Authors: Chan Kung and Wei Hongxu*
As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, major central banks such as the Federal Reserve have to continue to maintain ultra-low policy interest rates in anticipation of being able to help the major economies out of the crisis. According to the latest Fed decision, interest rates may not be raised until 2023, which means that the zero-interest rate on the dollar may need to be maintained for quite some time to wait for the economy to recover and for inflation levels to pick up again. For now, interest rates in the U.S., U.K., Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Canada are all at 0.25% or lower, and of those countries, the U.K., New Zealand, and more central banks are likely to cut rates below zero in response to the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Japan and the eurozone have been under the monetary policy of negative interest rates for a long time. With more countries adopting negative interest rates, there are growing concerns about whether this unusual monetary policy will allow the economy to recover.
Recently, according to Reuters, there have been a number of studies by economists that have shown that negative interest rate policy will not bring economic recovery, but will rather cause more troubles. From a behavioral economics perspective, Lior David-Pur, head of Israel’s state debt management unit, said: “If your goal is to motivate people to take on more leverage [debt] and to increase investments in risky assets, then zero interest rates are actually more efficient than negative rates.” David-Pur’s study found that when interest rates fell from 1% to 0%, the positive impact on risk-taking and borrowing behavior was greatest.
The study, a rare look into consumer reactions to negative rates, tracked the investment decisions of 205 university students studying economics who were divided into four groups, each with 10,000 Israeli shekels (USD 2,921) to allocate between risk-free bank deposits and risky assets such as stocks. David-Pur said the group for which rates fell to minus 1%, actually cut leverage by 1.75%. But the willingness to borrow rose by 20% in the group that saw rates fall to 0%.It can be seen from the current stock markets in the United States and Europe that zero-interest rate and massive quantitative easing have indeed brought about a boom in the capital market, whose root is still the change of risk pricing by investors based on the reduction of borrowing costs, which has not effectively improved corporate profits and earnings.
Efforts to boost investment and consumption with a negative interest rate policy may be ineffective, instead households will increase their savings to “survive the winter”. This is because negative rates can suggest “some kind of emergency situation”, said Anatoli Annenkov, a former ECB economist who now with Société Générale. “That per se suggests that you won’t get the impact you want because people might just save more money instead of spending,” Annenkov said. His research shows that the savings rates across the eurozone dipped briefly after 2014, then continued to rise as official rates fell further below 0%. From the 2008 financial crisis to the present, major economies including the United States, have been experiencing low inflation and low growth. In fact, even though the world has unleashed a huge amount of liquidity, the global economy has not been able to change the deflationary situation.
The most worrisome aspect of negative interest rates is what Keynesian economists call a “liquidity trap“, i.e., when nominal interest rates are too low or even negative, further reductions in interest rates do not encourage business investment and only provide little stimulus to the economy. When businesses do not see demand and inflation expectations, they will not increase investment, resulting in fewer jobs and less consumption. In this case, negative interest rates and deflation can be said to be mutually reinforcing, with deflation-induced negative interest rates meaning that both households and businesses hold cash, thus dragging the entire economy into a deflationary black hole of a liquidity shortage.
From the practice of negative interest rate policies in the eurozone and Japan, many scholars also criticized the long-term negative interest rate policy, which does not bring an increase in investment, nor improvementsin inflation and economic growth. In Sweden, the first country to have negative interest rates, Fredrik NG Andersson, associate professor at the Lund School of Economics and Management, said the cost of negative rates for Sweden’s economy likely outweighed the benefits. Andersson said that borrowing did rise when rates were negative, but the money ended up invested mostly in housing, inflating property markets, and household debt.
Judging from past practice and current economic situation, the role of monetary policy in stimulating economic recovery has been greatly weakened. Even if the Fed adjusts its inflation target through technical means, there is less and less room for monetary policy to play in the current macro environment. Because monetary policy, for its part, is about adjusting the cost of capital to prevent liquidity crisis. Yet, the problem now is no longer the liquidity, but a lack of long-term growth momentum. The recovery of economic growth requires not only the increase in money supply, but also an increase in effective demand and supply from the perspective of long-term growth.
Final analysis conclusion:
Major central banks such as the Federal Reserve left interest rate policy unchanged, meaning zero/negative interest rate monetary conditions will remain in place for a long time. This suggests that the global economic downturn is causing deflation to be a longer-term trend.
