Blame the Economists?


November 7, 2018

Blame the Economists?

by
economists

Ever since the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession, economists have been pilloried for failing to foresee the crisis, and for not convincing policymakers of what needed to be done to address it. But the upheavals of the past decade were more a product of historical contingency than technocratic failure.

 

BERKELEY – Now that we are witnessing what looks like the historic decline of the West, it is worth asking what role economists might have played in the disasters of the past decade.

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From the end of World War II until 2007, Western political leaders at least acted as if they were interested in achieving full employment, price stability, an acceptably fair distribution of income and wealth, and an open international order in which all countries would benefit from trade and finance. True, these goals were always in tension, such that we sometimes put growth incentives before income equality, and openness before the interests of specific workers or industries. Nevertheless, the general thrust of policymaking was toward all four objectives.

Then came 2008, when everything changed. The goal of full employment dropped off Western leaders’ radar, even though there was neither a threat of inflation nor additional benefits to be gained from increased openness. Likewise, the goal of creating an international order that serves everyone was summarily abandoned. Both objectives were sacrificed in the interest of restoring the fortunes of the super-rich, perhaps with a distant hope that the wealth would “trickle down” someday.

At the macro level, the story of the post-2008 decade is almost always understood as a failure of economic analysis and communication. We economists supposedly failed to convey to politicians and bureaucrats what needed to be done, because we hadn’t analyzed the situation fully and properly in real time.

Some economists, like Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University, saw the dangers of the financial crisis, but greatly exaggerated the risks of public spending to boost employment in its aftermath. Others, like me, understood that expansionary monetary policies would not be enough; but, because we had looked at global imbalances the wrong way, we missed the principal source of risk – US financial mis-regulation.

Still others, like then-US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, understood the importance of keeping interest rates low, but overestimated the effectiveness of additional monetary-policy tools such as quantitative easing. The moral of the story is that if only we economists had spoken up sooner, been more convincing on the issues where we were right, and recognized where we were wrong, the situation today would be considerably better.

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The fact that Obama failed to take aggressive action, despite having recognized the need for it beforehand, is a testament to Tooze’s central argument. Professional economists could not convince those in power of what needed to be done, because those in power were operating in a context of political breakdown and lost American credibility. With policy making having been subjected to the malign influence of a rising plutocracy, economists calling for “bold persistent experimentation” were swimming against the tide – even though well-founded economic theories justified precisely that course of action.—

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The Columbia University historian Adam Tooze has little use for this narrative. In his new history of the post-2007 era, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, he shows that the economic history of the past ten years has been driven more by deep historical currents than by technocrats’ errors of analysis and communication.

Specifically, in the years before the crisis, financial deregulation and tax cuts for the rich had been driving government deficits and debt ever higher, while further increasing inequality. Making matters worse, George W. Bush’s administration decided to wage an ill-advised war against Iraq, effectively squandering America’s credibility to lead the North Atlantic through the crisis years.

It was also during this time that the Republican Party began to suffer a nervous breakdown. As if Bush’s lack of qualifications and former Vice President Dick Cheney’s war-mongering weren’t bad enough, the party doubled down on its cynicism. In 2008, Republicans rallied behind the late Senator John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, a folksy demagogue who was even less suited for office than Bush or Cheney; and in 2010, the party was essentially hijacked by the populist Tea Party.

After the 2008 crash and the so-called Great Recession, years of tepid growth laid the groundwork for a political upheaval in 2016. While Republicans embraced a brutish, race-baiting reality-TV star, many Democrats swooned for a self-declared socialist senator with scarcely any legislative achievements to his name. “This denouement,” Tooze writes, “might have seemed a little cartoonish,” as if life was imitating the art of the HBO series “Veep.”

Of course, we have yet to mention a key figure. Between the financial crisis of 2008 and the political crisis of 2016 came the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2004, when he was still a rising star in the Senate, Obama had warned that failing to build a “purple America” that supports the working and middle classes would lead to nativism and political breakdown.

