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Afghan crisis: Changing geo-economics of the neighbourhood

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has caused a rapid reshuffle in the geo-economics of South, Central and West Asia. While the impact on the Afghan economy has been profound, triggering inflation and cash shortage, it’s bearing on Afghanistan’s near neighbourhood has wider far-reaching consequences. The US spent almost $24 billion on the economic development of Afghanistan over the course of 20 years. This together with other international aid has helped the country to more than double its per capita GDP from $900 in 2002 to $2,100 in 2020. As a major regional player, India had invested around $3 billion in numerous developmental projects spanning across all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Indian presence was respected and valued by the ousted Afghan dispensation. With the US, India and many other countries deciding to close their embassies in Afghanistan and the US deciding to freeze Afghanistan’s foreign reserves amounting to $9.5 billion, the economy of the country has hit a grinding halt. IMF too has declared that Kabul won’t be able to access the $370 million funding which was agreed on earlier. The emerging circumstances are ripe for China and Pakistan to cut inroads into the war-torn country as the rest of the world watches mutely.

Beijing’s major gain would be the availability of Afghanistan as a regional connector in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linking the economies of Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan. Afghanistan is already a member of the BRI with the first Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2016. Only limited projects were conducted in Afghanistan under the initiative till now due to security concerns, geographic conditions and the government’s affinity towards India. Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed interest in Afghanistan joining the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), a signature undertaking of the BRI. CPEC is a $62 billion project which would link Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province to China’s western Xinjiang region. The plan includes power plants, an oil pipeline, roads and railways that improves trade and connectivity in the region.

China also eyes at an estimated $1 trillion mineral deposits in Afghanistan, which includes huge reserves of lithium, a key component for electric vehicles. This mineral wealth is largely untapped due lack of proper networks and unstable security conditions long-prevalent in the country. Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted Taliban representatives in late June in Tianjin to discuss reconciliation and reconstruction process in Afghanistan. Taliban reciprocated by inviting China to “play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development” of the country. After the fall of Kabul, China has kept its embassy open and declared it was ready for friendly relations with the Taliban. It had also announced that it would send $31 million worth of food and health supplies to Afghanistan to tide over the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Pakistan, a close ally of China, has on its part has sent supplies such as cooking oil and medicines to the Afghan authorities. Pakistan having strong historical ties with the Taliban will possibly play a crucial role in furthering Chinese ambitions..

The immediate economic fallout of the crisis for Iran is its reduced access to hard currency from Afghanistan. After the imposition of US sanctions, Afghanistan had been an important source of dollars for Iran. Reports suggest that hard currency worth $5million was being transferred to Iran daily before the Taliban takeover. Now the US has put a freeze on nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to Afghan Central Bank and stopped shipment of cash to the country. The shortage of hard currency is likely to affect the exchange rates in Iran subsequently building up inflationary pressure. Over the years, Afghanistan had emerged as a major destination for Iran’s non-oil exports amounting to $2billion a year. A prolonged crisis would curb demand in Afghanistan including that of Iranian goods with a likely reduction in the trade volume between the two countries. In effect, Iran would find itself increasingly isolated from foreign governments and international financial flows.

India had been the wariest regional spectator watching its $3 billion investment in Afghanistan go up in smoke. Long-standing hostility with Pakistan has prevented land-based Indian trade with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republic’s (CAR’s). Push by India and other stakeholders for setting a common agenda for alternate connectivity appears susceptible at the moment. India has been working with Iran to develop Chabahar port in the Arabian sea and transport goods shipped from India to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the proposed Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad railway line. India is also working with Russia on the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a 7,200 km long multi-mode network of ship, rail and road routes for freight movement, whereby Indian goods are received at Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, moves northward via rail and road through Iran and Azerbaijan and meets the Trans-Siberian rail network that will allow access to the European markets. According to the latest reports, the Taliban declined to join talks with India, Iran and Uzbekistan on Chabahar port and North-South Transport Corridor, which has cast shadow on the Indian interests in the region. India’s trade with Afghanistan had steadily increased to reach the US $1.5 billion in 2019–2020. An unfriendly administration and demand constraints may slow down the trade between the two countries.

