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Low-Income Country Debt Rises to Record $860 Billion in 2020

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Governments around the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with massive fiscal, monetary, and financial stimulus packages. While these measures were aimed at addressing the health emergency, cushioning the impact of the pandemic on the poor and vulnerable and putting countries on a path to recovery, the resulting debt burden of the world’s low-income countries rose 12% to a record $860 billion in 2020, according to a new World Bank report.

Even prior to the pandemic, many low- and middle-income countries were in a vulnerable position, with slowing economic growth and public and external debt at elevated levels. External debt stocks of low- and middle-income countries combined rose 5.3% in 2020 to $8.7 trillion. According to the new International Debt Statistics 2022 report, an encompassing approach to managing debt is needed to help low- and middle-income countries assess and curtail risks and achieve sustainable debt levels.

“We need a comprehensive approach to the debt problem, including debt reduction, swifter restructuring and improved transparency,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “Sustainable debt levels are vital for economic recovery and poverty reduction.”

The deterioration in debt indicators was widespread and impacted countries in all regions. Across all low- and middle-income countries, the rise in external indebtedness outpaced Gross National Income (GNI) and export growth. Low- and middle-income countries’ external debt-to-GNI ratio (excluding China) rose to 42% in 2020 from 37% in 2019 while their debt-to-export ratio increased to 154% in 2020 from 126% in 2019.

In response to the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic and at the urging of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, in April 2020, the G20 launched the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to provide temporary liquidity support for low-income countries. The G-20 countries agreed to extend the deferral period through the end of 2021. In November 2020, the G20 agreed on a Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the DSSI, an initiative to restructure unsustainable debt situations and protracted financing gaps in DSSI-eligible countries.

Overall, in 2020, net inflows from multilateral creditors to low- and middle-income countries rose to $117 billion, the highest level in a decade. Net debt inflows of external public debt to low-income countries rose 25% to $71 billion, also the highest level in a decade.  Multilateral creditors, including the IMF, provided $42 billion in net inflows while bilateral creditors accounted for an additional $10 billion.

“Economies across the globe face a daunting challenge posed by high and rapidly rising debt levels,” said Carmen Reinhart, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank Group. “Policymakers need to prepare for the possibility of debt distress when financial market conditions turn less benign, particularly in emerging market and developing economies.”

Greater debt transparency is critical in addressing the risks posed by rising debt in many developing countries. To facilitate transparency, International Debt Statistics 2022 was expanded to provide more detailed and disaggregated data on external debt than ever before. The data now gives the breakdown of a borrowing country’s external debt stock to show the amount owed to each official and private creditor, the currency composition of this debt, and the terms on which loans were extended. For DSSI-eligible countries the dataset was expanded to include the debt service deferred in 2020 by each bilateral creditor and the projected month-by-month debt-service payments owed to them through 2021. The World Bank will also publish soon a new Debt Transparency in Developing Economies report that takes stock of debt transparency challenges in low-income countries and lays out a detailed list of recommendations to address them.

International Debt Statistics (IDS) is a longstanding annual publication of the World Bank featuring external debt statistics and analysis for the 123 low- and middle-income countries that report to the World Bank Debt Reporting System (DRS).

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Data show how the COVID-19 pandemic has hit all aspects of people’s well-being

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The COVID-19 pandemic has not only had devastating effects on physical health and mortality but has touched every aspect of people’s well-being, with far-reaching consequences for how we live and work, according to a new study by the OECD.

 COVID-19 and well-being: life in the pandemic says the virus caused a 16% increase in the average number of deaths across 33 OECD countries between March 2020 and early May 2021, compared with same period over the previous four years. Over the same time frame, survey data in the report reveal rising levels of depression or anxiety and a growing sense among many people of loneliness and of feeling disconnected from society.

 Government support helped to sustain average household income levels in 2020 and stemmed the tide of job losses, even as average hours worked fell sharply. Although job retention schemes offered workers some protection, 14% of workers in 19 European OECD countries felt it was “likely they would lose their job” within three months, and nearly 1 in 3 people in 25 OECD countries reported financial difficulties.