Yet, after the crash, the Obama administration had little stomach for the medicine that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had prescribed to address problems of such magnitude. “The country needs…bold persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. “It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

The fact that Obama failed to take aggressive action, despite having recognized the need for it beforehand, is a testament to Tooze’s central argument. Professional economists could not convince those in power of what needed to be done, because those in power were operating in a context of political breakdown and lost American credibility. With policymaking having been subjected to the malign influence of a rising plutocracy, economists calling for “bold persistent experimentation” were swimming against the tide – even though well-founded economic theories justified precisely that course of action.

Still, I do not find Tooze’s arguments to be as strong as he thinks they are. We economists and our theories did make a big difference. With the exception of Greece, advanced economies experienced nothing like a rerun of the Great Depression, which was a very real possibility at the height of the crisis. Had we been smarter, more articulate, and less divided and distracted by red herrings, we might have made a bigger difference. But that doesn’t mean we made no difference at all.

J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

Gearing Up for the next Financial Crisis


October 22,2018

Gearing Up for the next Financial Crisis

by Andrew Sheng

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http://www.eastasiaforum,org

In July 2018, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) asked whether the world was heading towards a perfect financial storm, with the US stock market heading for record highs even as emerging markets like Argentina and Turkey were running into foreign exchange problems. Twenty years after the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 and the global financial crisis of 2007–08, storm clouds are gathering once again.

Conventional economic models failed to predict the last two crises because the technical definition of financial risk is measured volatility. The global financial crises proved that current models of financial risk, largely used by banks and financial regulators, are totally blind to Black Swan or Grey Rhino events of unmeasurable uncertainty.

This time round, the consensus is that the Grey Rhino (an event with high probability and high impact, but where the trigger is uncertain) is the looming rise in US interest rates in response to a domestic economy that is running at nearly full capacity, with low unemployment levels and signs of creeping inflation. As the BIS has warned, non-financial borrowers outside the United States owe US$11.5 trillion dollars, of which US$3.7 trillion is owed by emerging markets.

Turkey’s recent currency woes are symptoms of domestic policies badly managed, aggravated by the US threat of economic sanctions. Turkey alone has US$467 billion of foreign debt. As global risks rise, capital is flowing back to the booming US stock market and potentially higher interest rate yields. Emerging markets have no alternative but either to allow exchange rate depreciation or defend themselves with higher interest rates that depress their own growth potential. Recently both Indonesia and Hong Kong had to defend their exchange rates through higher interest rates and intervention, respectively.

The tricky thing about US interest rates is that economies with high domestic and foreign debt are vulnerable to tighter liquidity and financial fragility, because their interest rates and credit-risk spreads rise non-linearly. Doomsayers of East Asia’s financial collapse argue that China’s debt of 250 per cent of GDP is the tipping point.

Financial risks are rising not just in China, but globally. Dun and Bradstreet’s Global Risk Matrix, published in May 2018, suggested that US interest rate rises could trigger a fresh debt crisis, sending the global economy into contraction. Echoing this sentiment, the International Monetary Fund’s July 2018 World Economic Outlook argued that rising trade tensions are threatening growth recovery in Europe, Japan and Britain more than predicted. Any overheating in the United States would trigger currency crises for some emerging markets.

In short, we cannot separate financial risks from geopolitical risks. Any unforeseen event arising from a geopolitical miscalculation, climate change disaster, war or cyber-induced disruption could trigger another round of financial crises.

Global financial fragility comes from two structural imbalances. First, the United States is the leading deficit country in terms of trade and debt, owing the world a net US$7.7 trillion, or 39.8 per cent of GDP. This amount is growing because of rising fiscal debt and the low level of national savings. Second, below-par global growth since 2008 has been underwritten almost completely by central bank unconventional monetary policies, which have brought interest rates to an unsustainably low level.

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Market fears that the large central banks will withdraw quantitative easing — QExit — threaten to jeopardise the current frail recovery, which is why US President Donald Trump is also against the Federal Reserve raising interest rates.

If geopolitical risks trump financial risks, what could go wrong in the coming months?

Western analysts think that the trigger will be a Chinese debt meltdown. But Chinese debt is internal debt, as China has foreign exchange reserves equivalent to 188 per cent of its foreign debt and still runs a current account surplus. China’s debt problem is an internal debt issue, very much like that of Japan. While Japanese debt is owed largely to Japanese households, Chinese debt is largely owed by state-owned enterprises and local governments to state-owned banks. In such a situation, China is well positioned to rewrite its national balance sheet, a privilege not possible for more privately dominated markets.

