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Eastern Balkans Economic update: Romania’s and North Macedonia’s new data for 2020

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When governments around the world started reacting to the pandemic, they induced a vast and unpredictable crisis. The ensuing recession struck in decidedly variegated ways both we looking at different countries and multiple social strata. Many economies fell in a downturn that has compromised access to income in certain States, although elsewhere these effects were risible. Such inequalities stand out in worldwide comparison, but they happen to be huge in structurally-alike, bordering States as well.

Recently, a varied pack of heavyweights and some smaller countries has rebounded strongly in relation to both GDP and employment. China and the US are at the forefront of this recovery for diverse whys and wherefores and in dissimilar manners. Like trucks on a difficult mountain road, the two are accelerating as they overcome the crisis helping the world economy.

Still, something is absent in this rubicund montage of rebounds and development: the European Union. Being the wealthiest market in human history, the EU may support other countries’ recovery tremendously. Yet, inner imbalances, organisational feebleness, and lack of resolve are restraining the Union. There have been serious consequences for some unconsolidated EU economies and on the many other States bound to the block. Following up a previous article, new data reveal how two very different country on the EU’s periphery fared in 2020.

Romania — The worst seems over

Over 20 million inhabitants and yearly exports worth about $80 billion make Romania a little giant in the Eastern Balkans. It joined the EU In 2007 in tandem with Bulgaria, and since analysts then to bundle the two countries together. However, this article’s approach is different as it compares Romania with the least populous country in the region: North Macedonia. The latter is not an EU member either, making them possibly the most dissimilar cases in the Eastern Balkans.

Romania’s economy suffered badly in the beginning of 2020, with its GDP collapsing 33% in the first quarter. These figures could be considered the worst since the onset of the post-socialist transition in the 1990s.The trend only got partially more positive in the following three months (April–June), when the economy started recovering somewhat. Yet, by the end of 2020 only 128,800 people had lost their job, or 1.49% on the previous year. The fact that the economy seems to be performing well has kept swaths of them in look for a new job. This explains rather discomforting unemployment statistics.

Gross Domestic Product

Romania’s economy only managed to get out of a steep slump in the summer quarter (July–September) of 2020. The figures reveal a strong V-shaped rebound, with GDP recovering almost 20 percentage points on its 2019 levels (Chart1). In the last three months of 2020, Romania’s GDP rose by a further 13%, reaching slightly above last years’ estimates. At the end of 2020, total production was 100.39% of its 2019 levels, whereas the Euro Area stopped at 96.86%.

Un/Employment

Curiously, unemployment data for most of 2020 diverge from Romanian economy’s overall impressive performance — and significantly so (Chart 2). Unemployment rose in the first three months of 2020, and started growing even faster in the ensuing nine months. In spite of a positive GDP dynamic, employment decreased by almost 130,000 units in 2020Q4due to the pandemic-induced crisis.

True, unemployment statistics do not say much about the structure of the Romanian labour market, a key factor in these processes. Unlike most of their Eurozone peers, Romanian enterprises deal with a greatly flexible manpower with fewer rights and protections. Thus, they can lay off and hire staff much faster than competitors and partners in the richest EU economies. Yet, one should not interpret unemployment’s as a consequence of new people entering the job market during 2020Q2–Q3. After all, in those six months the number of employed people fell by 2.4% compared to 2019Q3 or 207,500 units. Meanwhile, unemployment ‘only’ grew by 1.3 percentage points indicating that some laid-off workers became inactive. In a word, ordinary Romanians did not get a fair share of the recovery’s gains.

RNM — It couldn’t get much worse, so it got better

As anticipated, the Republic of North Macedonia (RNM) is very different from Romania in many respects. First, its population is a fraction of the latter’s, only about two million people according to questionable official data. Furthermore, the RNM is not a member of the EU despite the fact a markedly asymmetric dependence from the Union. In effect, its economy is mostly reliant on trade with and tourism from three EU member States: Bulgaria, Germany and Greece. The country averted a civil war in 2001 by appeasing its Albanian minority, but its economy has struggled ever since.

One could argue that the situation before the pandemic hit was so dire that worse performances were rather unlikely. When the economies of Bulgaria and Greece slowed down and tourism came to a halt, the RNM’s suffered as well. In the first quarter of 2020 the RNM’s GDP fell by 14%, and shrunk further in the following three months. New figures show that about 17,000 people lost their job in April–June 2020, which became 21,000 in December. This means a 2.66% decrease in employment for a country where unemployment was 17.3% in 2019.