With the US withdrawal, the CARs would find their strategic and economic autonomy curtailed and more drawn into the regional power struggle between China and Russia. While China has many infrastructure projects in Central Asia to its credit, Russia is trying to woo Central Asian countries into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), though so far it was able to rope in only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. CARs would need better connectivity through Afghanistan and Iran to diversify their trade relations with Indo-Pacific nations and to have better leverage to bargain with Russia and China. Uzbekistan, the most fervent of the CARs to demand increased connectivity with South Asia, expressed its interest in joining the Chabahar project in 2020, which was duly welcomed by India. The new developments in Afghanistan would force these countries to remodel their strategies to suit the changed geopolitical realities.

The fact that Iran is getting closer to China by signing a 25-Year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership cooperation agreement in 2020 adds yet another dimension to the whole picture. India’s hesitancy to recognize or engage with the Taliban makes it unpredictable what the future holds for India-Afghan relations.

The hasty US exit has caused rapid reorientation in the geopolitical and geo-economic status-quo of the region. Most countries were unprepared to handle the swiftness of the Taliban takeover and were scrambling for options to deal with the chaos. The lone exception was China which held talks with the Taliban as early as July, 28 weeks before the fall of Kabul, to discuss the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also took a high-profile tour to Central Asia in mid-July which extensively discussed the emerging situation in Afghanistan with Central Asian leaders. Since the West has passed the buck, it’s up to the regional players to restore the economic stability in Afghanistan and ensure safe transit routes through the country. Any instability in Afghanistan is likely to have harrowing repercussions in the neighbourhood, as well.

Masters student in public policy at Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth in Kerala, India, specializing in finance and international relations. I tweet at @ArulKurian. I can be contacted at royalpebbles27[at]gmail.com

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Rebalancing Act: China’s 2022 Outlook

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Authors: Ibrahim Chowdhury, Ekaterine T. Vashakmadze and Li Yusha

After a strong rebound last year, the world economy is entering a challenging 2022. The advanced economies have recovered rapidly thanks to big stimulus packages and rapid progress with vaccination, but many developing countries continue to struggle.

The spread of new variants amid large inequalities in vaccination rates, elevated food and commodity prices, volatile asset markets, the prospect of policy tightening in the United States and other advanced economies, and continued geopolitical tensions provide a challenging backdrop for developing countries, as the World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report published today highlights.

The global context will also weigh on China’s outlook in 2022, by dampening export performance, a key growth driver last year. Following a strong 8 percent cyclical rebound in 2021, the World Bank expects growth in China to slow to 5.1 percent in 2022, closer to its potential — the sustainable growth rate of output at full capacity.

Indeed, growth in the second half of 2021 was below this level, and so our forecast assumes a modest amount of policy loosening. Although we expect momentum to pick up, our outlook is subject to domestic in addition to global downside risks. Renewed domestic COVID-19 outbreaks, including the new Omicron variant and other highly transmittable variants, could require more broad-based and longer-lasting restrictions, leading to larger disruptions in economic activity. A severe and prolonged downturn in the real estate sector could have significant economy-wide reverberations.

In the face of these headwinds, China’s policymakers should nonetheless keep a steady hand. Our latest China Economic Update argues that the old playbook of boosting domestic demand through investment-led stimulus will merely exacerbate risks in the real estate sector and reap increasingly lower returns as China’s stock of public infrastructure approaches its saturation point.

Instead, to achieve sustained growth, China needs to stick to the challenging path of rebalancing its economy along three dimensions: first, the shift from external demand to domestic demand and from investment and industry-led growth to greater reliance on consumption and services; second, a greater role for markets and the private sector in driving innovation and the allocation of capital and talent; and third, the transition from a high to a low-carbon economy.

None of these rebalancing acts are easy. However, as the China Economic Update points out, structural reforms could help reduce the trade-offs involved in transitioning to a new path of high-quality growth.