 The report says experiences of the pandemic have varied widely depending on age, gender and ethnicity, as well as on the type of job people do and on their level of pay and skills. The crisis also aggravated existing social, economic and environmental challenges.

 In those countries with available data, workers from ethnic minorities have been more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic. Mental health deteriorated for almost all population groups on average in 2020 but gaps in mental health by race and ethnicity are also visible. COVID-19 mortality rates for some ethnic minority communities have been more than twice those of other groups.

 Younger adults experienced some of the largest declines in mental health, social connectedness and life satisfaction in 2020 and 2021, as well as facing job disruption and insecurity.

 Launched on the first anniversary of the new OECD Centre for Well-being, Inclusion, Sustainability and Equal Opportunity (WISE), the report offers a primer for OECD recommendations on well-being. It assesses the impact of the pandemic across the 11 dimensions identified in the OECD’s Well-being Framework – income and wealth; work and job quality; housing; health; knowledge and skills; environment; subjective well-being; safety; work-life balance; social connections; and civil engagement. It features data on inclusion and equality of opportunity, and also considers how the stocks of economic, human, social and environmental resources that sustain well-being have fared.

 The report argues that as governments move from emergency support to stimulating the recovery, they need to refocus their action on what matters most to people’s well-being.

 A key objective must be to increase the job and financial security of households, and particularly those most affected by the crisis – with a focus on the most vulnerable, on youth, women and the low skilled.  Addressing the burden of poor physical and mental health and a cross-government approach to raising the well-being of the most disadvantaged children and youth must also be prioritised. The report also stresses that actions to raise living standards and equality of opportunity must take place within the context of greening the economy: the climate and biodiversity crises, like the pandemic, require a coordinated response across public policy.

 A well-being approach, the report explains, looks at government objectives as interconnected goals, focusing on how different policies can complement each other. Such an approach encourages decision-making that simultaneously considers impacts on current well-being, inclusion, and the sustainability of well-being over time. For instance, improving long-term economic opportunities through raising child well-being, or aligning efforts to combat climate change with social and economic objectives by increasing employment and mobility for people and places left behind.

 Natural, human and social capital will need rebuilding after the crisis, the report adds. Reducing inequalities in access to, and uptake of lifelong learning, for example, will help people – especially the disadvantaged – get high quality jobs by developing training programmes that address skills gaps and emphasise digital abilities.

 Social capital – the norms, shared values and institutions that foster co-operation – has shaped communities’ responses to the pandemic. Data from across OECD countries shows that both trust in institutions and interpersonal trust influenced the effectiveness of pandemic containment. Although it has recently shown signs of weakening, institutional trust in 2020 in most OECD countries was at its highest since records began in 2006.

 The report says reinforcing trust is key to reconnecting people to their societies, and to the institutions that are meant to support them. By doing so, the well-being of citizens is improved both today and in a post-pandemic future.

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Inflation Concerns Push Up Emerging East Asia Bond Yields

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Emerging East Asia’s bond market grew 3.4% in the third quarter to $21.7 trillion, although rising global inflation and a shift in the United States (US) monetary stance weakened regional financial conditions, according to the latest issue of the Asia Bond Monitor.

Bond yields rose, currencies weakened, and risk premiums edged up amid increased global inflation and the US Federal Reserve’s announcement that it would limit bond purchases starting in November, according to the report, released today by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

“The encouraging macroeconomic outlook and accommodative policy stances are supporting the region’s financial conditions,” said ADB Acting Chief Economist Joseph Zveglich, Jr. “However, central banks in the region may find they need to be less accommodative to keep inflation in check and to keep in step with US monetary policy changes. That said, the chance of another ‘taper tantrum’ is limited as the direction of the Federal Reserve’s stance is clearly communicated and the region’s economic fundamentals remain strong.”

Emerging East Asia comprises the People’s Republic of China (PRC); Hong Kong, China; Indonesia; the Republic of Korea; Malaysia; the Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; and Viet Nam. 

Government bonds remained the dominant segment, increasing 3.9% from the previous quarter to $13.6 trillion. The bond markets of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members—many of which suffered from the coronavirus disease’s (COVID-19) Delta variant outbreak—grew 14.4% from a year earlier to $1.9 trillion in the third quarter, compared with 12.6% and 7.6% growth in the PRC and the Republic of Korea, respectively.

