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Economic Forecast: Rebound interrupted as resurgence of pandemic deepens uncertainty

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The coronavirus pandemic represents a very large shock for the global and EU economies, with very severe economic and social consequences. Economic activity in Europe suffered a severe shock in the first half of the year and rebounded strongly in the third quarter as containment measures were gradually lifted. However, the resurgence of the pandemic in recent weeks is resulting in disruptions as national authorities introduce new public health measures to limit its spread. The epidemiological situation means that growth projections over the forecast horizon are subject to an extremely high degree of uncertainty and risks.

An interrupted and incomplete recovery

The Autumn 2020 Economic Forecast projects that the euro area economy will contract by 7.8% in 2020 before growing 4.2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022. The forecast projects that the EU economy will contract by 7.4% in 2020 before recovering with growth of 4.1% in 2021 and 3% in 2022. Compared to the Summer 2020 Economic Forecast, growth projections for both the euro area and the EU are slightly higher for 2020 and lower for 2021. Output in both the euro area and the EU is not expected to recover its pre-pandemic level in 2022.

The economic impact of the pandemic has differed widely across the EU and the same is true of recovery prospects. This reflects the spread of the virus, the stringency of public health measures taken to contain it, the sectoral composition of national economies and the strength of national policy responses.

Rise in unemployment contained compared to drop in economic activity

Job losses and the rise in unemployment have put severe strains on the livelihoods of many Europeans. Policy measures taken by Member States, together with initiatives at EU level have helped to cushion the impact of the pandemic on labour markets. The unprecedented scope of measures taken, particularly through short-time work schemes, have allowed the rise in the unemployment rate to remain muted compared to the drop in economic activity. Unemployment is set to continue rising in 2021 as Member States phase out emergency support measures and new people enter the labour market, but should improve in 2022 as the economy continues to recover.

The forecast projects the unemployment rate in the euro area to rise from 7.5% in 2019 to 8.3% in 2020 and 9.4% in 2021, before declining to 8.9% in 2022. The unemployment rate in the EU is forecast to rise from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.7% in 2020 and 8.6% in 2021, before declining to 8.0% in 2022.

Deficits and public debt set to rise

The increase in government deficits is expected to be very significant across the EU this year as social spending rises and tax revenues fall, both as a result of the exceptional policy actions designed to support the economy and the effect of automatic stabilisers.

The forecast projects the aggregate government deficit of the euro area to increase from 0.6% of GDP in 2019 to around 8.8% in 2020, before decreasing to 6.4% in 2021 and 4.7% in 2022. This reflects the expected phasing out of emergency support measures in the course of 2021 as the economic situation improves.

Mirroring the spike in deficits, the forecast projects the aggregate euro area debt-to-GDP ratio will increase from 85.9% of GDP in 2019 to 101.7% in 2020, 102.3% in 2021 and 102.6% in 2022.

Inflation remains subdued

A steep fall in energy prices pushed headline inflation into negative territory in August and September. Core inflation, which includes all items except energy and unprocessed food, also fell substantially over the summer due to lower demand for services, especially tourism-related services and industrial goods. Weak demand, labour market slack and a strong euro exchange rate will exert downward pressure on prices.

Inflation in the euro area, as measured by the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP), is forecast to average 0.3% in 2020, before rising to 1.1% in 2021 and 1.3% in 2022, as oil prices stabilise. For the EU, inflation is forecast at 0.7% in 2020, 1.3% in 2021 and 1.5% in 2022.

Members of the College said:

Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice-President for an Economy that Works for People, said: “This forecast comes as a second wave of the pandemic is unleashing yet more uncertainty and dashing our hopes for a quick rebound. EU economic output will not return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022. But through this turbulence, we have shown resolve and solidarity. We have agreed unprecedented measures to help people and companies. We will work together to chart the course to recovery, using every tool at our disposal. We agreed a landmark recovery package, NextGenerationEU – with the Recovery and Resilience Facility at its heart – to provide massive support to worst-hit regions and sectors. I now call again on the European Parliament and Council to wrap up negotiations quickly for money to start flowing in 2021 so that we can invest, reform and rebuild together.”

Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner for Economy, said: “After the deepest recession in EU history in the first half of this year and a very strong upswing in the summer, Europe’s rebound has been interrupted due to the resurgence in COVID-19 cases. Growth will return in 2021 but it will be two years until the European economy comes close to regaining its pre-pandemic level. In the current context of very high uncertainty, national economic and fiscal policies must remain supportive, while NextGenerationEU must be finalised this year and effectively rolled out in the first half of 2021.”

