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Global Wealth Has Grown, But at the Expense of Future Prosperity

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Global wealth has grown overall—but at the expense of future prosperity and by exacerbating inequalities, according to the World Bank’s new Changing Wealth of Nations report released today.

Countries that are depleting their resources in favor of short-term gains are putting their economies on an unsustainable development path. While indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are traditionally used to measure economic growth, the report argues for the importance of considering natural, human, and produced capital to understand whether growth is sustainable.

The Changing Wealth of Nations 2021 tracks the wealth of 146 countries between 1995 and 2018, by measuring the economic value of renewable natural capital (such as forests, cropland, and ocean resources), nonrenewable natural capital (such as minerals and fossil fuels), human capital (earnings over a person’s lifetime), produced capital (such as buildings and infrastructure), and net foreign assets. The report accounts for blue natural capital—in the form of mangroves and ocean fisheries—for the first time.

“A deeper and more nuanced understanding of the sustainability of wealth is crucial to a green, resilient, and inclusive future,” said World Bank Managing Director for Development Policy and Partnerships, Mari Pangestu. “It is essential that renewable natural capital and human capital are given the same importance as more traditional sources of economic growth, so that policymakers take steps to enable long-term prosperity.”

According to the report, global wealth grew significantly between 1995 and 2018, and middle-income countries are catching up to high-income countries. However, growing prosperity has been accompanied by unsustainable management of some natural assets. Low- and middle-income countries saw their forest wealth per capita decline 8% from 1995 to 2018, reflecting significant deforestation. Meanwhile, the value of global marine fish stocks collapsed by 83% due to poor management and overfishing over the same period. The projected impacts of climate change may exacerbate these trends.

In addition, mispricing of assets like carbon-emitting fossil fuels can lead to overvaluation and over-consumption. Development can be put on a more sustainable path by taking a comprehensive view of wealth and putting in place policy measures including carbon pricing to better value and nurture assets such as forests, mangroves, and human capital.

Global wealth inequality is growing, the report indicates. Low-income countries’ share of global wealth has changed little from 1995 to 2018, remaining below 1% of the world’s wealth, despite having around 8% of the world’s population. Over one-third of low-income countries saw declining wealth per capita. Countries with declining wealth tend also to be degrading their base of renewable natural assets. For low-income countries, appropriately managing renewable natural capital, which accounts for 23% of their wealth, remains crucial.

Globally, the share of total wealth in renewable natural capital (forests, cropland, and ocean resources) is decreasing and being further threatened by climate change. At the same time, renewable natural capital is becoming more valuable as it provides crucial ecosystem services. For example, the value of mangroves for coastal flood protection has grown more than 2.5 times since 1995 to over $547 billion in 2018. The value of protected areas per square kilometer has also rapidly increased.

“The Changing Wealth of Nations provides the data and analysis to help governments get prices and policies right for sustainable development,” said World Bank Global Director for Environment, Natural Resources, and the Blue Economy, Karin Kemper. “By ignoring polluting and climate warming impacts, fossil fuel assets have historically been overvalued, while assets that contribute to climate mitigation, like forests, are undervalued.”

The report shows that human capital, measured as the population’s expected lifetime earnings, is the largest source of worldwide wealth, comprising 64% of total global wealth in 2018. Middle-income countries increased their investment in human capital and in turn saw significant increases in their share of global human capital wealth.

Although the long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unknown, low-income countries are likely to experience the most severe impacts, with a projected loss of 14% of total human capital. Human capital is additionally constrained by gender gaps across all regions and income groups, with little improvement since 1995. Air quality also has serious consequences for both human capital and climate change, and accounts for over 6 million premature deaths annually.

Nonrenewable natural capital wealth (minerals, fossil fuels) has declined since 2014, mainly due to falling commodity prices. The reportlooks at the projected impacts of a low-carbon transition and border carbon adjustment taxes on fossil fuel wealth and provides recommendations for managing the economic risks posed for resource-dependent countries. Countries that are heavily dependent on fossil fuel wealth were found to have lower shares of wealth from human capital, despite their high income levels, with human capital only comprising 34% of their wealth.

The report outlines several priorities for policymakers to diversify and rebalance their national portfolios to be more resilient and sustainable. It recommends actively investing in public goods like education, health, and nature, to prevent unsustainable depletion, and manage future risks. Recommendations also include policy and pricing measures that help reflect the social value of assets and to steer private investment toward better outcomes for all. This may include, for example, actions like repurposing fisheries subsidies, and taking action to price carbon and promote renewable energy assets.

Regional trends

In Sub-Saharan Africa, wealth per capita has increased over the past two decades, but at a lower rate than other regions. 11 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa saw stagnating or even declining wealth per capita between 1995 and 2018 as population growth outpaced net growth in asset values. Human capital in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased more rapidly than any other asset. However, this growth has been unequal, and the female share of human capital is only about one third of the total. Wealth in natural capital has been declining, and many countries in the region have a high dependence on nonrenewable natural resource revenues, especially from fossil fuels.

As of 2018, the East Asia and the Pacific region has the largest share of wealth in the world, with an 188% increase since 1995. Human capital makes up over half of the region’s wealth, however, only about one third of human capital was attributed to women. Natural capital comes in at 4% of regional wealth, with renewable natural capital declining, led by the drop in marine fisheries. Cropland wealth is projected to be especially hard hit by climate change in East Asia and Pacific countries.

In South Asia,total wealth has grown since 1995, but due to population growth in the same time period, per capita wealth remains among the lowest in the world. Human capital makes up over half of the region’s wealth, but is extremely unbalanced, with over 80% attributed to men, with little change in the past two decades. If gender parity was achieved in South Asia, this could increase human capital nationally by roughly 42 percentage points. As a region, South Asia is also most severely affected by the estimated loss of human capital due to air pollution. Renewable natural capital, particularly cropland, is vital for South Asia, and the value of its blue natural capital also grew over the past two decades.

Wealth in Europe and Central Asia, which includes Western Europe for the purpose of this report, has increased 45% since 1995. Wealth per capita has grown slowly compared with many other regions. Human capital accounts for over half of the region’s wealth, with consistent growth compared to other assets. Non-timber forest resources are becoming the main renewable natural capital asset in Europe and Central Asia, due to the value of ecosystem services they provide, while the value of marine fisheries assets has significantly dropped.

Although total wealth has nearly doubled in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past two decades, there are significant contrasts in the trends of wealth per capita. Some countries have more than doubled their wealth since 1995, while in several Caribbean countries, total wealth per capita has declined. Over time, wealth in nonrenewable natural capital has begun to decline, due to price volatility, but renewable wealth is increasing. Wealth in protected areas has more than doubled, despite the fact that land area of forests has declined. Female labor force participation is higher than in any other region, but Latin America and the Caribbean has still not reached gender parity in its human capital.

Wealth has increased in the Middle East and North Africa in the past two decades, but to a lesser extent than the regional GDP over the same period. Human capital makes up the lowest share of total wealth in this region, compared to other regions, with a significant gender imbalance. Nonrenewable natural capital makes up a large portion of the region’s wealth and has generated issues for countries facing resources dependence and price volatility. The countries in the region reliant on fossil fuel revenues face unique development challenges in the face of global efforts to shift to low-carbon development. Although cropland remains the main renewable natural asset in the region, per capita cropland wealth has declined over the past two decades. The region will need to preserve and restore its renewable 

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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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