ASEAN bond markets showed sound market capacity during the pandemic, evident in low bond yields amid rapid market expansion. Domestic financial institutions, particularly banks, anchored bond market functioning. At the same time, a few ASEAN central banks facilitated market liquidity and government financing via asset purchasing programs. Mid- and long-term bonds account for a majority of outstanding bonds in ASEAN bond markets, implying a relatively stable financing structure.

Sustainable bond markets in the ASEAN region plus the PRC; Hong Kong, China; Japan; and the Republic of Korea totaled $388.7 billion, remaining the largest regional sustainable bond market after Europe and accounting for 19.2% of global sustainable bond markets at the end of September. Green, social, and sustainability bonds accounted for 71.6%, 13.0%, and 15.3% of the region’s sustainable bonds outstanding, respectively. As this regional market develops, the issuer base is also diversifying from just the financial sector to other business sectors.

The latest issue of the Asia Bond Monitor analyzes the price and yield differences between labeled and unlabeled green bonds. Recent research finds that investors would pay more for labeled or certified green bonds that have better information disclosure and lower reputational risk.

The report also discusses how the Delta variant outbreak and uneven vaccination progress slowed and caused divergences in regional economic recovery; the likelihood of a “taper tantrum” repeat; and risks to the current outlook, including continuing pandemic-induced uncertainty, slow vaccination rollouts in developing countries, and supply chain disruptions.

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Iraq: The Slippery Road to Economic Recovery

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Iraq’s economic outlook has improved on the back of the recovery of global oil markets, with its GDP projected to grow from 2.6% in 2021 to over 6% in 2022–23. Nevertheless, without accelerated economic reform, unforeseen domestic and fiscal risks could cause reverses.

The World Bank’s new Iraq Economic Monitor titled “The Slippery Road to Economic Recovery” finds the country’s economic rebound partly aided by government moves to act on previously recommended reforms. Public transfers, as well as schemes aimed at increasing credit to businesses, had a small stimulus effect, leading to GDP growth of 0.9% in the first half of 2021, in contrast to a 16% contraction a year earlier. 

Higher oil prices turned a fiscal balance of 2.2% in GDP surplus, boosting central bank reserves to almost US$55 billion (15 months of imports) in the first half of 2021. Recovery was to some extent curtailed by severe water shortages and widespread electricity cuts following historically low rainfall, impacting the agricultural and industrial sectors. Healthcare services also deteriorated amid a growing number of cases of COVID-19’s Delta variant.

GDP from oil, still the main driver of medium-term growth in Iraq, is expected to rise in step with the gradual phase-out of OPEC+ production quotas, while non-oil GDP growth is forecast to remain under 3% in 2021–2023. Upstream risks could include oil shocks, droughts, and new COVID-19 variants. Potential problems could arise from fiscal and other risks, such as growing budget rigidities, the low clearance of arrears and the large exposure of state-owned banks and the central bank to sovereign debt, and the effect of public investment management constraints on public services. Progress on regional economic integration and security, however, could provide new momentum for growth and diversification. 

Of key importance to Iraq is dealing with water scarcity and the degradation of water quality in its rivers and groundwater. The new Economic Monitor’s special focus titled “Overcoming Water Scarcity and Climate Change Impacts,” calls for dramatic sector reforms to capture opportunities and manage risks. A fall of 20% in Iraq’s water supply and the related declining crop yields that could accompany climate change, could reduce real GDP in Iraq by up to 4%, or US$6.6 billion.

Investing in climate smart water management practices provides a concrete opportunity to spur inclusive and green economic growth and development,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “Without action, water constraints will lead to large losses across multiple sectors of the economy and come to affect more and more vulnerable people.

Iraq’s water sector relies on highly centralized institutional architecture that creates coordination issues in resource management and service delivery. The sector suffers from a lack of financing (given existing constraints) as well as weak private sector participation and limited revenues from users. The Monitor identifies areas where reforms could improve Iraq’s resilience to water scarcity and climate change—efficiency, productivity, and demand management policies; institutional solutions; and regional solutions.

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