Gross domestic product

The RNM’s economy took the biggest hit in the second quarter of 2020, after having already suffered somewhat in January-March. In 2020Q2, North Macedonian GDP was about 23% lower than in 2019 (Chart 3), against the Eurozone’s 17%.Yet, the slid is nothing like the recession the RNM experienced during the Yugoslav Wars and the 2001 civil war. With the summer, both Bulgaria and Greece as well as the entire EU reopened their borders and started growing again. There were positive ripple effects on the RNM’s economy in the third quarter, with GDP growing by 448 million euros. The 20% increase of the summer became the base for further growth in the October-December 2020. By the end of the fourth quarter, the RNM’s GDP increased by another 10%— converging on its 2019 levels.

Un/employment

Unlike in Romania’s case, inconstant performances did not affect unemployment statistics visibly in the RNM (Chart 4). Actually, and counter intuitively, in comparison to 2019 unemployment decreased by 0.6% to 16.7% in the first two quarters of 2020. In total, during the first half of 2020, the RNM’s economy lost4,200 jobs or 0.5% in comparison to 2019 levels. The National Statistical Agency recorded similarly inconclusive fluctuations all year round, suggesting a deep disconnect between GDP and unemployment. All in all, one could justify these findings with the ignominious state in which the RNM’s labour market is. The population is not very active, yet unemployment has never fallen below 15%in the past 20 years.  Therefore, ordinary people fail to reap sensible benefits even if the economy overall is growing.

Conclusion: Pandemic management matters

There are two lessons that one can draw from these figures and by comparing the cases of Romania and the RNM. One, regards the pandemic and the ways its management interact with key economic indicators. While the other speaks volume on the differences between these two countries on the EU’s periphery.

Arguably, the data may comfort the thesis that not only lockdown fuel recessions, but less lockdowns spur economic growth. In fact, Romania performing better than most EU and Eurozone economies in terms of GPD growth suggests that less lockdowns favour growth. After all, authorities in Bucharest have been and remain remarkably consistent in their refusal to shut down the economy. Conversely, the rather trendless fluctuation in the RNM’s data and performance results at least partly from the government’s inconsistency. Actually, Skopje went from minimal anti-contagion restrictions to declaring a full-scale, countrywide lockdown virtually overnight— a behaviour that fuels uncertainty.

Additionally, these figures dispel some of the cloud surrounding the EU’s and its peripheries’ path out of the crisis. On the one hand, the EU is trying to dig its escape route by investing billions of euros over the coming years for countrywide Recovery plans. True, Romania’s share of grants is not as bis as Bulgaria’s, Greece’s or Italy’s, but the government is thinking big. On the other hand, the RNM is amongst the “poorest countries in Europe” never to be part of the USSR. Unemployment figures could cause vertigos even before the pandemic hit and the population is shrinking at impressive rhythms. Not being a member of the EU, Skopje will get only a fraction of the money Brussels has earmarked. Paradoxically, dependence on the EU was the transmission belt of the crisis, but lack of integration will hinder the recovery.

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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How Bangladesh became Standout Star in South Asia Amidst Covid-19

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Bangladesh, the shining model of development in South Asia, becomes everyone’s economic darling amidst Covid-19. The per capita income of Bangladesh in the fiscal year 2020-21 is higher than that of many neighbouring countries including India and Pakistan. Recently, Bangladesh has agreed to lend $200 million to debt-ridden Sri Lanka to bail out through currency swap. Bangladesh, once one of the most vulnerable economies, has now substantiated itself as the most successful economy of South Asia. How Bangladesh successfully managed Covid-19 and became top performing economy of South Asia?

In March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared their independence from richer and more powerful Pakistan. The country was born through war and famine. Shortly after the independence of Bangladesh, Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. national security advisor, derisively referred to the country as a “Basket Case of Misery.” But after fifty years, recently, Bangladesh’s Cabinet Secretary reported that per capita income has risen to $2,227. Pakistan’s per capita income, meanwhile, is $1,543. In 1971, Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh; today, Bangladesh is 45% richer than Pakistan. Pakistani economist Abid Hasan, former World Bank Adviser, stated that “If Pakistan continues its dismal performance, it is in the realm of possibility that we could be seeking aid from Bangladesh in 2030,”. On the other hand, India, the economic superpower of South Asia, is also lagging behind Bangladesh in terms of per capita income worth of $1,947. This also elucidates that the economic decisions of Bangladesh are better than that of any other South Asian countries.

