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How the recovery from COVID-19 crisis can build sustainable and inclusive economic systems

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Almost one year after the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the deep economic recession it has triggered continues to have profound economic and social consequences. While no nation has emerged unscathed, this year’s Global Competitiveness Report finds that countries with advanced digital economies and digital skills, robust social safety nets and previous experience dealing with epidemics have better managed the impact of the pandemic on their economies and citizens.

As the global economy recovers, the opportunity exists for countries to expand their focus beyond a narrow return to growth. The Global Competitiveness Report Special Edition 2020: How Countries are Performing on the Road to Recovery, published today by the World Economic Forum, charts a way forward.

This year’s special edition outlines priorities for recovery and revival, assesses the features that helped countries be more effective in managing the pandemic, and provides an analysis of which countries are best poised for an economic transformation towards systems that combine “productivity”, “people” and “planet” targets.

“The World Economic Forum has long encouraged policymakers to broaden their focus beyond short-term growth to long-term prosperity. This Report makes clear the priorities for making economies more productive, sustainable and inclusive as we emerge from the crisis. The stakes for transforming our economic systems simply could not be higher,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

In recognition of the extraordinary developments in 2020 and of the unified global effort required to tackle the health crisis and its socioeconomic fallout, the Global Competitiveness Index rankings have been suspended for 2020. The 2021 edition will see a return to benchmarking, providing a refreshed framework to guide future economic growth.

What aspects of competitiveness made an economy relatively resilient during the pandemic?

· Countries with advanced digital economies and digital skills have been more successful at keeping their economies running while their citizens worked from home. The Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Estonia, and the United States have performed well on this measure.

· Countries with robust economic safety nets, such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland, were well placed to support those who could not work. Similarly, countries with strong financial systems such as Finland, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, could more easily provide credit to SMEs to prevent insolvency.

· Countries that could successfully plan and integrate health, fiscal and social policies have been relatively more successful in mitigating the effects of the crisis, including Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria and the United Arab Emirates.

· Anecdotal evidence suggests that countries with previous experience of coronavirus epidemics (e.g., SARS) had better protocols and technological systems in place (e.g., Republic of Korea, Singapore) and could contain the epidemic relatively better than others.

How did business sentiment change during the crisis?

In advanced economies, business leaders saw increased market concentration, a marked decline in competition for services, reduced collaboration between companies and fewer available skilled workers in the employment market as the shift to digitally enabled work accelerated. On the positive side, leaders saw greater government response to change, improved collaboration within companies and increased availability of venture capital.

In emerging markets and developing economies, business leaders noted an increase in business costs related to crime and violence, a reduction in judicial independence, a further reduction in competition and growing market dominance, and stagnating trust in politicians. They, too, expressed positive views on government response to change, collaboration within companies, and venture capital availability. They also noted an increase in the capacity to attract talent, potentially facilitated by the more digital labour market.

“During this time of profound uncertainty, the health crisis and economic downturn have forced a fundamental rethink of growth and its relationship to outcomes for people and planet. Policy-makers have a remarkable opportunity to seize this moment and shape new economic systems that are highly productive while growing shared prosperity and environmental sustainability,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, World Economic Forum.

What are the imperatives for a future economic transformation?

The report considers pathways for revival and transformation in four areas: the enabling environment, human capital, markets, and innovation.

· Transforming the enabling environment: The report recommends that governments prioritize improving public service delivery, plan for managing public debt and expand digitization. In the longer term, more progressive taxation, and upgrading utilities and building greener infrastructure are recommended.

· Transforming human capital: The report advocates a gradual transition from furlough schemes to a combination of proactive investments in new labour market opportunities, a scaling-up of reskilling and upskilling programmes, and safety nets to help drive the recovery. In the longer term, leaders should work to update education curricula, reform labour laws and improve the use of new talent-management technologies.

· Transforming markets: While financial systems have become significantly more stable since the last financial crisis, they need to be more inclusive, and growing market concentration and raising barriers to the movement of goods and people risk hampering the transformation of markets. The report recommends introducing financial incentives for companies to engage in sustainable and inclusive investments, while updating competition and anti-trust frameworks.

