The pandemic-induced crisis has hit it the world in highly unequal manners both across borders and within countries. Most economies slid in a recession that has wretched livelihoods in some countries and macro-regions, whereas others are mostly unaffected. These differences clearly stand out at the global scale, but they can be massive also when comparing otherwise-similar, neighbouring countries.
Lately, an heterogenous set of behemoth and middle-sized economies has come back strongly in terms of both GDP and unemployment. Leading them, for different reasons and in different ways, stand the two largest economies ever: China and the US. These superpowers are steaming their way out of the crisis like locomotives on an uphill railway, boosting the global economy.
Yet, a piece is missing in this rosy mosaic of recovery and growth: the European Union. As the largest and richest market in the world, the EU could contribute massively to a worldwide rebound. However, internal unbalances, other structural weakness, and political indecisiveness are holding the Union back. This has had dramatic reverberances of the weakest economies of the EU and on those that depend on the block. This piece explores recently-released quarterly data for 2020 to understand what has happened on the EU’s periphery through two cases.
Bulgaria — Failing to escape the fall
Bulgaria’s economy took a heavy hit in the beginning of 2020, when in just four months GDP slid by 21.89%. Notably, these data marked the sharpest decreases since the hyperinflation of 1996–1997.The situation got worse in the last quarter of 2020, when the economy began slowing down. Between October and December, about 280,000 people lost their job, a spad of about 8.5% on the previous quarter. A dire economic trend thrust most of these workers to inactivity, thus ‘softening’ total unemployment’s growth year on year.
Gross Domestic Product
The economy’s dynamic turned around and stayed positive for the rest of the year leading to a strong recovery (Chart1). In the following three quarters, Bulgaria added grew its added value by 6.85%, 14.05% and 4.69%respectively. By the end of the year, GDP equalled 99.66% of its 2019 level, against the Euro Area’s (EA) 96.86%.
Interestingly, unemployment figures for most of 2020 do not mirror Bulgaria’s generally positive economic performance — all the contrary (Chart 2). Unemployment decreased in the first quarter of 2020, but rose fast in the ensuing nine months despite overall growth. Due to the pandemic-induced crisis, employment decreased by 64,260 units year-on-year in 2020 Q4, or almost 2%.However, these data actually mask a feature of the Bulgarian labour market that most of its Eurozone partners lack. In fact, Bulgarian enterprises have a rather more flexible approach to starting and ending employment than other EU workers. Thus, the growth in unemployment is mostly due to new people entering the job market during 2020 Q2–Q3. All in all, in September 2020 the number of employed people had grown by 6.42% in Bulgaria compared to 2019 Q3. Yet, these figures were insufficient to absorb an outpour of new potential workers — pushing unemployment up.
Greece — Summer boom or double-dip recession?
The crisis struck Greece’s economy sensibly in the first half of 2020, especially in the spring, when tourism was inhibited. Like in Bulgaria, the situation got worse in the last quarter of 2020 and the economy shrunk again. The data indicate that half of the new workers lost their job in the last quarter of 2020. Unfortunately, a large chunk of them stopped looking for a job and became inactive — making unemployment statistic even more misleading.
Gross domestic product
In the first quarter, GDP slid by over a tenth in comparison to March 2019 (Chart 3). As such, the pandemic induced a recession the likes of which Greeks last witnessed in the early 2010s.Yet, during the summer of 2020 many countries reopened their borders and Greece enjoyed increasing influxes of tourists. This reflected positively on the economy’s dynamic in the third quarter, when Greece added six billion euros to its GDP. This 20% growth on the previous quarter was partly dissipated over the last part of 2020. By the end of December, that gain halved and GDP was about 7% lower than a year before.
Contrarily to Bulgaria, for most of 2020unemployment figures do not resent of Greece’s unsatisfying overall performance (Chart 4). Unexpectedly, unemployment decreased by almost 5% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to December 2019. The decrease is even more spectacular in comparison to the same quarter of the previous year: 1.8%. In total, during the summer quarter (July–September), Greece’s economy added 73,800 jobs in comparison to the previous three months. However, these figures were still lower than last year’s levels by about 74,700 units or 1.6%. Moreover, Greece’s population is not very active in the labour market. In effect, on average Greeks less likely to be looking for a job than their Eastern Balkans peers in Bulgaria and Romania. Moreover, lower participation rates mean that the seasonal gains failed miserably in trickling down to the working class. Thus, it is possible that economic growth has been relatively weaker than GDP statistics may indicate.
Conclusion: Pandemic management matters
There are two lessons that one can draw from these figures and by comparing the cases of Bulgaria and Greece. The first, relates to the pandemic and how its management can affect economic performances. Whereas the second sheds a light on the future prospects of these countries.