Bangladesh’s economic growth leans-on three pillars: exports competitiveness, social progress and fiscal prudence. Between 2011 and 2019, Bangladesh’s exports grew at 8.6% every year, compared to the world average of 0.4%. This godsend is substantially due to the country’s hard-hearted focus on products, such as apparel, in which it possesses a comparative advantage.

The variegated investment plans pursued by the Bangladesh government contributes to the escalation of the country’s per capita income. The government has attracted investments in education, health, connectivity and infrastructure both from home and abroad. As a long-term implication, investing in these sectors helped Bangladesh to facilitate space for businesses and created skilled manpower to run them swiftly. Meanwhile, the share of Bangladeshi women in the labor force has consistently grown, unlike in India and Pakistan, where it has decreased. And Bangladesh has maintained a public debt-to-GDP ratio between 30% and 40%. India and Pakistan will both emerge from the pandemic with public debt close to 90% of GDP.

Bangladesh’s economy and industry management strategy during Covid-19 is also worth mentioning here since the country till now has successfully protected its economy from impact of pandemic. At the outset of pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions hampered the country’s overall productivity for a while. To tackle the pandemic effect, Bangladesh introduced improvised monetary policy and fiscal stimuli to bring them under the safety net which lifted the situation from worsening. Government introduced stimulus package which is equivalent to 4.3 percent of total GDP and covers all necessary sectors such as industry, SMEs and agriculture. These packages are not only a one-time deal, new packages are also being announced in course of time. For instance, in January 2021, government announced two new packages for small and medium entrepreneurs and grass roots populations. Apart from economic interventions, the government also chose the path of targeted interventions. The government, after first wave, abandoned widespread lockdown and adopted the policy of targeted intervention which is found to be effective as it allows socio-economic activities to carry on under certain protocols and helps the industries to fight back against the pandemic effect.

Another pivotal key to success was the management of migrant labor force and keeping the domestic production active amidst the pandemic. According to KNOMAD report, amidst the Covid-19, Bangladesh’s remittance grew by 18.4 percent crossing 21 billion per annum inflow where many remittance dependent countries experienced negative growth rate. Because of the massive inflow of remittance, the Forex reserve of Bangladesh reached at 45.1 billion US dollar.

Bangladesh’s success in managing COVID19 and its economy has been reflected in a recent report “Bangladesh Development Update- Moving Forward: Connectivity and Logistics to strengthen Competitiveness,” published by World Bank. Bangladesh’s economy is showing nascent signs of recovery backed by a rebound in exports, strong remittance inflows, and the ongoing vaccination program. Through financial assistance to Sri Lanka and Covid relief aid to India, Bangladesh is showcasing its rise as an emerging superpower in South Asia. That is why Mihir Sharma, Director of Centre for Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, wrote in an article at Bloomberg that, “Today, the country’s 160 million-plus people, packed into a fertile delta that’s more densely populated than the Vatican City, seem destined to be South Asia’s standout success”. Back in 2017, PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) report also predicted the same that Bangladesh will become the largest economy by 2030 and an economic powerhouse in South Asia. And this is how Bangladesh, a development paragon, offers lessons for the other struggling countries of world after 50 years of its independence.

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Build Back Better World: An Alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative?

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The G7 Summit is all the hype on the global diplomatic canvas. While the Biden-Putin talk is another awaited juncture of the Summit, the announcement of an initiative has wowed just as many whilst irked a few. The Group of Seven (G7) partners: the US, France, the UK, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Germany, launched a global infrastructure initiative to meet the colossal infrastructural needs of the low and middle-income countries. The Project – Build Back Better World (B3W) – is aimed to be a partnership between the most developed economies, namely the G7 members, to help narrow the estimated $40 trillion worth of infrastructure needed in the developing world. However, the project seems to be directed as a rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Amidst sharp criticism posed against the People’s Republic during the Summit, the B3W initiative appears to be an alternative multi-lateral funding program to the BRI. Yet, the developing world is the least of the concerns for the optimistic model challenging the Asian giant.

While the B3W claims to be a highly cohesive initiative, the BRI has expanded beyond comprehension and would be extremely difficult to dethrone, even when some of the most lucrative economies of the world are joining heads to compete over the largely untapped potential of the region. Now let’s be fair and contest that neither the G7 nor China intends the welfare of the region over profiteering. However, China enjoys a headstart. The BRI was unveiled back in 2013 by president Xi Jinping. The initiative was projected as a transcontinental long-term policy and investment program aimed to consolidate infrastructural development and gear economic integration of the developing countries falling along the route of the historic Silk Road. 

