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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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Free-Market Capitalism and Climate Crisis

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Free market capitalism is an economic system that has brought about tremendous economic growth and prosperity in many countries around the world. However, it has also spawned a number of problems, one of which is the climate crisis. The climate crisis is a global problem caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These externalities are chiefly a consequence of day to day human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and conventional agriculture. The climate crisis is leading to rise in temperatures, sea levels, and more erratic weather patterns-The floods in Pakistan and depleting cedars of Lebanon are vivid instances for these phenomena, which are having a devastating impact on the planet.

One of the main reasons that free market capitalism has contributed to the climate crisis is that it prioritizes short-term economic growth over long-term environmental sustainability. Under capitalism, companies are primarily motivated by profit and are not required to internalize the costs of their pollution. This means that they are able to pollute without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. Additionally, the capitalist system is based on the idea of unlimited growth, which is not sustainable in the long-term. As long as there is an infinite demand for goods and services, companies will continue to produce them, leading to ever-increasing levels of pollution and resource depletion.

Another pressing issue that free market capitalism is recently going through is that it does not take into account the externalities of economic activities. Externalities are the unintended consequences of economic activities, such as pollution and climate change. Under capitalism, companies are not required to pay for the externalities of their activities, which means that they are able to continue polluting without having to pay for the damage that they are causing. In her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate” Naomi Klein argues that the current system of capitalism is inherently incompatible with the urgent action needed to address the Climate crisis.

To address the climate crisis, it is necessary to put checks and balances over the free market capitalism and/or make a way towards a more sustainable economic system. This can be done through a number of different effective policies, such as:

Carbon pricing: This can be done through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which would make companies pay for the carbon emissions that they are producing. In the article “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” authors suggest that revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce the carbon emissions.

Increasing renewable energy investments: an increment in the investments in clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, can result in the reduction in  the use of fossil fuels.

Regulating pollution: Governments can regulate pollution to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere.

Encouraging sustainable practices: Governments can encourage sustainable practices, such as recycling and conservation, to reduce the use of resources.

It is remarkable that evolving Capitalism can be harnessed to address the climate change. The private sector has the resources and innovation to develop and implement new technologies and sustainable practices, but they need the right incentives and regulations to do so. Finding the balance between economic growth and environmental protection must be a priority for capitalists.

The free market capitalism has been the driving force behind global economic growth, but at the same time, it has contributed to the ongoing climate crisis. The solution to this problem is not to reject capitalism, but rather to reform it to the societies’ suitable demands. Government should consider providing a level playing field so as to make the probable transition from fossil-based energy systems to Green energy technologies possible. The capitalists should not consider short-termism over long term environmental sustainability. Government intervention to put a price on carbon emissions, invest in renewable energy, regulate pollution, and encourage sustainable practices is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis and build a sustainable future for all. However, here is the catch:  Is achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by mid-century a probable target? The answer is quite uncertain, however it is critical point to strive for in the face of  escalating Climate Crisis.

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Egypt’s “Too Big to Fail” Theory Once Again at Test

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Authors: Reem Mansour & Mohamed A. Fouad

In the wake of 2022 FED’s hawkish monetary policy, the Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt, saw an exodus of about USD20bn of foreign capital.  A feat that exerted pressure on the value of its pound against the dollar slashing it by almost half.  This led to USD12bn trade backlog accumulating in Egypt’s ports by December 2022.

Meanwhile, amidst foreign debt nearing USD170bn, inflation soaring to double digits, and a chronic balance of payment deficit, Egypt became structurally unfit to sustain global shocks; the country saw its foreign debt mounting to 35% of GDP, causing the financing gap to hover at USD20billion. 

While it may seem all gloom and doom, friends from the GCC rushed to inject funds in the “too big to fail” country, sparing it, an arguably, ill-fate that was well reflected in its Eurobond yields spreads and credit default swaps, a measure that assesses a sovereign default risk. 

For the same reason in early 2023, the IMF sealed a deal worth of USD3bn, with the government, which unlocked an extra USD14bn sources of financing from multilateral institutions, and GCC sovereign funds, to fill in a hefty portion of the annual foreign exchange gap, albeit  a considerable amount averaging USD6bn per annum is yet to be sourced from portfolio investments.  

With the IMF stepping in, the Egyptian government agreed on a structural reform program that requires a flexible exchange rate regime, where the Egyptian pound is set to trade within daily boundaries against the US dollar, rationalize government spending, especially in projects that require foreign currency; and most importantly the program entails stake-sales in publicly owned assets, paving the way for the private sector to play a bigger role in the economy.