A possible Black Swan (a low probability but high impact event) is an unexpected sharp increase in the yen–dollar exchange rate. Japan is the third largest economy after the United States and China and has been increasing its overseas assets since the 1990s. Between 2007 and July 2018, the Bank of Japan has grown its assets the most among the major central banks (to US$4.9 trillion, or just over 100 per cent of GDP). By the end of 2017, Japan’s gross foreign and net assets grew to US$9 trillion and US$2.9 trillion respectively, equivalent to nearly one quarter of US growth in gross foreign liabilities during the same period.

US trade deficits have been sustained by foreign inflows (which had central bank origins) in which Japan is a major player. During the Asian financial crisis, sharp volatility in the yen–dollar exchange rate caused a dramatic withdrawal of Japanese bank loans from Asia, aggravating a regional liquidity crisis that was already spurred by speculative currency attacks.

What complicates today’s financial fragility is Trump’s attempt to control the US trade deficits. He assumes that bilateral negotiations can reverse the unsustainable growth of national debt, which tripled in the last decade and may grow to 100 per cent of GDP in another decade. But tariffs only increase inflation for the consumer, which would trigger higher interest rates and jeopardise the fragile financial stability achieved through unsustainable monetary policies.

The next global crisis will most likely be triggered by geo-political mistakes. In an age when politicians are proving fickle in their decisions, central bankers are perhaps the only professionals who appear able to do something about financial risks. But since Trump does not care much about professional advice, Asian markets worry less about measurable financial volatility than unmeasurable personality risks.

Andrew Sheng is Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong. 

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not ’.

Safeguarding A Rules-based Trading System against America First Trade Economics


October 16, 2018

Safeguarding A Rules-based Trading System against America First Trade Economics

by Dr. Mari Pangestu, Universitas Indonesia

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

 

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“Without concerted effort and a coalition of willing leadership, including from the EU and East Asia, the future of the rules-based trading system will remain under threat.”–Dr. Mari Elka Pangestu

Despite expectations that the US Federal Reserve would raise interest rates, capital flows to the United States have led to the appreciation of the US dollar against most major currencies.

The hardest hit countries are Argentina and Turkey, which are experiencing fiscal issues complicated by their political situations. Brazil, South Africa and the emerging countries in Asia have also been affected — albeit at a lower rate of depreciation of their currencies in the 10 to 12 per cent range. Even Australia and China have experienced depreciation of around 8 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

The level of depreciation experienced by different economies reflects how investors perceive their different fundamental macroeconomic conditions, especially the level of their current account and fiscal deficits and policy outlooks.

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The rising US dollar raises questions about the capacity of emerging economies to service their dollar-denominated debts and the vulnerabilities this could expose in their financial systems. Even if the current economic conditions point to a low potential for contagion from Argentina and Turkey, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde recently warned that ‘these things could change rapidly’. The uncertainty that already exists is a clear and present danger.

The uncertainty in the world economy has been increasing since Brexit and the election of President Trump in 2016, and in 2017 as the United States left the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announced many threats to impose trade restrictions. This uncertainty has heightened since January 2018 when US President Donald Trump made good on his threats to remedy bilateral trade deficits — what he sees as ‘unfair trade’ practices against the United States — by imposing tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, followed by aluminium and steel.

Since March, the greatest uncertainty has been from the brewing tit for tat trade conflict between the United States and China, which started with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on US$50 billion worth of China’s exports to the United States. China retaliated with the same sized tariffs on the same amount of trade from the United States. Trump then escalated the trade war further in September with the announcement of 10 per cent tariffs on US$200 billion worth of China’s exports to the United States.

The US–China trade conflict and the uncertainty surrounding it is expected to have knock on effects on global trade and investment flows. The impact of the reduction in China’s exports to the United States on China’s growth will reduce China’s imports, which in turn will impact the many countries that China has become a major trading partner for.

This means that China and other countries facing US trade restrictions will look for new markets for their goods. The situation has already led some countries to impose restrictions or initiate trade remedy investigations, for instance on steel. This uncertainty has and will continue to influence trade and investment, as businesses evaluate how the increased restrictions will affect their supply chains.