The highly sophisticated project is a long-envisioned dream of China’s Communist Party; operating on the premise of dominating the networks between the continents to establish unarguable sovereignty over the regional economic and policy decision-making. Referring to the official outline of the BRI issued by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the BRI drives to: “Promote the connectivity of Asian, European, and African continents and their adjacent seas, establish and strengthen partnerships among the countries along the Belt and Road [Silk Road], set up all-dimensional, multi-tiered and composite connectivity networks and realize diversified, independent, balanced, and sustainable development in these countries”. The excerpt clearly amplifies the thought process and the main agenda of the BRI. On the other hand, the B3W simply stands as a superfluous rival to an already outgrowing program.

Initially known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), the BRI has since expanded in the infrastructural niche of the region, primarily including emerging markets like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The standout feature of the BRI has been the mutually inclusive nature of the projects, that is, the BRI has been commandeering projects in many of the rival countries in the region yet the initiative manages to keep the projects running in parallel without any interference or impediment. With a loose hold on the governance whilst giving a free hand to the political and social realities of each specific country, the BRI program presents a perfect opportunity to jump the bandwagon and obtain funding for development projects without undergoing scrutiny and complications. With such attractive nature of the BRI, the program has significantly grown over the past decade, now hosting 71 countries as partners in the initiative. The BRI currently represents a third of the world’s GDP and approximately two-thirds of the world’s entire population.

Similar to BRI, the B3W aims to congregate cross-national and regional cooperation between the countries involved whilst facilitating the implementation of large-scale projects in the developing world. However, unlike China, the G7 has an array of problems that seem to override the overly optimistic assumption of B3W being the alternate stream to the BRI. 

One major contention in the B3W model is the facile assumption that all 7 democracies have an identical policy with respect to China and would therefore react similarly to China’s policies and actions. While the perspective matches the objective of BRI to promote intergovernmental cooperation, the G7 economies are much more polar than the democracies partnered with China. It is rather simplistic to assume that the US and Japan would have a similar stance towards China’s policies, especially when the US has been in a tense trade war with China recently while Japan enjoyed a healthy economic relation with Xi’s regime. It would be a bold statement to conclude that the US and the UK would be more cohesively adjoined towards the B3W relative to the China-Pakistan cooperation towards the BRI. Even when we disregard the years-long partnership between the Asian duo, the newfound initiative would demand more out of the US than the rest of the countries since each country is aware of the tense relations and the underlying desperation that resulted in the B3W program to shape its way in the Summit.

Moreover, the B3W is timed in an era when Europe has seen its history being botched over the past year. Post-Brexit, Europe is exactly the polar opposite of the unified policy-making glorified in the B3W initiate. The European Union (EU), despite US reservations, recently signed an investment deal with China. A symbolic gesture against the role played by former US President Donald J. Trump to bolster the UK’s exit from the Union. As London tumbles into peril, it would rather join hands with China as opposed to the democrat-regime of the US to prevent isolation in the region. Despite US opposition, Germany – Europe’s largest economy – continues to place China as a key market for its Automobile industry. Such a divided partnership holds no threat to the BRI, especially when the partners are highly dependent on China’s market and couldn’t afford an affront to China’s long envisaged initiative.

Even if we assume a unified plan of action shared between the G7 countries, the B3W would fall short in attracting the key developing countries of the region. The main targets of the initiative would naturally be the most promising economies of Asia, namely India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. However, the BRI has already encapsulated these countries: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC) being two of the core 6 developmental corridors of BRI. 

While both the participatory as well as the targeted democracies would be highly cautious in supporting the B3W over BRI, the newfound initiate lacks the basic tenets of a lasting project let alone standing rival to the likes of BRI. The B3W is aimed to be domestically funded through USAID, EXIM, and other similar programs. However, a project of such complex nature involves investments from diverse funding channels. The BRI, for example, tallies a total volume of roughly USD 4 to 8 trillion. However, the BRI is state-funded and therefore enjoys a variety of funding routes including BRI bond flotation. The B3W, however, simply falls short as up until recently, the large domestic firms and banks in the US have been pushed against by the Biden regime. An accurate example is the recent adjustment of the global corporate tax rate to a minimum of 15% to undercut the power of giants like Google and Amazon. Such strategies would make it impossible for the United States and its G7 counterparts to gain multiple channels of funding compared to the highly leveraged state-backed companies in China.

Furthermore, the B3W’s competitiveness dampens when conditionalities are brought into the picture. On paper, the B3W presents humane conditions including Human Rights preservation, Climate Change, Rule of Law, and Corruption prevention. In reality, however, the targeted countries are riddled with problems in all 4 categories. A straightforward question would be that why would the developing countries, already hard-pressed on funds, invest to improve on the 4 conditions posed by the B3W when they could easily continue to seek benefits from a no-strings-attached funding through BRI?