In due course, through its sovereign fund, Egypt planned initial offerings for shares in companies worth about USD5-USD6bn, and expanded the sale of its shares in local banks and government holdings to Gulf investment funds. 

Through the limited period of execution of these reforms, the EGP hit a high of 32 against the greenback, and an inflow of portfolio investments amounting to USD1bn took place, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. 

Simultaneously, Citibank International, cited a possible near end of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar.  Also, in a report to investors, Standard Chartered recommended to buy Egyptian treasury bills, and pointed to the return of portfolio flows to the local debt market in the early days of January, 2023. Likewise, Fitch indicated the ability of the Egyptian banking sector to face the repercussions of the depreciation of the pound, and that the compulsory reserve ratios within Egyptian banks are able to withstand any declines in the value of the pound because they are supported by healthy internal flows of capital.

While things seem to be poised for a recovery, the long term prospects may lack sustainability.  The Egyptian government needs to accelerate its plans to shift gears towards a real operational economy capable of withstanding shocks and dealing with any global challenges. Egypt, however has implicitly held the narrative that the country is ‘too big to fail”. This is largely true to the country’s geopolitical relevance, but even this has its limitations when the price to bail far outweighs the price to fail.

Former President George W. Bush’s administration popularized the “too big to fail” (TBTF) doctrine notably during the 2008 financial crisis. The Bush administration often used the term to describe why it stepped in to bail out some financial companies to avert worldwide economic collapse.

In his book “The Myth of Too Big To Fail” Imad Moosa presented arguments against using public fund to bail out failing financial institutions. He ultimately argued that a failing financial institution should be allowed to fail without fearing an apocalyptic outcome. For countries, the TBTF theory comes under considerable challenge.

In August 1982, Mexico was not able to service its external debt obligations, marking the start of the debt crisis. After years of accumulating external debt, rising world interest rates, the worldwide recession and sudden devaluations of the peso caused the external debt bill to rise sharply, which ultimately caused a default. 

After six years of economic reform in Russia, privatization and macroeconomic stabilization had experienced some limited success. Yet in August 1998, after recording its first year of positive economic growth since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was forced to default on its sovereign debt, devalue the ruble, and declare a suspension of payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors.

In Egypt, although the country remains to face a number of challenges, signs remain relatively less worrying than 2022, as global sentiment suggests that leverage will be provided in the short-term at least. Egypt’s diversified economy, size and relative regional clout may very well spare the country the fate of Lebanon. However, if reforms do not happen fast enough, the TBTF shield may become completely depleted.

Hence, in order to avoid an economic fallout scenario a full fledged support to the private sector’s local manufacturing activity and tourism is a must.  Effective policies geared towards competitiveness are mandatory, and tax & export oriented concessions are required to unleash the private sector’s maximum potential and shift Egypt into gear.

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Sanctions and the Confiscation of Russian Property. The First Experience

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After the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, Western countries froze the assets of the Russian public and private sector entities which had been hit by blocking financial sanctions. At the same time, the possibility that these assets could be confiscated and liquidated so that the funds could be transferred to Ukraine was discussed. So far, only Canada has such a legal mechanism. It will also be the first country to implement the idea of confiscation in practice. How does the new mechanism work, what is the essence of the first confiscation, and what consequences can we expect from the new practice in the future?

Loss of control over assets in countries that impose sanctions against certain individuals has long been a common phenomenon. The mechanism of blocking sanctions has been widely used for several decades by US authorities. A similar methodology has been adopted by the EU, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and some other countries. Russia and China may also resort to these tactics, although Moscow and Beijing rarely use them. In the hands of Western countries, blocking sanctions, however, have become a frequent occurrence. Along with the ban on financial transactions with individuals and legal entities named in the lists of blocked persons, such sanctions also imply the freezing of the assets of persons in the jurisdiction of the initiating countries. In other words, having fallen under blocking sanctions, a person or organisation loses the ability to use their bank accounts, real estate and any other property. Since February 2022, Western countries have blocked more than 1,500 Russian individuals in this way. If you add subsidiary structures to them, their number will be even greater. The volume of the property of these persons frozen abroad is colossal. It includes at least 300 billion dollars in gold and foreign exchange reserves.

This is not counting the assets of high net worth Russian individuals worth $30 billion or more which have been blocked by the G7 countries. However, the freezing of property does not mean its confiscation. Although the blocked person cannot dispose of his assets, it formally remains his property. At some point, the sanctions may be lifted, and access to property restored. In practice, restrictive measures can be in place for years, but theoretically, the possibility of recovering assets still remains.

