rising, should also be a priority as the recovery takes hold.

 The Survey shows that Sweden has been among the most resilient OECD countries in the face of a historic shock. Yet, like other economies, it faces challenges from demographic changes and the shift to green, digital economies. Investments in education and training, and labour reforms along the lines negotiated by the social partners, will support job creation and strengthen economic resilience. Building on Sweden’s leadership in digital innovation and diffusion will also be key for driving productivity.

 After a 3% contraction in 2020, interrupting several years of growth, the Survey projects a rebound in activity with 3.9% growth in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 as industrial production resumes and exports recover. The recovery in world trade is bolstering the Swedish economy, however the country remains vulnerable to potential disruptions in global value chains.  

The pandemic has aggravated a mismatch in Sweden’s job market, with unfilled vacancies for highly qualified workers coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants. The public employment service needs strengthening to provide better support to jobseekers, including immigrants and women, and labour policies should strike the right balance between supporting businesses and workers and supporting transitions away from declining businesses towards growing sectors.

A rising share of youths and older people in the population, especially in remote areas, is affecting the finances of local governments, which provide the bulk of welfare services. Strengthening local government budgets and ensuring equal welfare provision across the country will require providing tax income to poorer regions more efficiently and raising the economic growth potential across regions through investments in innovation. Improving coordination between government entities and reinforcing the role of universities in local economic networks would help achieve that aim.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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