It is too early to tell how large the disruption will be, as it is not easy to dismantle supply chains. But the costs down the line could be great as businesses re-evaluate their trade and investment decisions to insulate themselves from tariffs rather than to maximise their competitiveness.

The most concerning aspect of all this is that, after 75 years of being its greatest advocate, the United States is now the biggest threat to the future of the rules-based trading system that has provided predictability and fairness in the way the world engages in trade. There is no clear light at the end of the tunnel.

The key question is: what is Trump’s intention? Is it to change the rules of the game to benefit the United States and address China’s ‘non-market-oriented policies’ or is it just anti-trade and America First? Assuming it is the former, there are at least three important responses needed.

First is safeguarding the stability of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the overarching framework to provide predictability, fairness and stability. To this end, it is vital that the WTO dispute settlement mechanism continues to operate. The test case is the Chinese and EU case against US steel and aluminium tariffs and getting past the blocking of panel judge nominations by the United States.

Ensuring that the United States does not use blunt unilateral instruments to address its concerns also means that reforms to the WTO rule book are needed. More must be done to address concerns around intellectual property rights, investment, the environment, labour, competition policy, subsidies, tax, digital data and the treatment of developing countries.

Second, the process of opening-up must continue, with or without the United States. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is a good start. And it is of the utmost importance that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations are concluded in November this year. These are all important processes to signal the continued commitment of East Asia to expanding markets and fostering flows of trade and investment.

Third, and what most will agree is the most important process, is unilateral reforms. Given increased global uncertainty and limited policy space for fiscal stimulus, structural reforms are a must for East Asian countries, especially China. These range from trade and investment reforms, as well as reforms related to competition policy, intellectual property, the role of state-owned enterprises and sustainability. As in the past, unilateral reforms are more successfully undertaken when there is peer pressure and benchmarking from international commitments.

Without concerted effort and a coalition of willing leadership, including from the EU and East Asia, the future of the rules-based trading system will remain under threat.

Dr. Mari Pangestu is former Indonesian trade minister and Professor at the University of Indonesia.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not’.

What Lehman Brothers’ Failure Means Today


What Lehman Brothers’ Failure Means Today

by Harold James

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/lehman-brothers-ten-year-anniversary-by-harold-james-2018-09

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The standard story about the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers is that it led to a deeper understanding of the risks of financial complexity and free-wheeling capitalism. In fact, the ensuing crises in the US, Europe, and elsewhere were more a product of broader changes in twenty-first-century politics and society.

 

PRINCETON – So far this year, the world has marked the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring (and its suppression), the centennial of the end of World War I, and the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth. Against that backdrop, should one really care about the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers?  

Yes, we should. Lehman may not have been a particularly large bank, and it probably was not even insolvent when it failed. Nonetheless, it nearly took down the global financial system and triggered the Great Recession. Lehman was transformative because it fundamentally altered people’s understanding of the world around them.

After September 15, 2008, the fear of “another Lehman” and a deeper financial catastrophe put the United States on the path toward wide-ranging reform. And Lehman was constantly invoked during the European financial crisis that erupted after 2010, highlighting fears of a “death spiral” stemming from state bankruptcies and defaults. Since then, the scare story seems to have lost its effectiveness. In the US, banking reforms are now being undone; and in the European Union, government debt-to-GDP ratios are well above where they were in 2008.

Still, for policymakers and opinion-shapers, the 2008 financial crisis produced three new grand narratives. First, after Lehman, the American economist Charles Kindleberger’s 1978 masterful book Manias, Panics, and Crashes met with a newfound popularity. Kindleberger had drawn explicitly from the American economist Hyman Minsky’s work on financial cycles, and his arguments were read as a warning against “market fundamentalism.”

The second narrative was that Lehman’s failure had made the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression newly relevant. Policymakers drew lessons from the interwar years, and successfully avoided a full repeat of that period. During the Great Depression, especially in Germany and the US, the prevailing attitude was that of then-US Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” By contrast, the response during the Great Recession was to use public debt to replace insecure private debt – an intervention that would prove sustainable only as long as interest rates remained low.