First, fiscal reforms could aim to create a more progressive tax system while boosting social safety nets and spending on health and education. This would help lower precautionary household savings and thereby support the rebalancing toward domestic consumption, while also reducing income inequality among households.

Second, following tightening anti-monopoly provisions aimed at digital platforms, and a range of restrictions imposed on online consumer services, the authorities could consider shifting their attention to remaining barriers to market competition more broadly to spur innovation and productivity growth.

A further opening-up of the protected services sector, for example, could improve access to high-quality services and support the rebalancing toward high-value service jobs (a special focus of the World Bank report). Eliminating remaining restrictions on labor mobility by abolishing the hukou, China’s system of household registration, for all urban areas would equally support the growth of vibrant service economies in China’s largest cities.

Third, the wider use of carbon pricing, for example, through an expansion of the scope and tightening of the emissions trading system rules, as well power sector reforms to encourage the penetration and nationwide trade and dispatch of renewables, would not only generate environmental benefits but also contribute to China’s economic transformation to a more sustainable and innovation-based growth model.

In addition, a more robust corporate and bank resolution framework would contribute to mitigating moral hazards, thereby reducing the trade-offs between monetary policy easing and financial risk management. Addressing distortions in the access to credit — reflected in persistent spreads between private and State borrowers — could support the shift to more innovation-driven, private sector-led growth.

Productivity growth in China during the past four decades of reform and opening-up has been private-sector led. The scope for future productivity gains through the diffusion of modern technologies and practices among smaller private companies remains large. Realizing these gains will require a level playing field with State-owned enterprises.

While the latter have played an instrumental role during the pandemic to stabilize employment, deliver key services and, in some cases, close local government budget gaps, their ability to drive the next phase of growth is questionable given lower profits and productivity growth rates in the past.

In 2022, the authorities will face a significantly more challenging policy environment. They will need to remain vigilant and ready to recalibrate financial and monetary policies to ensure the difficulties in the real estate sector don’t spill over into broader economic distress. Recent policy loosening suggests the policymakers are well aware of these risks.

However, in aiming to keep growth on a steady path close to potential, they will need to be similarly alert to the risk of accumulating ever greater levels of corporate and local government debt. The transition to high-quality growth will require economic rebalancing toward consumption, services, and green investments. If the past is any guide to the future, the reliance on markets and private sector initiative is China’s best bet to achieve the required structural change swiftly and at minimum cost.

First published on China Daily, via World Bank

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The US Economic Uncertainty: Bitcoin Faces a Test of Resilience?

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Is inflation harmful? Is inflation here to stay? And are people really at a loss? These and countless other questions along the same lines dominated the first half of 2021. Many looked for alternative investments in the national bourse, while others adopted unorthodox streams. Yes, I’m talking about bitcoin. The crypto giant hit records after records since the pandemic made us question the fundamentals of our conventional economic policies. And while inflation was never far behind in registering its own mark in history, the volatility in the crypto stream was hard to deny: swiping billions of dollars in mere days in April 2021. The surge came again, however. And it will keep on coming; I have no doubt. But whether it is the end of the pandemic or the early hues of a new shade, the tumultuous relationship between traditional economic metrics and the championed cryptocurrency is about to get more interesting.

The job market is at the most confusing crossroads in recent times. The hiring rate in the US has slowed down in the past two months, with employers adding only 199,000 jobs in December. The numbers reveal that this is the second month of depressing job additions compared to an average of more than 500,000 jobs added each month throughout 2021. More concerning is that economists had predicted an estimated 400,000 jobs additions last month. Nonetheless, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate has ticked down to 3.9% – the first time since the pre-pandemic level of 3.5% reported in February 2020. Analytically speaking, US employment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, yet businesses are still looking for more employees. The leverage, therefore, lies with the labor: reportedly (on average) every two employees have three positions available.

The ‘Great Resignation,’ a coinage for the new phenomenon, underscores this unique leverage of job selection. Sectors with low-wage positions like retail and hospitality face a labor shortage as people are better-positioned to bargain for higher wages. Thus, while wages are rising, quitting rates are record high simultaneously. According to recent job reports, an estimated 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November alone. Given that this data got collected before the surge of the Omicron variant, the picture is about to worsen.