*Wei Hongxu, graduated from the School of Mathematics of Peking University with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Birmingham, UK in 2010 and is a researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank with headquarters in Beijing.
China’s economic slowdown and its implications for the rest of Asia
China’s economy has slowed down considerably since the past year. The key reasons for China’s slow growth are its stringent lockdowns, to achieve its objective of a zero covid policy. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that many of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s policies especially tightening of credit for the real estate sector had an adverse impact on the real estate sector and the economy as a whole (according to estimates, real estate counts for 29% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A number of Chinese real estate developers have been downgraded by Moody’s. A number of companies, including Evergrande are part of the B3 category, which denotes “speculative and are subject to high credit risk’.
In August 2022, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang while commenting on the slowdown said:
‘A sense of urgency must be strengthened to consolidate the foundation for economic recovery’
There is a growing realisation that a further slowdown could lead to serious social problems, the stringent lockdowns have resulted in growing unemployment.
A number of steps have been taken to prevent the slowdown, such as Real Estate Sector and steps for Small Medium Enterprises. In August 2022, the Chinese government offered support to the tune of US $29 billion to Chinese real estate developers so that they can complete stalled projects and deliver them to home buyers. Earlier this year, China’s government announced that it would provide fiscal concessions and tax exemptions to MSME’s to small businesses in China. One of the key factors behind this course correction by Xi Jinping was the 20th national congress of the Communist Party will be held from October 16, 2022 (Xi Jinping is likely to secure a third-term and also consolidate his hold over the party and consolidate his position as the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong)
Challenges still persist for China’s economy
Reports of multilateral agencies clearly point to China’s growth in 2022 being well below earlier estimates and targets. According to a World Bank Report, growth in 2022 for the Asia-Pacific region is likely to be a little over 3% (3.2%), while China’s growth is likely to be 2.8%. China had targeted a growth of 5%, and even multilateral agencies had estimated that the country would grow at over 5%
An Asian Development Bank (ADB) report which estimated that China’s growth will be a little over 3% states that ‘developing’ Asia (which includes Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka etc) will grow at over 5% and highlights a significant point, that the last time China grew slower than the rest of Asia was in 1990, when China grew at below 4% (3.9%) and the rest of the region grew at 6.9%. Emerging Asian economies which include China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam are likely to grow at 4.3% in 2022 and 4.9% in 2023 again a drop from earlier estimates.
It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of foreign investors in China have also complained about the lockdowns and restrictions. While in the short run, it is unlikely that they will shift their operations in a big way, they are likely to look for alternatives.
In contrast to China, the rest of the region has benefited from easing out covid19 restrictions. Says the ADB report:
‘Easing pandemic restrictions, increasing immunization, falling Covid-19 mortality rates, and the less severe health impact of the Omicron variant are underpinning improved mobility in much of the region’
Can ASEAN and South Asia benefit from China’s slowdown?
The case of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries is especially important, because their policies with regard to covid have been fundamentally different from that of China. Opening up of borders has given a boost to the tourism sector in the region — especially Malaysia and Thailand. This is important, because tourism accounts for a significant percentage of the GDP of these economies. Here it would also be pertinent to point out, that a number of companies have moved out of China, in the aftermath of covid 19, with Vietnam being a favoured destination due to its geographical location and other economic advantages (some companies have also moved to other ASEAN nations as well as India).
Even the stock markets of these countries have been doing reasonably well. In April 2022, analysts from JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs had picked Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore as their favourite markets, while last month Credit Suisse said its favourite market in the region was Thailand.
In conclusion, while there is no doubt that China has been driving economic growth not just in Asia, but globally, it is unlikely that its economic challenges are likely to reduce in the short run. It is not just covid, but Xi Jinping’s economic policies which have been responsible for the slowdown. The biggest beneficiaries of China’s covid19 policies as well, as it’s slowdown in the longer run, would be the ASEAN region — especially countries like Vietnam and Indonesia — along with South Asian nations – especially India and Bangladesh who with investor friendly policies could attract more companies seeking to relocate from China.
Russia Struggling to Explore Africa’s Market
Building on post-Soviet relations with Africa, Russia has been struggling for strategies on how to establish economic footprints, promote investment and deepen cooperation in Africa. Despite the road map adopted at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019, little has been achieved since then.
Late September, the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the participants to another round of conference under theme: “Russia-Africa: Prospects for Cooperation” held in St. Petersburg. That gathering featuring a few interested Russian enterprises was part of a series of steps brainstorm and discuss opportunities, developments and challenges with regards to the preparation of the forthcoming Russia-Africa summit planned for July 2023.