A high degree of uncertainty with downside risks to the outlook

Uncertainties and risks surrounding the Autumn 2020 Economic Forecast remain exceptionally large. The principal risk stems from a worsening of the pandemic, requiring more stringent public health measures and leading to a more severe and longer lasting impact on the economy. This has motivated a scenario analysis for two alternative paths of the pandemic evolution – a more benign one and a downside one – and its economic impact. There is also a risk that the scars left by the pandemic on the economy – such as bankruptcies, long-term unemployment and supply disruptions – could be deeper and farther reaching. The European economy could also be impacted negatively if the global economy and world trade improved less than forecast or if trade tensions were to increase. The possibility of financial market stress is another downside risk.

On the upside, NextGenerationEU, the EU’s economic recovery programme, including the Recovery and Resilience Facility, is likely to provide a stronger boost to the EU economy than projected. This is because the forecast could only partially incorporate the likely benefits of these initiatives, as the information available at this stage on national plans is still limited. A trade agreement between the EU and the UK would also have a positive impact on the EU economy from 2021 compared to the forecast baseline of the UK and EU trading based on WTO Most Favoured Nation (MFN) rules.

Background

The forecast was prepared in a context of severe uncertainty, with Member States announcing major new public health measures in the second half of October 2020 to limit the spread of the virus.

The forecast is based on the usual set of technical assumptions concerning exchange rates, interest rates and commodity prices, with a cut-off date of 22 October 2020. For all other incoming data, including information on government policies, this forecast takes into consideration information up until and including 22 October. Unless policies are credibly announced and specified in adequate detail, the projections assume no policy changes.

The forecast hinges upon two important technical assumptions. First, public health measures are assumed to remain in force to some degree throughout the forecast horizon. However, after their significant tightening in the fourth quarter of 2020, the stringency of the measures is expected to gradually ease in 2021. It is also assumed that the economic impact of a given level of restrictions will diminish over time as the health system and economic agents adapt to the coronavirus environment. Second, given that the future relations between the EU and the UK are not yet clear, projections for 2021 and 2022 are based on a technical assumption that the EU and the UK will trade on WTO Most Favoured Nation (MFN) rules from 1 January 2021 onwards. This is for forecasting purposes only and reflects no anticipation nor prediction as regards the outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK on their future relationship.

The European Commission’s next forecast will be an update of GDP and inflation projections in the Winter 2021 Economic Forecast, which is expected to be presented in February 2021.

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Lithuania: COVID-19 crisis reinforces the need for reforms to drive growth and reduce inequality

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Effective containment measures, a well-functioning health system and swift public support to firms and households have helped Lithuania to weather the COVID-19 crisis to date. That said, the pandemic still carries significant economic risks, and the recent upsurge in infections is very concerning. Once a recovery is under way, Lithuania should aim to reform public companies, strengthen public finances, and ensure that growth benefits all people and regions, according to a new OECD report. 

The OECD’s latest Economic Survey of Lithuania says that prior to COVID-19, good economic management and an investment-friendly business climate were helping to lift average Lithuanian incomes closer to advanced country levels. While the recession provoked by the virus has been milder than elsewhere – with GDP projected to drop by 2% in 2020 before rebounding by 2.7% in 2021 – Lithuania’s small and open economy will be vulnerable to any prolonged disruption to world trade. Increasing public investment and improving governance at state-owned enterprises could help lift growth and productivity. Other reforms should focus on improving the effectiveness of spending and taxation. Over the longer term, Lithuania should establish a clear debt reduction path and a long-term debt target.

“Lithuania’s sound economic management of recent years, and its swift response to both the health and economic aspects of the pandemic, are helping the country to weather the COVID-19 crisis,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “It is now key to build on these achievements and restart the reform engine to ensure robust, sustainable and inclusive growth for the future.”

The pandemic has exposed high levels of income inequality in Lithuania, where relative poverty is high among the unemployed, the less educated, single parents and older people due to a tax-benefit system that is insufficiently redistributive. The Survey recommends Lithuania to continue providing temporary support to people and businesses hit by COVID-19, as well as to increase regular social support while retaining incentives to work.

In terms of support to the economy, the Survey notes that while Lithuania’s government spending has increased considerably over the past two years, it remains below the OECD average. Public investment also remains low. Given the importance of modernising infrastructure and stimulating crisis-hit demand, the Survey recommends maintaining or increasing current levels of investment and improving investment quality by carrying out rigorous cost-benefit analysis for individual projects. Increasing investment in rural areas, and giving local government more say in tax policy and spending, could help reduce regional disparities and promote inclusive growth.

The Survey also recommends phasing out environmentally damaging fossil fuel subsidies and increasing environmental taxation, which would benefit public finances while helping the shift to a lower-carbon economy.