The third narrative held that Lehman’s collapse augured the end of American capitalism. This butterfly-effect story was popular in every country that was tired of being bossed around by the US. As Germany’s then-finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, explained in September 2008: “The US will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system, not abruptly but it will erode.”

At first, the 2008 crisis was widely regarded as a quintessentially American disaster, owing to the country’s mix of testosterone-driven finance and penchant for promoting home ownership even for those who cannot afford it. Only gradually was it recognized as a truly transatlantic affair. As the economists Hyun Song Shin and Tamim Bayoumi subsequently show, badly regulated, oversized European banks played a key role in the build-up of risk throughout the financial system.

Neither of the first two popular narratives is really correct. The crisis was not a market failure, but rather the product of opaque, dysfunctional non-market institutions that had become perversely intertwined. It exposed the problem of complexity – not of markets as such.

Specifically, the reason that Lehman was such a problem was that it was not really a single corporation. It comprised some 7,000 separate entities in over 40 countries, all of which would need to go through a complex and costly valuation and bankruptcy process. This opacity, which was hardly unique to the US, created the sense that the world was close to another Great Depression when it really wasn’t.

The crisis was the product of escalating short-termism in financial markets. While banks wanted to offload securitized products before they became toxic, other market participants were looking to win on short-term bets, paying little mind to the longer-term viability of the investment. In this sense, volatility was desirable, as it created new opportunities for gain.

After Lehman collapsed, the twin narratives about “market failure” and “another Great Depression” had a massive effect on public perceptions, and fueled the third narrative, which actually happens to be true. America’s financial and political preeminence has in fact waned.

The global primacy of the US was based on economic and political power, but it also depended on something more fundamental: trust in America’s capacity to deliver on its promises over the long term. The crisis undermined that trust, even though US economic and political power remained only slightly diminished. The deeper contagion was intellectual, not financial.

Financial behavior does not occur in a vacuum. The same kind of short-term, hyperactive mindset that felled Lehman was also taking root in the rest of society at the time. Tellingly, the iPhone was introduced in June 2007, just as early signs of the impending crisis were coming into view.

With the smartphone came all kinds of new possibilities. It added dynamism to inchoate social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And it provided the basis for Tinder and other apps which have transformed the social life of millions, pushing dating further in the direction of short-termism and away from longer-term commitment.

The new digital devices and platforms encouraged hyper-individualism. But they also affected political outlooks and behavior, by making it easier than ever to reinforce one’s own views while avoiding alternative opinions. One result, little wonder, is the online culture of demonization, abuse, harassment, and manipulation we see today.

Much of today’s political volatility is a consequence of these new ways of thinking and communicating. Technology and finance adopted the same ethos: destroy continuity and glorify disruption.

Lehman Brothers’ collapse revealed a flaw not just in finance, but in twenty-first-century politics and society. The irony is that, rather than forestalling an era of technologically driven short-termism, the subsequent crisis seems to have accelerated it.

 

The Paradox of Globalization: Development Cooperation at Risk


August 22,  2018

The Paradox of Globalization: Development Cooperation at Risk

by Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram

http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/08/globalization-enhanced-development-cooperation/