· Transforming the innovation ecosystem: Although entrepreneurial culture has flourished in the past decade, the creation of new firms, breakthrough technologies and products and services that deploy these technologies has stalled. The report recommends that countries expand public investment in R&D while encouraging it in the private sector. In the longer term, countries should support the creation of “markets of tomorrow” and motivate firms to embrace diversity to enhance creativity and market relevance.

Which countries are best prepared for economic transformation?

The concepts of economic transformation are relatively new and data is limited. Data from 37 countries was mapped against the 11 priorities outlined in the report and found that while no country is fully prepared for recovery and economic transformation, some are better placed than others. The report estimates that a 10% increase in readiness scores could lead to a $300 billion increase in the GDP figures of these 37 countries combined. However, these priorities for transformation should be considered for their multiple effects on growth, inclusion and sustainability.

Countries that are best prepared for economic transformation are shown in the table below. The report should be examined in depth to understand the implications of data availability.

Key insights:

· Digital infrastructure investments: The transition to a greener and more inclusive economy must be underpinned by significant investments in infrastructure, including an expansion of digital networks. Denmark, Estonia, Finland and the Netherlands are currently best prepared to do this.

· Greener economy: Greening the economy will require upgrading energy infrastructure, transport networks and commitments from both the public and private sectors to extend and respect multilateral agreements on environmental protection. Denmark, Estonia, Finland and the Netherlands are best prepared to drive economic transformation through infrastructure. Less prepared countries include Russia, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa.

· Longer-term investments: Increasing incentives to direct financial resources towards long-term investments in the real economy can strengthen stability and expand inclusion. Finland, Sweden, New Zealand and Austria are relatively better prepared than other advanced economies, while the United States, currently the largest financial centre in the world, is among the least ready.

· More progressive taxation: Shifting to more progressive taxation systems emerges as a key driver of economic transformation. On this measure, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Australia and South Africa score highest, thanks to relatively well-balanced and progressive tax structures.

· Expanded public services: Future-ready education, labour laws and income support should be better integrated to expand the social protection floor. Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are relatively better prepared than others to combine adequate labour protection with new safety net models. South Africa, India, Greece and Turkey are less prepared.

· Incentives for the markets of tomorrow: Incentivizing and expanding patient investments in research, innovation and invention can create new “markets of tomorrow” and drive growth. Finland, Japan, the United States, Republic of Korea, and Sweden emerge as better prepared to create the markets of tomorrow, while Greece, Mexico, Turkey and the Slovak Republic are less well prepared.

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The Economic Conundrum of Pakistan

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The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is due to convene on 20th September 2021. The Monetary policy Committee (MPC) will be announcing its policy rate after retaining it since March 2020. As the world deals with the uncertainty of the delta variant along with the dilemma between inflation and growth, it is a plenary to watch as Pakistani policymakers would join heads to decide the stance on the economic situation. However, the decision would be a tough one. Primarily because the mixed signals could either lead to burgeoning inflation and subsequent financial deterioration or they should guide the central bank to strangulate the growth prematurely. Either way, the policymakers would have to be cautious about the degree of inclination they lean to each side of the argument – economic contraction or growth with inflation.

A poll conducted by Topline Research shows that about 65% of the financial market participants expect status quo; the MPC to maintain the policy rate at 7% to further accommodate economic growth. Pakistan has barely mustered a 4% growth rate after the contraction of 0.4% last year. In this regard, Mr. Mustafa Mustansir, head of Research at Taurus Securities, stated: Visible signs of demand-side pressure are still quite weak. In another survey conducted by Policy Research Unit (PRU): a policy advisory board of the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), 84% of the market participants believe there will be no change in the policy rate. The sentiment implies that the researchers and the business community don’t expect a rate hike in this week’s policy meeting.

However, the macroeconomic indicators paint a bleak picture for Pakistan’s economy: warranting a tougher policy response. The external trade figures released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) project a debilitating situation for the national exchequer. According to the data, Pakistan’s trade deficit has increased to $7.5 billion in the first two months (July-August) of the fiscal year 2021-22. The deficit stands at $4.1 billion: 120% higher than the same period last year. Due to the accommodative policies implemented by the government of Pakistan, the trade deficit has already climbed 26% up to the annual target of $28.4 billion, set in the fiscal budget 2021-22. Despite excessive subsidies, the bi-monthly exports have only grown by 28% to stand at $4.6 billion. And while it is an increase of nearly a billion dollars compared to the same months in the preceding year, the imports have more than perforated the balance of payments.