While wages are rising, employment is no longer in the dumps. People are quitting but not to invest stimulus cheques. Instead, they are resigning to negotiate better-paying jobs: forcing the businesses to hike prices and fueling inflation. Thus, despite high earnings, the budget for consumption [represented by the Consumer Price Index (CPI)] is rising at a rate of 6.8% (reported in November 2021). Naturally, bitcoin investment is not likely to bloom at levels rivaling the last two years. However, a downfall is imminent if inflation persists.

The US Federal Reserve sweats caution about searing gains in prices and soaring wage figures. And it appears that the fed is weighing its options to wind up its asset purchase program and hike interest rates. In March 2020, the fed started buying $40 billion worth of Mortgage-backed securities and $80 billion worth of government bonds (T-bills). However, a 19% increase in average house prices and a four-decade-high level of inflation is more than they bargained. Thus, the fed officials have been rooting for an expedited normalization of the monetary policy: further bolstered by the job reports indicating falling unemployment and rising wages. In recent months, the fed purview has dramatically shifted from its dovish sentiments: expecting no rate hike till 2023 to taper talks alongside three rate hikes in 2022.

Bitcoin now faces a volatile passage in the forthcoming months. While the disappointing job data and Omicron concerns could nudge the ball in its favor, the chances are that a depressive phase is yet to ensue. According to crypto-analysts, the bitcoin is technically oversold i.e. mostly devoid of impulsive investors and dominated by long-term holders. Since November, the bitcoin has dropped from the record high of $69,000 by almost 40%: moving in the $40,000-$41,000 range. Analysts believe that since bitcoin acts as a proxy for liquidity, any liquidity shortage could push the market into a mass sellout. Mr. Alex Krüger, the founder of Aike Capital, a New York-based asset management firm, stated: “Crypto assets are at the furthest end of the risk curve.” He further added: “[Therefore] since they had benefited from the Fed’s “extraordinarily lax monetary policy,” it should suffice to say that they would [also] suffer as an “unexpectedly tighter” policy shifts money into safer asset classes.” In simpler terms, a loose monetary policy and a deluge of stimulus payments cushioned the meteoric rise in bitcoin valuation as a hedge against inflation. That mechanism would also plummet the market with a sudden hawkish shift.

The situation is dire for most industries. Job participation levels are still low as workers are on the sidelines either because of the Omicron concern or lack of child support. In case of a rate hike, businesses would be forced to push against the wages to accommodate affordability in consumer prices. For bitcoin, the investment would stay dormant. However, any inflationary surprises could bring about an early tightening of the policy: spelling doom for the crypto market. The market now expects the job data to worsen while inflation to rise at 7.1% through December in the US inflation data (to be reported on Wednesday). Any higher than the forecasted figure alongside uncertainty imbued by the new variant could spark a downward spiral in bitcoin – probably pushing the asset below the $25000 mark.

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Platform Modernisation: What the US Treasury Sanctions Review Is All About

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Image source: home.treasury.gov

The US Treasury has released an overview of its sanctions policy. It outlines key principles for making the restrictive US measures more effective. The revision of the sanctions policy was announced at the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidential term. The new review can be considered one of the results of this work. At the same time, it is difficult to find signs of qualitative changes in the US administration’s approach to sanctions in the document. Rather, it is about upgrading an existing platform.

Sanctions are understood as economic and financial restrictions that make it possible to harm the enemies of the United States, prevent or hinder their actions, and send them a clear political signal. The text reproduces the usual “behavioural” understanding of sanctions. They are viewed as a means of influencing the behaviour of foreign players whose actions threaten the security or contradict the national interests of the United States. The review also defines the institutional structure of the sanctions policy. According to the document, it includes the Treasury, the State Department, and the National Security Council. The Treasury plays the role of the leading executor of the sanctions policy, and the State Department and the NSS determine the political direction of their application, despite the fact that the State Department itself is also responsible for the implementation of a number of sanctions programmes. This line also includes the Department of Justice, which uses coercive measures against violators of the US sanctions regime.

