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Pandemic recovery: Germany should invest more in digital economy and energy transition

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Germany should increase public infrastructure investment and accelerate its digital transformation and energy transition to strengthen and sustain its recovery from the economic crisis sparked by COVID-19, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Germany credits the government’s swift and effective crisis response and a strong healthcare system for enabling a less severe social and economic impact from the pandemic than in many neighbouring countries. The 1.4 percentage point rise in the unemployment rate in the first half of the year was small by international standards, thanks to the extensive use of the government-subsidised short-time work scheme. Yet the crisis has still pushed the economy into a deep recession after a decade of expansion, with economic output projected to shrink by 5.5% in 2020 and recover only gradually with GDP growth at 2.8% in 2021 and 3.3% in 2022. It is important that measures to support the health system and the hardest hit sections of society and the economy are not scaled back too fast.

“Germany has suffered a severe economic shock from COVID-19, despite the government’s swift and substantial response. Germany should use the recovery as an opportunity to invest in its digital transformation, accelerate its transition to a low-carbon economy, and increase labour market inclusion,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

While the government’s June stimulus package took encouraging steps towards advancing the digital and energy transitions, more infrastructure investment is needed to spur a sustainable and inclusive recovery and ensure that Germany can reap the productivity benefits of digital technologies and the environmental benefits of greener energy and transport, the Survey says.

Despite being a world leader in technology and engineering, Germany lags other advanced economies on the digital transformation at a time when the pandemic has heightened the need for good quality and reliable digital connectivity. Average mobile data usage and connection speeds are low, and uneven availability of high-speed Internet has created an urban-rural digital divide. Many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) lag behind in the use of digital technologies, such as cloud computing, that are key for innovation and productivity. Only a small percentage of young people have programming skills, with the share even lower among girls and women. 

Improving competition among Internet providers and simplifying administrative processes for network deployment would help to improve digital connectivity. SMEs should be given better access to financial support, including Research and Development tax incentives, to help them adopt advanced technologies. More should also be done to promote digital skills across the population and to make computational thinking part of the school curriculum from an early age.

Germany has made significant progress on climate policy, particularly in the past year, with the introduction of an emissions pricing system in the transport and heating sectors, increased promotion of electric vehicles and charging stations, and higher targets for renewable electricity generation. However, per capita greenhouse gas emissions in Germany are still high by European standards. If Germany is to meet its Paris Agreement target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030 relative to 1990 levels, greater efforts will be needed. The Survey recommends reducing coal-fired power generation earlier than planned, expanding energy-efficient building renovation, linking the pricing of fuels, vehicles and road use more clearly to environmental damage, and creating alternative, climate-friendly transport options.

Although public investment has increased since 2014, two decades of weak investment have left a backlog, particularly in the areas of low-emission transport solutions, digital transformation, health, social housing, early childhood education and power grids. In view of the negative net investment in many financially weak municipalities, the Survey recommends the federal government further support investment by municipalities.

The Survey also recommends expanding local planning capacity and improving co-operation across government agencies to speed up the implementation and effectiveness of infrastructure projects. It would be sensible, for example, to use independent infrastructure planning advice that facilitates alignment between different levels of government and sectors and gives construction firms more security in their planning.

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Lao Economy Set to Recover if Threats Can Be Contained

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While economic growth in the Lao PDR contracted in 2020 for the first time in over two decades, the economy is set to recover in 2021 and in the medium term, provided the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is contained and business can resume with trading partners, according to a World Bank report released today.

The latest Lao PDR Economic Monitor — Supporting Economic Recovery — finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant adverse effects on growth across the country, plunging the economy into its first recession since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The report estimates that the economy will shrink by 0.6 percent in 2020, with tourism services, wholesale and retail trade, and manufacturing most seriously affected.

Declining economic activity has reduced the government’s ability to collect revenues, which in turn has led to a worsening fiscal situation. The kip has lost value against foreign currencies and this depreciation, along with rising food prices, has caused higher headline inflation.

While the Lao PDR has so far done very well to contain the spread of COVID-19, the economic effects of the outbreak have affected the livelihoods of millions of Lao people, and pose a serious risk to sustained poverty reduction”, said Nicola Pontara, World Bank Country Manager. “However, if the pandemic remains under control domestically and business can resume with trading partners, we can expect some recovery in 2021”.

According to the report, GDP growth is expected to rebound to 4.9 percent in 2021. Medium-term growth would also gradually recover as a result of infrastructure investment and a further pick up in services, exports, and private consumption. More COVID-19 outbreaks, however, would pose challenges for the recovery, due to the knock-on effects of potential lockdowns or restrictions on trade and tourism.

The report also highlights the rising public external debt burden. External debt and low foreign currency reserves limit the government’s capacity to adopt a robust fiscal stimulus. Moving forward, priorities include putting public external debt on a sustainable trajectory, improving the generation of revenue to create fiscal space, and supporting those households and firms most severely affected by the economic downturn.

A thematic section, Livelihoods in the Time of COVID-19, identifies the groups most vulnerable to the pandemic, and recommends policy options that could help protect their livelihoods. These include expanding coverage of cash and in-kind food transfers, and promoting skill development for laid-off workers and returned migrants.