Additionally, the goal of this St Petersburg conference event was in line with the priorities on how to engage with credible investors who can partner with the government and private sector to exploit the market. It discussed the possibilities of strengthening partnership between Russia and Africa, as well as issues related to export/import, logistics and peculiarities of working with African partners.
Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation Vladimir Padalko welcomed the participants via video link from Moscow. In the video, Padalko emphatically reminded that “preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled for July 2023 in St. Petersburg, are in full swing and we should come to it with concrete results in the form of agreements ready for signing.”
According to him, the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries should focus on conducting business missions that would identify specific areas for conducting business cooperation with African countries. It is necessary to help Russians to learn what the African market is, so that they are not afraid of taking investment risks in Africa.
Padalko said that the prejudices that Russians have regarding Africa should be overcome. He referred to his own experience, emphasizing that the first trip to the African continent made him change his mind significantly about the opportunities offered by cooperation with Africa. Russia is trying hard to improve its commercial relations with its African partners. In 2009, it established the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa to assist in promoting Russian business interests in Africa.
Senator Igor Morozov, Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries, called for increasing the pace and level of cooperation with African countries through, as he put it, “bringing small and medium-sized businesses to Africa.”
According to him, Russia is far behind in its activity on the African continent from such countries as the United States, Britain, China, France and even India and Turkey. These countries are developing a network of technology parks, working in the continental free trade zone, participating in the development of the infrastructure of African countries, the construction of roads, bridges and railways.
Senator Morozov noted that “Russian business does not have the tools to enter Africa and, above all, in the field of the banking system. No other banks give guarantees to Russian business. According to him, African countries are interested in the supply of agricultural machinery, and in this sense, the Kirov Plant in St. Petersburg may have good opportunities. And in this sense, we should take an example from our Belarusian friends.”
That was not the first time analyzing the development of business and trade elations with Africa. The African market is competitive and complex, therefore Russian business needs to work thoroughly and systematically in it in order to achieve success. It is necessary to help interested businesses willing to navigate African realities, find a niche for their work, learn about the conditions for entering certain markets.
According to Morozov, there is really the need for a specialized investment fund to support entrepreneurs. In general, with the prospect of working with African partners for many years, more serious state support is needed, and finally suggested that it is necessary to return to barter trade and concessions, which will make it possible to obtain minerals from Africa.
“We need to develop our international payment instruments – sanctions are already being imposed against the Mir system,” he said. A great deal of hope is being placed on the working group for developing new mechanisms in currency regulation and international settlements led by Kremlin aide Maxim Oreshkin, “which is supposed to work out these mechanisms soon,” Morozov said.
“We need to see how we will work within the framework of national currencies” and use them for settlements with African countries, he said. “We need to work in this direction, understanding that SWIFT will never again be [the main system for interbank payments] for us,” Morozov, who also serves on the Federation Council’s Economic Policy Committee, said.
Talks on options for settlements between Russia and African countries in the current economic circumstances are already being held, but “we shouldn’t get ahead of events. African central banks are already beginning to come [to Russia]. Everyone understands that we are leaders in grain exports, leaders in sunflower oil, mineral fertilizers, and it is necessary to settle up,” Morozov.
Other options for settlements could be barter and concessions. The outlook for cooperation and possible Russian projects in Africa, Morozov said Russia can offer its competencies in hydropower, electric passenger transport, automobile manufacturing, farm machinery and pharmaceuticals. Afrocom operates with the support of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Federation Council and government institutions, according to the committee’s website.
Associate Professor Ksenia Tabarintseva-Romanova, Ural Federal University, Department of International Relations, acknowledges huge existing challenges and perhaps difficult conditions in the current economic cooperation between Africa and Russia. Creating African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most important modern tool for the economic development of Africa, and this is unique for exploring the market and to get acquainted with the opportunities that it offers for business cooperation.
She, however, maintains that successful implementation requires a sufficiently high level of economic development of the participating countries, logistical accessibility, developed industry with the prospect of introducing new technologies. This means that in order for African Continental Free Trade Area to effectively fulfill its tasks, it is necessary to enlist the provision of sustainable investment flows from outside. These investments should be directed towards the construction of industrial plants and transport corridors.