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Protracted economic stagnation in rich countries continues to threaten the development prospects of poorer countries. Globalization and economic liberalization over the last few decades have integrated developing countries into the world economy, but now that very integration is becoming a threat as developing countries are shackled by the knock-on effects of the rich world’s troubles.
Trade interdependence at risk
As a consequence of increased global integration, growth in developing countries relies more than ever on access to international markets. That access is needed, not only to export products, but also to import food and other requirements. Interdependence nowadays, however asymmetric, is a two-way street, but with very different traffic flows.
Unfortunately, the trade effects of the crisis have been compounded by their impact on development cooperation efforts, which have been floundering lately. In 1969, OECD countries committed to devote 0.7% of their Gross National Income in official development assistance (ODA) to developing countries. But the total in 2017 reached only $146.6 billion, or 0.31% of aggregate gross national income – less than half of what was promised.
In 2000, UN member states adopted the Millennium Development Goals to provide benchmarks for tackling world poverty, revised a decade and a half later with the successor Sustainable Development Goals. But all serious audits since show major shortfalls in international efforts to achieve the goals, a sober reminder of the need to step up efforts and meet longstanding international commitments, especially in the current global financial crisis.
Aid less forthcoming
Individual countries’ promises of aid to the least developed countries (LDCs) have fared no better, while the G-7 countries have failed to fulfill their pledges of debt forgiveness and aid for poorer countries that they have made at various summits over the decades.
At the turn of the century, development aid seemed to rise as a priority for richer countries. But, having declined precipitously following the Cold War’s end almost three decades ago, ODA flows only picked up after the 9/11 or September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Monterrey Consensus, the outcome of the 2002 first ever UN conference on Financing for Development, is now the major reference for international development financing.
But, perhaps more than ever before, much bilateral ODA remains ‘tied’, or used for donor government projects, rendering the prospects of national budgetary support more remote than ever. Tied aid requires the recipient country to spend the aid received in the donor country, often on overpriced goods and services or unnecessary technical assistance. Increasingly, ODA is being used to promote private corporate interests from the donor country itself through ostensible ‘public-private partnerships’ and other similar arrangements.
Not surprisingly, even International Monetary Fund staff have become increasingly critical of ODA, citing failure to contribute to economic growth. However, UN research shows that if blatantly politically-driven aid is excluded from consideration, the evidence points to a robust positive relationship. Despite recent efforts to enhance aid effectiveness, progress has been modest at best, not least because average project financing has fallen by more than two-thirds!
Debt
Debt is another side of the development dilemma. In the last decade, the joint IMF-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative and its extension, the supplementary Multilateral Debt Relief initiative, made some progress on debt sustainability. But debt relief is still not treated as additional to ODA. The result is ‘double counting’ as what is first counted as a concessional loan is then booked again as a debt write-off.
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At the 2001 LDCs summit in Brussels, developed countries committed to providing 100% duty-free and quota-free (DFQF) access for LDC exports. But actual access is only available for 80% of products, and anything short of full DFQF allows importing countries to exclude the very products that LDCs can successfully export.
Unfortunately, many of the poorest countries have been unable to cope with unsustainable debt burdens following the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Meanwhile, there has been little progress towards an equitable and effective sovereign-debt workout framework despite the debilitating Argentine, Greek and other crises.
Technology gap
In addition to facing export obstacles, declining aid inflows, and unsustainable debt, the poorest countries remain far behind developed countries technologically. Affordable and equitable access to existing and new technologies is crucial for human progress and sustainable development in many areas, including food security and climate-change mitigation and adaptation.
The decline of public-sector research and agricultural-extension efforts, stronger intellectual-property claims and greater reliance on privately owned technologies have ominous implications, especially for the poor. The same is true for affordable access to essential medicines, on which progress remains modest.
An international survey in recent years found that such medicines were available in less than half of poor countries’ public facilities and less than two-thirds of private facilities. Meanwhile, median prices were almost thrice international reference prices in the public sector, and over six times as much in the private sector!
Thus, with the recent protracted stagnation in many rich countries, fiscal austerity measures, growing protectionism and other recent developments have made things worse for international development cooperation.
Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

Tariq Ismail takes on The Economist for calling Dr. Mahathir Mohamad “Chief of Everything”


August 18, 2018

Tariq Ismail takes on The Economist for calling Dr. Mahathir Mohamad  “Chief of Everything”

By Tariq Ismail

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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I refer to the article referencing an editorial in The Economist entitled “Malaysia’s New Leaders Have Found Their First 100 Days Tough”.

The Economist editorial board opined that although Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has made headway in fulfilling key election pledges, in effect Mahathir is hindered by a “novice” Cabinet.

The article further contends that this has resulted in Mahathir having to become the “chief of everything”, thus reverting to his old autocratic ways. The piece also claims this is why Mahathir is retaining “cronies” such as those in the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) and Daim Zainuddin.

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Malaysia’s ” Chief of Everything (The Economist)” or a strong crisis Leader ?

Worse still, The Economist is mischievously insinuating that Mahathir has no intention of dismantling racial policies seen as favouring the majority Malays despite his unexpected move in appointing Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister.

