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The light side (SMEs) and the dark side (virtual currency) in post-covid Italy

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With a view to assessing the impact of the pandemic that has been afflicting Italy since the beginning of 2020, I think we should examine the careful analysis made by the National Commission for Listed Companies and the Stock Exchange (Consob) in its report on the year 2020.

2020 was one of the worst years for Italy in economic and social terms since the end of World War II. After experiencing a significant fall in GDP, the country has been moving towards economic recovery since the second half of the year and, more markedly, in the early months of 2021, and is showing its own willingness to tackle the unresolved problems, by also taking advantage of the change in the EU’s fiscal policy attitude, which is a necessary foundation for cohesion among Member States.

The 2020 results confirmed the assessment that savings and exports are the two pillars of the country’s economic and social strength. The protection of savings by public institutions follows rules that have been tested and perfected over time. Nevertheless, they need to be updated in the light of technological innovations in the financial sphere. The most solid protection, however, remains its anchorage to real activity, the progress of which is shaped in Italy by export performance. On the other hand, private consumption and public spending show that they have not the momentum they have in other major world economies.

One of the few positive aspects emerging from the report is that the savings ratio of Italian households compared to their disposable income grew by 50% in 2020. Excluding savings invested in listed companies, its yield remained rather low, close to zero.

Considering the amount of financial assets owned by Italian households, each percentage point of return can be estimated at around 30 billion euros, i.e. almost 2% of GDP, the size of a good public budget plan and fiscal manoeuvre of the past.

Taking into account the management charges, savings have contributed significantly to sustaining market stability, but without producing real growth, although this effect is now the result of a crisis that arose for particular and contingent reasons.

Exports experienced difficulties, declining in volume by about one-seventh compared to 2019, due to the concomitant effect of falling global demand and quarantine-related obstacles to domestic production.

Imports fell more sharply, thus enabling Italy’s foreign current account balance to remain positive and increasing slightly with regards to GDP.

In 2020 Italy’s international investment position improved further, showing a surplus for the first time in three decades. The international financial market only partially recorded and acknowledged this favourable structural position of the country.

In the first quarter of 2021, world trade rose to higher levels than pre-crisis levels and Italy’s exports continued to grow at double their rate, thus confirming the resilience and dynamism of Italian companies in the sector – a traditional cornerstone of our economy.

The financial account balance with foreign countries, which had recorded a slight negative balance in 2020, also turned positive, thus confirming the role of Italian savings as a pillar of stability – another Italy’s point of strength.

Confidence in the Italian economy’s ability to react has grown, as shown by the significant reduction in the spread between BTP and Bund interest rates. This is also the result of the decisions taken by the ECB to purchase significant amounts of public bonds and by the European Commission to suspend – albeit temporarily – the Stability Pact and launch the Next Generation EU Plan (NgEU).

The report under consideration, however, states that for the recovery phase to continue, we need to complement and supplement the decisions taken so far to boost companies’ risk capital in view of improving their financial leverage and making them more willing to undertake new initiatives.

This phase provides an important opportunity for the tax reform that has been urged for some time and reaffirmed in the framework of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) implementing the Next Generation EU Plan.

State intervention for social purposes has reached unusual forms and levels, without anyway reducing citizens’ pressure on public resources. This is not surprising because the rational content of human action leads to choose obtaining the best result at the lowest cost.

Private companies, especially the exporting ones, have been forced by competition to solve their problems without delay, so as to avoid being excluded from the market. Their ability to do so is a cornerstone of growth and a foundation for the good and smooth functioning of the democratic system, which has the power to correct the income distribution determined by productive and commutative activity through regulations, taxes and levies.

Conversely, when these forms are insufficient and savings are not used by private individuals, the State resorts to debt, but not always following a well-founded assessment of the intergenerational redistributive effects.

In this regard, the report insists on the fact that – on the basis of the yardstick provided by the laws in force – it is no longer possible to distinguish – with technical and legal certainty – of what currently currency and financial products legally consist – a content that is interrelated due to the connection ensured by the conversion platforms between virtual and traditional instruments.