Speaking earlier in an interview discussion, Tabarintseva-Romanova pointed to the fact that Russia already has vast experience with the African continent, which now makes it possible to make investments as efficiently as possible, both for the Russian Federation and for African countries. In addition, potential African investors and exporters could also explore business collaboration and partnerships in Russia.
Local Russian media, Rossiyskaya Gazeta also published an interview with Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute of African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, focusing on the economic cooperation with Africa. In this interview, Abramova reiterated explicitly that Russians have to do away with negative perceptions and attitudes toward Africa. The change in attitudes has to reflect in all aspects of the relationship with Africa and Africans.
“In Russians’ minds, Africa is synonymous with backwardness, poverty and hunger, which is not true at all. It is currently one of the most promising regions for foreign investment. In fact, it is a tiger ready to pounce. Africa today is in the same situation that China was in the 1990s. Today, China is the world’s number-one economy in purchasing capacity, a strong power which largely determines global development,” she explained.
“Africa is the zone where all big players overlap since its geographic location between the east and the west puts it at the peak of controversy and big game between all players, meaning between Europe and America, on the one hand, and China, India and other countries, on the other. And if Russia poses as a superpower it will lose its global influence without indicating its position in Africa as well,” she said.
According to her, seven African countries specifically Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria and Sudan, account for nearly 90% of Russia’s trade. “At the same time, China is present in almost all African countries. Millions of Chinese work in Africa today. It is a good moment for Russia now, because Western partners are trying to impose their values on the Africans, while China is dealing with its challenges at the expense of Africa,” the expert stressed.
The middle class is expanding very fast there, already amounting to 250-300 million people and this constitute a huge consumer market for products and services, according to her estimation.
Professor Abramova noted that it is a very good market for Russian products. The Chinese understood that long ago and are tapping the African market, having flooded it with their products, though Russia also has opportunities as it is fairly competitive in the energy, infrastructure and agriculture sectors, and exporting products such as fertilizers, trucks and aircraft supplies.
The fact that many prominent politicians and businessmen of the African continent graduated from Russian universities and speak Russian well contributes to strengthening of Russian-African relationship, the expert said, adding though that a new generation is about to take over in Africa, which is also reason why Moscow should maintain the existing solid social and cultural ties.
Senator Igor Morozov and Professor Irina Abramova are both members of the Kremlin’s Committee assigned the responsibility for coordinating and preparations for the next Russia-Africa summit in July 2023. Both Russia and Africa had problems finding a suitable African venue for the summit. The joint declaration adopted in Sochi says the summit be held every three years and the venue alternated between Russia and Africa.
Sampson Uwem-Edimo, President of the Nigerian Business Council and General Director of Trailtrans Logistic LLC, delivered a report “Nigeria as a Window to Africa” and further stressed that Russia does not have a common strategy on how to enter African markets, which exists, say, in China or France.
By removing barriers to trade in the region will create new entrepreneurial activities and spur innovations in technology. Now the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) seeks to create better conditions for investment. On the other hand, Russian corporate directors most often have problems with their business in Africa. The key obstacles ranging from their inconsistencies in approach, poor knowledge of the local political and business environment. Russians must also invest more in R&D collaborations with their African partners.
According to him, while Russians hope for brisk business, many African business leaders today are still Western mind-oriented, have various support from the United States and Europe. But the practical reality, Russia could still steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.
Uwem-Edimo noted that such former colonial powers as France and Great Britain, although they left their colonies, keep control panels in their capitals. The Nigerian businessman, who spoke in Russian, introduced the conference participants to the opportunities and vast potential of the African continent, focusing on Nigeria, which makes up 18 percent of the continent’s population – 240 million people.
President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vladimir Katenev, also addressed the conference participants with a greeting. The moderator was Ekaterina Lebedeva, Vice-President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry Union, who called on representatives of the business community, in spite of the emerging challenges, to consistently work towards prioritizing Africa.
China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: A Shared Future for Pursuing Regional Economy Integration
For ASEAN, China is a neighboring country as well as a strategic partner in various fields, especially in the economic field. China has become the largest ASEAN trading partner for 13 consecutive years since 2009 (Global Times, 2022).
A survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute to more than 1,600 ASEAN citizens said that 76.7% of them chose China as the most influential economic power in ASEAN (Heijmans, 2022). China has also grown to become an economic giant in the Asian region and is predicted to surpass the US as the world’s strongest economy by 2030 (Jennings, 2022).