The B3W, despite being a highly lucrative and prosperous model, is idealistic if presented as a competition to the BRI. Simply because the G7, majorly the United States, elides the ground realities and averts its gaze from the labyrinth of complex relations shared with China. The only good that could be achieved is if the B3W manages to find its own unique identity in the region, separate from BRI in nature and not rivaling the scale of operation. While Biden has remained vocal to assuage the concerns regarding the B3W’s aim to target the trajectory of the BRI, the leaders have remained silent over the detailed operations of the model in the near future. For now, the B3W would await bipartisan approval in the United States as the remaining partners would develop their plan of action. Safe to say, for now, that the B3W won’t hold a candle to the BRI in the long-run but could create problems for the G7 members if it manages to irk China in the Short-run.

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COVID-19: New Dynamics to the World’s Politico-Economic Structure

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How ironic it is that a virus invisible from a naked human eye can manage to topple down the world and its dynamics. Breaking out of CoronaVirus, its spread across the globe and the diversity of consequences faced by the individual states all make it evident how the dynamics of the world could be reversed in months. Starting from the blame games regarding coronavirus to its geostrategic implications and the entire enigma between COVID-19 and politics, COVID-19 and economies have shaken the world. Whether it is the acclaimed super power, struggling powers or third world states or even individuals, the pandemic has unveiled the capability and credibility of all, especially in political and economic domains. Wearing masks in public, avoiding hand shake and maintaining distance from one another have emerged as ‘new normal’ in the social world of interaction.

Since the pandemic has locked its eyes upon the globe, world politics has taken an unfortunate drift. From the opportunities for leaders to abuse power during state of emergency (which is imposed in different states to limit the spread of novel Coronavirus) to the likelihood of rise of far-right nationalists to the emergence of ‘travel bubbles’ between states (such as New Zealand and Australia) and the increased chances of regionalism in post-pandemic world to the new terrorist strategies to gain support and many others, all are result of the pandemic’s impact on the political world, one way or the other. Since the end of WWII, the United States has taken the role of global leadership and after the Cold War, it became more prominent as it was the sole superpower of the world. Talking ideally, pandemics are perceived to bring up global cooperation but in the COVID-19 scenario it has started a whole new set of debates, sparkled nativism versus globalization and the sharp divide in global politics has drifted the focus from overcoming the global pandemic through global response to inward looking policies of leaders.

Covid-19 has impacted every sphere of life, be it social, political, health or economic. The pandemic itself being the result of a globalized world has affected globalization badly. It is the best illustration of the interrelation of politics and economics and how the steps in one sector impact the other in this interdependent, globalized world. Political actions such as restricting travel had drastic economic impacts especially to the countries whose economy is largely dependent on tourism, foreign investment etc. Similarly, economic actions such as limiting foreign products’ access had political implications in the form of sudden unemployment and downturn in living standards of people.

For the first time in history, oil prices became negative when its demand suddenly dropped when industries were shut down almost everywhere. Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil clash which led to increased oil production by Saudi Arabia further complicated the situation. This unprecedented drop in oil demand and consequently its price would only help in the economic recovery of countries. Covid-19 has impacted three sectors badly. First of all, it affected production as global manufacturing has declined due to decrease in demand. Secondly, it has created supply chain and market disruption. Finally, lockdowns affected local businesses everywhere. Bad impact aside, pandemic has led to the change in demand of products. Instead of investment and foreign trade, states having strong medical and textiles industries have got the opportunity of increasing exports. This is because there are requirements of face masks everywhere to avoid contagion. Need for medical instruments have also increased such as ventilators in developing countries specially. 

The only positive impact of Coronavirus is that it fostered environmental cleanliness. It is said that it can avert a climate emergency but the fact is that, as soon as the lockdown will be eased and businesses will begin returning into functioning, economic growth and prosperity will be prioritized over sustainability and we might even witness, more than ever, carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Novel coronavirus has brought new dynamics to the world’s politico-economic structure. While the world has the opportunity to come close for cooperation and consensus to fight it, we might witness increased regionalism in the post-pandemic world as a cautious measure and alternative where crisis management would be more cooperative and quick. There is a likelihood of the emergence of an international treaty or regime to ban bio-weapons. While the prevalence of political optimism is not assured in the post-pandemic world, we are likely to see the interdependent economic world, as before, to overcome the economic slump and revive the global economy. 

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