The market uses a different yardstick from that of the existing legislation, which needs to be incorporated and integrated into it. The activity in movable assets, securities  and forms that takes place in the field of financial information is also increasingly interfering with international relations and geopolitical equilibria, the stability of which plays an important role for exchanges with currency and nominal funds, especially as a result of the growing weight they have in a political scenario that is no longer at the height of the peace and prosperity achieved in the last thirty years of integration and cooperation between States.

However, the willingness expressed in various fora by government authorities to seize the opportunities opened up by technological innovations in capital movements and management should not be seen as acquiescence to the loss of market transparency, but as a desire to recover it by making use of the same financial innovations.

Therefore, the favourable attitude towards new techniques must be matched by clear rules on the emergence and exchange of encrypted instruments and their intertwining with traditional monetary and financial assets/liabilities, whether already digitalised or not, as an essential guide for operators managing liquidity and savings.

The spreading of virtual instruments has prompted the emergence of “technology platforms” enabling faster and cheaper ways for accessing payment and securities trading services than those offered by banks and other intermediaries and brokers.

We need to be careful, however, as the custody and exchange functions they initially performed have evolved to accommodate increasingly articulated and complex transactions, including the granting of credits secured by one’s own or others’ virtual instruments, or the conclusion of derivative contracts using cryptocurrencies (Altcoin, Crypto token, Stabe coin, Bitcoin, INNBC, etc.) as collateral, even for several transactions of the same type.

These new market segments are evolving rapidly and there seems to be a dangerous repetition of the experience before the 2008 crisis, when derivative contracts grew to ten times the size of global GDP.

Although with the necessary distinctions, it is likely that something similar is happening in the market for virtual monetary and financial products, especially the encrypted ones.

The use of these instruments in closed forms outside the participants in the initiative (permissionless) precludes private supervision (such as the one carried out by boards of auditors and certification bodies) or public supervision (by supervisory authorities). Without adequate safeguards (rules and bodies), the result is a deterioration in market transparency, which is the foundation of lawfulness and operators’ rational choices.

The well-known negative effects include the shielding that these techniques allow for criminal activities, such as tax evasion, money laundering, terrorist financing and kidnapping. The concentration in the possession of cryptocurrencies that has recently been ascertained may reflect this aspect of the problem.

For Italy, the problem raised has particular connotations compared to other countries due to the existence of a constitutional provision that attributes to the Republic the task of encouraging and protecting savings in all its forms, as well as the task of regulating, coordinating and controlling the credit exercise and operation.

It would be improper and inappropriate to attribute to the specific phrase “savings in all its forms’ and to the credit to be protected a connotation that would also embrace virtual instruments, without going through a specific regulation.

If this were to happen, the responsibility for the consequences suffered by savers could fall on the State, as has already happened in the past, because of the covert or overt legitimisation of their existence and the awareness that through financial innovations market manipulation and the consequent ruin of savers can be achieved.

Therefore, the existence and operation of a security system – even if left to private individuals – must be guaranteed and supervised by the State which, however, must bear in mind that the spreading of digital techniques in finance poses specific requirements and needs that must be addressed globally, otherwise its effectiveness will be reduced.

The legitimisation of the existence of “virtual savings”, in various forms, is now a reality that intersects with savings generated in the traditional way, i.e. without spending a portion of the income produced by labour or capital.

We are faced with radical changes that must be tackled being fully aware of their content and urgency in view of avoiding negative consequences on the micro and macro-systemic stability of the securities market and, in this way, on the savings and economic growth needed to protect them and use them properly.

An obligatory step is to reaffirm that the legal validity of contracts is only guaranteed by their denomination in sovereign currency. If – as it would appear to be the case – we intend to recognise the existence of private currencies, users must make it clear in a specific contractual clause that they are aware of the risks they are running in using non-public currencies.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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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

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US Economic Turmoil: The Paradox of Recovery and Inflation

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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.

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Carbon Market Could Drive Climate Action

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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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