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United States confirms its leading role in the fight against transnational corruption

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The United States continues to demonstrate an increasing level of anti-bribery enforcement, having convicted or sanctioned 174 companies and 115 individuals for foreign bribery and related offences under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) between September 2010 and July 2019. The United States is thus commended for a significant upward trend in enforcement and confirming the prominent role it plays globally in combating foreign bribery.

The 44-country OECD Working Group on Bribery has just completed its Phase 4 evaluation of the United States’ implementation of the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions and related instruments.

Given developments since the United States’ last evaluation in 2010, the Working Group made a range of recommendations to the United States, including to:

  • Consider ways to enhance protections for whistleblowers who report potential FCPA anti-bribery violations by non-issuers and provide further guidance on available whistleblower protections;
  • Continue to further evaluate and refine policies and guidance concerning the FCPA;
  • Make publicly available the extension and completion of NPAs and DPAs with legal persons in foreign bribery matters as well as the grounds for extending DPAs in FCPA matters;
  • Continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the Corporate Enforcement Policy in particular in terms of encouraging self-disclosure and of its deterrent effect on foreign bribery; and
  • Continue to address recidivism through appropriate sanctions and raise awareness of its impact on the choice of resolution in FCPA matters.

The report praises the United States for its sustained commitment to enforcing its foreign bribery offence as well as its key role in promoting the implementation of the Convention. This achievement results from a combination of enhanced expertise and resources to investigate and prosecute foreign bribery, the enforcement of a broad range of offences in foreign bribery cases, the effective use of non-trial resolution mechanisms, and the development of published policies to incentivise companies’ co-operation with law enforcement agencies.

The report also notes a large number of positive developments and good practices, such as the DOJ’s reliance on several theories of liability to hold both companies and individuals responsible for foreign bribery, and the United States’ successful co-ordination that has allowed multi-agency resolutions against alleged offenders in FCPA matters. In parallel, the United States has increasingly sought to co-ordinate and co-operate in investigating and resolving multijurisdictional foreign bribery matters with other jurisdictions. Finally, the United States has helped foreign partners build their capacity to fight foreign bribery through joint conferences and peer-to-peer training thus enabling the law enforcement authorities of these countries to better investigate and sanction prominent foreign bribery cases.

The United States’ Phase 4 report was adopted by the OECD Working Group on Bribery on 16 October 2020. The report lists the recommendations the Working Group made to the United States on pages 111-113, and includes an overview of recent enforcement activity and specific legal, policy, and institutional features of the United States’ framework for fighting foreign bribery. In accordance with the standard procedure, the United States will submit a written report to the Working Group within two years (October 2022) on its implementation of all recommendations and its enforcement efforts. This report will also be made publicly available.

The report is part of the OECD Working Group on Bribery’s fourth phase of monitoring, launched in 2016. Phase 4 looks at the evaluated country’s particular challenges and positive achievements. It also explores issues such as detection, enforcement, corporate liability, and international co-operation, as well as covering unresolved issues from prior reports.

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Skills and lifelong learning critical for all workers

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The International Labour Organization has published a new guide for trade unions on skills development and lifelong learning.

The guide “Skills Development and Lifelong Learning: Resource Guide for Workers’Organizations” , published by the ILO’s Skills and Employability Branch and Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) addresses key challenges facing workers’ organizations, including best practices, key priorities and main challenges. It also outlines why trade unions should be involved in skills development and lifelong learning.

According to the guide, building the capacity and engagement of workers’organizations in skills development and lifelong learning, based on a human-centred approach and International Labour Standards, will help build a ‘better normal’ in the post-COVID-19 World.

“What matters in the end, is that ALL workers can acquire the skills of their choice to get jobs and to keep jobs, and to be equipped to face the transitions they will be confronted with over the working life. Skills development and lifelong learning are essential to enhance workers’ capabilities to participate fully in decent work, to contribute to human development, active citizenship and the strengthening of democracy,” said Maria Helena André, Director of the ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities.

The guide is designed for workers’ organizations, trainers, facilitators and ILO officials. It is part of a comprehensive programme of support for workers’organizations in preparation for the 2021 International Labour Conference (ILC), which will discuss skills and lifelong learning. It also paves the way for the general discussion on standing setting for apprenticeships, which takes place at the ILC in 2022 and 2023.

“If the lifelong leaning notion has to become a reality, the link between the world of education and the world of work needs to be very strong, bringing these together, through a process of social dialogue where governments, employers, and workers organization jointly formulate policies and programmes,” said Srinivas Reddy, Director of the ILO SKILLS Branch.

A Global webinar  bringing together workers’ organizations, technical experts, academics and senior ILO officials was held on the November 18th 2020 to launch the guide.

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