Interestingly, the Department of Commerce is not mentioned among the institutions. The review focuses only on a specific segment of the sanctions policy that is implemented by the Treasury. However, it is the Treasury that is currently at the forefront of the application of restrictive measures. A significant part of the executive orders of the President of the United States and sanctions laws imply blocking financial sanctions in the form of an asset freeze and a ban on transactions with individuals and organisations. Decrees and laws assign the application of such measures to the Treasury in cooperation with the Department of State and the Attorney General. Therefore, the institutional link mentioned in the review reflects the spirit and letter of a significant array of US regulations concerning sanctions. The Department of Commerce and its Bureau of Industry and Security are responsible for a different segment of the sanctions policy, which does not diminish its importance. Export controls can cause a lot of trouble for individual countries and companies.

Another notable part of the review concerns possible obstacles to the effective implementation of US sanctions. These include, among other things, the efforts of the opponents of the United States to change the global financial architecture, reducing the share of the dollar in the national settlements of both opponents and some allies of the United States.

Indeed, such major powers as Russia and China have seriously considered the risks of being involved in a global American-centric financial system.

The course towards the sovereignty of national financial systems and settlements with foreign countries is largely justified by the risk of sanctions.

Russia, for example, is vigorously pursuing the development of a National Payment System, as well as a Financial Messaging System. There has been a cautious but consistent policy of reducing the share of the dollar in external settlements. China, which has much greater economic potential, is building systems of “internal and external circulation”. Even the European Union has embarked on an increase in the role of the euro, taking into account the risk of secondary sanctions from “third countries”, which are often understood between the lines as the United States.

Digital currencies and new payment technologies also pose a threat to the effectiveness of sanctions. Moreover, here the players can be both large powers and many other states and non-state structures. It is interesting that digital currencies at a certain stage may present a common challenge to the United States, Russia, China, the EU and a number of other countries. After all, they can be used not only to circumvent sanctions, but also, for example, to finance terrorism or in money laundering. However, the review does not mention such common interests.

The text does propose measures to modernise the sanctions policy. The first one is to build sanctions into the broader context of US foreign policy. Sanctions are not important in and of themselves, but as part of a broader palette of policy instruments. The second measure is to strengthen interdepartmental coordination in the application of sanctions in parallel with increased coordination of US sanctions with the actions of American allies. The third measure is a more accurate calibration of sanctions in order to avoid humanitarian damage, as well as damage to American business. The fourth measure is to improve the enforceability and clarity of the sanctions policy. Here we can talk about both the legal uncertainty of some decrees and laws, and about an adequate understanding of the sanctions programmes on the part of business. Finally, fifth is the improvement and development of the Treasury-based sanctions apparatus, including investments in technology, staff training and infrastructure.

All these measures can hardly be called new. Experts have long recommended the use of sanctions in combination with other instruments, as well as improved inter-agency coordination. The coordination of sanctions with allies has escalated due to a number of unilateral steps taken by the Trump Administration, including withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal or sanctions against Nord Stream 2. However, the very importance of such coordination has not been questioned in the past and has even been reflected in American legislation (Iran). The need for a clearer understanding of sanctions policy has also been long overdue. Its relevance is illustrated, among other things, by the large number of unintentional violations of the US sanctions regime by American and foreign businesses. The problem of overcompliance is also relevant, when companies refuse transactions even when they are allowed. The reason is the fear of possible coercive measures by the US authorities. Finally, improving the sanctioning apparatus is also a long-standing topic. In particular, expanding the resources of the Administration in the application of sanctions was recommended by the US Audit Office in a 2019 report.

The US Treasury review suggests that no signs of an easing are foreseen for the key targets of US sanctions. At the same time, American business and its many foreign counterparties can benefit from the modernisation of the US sanctions policy. Legal certainty can reduce excess compliance as well as help avoid associated losses.

From our partner RIAC

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