During the July-August period, the imports have grown by a whopping 73% to stand at $12.1 billion: 22% of the annualized target. What’s more worrisome is the fact that despite a free-float currency mechanism, the exports have failed to turn competitive in the global market. According to the data released by PBS, Pakistan’s exports have dropped from their previous levels for three consecutive months. And despite a 39% net currency depreciation in the past three years, the exports continue to drift sluggish around the $2 billion/month mark. Yet, the imports are accelerating beyond expectation: clocking a 95% increase last month alone. Clearly, something is not working.

Moreover, while the forex reserves with the State Bank stand at a record high of around $20 billion, the rapid depreciation in the rupee is gradually damaging the financial viability of Pakistan. According to Mettis Global, a web-based financial data and analytics portal, the rupee recently slipped to its all-time low of 168.95 against the greenback. While the currency reserves are at their peak, the rupee continues its losing streak as the State bank has refrained from intervening in the forex market to artificially buoy the currency. Primarily because the IMF program stands contingent on letting the rupee float and find equilibrium. As a result, the rupee is touted to breach the 170 rupees against the US dollar mark by next month. The bankers around Pakistan have urged the State Bank for an intervention to put an end to “abnormal volatility in spite of increased reserves.” However, an intervention seems highly unlikely as the SBP Governor, Dr. Reza Baqir, already warned regarding currency devaluation in the last policy meeting: citing supply constraints, debt repayments, and increased imports as primary reasons for the temporal slump.

Nonetheless, almost 10% of the market participants, according to the survey, expect a rate hike of 50 basis points in the policy rate to hedge against inflation. Furthermore, analysts at Topline Securities expect a hike of 25 basis points to counter “vulnerabilities in the current account and control inflationary pressures.” Regardless of the prudent beliefs in the market, however, a few players actually believe that a rate cut of 50-100 basis points is plausible in the meeting. They argue that while the Consumer Price Index (CPI) – a national inflation measure – refuses to let down, the core inflation of Pakistan has dropped perpetually down to 6.3% in August. A stratum of the business community, therefore, also believes that the policy rate should be gradually brought down to 5% to match the regional dynamics.

I somehow find this notion ironic, as the government has already doled billions of dollars in subsidies, provided lucrative loans, and slashed taxes periodically. Yet, the exports have stayed relatively redundant. While it may not be the most effective time to hike the policy rate and tighten the monetary policy, in my opinion, a cut in the policy rate would be detrimental – catastrophic for the current account and incendiary for prevailing inflation.

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Global Revolution in the Crypto World: Road to Legalization

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The raging popularity of virtual currencies is hardly unheard of in today’s day and age. If not by the damning crackdown in China, price swings in cryptocurrencies – especially bitcoin – are definitely deemed perpetual and inherent: unlikely to go away. And while the volatility does bring along a unique thrill to retail investors, the experienced pundits of the financial world are expectedly skeptical. Regardless of the apparent discomfort and resistance to tap into the pool of virtual currencies, policymakers across the world are aware that the future is digital. Therefore, while digital fiat seems to be the direction of most developed economies to counter the decentralized giants, the economic gurus are preparing to harness the mania on another front as well – before the craze overtakes the globe.

The first – and most popular – cryptocurrency is undoubtedly bitcoin. In the aftermath of China’s crackdown on mining activities, bitcoin lost more than half of its valuation. However, acceptance around the world in the past few weeks has helped the currency to buoy past the slump. Bitcoin currently stands at a market cap of $863.8 billion: flirting with the $46,000 mark. Naturally, the rest of the crypto world flows in tandem as fanatics have placed bets for the currency to breach the $50,000 psychological mark again in the following months. However, the rally is largely attributed to the blooming acceptance by governments around the world; something the officials were wary of to avoid risks and uncertainty. However, I still don’t understand the change of perception given the market is more volatile than ever.