After the start of the special military operation (SMO), calls began to be heard in Western countries to confiscate frozen property and transfer it to Ukraine. Confiscation mechanisms have existed before. For example, property could be confiscated by a court order as part of the criminal prosecution of violators of the sanctions legislation. However, such mechanisms are clearly not suitable for the mass confiscation of property. Blocking sanctions are a political decision that do not require the level of proof of guilt that is required in the criminal process. To put it bluntly, the hundreds of Russian officials or entrepreneurs put on blocking lists for supporting the SMO did not commit criminal offenses for which their property could be subject to confiscation. The sanctions have spurred the search for such crimes in the form of money laundering or other illegal operations. But the amount of funds raised in this way would be a tiny fraction of the value of the frozen assets. To implement the idea of confiscation of the frozen assets of sanctioned persons and the subsequent transfer of the proceeds for them, Ukraine needed a different mechanism.

Canada was the first country to implement such a mechanism. The 2022 revision of the Special Economic Measures Act gives Canadian authorities the executive power to order the seizure of property located in Canada which is owned by a foreign government or any person or entity from that country, as well as any citizen of the given country who is not a resident of Canada (article 4 (1)). The reason for the application of such measures may be “a gross violation of international peace and security, which has caused or may cause a serious international crisis” (Article 4 (1.1.)). The final decision on confiscation must be made by a judge, to whom a relevant representative of the executive branch sends a corresponding petition (Article 5.3). Furthermore, the executive authorities, at their own discretion, may decide to transfer the proceeds from the confiscated property in favour of a foreign state that has suffered as a result of actions to violate peace and security, in favour of restoring peace and security, as well as in favour of victims of violations of peace and security, or victims of violations of human rights law or anti-corruption laws (art. 5.6).

The first target of the new legal mechanism will be the Canadian asset of Roman Abramovich’s Granite Capital Holding Ltd. The value of the asset, according to a statement by Canadian authorities, is $26 million.

Roman Abramovich is on the Canadian Blocked List, i. e. his property is already frozen, and transactions are prohibited. Now the property of the Russian businessman will be confiscated and, with a high degree of probability, ownership will be transferred to Ukraine. This is a relatively small asset (from the standpoint of state property), but the procedure itself can be worked out. Further confiscations may be more extensive.

The Canadian experience can be copied by other Western countries. In the US, work on such a mechanism was announced back in April 2022. although it has not yet been adopted at the legislative level. In the EU, such a mechanism is also not finally fixed in the regulatory legal acts of the Union, although Art. 15 of Regulation 269/2014 obliges Member States to develop, inter alia, rules on the confiscation of assets obtained as a result of violations of the sanctions regime. The very concept of violations can be interpreted broadly. So, for example, Art. 9 of the said Regulation obliges blocked Russian persons to report to the authorities of the EU countries within six weeks after blocking about their assets. Violation of this requirement can be regarded as a circumvention of blocking sanctions.

There are several consequences of the Canadian authorities’ initiative.

First, it becomes clear that the confiscation rule is not dormant. Its use is possible and is a risk. This is a serious signal to those Russians and Russian companies that have not yet come under sanctions, but own property in the West. It can be not only frozen, but also confiscated. This risk will inevitably be taken into account by investors and owners from other countries, which could potentially be the target of increased Western sanctions in the future. Among them are China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others. It is unlikely that the confiscation of Russian property will lead to an outflow of assets of these countries and their citizens from Canada and other Western jurisdictions. But the signal itself will be taken into account.

Second, the Russian side is very likely to take retaliatory measures. Western companies are rapidly withdrawing their assets from Russia. The representation of Canadian business in the Russian Federation was small even before the start of the operation in Ukraine. If the practice of confiscation becomes widespread, then the Russian side can roll it out in relation against the remaining Western businesses. However, so far, Moscow has been extremely hesitant to freeze Western property. While the US, EU and other Western countries have actively blocked Russians and their assets, Russia has mainly responded with visa sanctions. The confiscation could overwhelm Moscow’s patience and make the retaliatory practice more proportionate.

Finally, the practice of confiscation modifies the very Western idea of sanctions. It currently implies, among other things, that the “behavioural change” of sanctioned persons would result in the lifting of sanctions and the return of property. The freezing mechanism was combined with this idea. However, the confiscation mechanism contradicts it. Sanctions now become exclusively a mechanism for causing damage.

From our partner RIAC

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