The Economist further, and I have to say very subtly, insinuates that this state of governance is hindering Malaysia’s economic growth, by comparing Malaysia’s expected growth rate of 5% for 2018 against 6% in 2017.

I have to say, this is a very mischievous and almost maligning piece by The Economist. I thus feel compelled to enlighten the public, both local and foreign, of the state of matters as it stands.

The Economist, as influential as it is, must surely understand the nature of change, particularly involving changes in government. Who can forget the case of the Missing W’s when President George W Bush took over from President Bill Clinton? Or even the debacle of the US Cabinet appointments under the leadership of President Donald Trump? Yet, The Economist expects immediate and absolute perfection in the new Malaysian Cabinet line-up despite a game-changing opposition win after 60 years of single-party rule.

The Economist apparently fails to understand that in situations of change, there will be learning curves and gaps in knowledge and experience. That is only to be expected.

I challenge The Economist to undergo an equally momentous change without similar issues, just within its own organisation.

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The Council of Eminent Persons is, in fact, a crisis management team. It is being led by former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin who took Malaysia out of two serious economic recessions. His leadership of CEP and his steady stewardship of the economy (in 1986 and 1998) is welcome by the international and domestic business community, given the uncertain times ahead as the trade war between America and China heats up. –Din Merican

The appointment of the CEP was made in recognition of this gap in experience and knowledge, particularly given the anticipated challenges in cleaning up after the Najib Razak administration. Professionals in the field of change will know that in such situations of extreme challenges, it is important to establish a team focused on clearing and cleaning up while the existing managers ensure that business runs as usual.

Failure to do so will exacerbate the tremendous problems currently faced.

It is just good change management practice and should be more relevant given the situation the new Malaysia finds itself in.

As for becoming the “chief of everything”, I am surprised The Economist says this. After all, isn’t a CEO a chief of everything? Yes, under normal circumstances, a CEO approves by exception only. However, these are exceptional times for new Malaysia. A new ruling alliance and fresh-faced ministers are confronted with a corruption and money-laundering scandal which has inspired a new field of study in international money-laundering, and these same fresh-faced ministers have to contend with the fall-out of that scandal domestically.

I ask the CEO at The Economist, had you been the incoming CEO in such a situation, would you freely delegate as you would in more normal circumstances? Or would you keep tighter control on the reins of power?

I have to say that despite all this, Mahathir has been admirably receptive and flexible to the suggestions and objections of the coalition ministers in his crafting of policies and handling of issues.

I think The Economist and regrettably most Western commentators on the new Malaysia underestimate the fine balance between the PH coalition and the public support behind it. There is an assumption, especially in the international media, that change was imminent simply based on the change instigated by PKR 20 years ago, and that this meant the PH coalition partners are all cut from the same cloth, so to speak, and are thus of one mind. This is a simplistic and careless analysis of Malaysian politics.

The reality is that Malaysia’s voting demographics, whether by economic standing or ethnicity, is fractious at best. This extends to political party support as well. PKR would never have made it on its own without the other coalition partners who are more modest in comparison but who still commanded crucial support from the section of society that could push PH over the 50% mark to win the election.

At this juncture, everyone would do well to remember that a coalition by definition is “a temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government”. Massive amounts of negotiation and give-and-take are required to make a coalition work, and even more so to make it historically successful. This does not happen without a firm leader guiding the numerous coalition partners in thought and deed, such that everyone reaches a consensus. If this is mistaken for Mahathir reverting to his “old autocratic ways”, I can assure you, a significant number of voting Malaysians are happy for it to remain so for now.

I say this because The Economist, and probably many others, seem to have forgotten the most important lesson of the new Malaysia. It is this: ordinary individuals who share the same universal values and the desire to do what is right by their own selves have the power to effect change regardless of race, ethnicity, economic standing, gender, age and ideology.

As such, The Economist’s pathetic attempts at stoking the fire of dissent and racial enmity topped by a prediction of poorer economic performance will not work in the new Malaysia. The people of the new Malaysia have always been the drivers of our own economic and political fortunes, good or bad. We know this for certain. And we know that as we did before, we can do so again if need be. The power is in our hands.

Tariq Ismail is a member of the PPBM Supreme Council.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.