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Turkey: A full recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will take time

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The COVID-19 crisis has hit Turkey’s people and economy hard, accentuating pre-existing challenges such as the low share of workers in formal employment and obstacles to firm expansion. Well-designed support to households and firms that is aligned with a return to macroeconomic stability, and reforms to improve competition and labour laws, institutions and business would help to build a lasting recovery, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of Turkey says a full recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will take time, given the blow from the drop in tourism and uncertainty over the future evolution of the pandemic, as well as Turkey’s limited welfare provisions and high levels of corporate and household debt. The crisis has put pressure on the viability of many businesses and on social cohesion, hitting informal workers, women, refugees and youths particularly hard. While a one-size-fits-all support strategy was justified during the first phase of confinements, policy support in the second wave of the pandemic should now be adapted to the varying conditions of sectors, workers, households and companies.

The pandemic has also amplified monetary policy challenges, with inflation surging further to well above Turkey’s 5% official target following interventions to shore up economic activity, bank liquidity and the Lira currency. Support to people and firms should be provided in a transparent and stable way to build investor confidence and reduce the risk of abrupt movements of capital. For example, targeted allowances for a stated period can be more effective than concessional loans and one-off transfers. Turkey should also seek to replenish foreign reserves and restore the independence of the Central Bank, the Survey says.

In parallel to the pandemic, Turkey remains exposed to geopolitical and trade risks, including the effect of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. As things stand, and factoring in headwinds from the second wave of the pandemic, the Survey projects Turkey’s GDP rebounding by 2.6% in 2021 and 3.5% in 2020.

“Turkey is looking at a gradual recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and risks persist for growth and well-being,” said Alvaro Pereira, OECD Director of Economic Country Studies. “The focus should be on restoring macroeconomic stability and seeing the post-crisis period as an opportunity to encourage foreign and domestic investment through stronger public governance, and to use market and labour reforms to empower businesses to grow and create quality jobs.”

Once a recovery is under way and investor confidence restored, the Survey estimates that a combination of market, institutional and education reforms could lift GDP per capita by 1% per year over the coming years. Market liberalisation reforms should include removing anticompetitive regulatory barriers in product markets, increasing labour market flexibility and reducing corporate income tax, while institutional reforms should improve public governance and the formalisation of business activities.

While the dynamism of Turkey’s business sector, and the country’s strong entrepreneurial spirit and youthful workforce, have been an asset through the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of Turkish firms are very small and have limited capacity to weather a protracted slowdown. Significant parts of the business sector rely on informal or semi-formal practices in employment, corporate governance, financial transparency and tax compliance. Easing overly stringent regulations on product and labour markets and simplifying business and tax systems would make it easier for young firms to grow and move to the formal sector. A modernized and more efficient business sector would also help firms to emerge stronger from the crisis.

In terms of labour reforms, cutting non-wage labour costs, shifting part of the cost of social protection to sources other than payroll contributions, making statutory minimum wages affordable for low-productivity firms, and modernising regulations for temporary as well as permanent contracts would stimulate the creation of formal jobs once the recovery takes hold.

Education reforms should seek to enhance adult skills in a country which ranks among the highest in the OECD for qualification mismatch, with 43% of the working population either over-qualified (29%) or underqualified (14%) for their job. Investing more in Research & Development and in digital technology and infrastructure would also raise growth prospects.

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Call for Closer Policy Collaboration on Artificial Intelligence

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A recent APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) report revealed that artificial intelligence (AI) has a role to play in mitigating both the short and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on APEC economies.

From automated health diagnostics in hospitals to smart recruitment processes in organizations, the report, titled Artificial Intelligence in APEC, finds that this technology is creating new, previously unforeseen jobs, products and services that will contribute to the post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

“As we release this report, APEC economies are facing the twin threats of a global pandemic and an economic crisis that will leave its mark on our communities for years to come,” said Dato’ Rohana Tan Sri Mahmood, Chair of the 2020 APEC Business Advisory Council.

“How APEC economies address the accelerated rise of the digital economy and leverage new technologies like AI is one of the most pressing issues of our time,” she added.

The report also examines how AI is being adopted and applied across the region and makes key recommendations calling for closer policy collaboration between business and governments.

Of the surveyed APEC economies, the report found that most already have plans, policies or programs devoted to driving or supporting AI ecosystems. In fact, the report highlights some of the AI-related innovation already underway across the region, including finding ways to help patients suffering from locked-in syndrome to communicate with the world by a team of engineers at a university in the Philippines.

Another notable innovation will benefit the farming industry. A Japanese corporation is trying to improve the efficiency of farming by automatically aggregating and analyzing sensor data and satellite images to provide farmers with farm management recommendations. In addition, a group from New Zealand developed AI-powered crocodile-spotting drones to keep swimmers safe in Australian rivers, among others.

“AI technologies have the potential to significantly impact businesses and communities across our economies,” Dato’ Rohana explained. “We believe that APEC can serve as an effective forum for member economies to collaborate on ways to maximize the benefits of AI and promote inclusive growth while ensuring its use in a responsible and ethical manner,” she added.

According to the report, recognizing this technology and all its capabilities is a central component of an economy’s forward-looking policy for growth, productivity and job creation, highlighting that the potential of AI extends beyond economic benefits and includes tools to address complex issues such as poverty, inequality, climate change, healthcare and ways to cope with effects of the pandemic.

As AI becomes more widely accepted, adopted and used for innovation, the report suggests that APEC policymakers will need to draft new policies, revise existing ones, confront new questions, address new needs and reassess its impact.

“With the cooperation of the public and private sector, a coordinated future of AI will increase the Asia-Pacific region’s competitiveness and further facilitate regional integration,” the report notes.

Artificial intelligence, already well on its way to transforming the Asia-Pacific, drives social and economic growth across all key sectors. However, the pandemic, and the ensuing focus on economic recovery, brings a renewed sense of urgency to discussions around AI usage. 

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