Last week’s headlines were all about El Salvador and its adoption of bitcoin as a legal tender. The fiasco that followed was hardly a surprise. Though the incident bolstered the crypto critics, the event projected nothing that was a mystery before the launch. A glitch in the virtual wallet, called “Chivo Wallet,” was one of the countless impediments that had already been warranted as risky by economists around the globe. While the problem was resolved in a matter of hours, the price of bitcoin nosedived by 19% from the 4-month high of $53,000. President Nayib Bukele boasted about “buying at a dip” yet overlooked a crucial aspect from a broader perspective. He failed to realize that a minor glitch in his small nation was significant enough to send the currency spiraling; that in mere hours, billions of dollars were wiped from the global market. All because the app couldn’t appear on the designated platforms for a few hours.

What happened in El Salvador is a vital example to analyze. The resulting confusion is exactly why a passage of regulation is being placed. If the domestic and international markets are to rely upon cryptocurrencies in the near future, then the need for a detailed framework becomes even more amplified.

Recently, Ukraine became the fifth country in weeks to legalize bitcoin. However, while the Ukrainian parliament adopted a bill to legalize the cryptocurrency, regulations are put into place to handle its precarious and volatile nature. Unlike the loose move by El Salvador, Ukraine did not facilitate a rollout of bitcoin as a form of payment. Moreover, the parliament has refrained from placing bitcoin on an equal footing with Hryvnia – Ukraine’s national currency. Primarily because adding another currency prone to unprecedented and wild swings in value could prove complex in policymaking matters including drafting fiscal budgets and taxation planning. And while Kyiv is pushing to lean further into bitcoin to gain more access to global investment, the authorities are prudent. Therefore, unlike the brazen entry by El Salvador, the Ukrainian authorities are underscoring a strategy to learn about the crypto world before bitcoin is etched into Ukrainian law forever.

Meanwhile, the United States is proving rather stringent against the rise of bitcoin – and the crypto world – as nightmares of another financial crisis are caging a progressive adoption. The lawmakers are already vigilant to put braces on the market before it blooms beyond control. The Infrastructure Bill recently passed by the senate provides a hint of direction being adopted by the US legislators. The tax provision, estimated to collect $28 billion over a decade, has been placed as a regulation of the crypto market that stands at a valuation of $2 trillion. The Treasury directives are driven to mobilize the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to tax crypto brokers while monitoring mandated reporting requirements. The goal is obvious: gradually tighten the screws before regulating the uncharted territory as any other capital market. However, the bill is purposefully vague regarding market actors deemed as brokers under the new law. Naturally, the frenzy follows as miners are left scrambling to define the meaning of a broker in an extremely complex and unorthodox market mechanism. It is clear that prominent lawmakers, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, are the main driving forces to put a leash on the emerging market.

Furthermore, the US Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been vocal about Treasury’s long-awaited intervention in the crypto market. Allegedly the virtual currencies have come across as a key tool for tax evasion in the United States. Therefore, much of the lobbying to amend the tax provision in the infrastructure bill is to limit the strictness of application rather than simplifying the vague terminologies. Moreover, the Treasury Department has also been active in discussing the financial stability of Stablecoin – crypto assets pegged to the US dollar and other fiat currencies. While extreme volatility is not a risk in this scenario, the Federal agencies – particularly the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) – have been keen to set tougher regulations over the market with more than $120 billion in circulation. The move has been swift since the tax provision made its way into the Senate debate. The main intent to regulate stablecoin – particularly Tether – is to harness the market, primarily because the sector acts as an unregulated money market mutual fund holding massive amounts of corporate debt. A plunge in price is enough of a spark to send ripples through the fixed income markets: posing a financial threat to the entire market. Thus, the FSOC is touted to be mobilized soon to probe and regulate the market as it continues to grow.

The crypto world has been cited by global lenders such as IMF as a haven for money laundering and tax frauds. Such tags could lead to negative credit ratings and ineligibility to gain investment and aid packages, especially when debt-ridden countries like El Salvador dabble along without any fixed legal framework. However, with broader regulation, like the steps taken by the US and Ukraine, the risk could be minimized. Another area is to initiate with experienced investors before gradually easing market restrictions for retail investors. A prime example is Germany which recently allowed institutional investors to invest as much as 20% of their holdings in bitcoin and other crypto-assets. While the portion still congregates to billions of dollars, such deft institutional investors are trained enough to manage and monitor trillions of dollars in a vast array of capital markets. Moreover, such large-scale institutional investment firms already have strict regulatory requirements and thus, by default, are bound to consciously maintain conservative holdings.