In a way, the data arguably corroborate the hypothesis that the lockdowns-recession cycle admits inversion. In fact, Bulgaria performing better than Greece for most of 2020 despite political instability suggests that less lockdowns favour growth. Obviously, the rather lenient anti-pandemic measures that Sofia has opted for explain this gap only partly. Yet, it is a fact that Bulgarian authorities were quite unwilling to adopt stricter measures since the pandemic begun. The necessity to appease the protestors who took the street in July–September contributed to a more relaxed approach. It was only during the winter that the Bulgarian government resorted to though restrictions and shut down so-called ‘non-essential’ activities. And Bulgaria’s data only start to worsen – converging on Greece’s and the Eurozone’s trends – in the last quarter of 2020.On the contrary, Greece went from a harsh lockdown to the next one almost without solution of continuity. The government only released its grip over the summer — and, in fact, the economy benefitted greatly.
Furthermore, these data confirm that the periphery of the EU has suffered more during the last year. True, the EU has put on the table billions of euros over the next several years for nationally-defined Recovery plans. And both Athens and Sofia expect to spend much of that money to jumpstart their economies and support employment. However, fiscal policy is not that effective in either of the two countries as this crisis has proven once again. In effect, both countries have spent massively on furloughs and other support schemes to keep people employed — without many results. Political contingencies and vote-seeking behaviours are likely to dictate the allocation of further spending, thus capping policies’ positive potential impact.
Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery
Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.
Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.
The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.
Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.
Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.
Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.
The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.
How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?
Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.
First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.
Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.
Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.
Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.
Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.
None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.
Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.
I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.
First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank
US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation
The US economy has been a rollercoaster since the pandemic cinched the world last year. As lockdowns turned into routine and the buzz of a bustling life came to a sudden halt, a problem manifested itself to the US regime. The problem of sustaining economic activity while simultaneously fighting the virus. It was the intent of ‘The American Rescue Plan’ to provide aid to the US citizens, expand healthcare, and help buoy the population as the recession was all but imminent. Now as the global economy starts to rebound in apparent post-pandemic reality, the US regime faces a dilemma. Either tighten the screws on the overheating economy and risk putting an early break on recovery or let the economy expand and face a prospect of unrelenting inflation for years to follow.
The Consumer Price Index, the core measure of inflation, has been off the radar over the past few months. The CPI remained largely over the 4% mark in the second quarter, clocking a colossal figure of 5.4% last month. While the inflation is deemed transitionary, heated by supply bottlenecks coinciding with swelling demand, the pandemic-related causes only explain a partial reality of the blooming clout of prices. Bloomberg data shows that transitory factors pushing the prices haywire account for hotel fares, airline costs, and rentals. Industries facing an offshoot surge in prices include the automobile industry and the Real estate market. However, the main factors driving the prices are shortages of core raw materials like computer chips and timber (essential to the efficient supply functions of the respective industries). Despite accounting for the temporal effect of certain factors, however, the inflation seems hardly controlled; perverse to the position opined by Fed Chair Jerome Powell.
The Fed already insinuated earlier that the economy recovered sooner than originally expected, making it worthwhile to ponder over pulling the plug on the doveish leverage that allowed the economy to persevere through the pandemic. The main cause was the rampant inflation – way off the 2% targetted inflation level. However, the alluded remarks were deftly handled to avoid a panic in an already fragile road to recovery. The economic figures shed some light on the true nature of the US economy which baffled the Fed. The consumer expectations, as per Bloomberg’s data, show that prices are to inflate further by 4.8% over the course of the following 12 months. Moreover, the data shows that the investor sentiment gauged from the bond market rally is also up to 2.5% expected inflation over the corresponding period. Furthermore, a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) suggested that net 47 companies have raised their average prices since May by seven percentage points; the largest surge in four decades. It is all too much to overwhelm any reader that the data shows the economy is reeling with inflation – and the Fed is not clear whether it is transitionary or would outlast the pandemic itself.
Economists, however, have shown faith in the tools and nerves of the Federal Reserve. Even the IMF commended the Fed’s response and tactical strategies implemented to trestle the battered economy. However, much averse to the celebration of a win over the pandemic, the fight is still not through the trough. As the Delta variant continues to amass cases in the United States, the championed vaccinations are being questioned. While it is explicable that the surge is almost distinctly in the unvaccinated or low-vaccinated states, the threat is all that is enough to drive fear and speculation throughout the country. The effects are showing as, despite a lucrative economic rebound, over 9 million positions lay vacant for employment. The prices are billowing yet the growth is stagnating as supply is still lukewarm and people are still wary of returning to work. The job market casts a recession-like scenario while the demand is strong which in turn is driving the wages into the competitive territory. This wage-price spiral would fuel inflation, presumably for years as embedded expectations of employees would be hard to nudge lower. Remember prices and wages are always sticky downwards!
Now the paradox stands. As Congress is allegedly embarking on signing a $4 trillion economic plan, presented by president Joe Bidden, the matters are to turn all the more complex and difficult to follow. While the infrastructure bill would not be a hard press on short-term inflation, the iteration of tax credits and social spending programs would most likely fuel the inflation further. It is true that if the virus resurges, there won’t be any other option to keep the economy afloat. However, a bustling inflationary environment would eventually push the Fed to put the brakes on by either raising the interest rates or by gradually ceasing its Asset Purchase Program. Both the tools, however, would risk a premature contraction which could pull the United States into an economic spiral quite similar to that of the deflating Japanese economy. It is, therefore, a tough stance to take whether a whiff of stagflation today is merely provisional or are these some insidious early signs to be heeded in a deliberate fashion and rectified immediately.
Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action
Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt, Giovanni Ruta*
Trading commenced on China’s national emissions trading system (ETS) on Friday. With a trading volume of about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 12 percent of the total global CO2 emissions, the ETS is now the world’s largest carbon market.
While the traded emission volume is large, the first trading day opened, as expected, with a relatively modest price of 48 yuan ($7.4) per ton of CO2. Though this is higher than the global average, which is about $2 per ton, it is much lower than carbon prices in the European Union market where the cost per ton of CO2 recently exceeded $50.
Large volume but low price
The ETS has the potential to play an important role in achieving, and accelerating China’s long-term climate goals — of peaking emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Under the plan, about 2,200 of China’s largest coal and gas-fired power plants have been allocated free emission rights based on their historical emissions, power output and carbon intensity.
Facilities that cut emissions quickly will be able to sell excess allowances for a profit, while those that exceed their initial allowance will have to pay to purchase additional emission rights or pay a fine. Putting a price tag on CO2 emissions will promote investment in low-carbon technologies and equipment, while carbon trading will ensure emissions are first cut where it is least costly, minimizing abatement costs. This sounds plain and simple, but it will take time for the market to develop and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions.
The initial phase of market development is focused on building credible emissions disclosure and verification systems — the basic infrastructure of any functioning carbon market — encouraging facilities to accurately monitor and report their emissions rather than constraining them. Consequently, allocations given to power companies have been relatively generous, and are tied to power output rather than being set at absolute levels.
Also, the requirements of each individual facility to obtain additional emission rights are capped at 20 percent above the initial allowance and fines for non-compliance are relatively low. This means carbon prices initially are likely to remain relatively low, mitigating the immediate financial impact on power producers and giving them time to adjust.
For carbon trading to develop into a significant policy tool, total emissions and individual allowances will need to tighten over time. Estimates by Tsinghua University suggest that carbon prices will need to be raised to $300-$350 per ton by 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality. And our research at the World Bank suggest a broadly applied carbon price of $50 could help reduce China’s CO2 emissions by almost 25 percent compared with business as usual over the coming decade, while also significantly contributing to reduced air pollution.
Communicating a predictable path for annual emission cap reductions will allow power producers to factor future carbon price increases into their investment decisions today. In addition, experience from the longest-established EU market shows that there are benefits to smoothing out cyclical fluctuations in demand.
For example, carbon emissions naturally decline during periods of lower economic activity. In order to prevent this from affecting carbon prices, the EU introduced a stability reserve mechanism in 2019 to reduce the surplus of allowances and stabilize prices in the market.
Besides, to facilitate the energy transition away from coal, allowances would eventually need to be set at an absolute, mass-based level, which is applied uniformly to all types of power plants — as is done in the EU and other carbon markets.
The current carbon-intensity based allocation mechanism encourages improving efficiency in existing coal power plants and is intended to safeguard reliable energy supply, but it creates few incentives for power producers to divest away from coal.
The effectiveness of the ETS in creating appropriate price incentives would be further enhanced if combined with deeper structural reforms in power markets to allow competitive renewable energy to gain market share.
As the market develops, carbon pricing should become an economy-wide instrument. The power sector accounts for about 30 percent of carbon emissions, but to meet China’s climate goals, mitigation actions are needed in all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the authorities plan to expand the ETS to petro-chemicals, steel and other heavy industries over time.
In other carbon intensive sectors, such as transport, agriculture and construction, emissions trading will be technically challenging because monitoring and verification of emissions is difficult. Faced with similar challenges, several EU member states have introduced complementary carbon taxes applied to sectors not covered by an ETS. Such carbon excise taxes are a relatively simple and efficient instrument, charged in proportion to the carbon content of fuel and a set carbon price.
Finally, while free allowances are still given to some sectors in the EU and other more mature national carbon markets, the majority of initial annual emission rights are auctioned off. This not only ensures consistent market-based price signals, but generates public revenue that can be recycled back into the economy to subsidize abatement costs, offset negative social impacts or rebalance the tax mix by cutting taxes on labor, general consumption or profits.
So far, China’s carbon reduction efforts have relied largely on regulations and administrative targets. Friday’s launch of the national ETS has laid the foundation for a more market-based policy approach. If deployed effectively, China’s carbon market will create powerful incentives to stimulate investment and innovation, accelerate the retirement of less-efficient coal-fired plants, drive down the cost of emission reduction, while generating resources to finance the transition to a low-carbon economy.
(Martin Raiser is the World Bank country director for China, Sebastian Eckardt is the World Bank’s lead economist for China, and Giovanni Ruta is a lead environmental economist of the World Bank.)
(first published on China Daily via World Bank)
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