This mutual relationship between China and ASEAN is getting stronger after the agreement of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). In the economic aspect, the implementation of the CSP is carried out in line with the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) project. Both projects are grand plans that have been prepared for economic integration and encouraging a more inclusive trade between two parties.
On the other hand, ASEAN also has a similar agenda in the region, which is to build an economic community that regulates trade as well as delivers economic benefit to its members. The common vision between China and ASEAN certainly smoothes the process of this cooperation. Then, how can China and ASEAN achieve their common goals? Are there any obstacles and challenges that they will face in implementing this CSP?
China-ASEAN: Sharing The Same Economic Vision
In pushing its foreign policy agenda, China has made visits to various neighboring countries in recent years. Rather than building an image as an economic great power, China focuses more on a friendly approach by promoting “a community with a shared future” to its neighbors (Wei, 2022). As a close neighbor and strategic partner, ASEAN become the one whom China wants to share the future with.
For ASEAN, BRI and RCEP itself have an aligned purpose with the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). AEC aims to promote a single market and product base, a highly competitive region, with equitable economic development (ASEAN, 2020a). Through AEC, ASEAN also commits to a freer flow of goods and services, and eases the distribution of skilled labor and the flow of capital in the region (Asian Development Bank Institute, 2015).
ASEAN’s ambition to build an integrated regional economy sounds promising. However, building an integrated economy ecosystem doesn’t only require geographical proximity, but also an adequate infrastructure (Donghyun et al., 2008).
Even though Southeast Asia is rich in resources and manufacturing, some areas still suffer from infrastructure lack and slow industrial development. Several ASEAN countries still have poor transportation infrastructures. In fact, transportation is a key factor in fastening economic distribution.
At this point, China came up with a BRI project plan which mainly prioritized large investments in transportation infrastructure (Donghyun et al., 2008). This long-term project has ample potential to provide infrastructure and other development facilities, hence promoting the growth in the region (Iqbal et al., 2019).
The CSP also regulates the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement that aims to broaden and deepen free trade activity between ASEAN-China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Australia (“RCEP: Overview and Economic Impact,” 2020). The RCEP later marks the birth of the world’s largest FTA which surely opens up wider trade and market access for ASEAN.
The RCEP will also help both China and ASEAN forge mutually beneficial industrial chain and supply chain partnerships, also to shape more inclusive trade cooperation in the future (Bo & Jing, n.d.). This opportunity is expected to be an open door for ASEAN integration with global trade, which is also the initial mission of AEC. Also can attract other countries to plant their foreign investment in ASEAN countries (ASEAN, 2020b).
For China, BRI and RCEP are essential to strengthen China’s position in the region. China is contriving to build “literal and metaphorical” bridges as a connector and a highway to greater influence in global politics and economy (Lockhart, 2020).
Both China and ASEAN share great economic interests in the CSP agreement. This makes both parties find a smooth path in the negotiation and agreement process. However, in the implementation process, ASEAN and China need to be more serious and committed.
ASEAN is currently in the process of compiling the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint 2025. The mid-term review criticized the uneven implementation of the AEC blueprint, with “easier” initiatives prioritized over challenging commitments. Both policy-making processes at national levels and practice need to be in line in order to reach common goals (Chen & Jye, 2022).
The Covid-19 pandemic becomes another obstacle to realizing economic integration in the region. The pandemic hits ASEAN quite heavily, where currently the members are still concerned about restoring the stability of the domestic economy. The cooperation with China is used well by ASEAN countries at the national level, such as the proposal submission for building several economic infrastructures by Indonesia, encouraging digital development in Thailand, signing economic bilateral relations with Vietnam, etc. Yet for the regional purpose, it still needs to be maximized.
The CSP begins a higher level of relationship, as reflected in the deeper cooperation, shared normative frameworks and institutionalized cooperative mechanisms, and high-level political commitment and priority from China and ASEAN (Ha, 2022). It will be less than optimal if ASEAN only sees CSP as a bridge to strengthen bilateral relations with China. ASEAN needs to view CSP as a strategic relationship for an ideal future of regional economic integration.
For optimizing the common goals for both, mutual political trust is the basis and safeguard (Bu, 2015). CSP does not happen overnight, building connectivity and an integrated ecosystem is a large-scale and long-term project. In order to reap the rewards of this investment and agreement, active dialogue, healthy relations, and stable growth of the upbringing of China-ASEAN relations must be strived by both parties.
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