In my opinion, the crypto market is the financial future of the technological utopia we aspire to build. The smart choice, therefore, is to learn the system down to its spine. Correct the loopholes and irregularities while monitoring experienced professionals participating in an open market. Sketch and amend the legalities and a financial framework along the way. And gradually let the market settle as second nature.

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CPEC: Challenges & Future Prospects

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Global economy paradigm is shifting from the West to the East while China is torch bearer in this context with it’s master stroke OBOR project. The beauty of this unique project is that it provides a new trade corridor and a new route to at least 60 countries. If we make an educated guess, then about 80% of the world population would get benefit from this project. This project can be divided into “Silk Road economic belt” and Maritime silk road”. For disbursement of funds, five financial institutions are opened so that the complete burden should not fall on China. Now it has been a proven fact that the US, few Western countries and India are lobbying and conspiring against the OBOR project.  

The most important project of this initiative is CPEC as it gives China access to the most important geo-strategic location of Gwadar that had always been dream of Russia and NATO for their strategic, military and economic interests in the region. The only project which gives landlocked countries access to the sea. CPEC certainly can be game changer due to its potential of creating mass industrial productivity, exports, and job creation not only for Pakistan but for entire South Asian region.  

Due to various factors, there are always chances that mistrust may prevail among Pakistan and China, which can have a direct impact on Pakistan’s economy. The economy plays a fundamental role in the development and strengthening of any country, but unfortunately, Pakistan was unable to stabilize this sector for decades. As soon as the situation becomes better, another incident of unrest happens. Attacks like the Dasu hydropower plant in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or like Serena Hotel Quetta are preplanned efforts of our enemies like India to destabilize the project. Although, it has been accepted by Chinese think tanks on various occasions that the security situation has improved in Pakistan during the recent few years. 

Luckily, due to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Indian investment is also dying. There is no doubt that the economic stability that Pakistan will achieve after the completion of CPEC cannot be digested by an eternal enemy like India. India is intensifying its covert operations against CPEC, as its discomfort is growing day by day with the cozying Pak-China relations. Modi’s government believes that once operational, CPEC will reduce its sphere of influence in Central Asia, IIOJ&K, and Afghanistan.  The terrorist network formulated in Afghanistan to create unrest in Pakistan under the garb of diplomatic activities has also been jeopardized. As CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan which India claims as a disputed territory but their claim was rejected out rightly by Pakistan and China. Now India may try to reinstate its sleeper cells inside Pakistan to disrupt CPEC.

CPEC in particular offers a win-win situation for participating nations and it has a strong component of social development, poverty alleviation, and demographic uplift, unlike similar programs offered by other international donors. CPEC would not impact its balance of payments of Pakistan at any stage. The payment schedule is very relaxed. It’s about geo-economics and the establishment of a non-exploitable economic system. Another point is that CPEC is a transparent project with all its details present on its websites. The projects of CPEC are not only confined to specific areas but its network is present in the whole of Pakistan. 

Although, it’s correct that Pakistan has a risky security environment, but Pakistan has taken various positive steps in this regard like raising two “Security Divisions” in Pakistan Army, incorporating special paramilitary forces, increasing intelligence apparatus, and improving local police networks.  

There are eight main core areas linked with CPEC which are ‘integrated transportation system’, ‘information network infrastructure’, cooperation in ‘energy related’ fields, ‘trade and industrial parks’, ‘agricultural development and poverty alleviation, ‘tourism’, ‘social development and non-government exchanges’ and lastly ‘financial cooperation’. CPEC is now attracting other countries around the world who are also expressing their desire to join it. 

In present circumstances, the CPEC projects must be completed as soon as possible so that Pakistan’s geographical location can be truly exploited. Our narrative building part is weaker in International media as India and other lobbies are floating a huge bulk of anti-CPEC stories with fake facts and figures, we have to give proper rebuttal and our side of the story must be backed with verified facts and figures. Another point to be focused on is that a prosperous Balochistan would strengthen CPEC’s foundation. This is a real game-changer and we have to engage maximum countries of the world in this project to get moral, social, and financial support. 

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