A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Ten years ago this month the European Union expanded to include 10 new members - Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovak Republic and Slovenia. It was the largest expansion in the EU's history in terms of population and area, and of historic importance in that it brought into one Union countries that had formerly been on different sides of the Iron Curtain.
Given the Eurozone crisis from which the EU is slowly recovering, it is natural to ask if EU membership has benefitted the 2004 entrants.
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Saving for old age is important in countries where longevity is increasing. Countries in Central Europe and the Baltics emerged from the economic transition of the 1990s recognizing that they needed to encourage their workforce to retire later and save more in order to be comfortable in old age. To this end, they modified their pay as you go pension systems which collects taxes from workers to pay retirees (the "first pillar") to create an additional or "second pillar" of individual pension accounts funded by taxes. As these second pillar pension accounts were the private property of individual workers, they were expected to encourage saving. Over time as these savings grew, it would be possible to reduce the pensions paid by the government from the first pillar without reducing the standard of living for pensioners who would be able to rely on complementary pensions from their private saving in the second pillar. Typically, a share of payroll tax receipts was redirected to finance individual pension saving accounts. This resulted in revenue shortfalls in pay as you go you pension schemes, and most governments raised additional debt to meet their obligations which was in turn held by the companies who were managing the pension savings on behalf of employees. However, since the economies were growing rapidly, fiscal deficits were generally kept manageable, easing concerns about additional debt.
Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
Economic growth has returned to Central Europe and the Baltics. With the exception of Slovenia, all countries are expected to see positive growth in 2014 - ranging from a tepid 0.8% in Croatia, to more respectable growth rates of 2.2% in Romania and 2.8% in Poland, to highs of 3-4.5% percent in the Baltic Republics. Europe, more broadly, is also turning the corner and is expected to grow at around 1.5%.
Amidst this much welcome growth, however, one question remains: will economic growth be good for the bottom 40 percent and can they expect to see their incomes grow?
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the results from the most recent assessment of mathematics, reading, and science competencies of 15 year-olds (the Program for international Student Assessment, PISA) last December, it held encouraging news for the European Union’s newest members. Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic scored above the OECD average and ahead of many richer European Union neighbors. Compared to previous assessments, the 2012 scores of most countries in Central Europe and the Baltics were up (as they were in Turkey, as Wiseman et al highlighted in this blog recently). Improvements were particularly marked in Bulgaria and Romania, traditionally the weakest PISA achievers in the EU, as well as well-performing Poland and Estonia. Only Slovakia and Hungary saw declines (see chart with PISA mathematics scores).
Collectively, the 10 indicators in Doing Business 2014 are a great tool for assessing the ease of doing business in countries and measuring the quality of their regulations.
The results can be surprising for some countries in the European Union (EU): Would you ever consider that the most difficult country to start a business in the EU is Austria? That Italy is the worst place to pay taxes? That one of the top countries in protecting investors is Slovenia? Or that Poland is the global runner-up in providing information about credit?
A recent regional study that focused on Roma and non-Roma in nearby communities from five Eastern European countries finds between 28 and 45 percent of Roma children attend preschool in four of the five study countries. However, the Roma preschool rate jumps to 76 percent in Hungary, where targeted policies have been in place; and this is about the average for non-Roma preschool rates across the five countries. Hungary’s experience offers promise because surveys show that preschool matters greatly to completing secondary school and staying off social assistance.
Sovereign difficulties have divided financial markets in the Euro area, thereby increasing differences in bank lending rates across countries. Policy makers in both Brussels and Frankfurt are concerned about an uneven transmission of policy interest rate cuts by the European Central Bank (ECB) to bank lending rates across the region.
Based on this situation, a key question stands out: is the link between official, market, and retail interest rates broken?
When markets are functioning properly, interest rates on loans follow the policy rate in a uniform way across countries (granted with some lag). But, in the context of the ongoing crisis, markets became somewhat irresponsive – resulting in ECB rate cuts being unevenly passed on to borrowers across Euro-area countries. This uneven distribution has meant that those countries facing greater financial difficulties had to endure tougher financing conditions than those facing fewer difficulties – as exemplified when comparing Spanish and Italian retail rates to the much-lower French and German ones.
So far, the economic literature has been relatively robust in arguing that government bond yields or credit default swaps (CDSs), given their stability, do not exert much influence on the way banks set their interest rates for their clients. However, the crisis has shown that because of the interconnectedness of central bank and sovereign balance sheets, developments in sovereign markets affect retail interest rates.
How has this played out in the EU11 countries? Have retail interest rate decreased in those countries where central banks reduced their policy rates? Or, was this a reaction on downward movement of CDSs?
Figure 1. Interest rates on new lending to enterprises (in Percent) and CDS spreads (in basis points) in selected EU11 countries
An increasing number of countries are developing national strategies for financial education and implementing programs to enhance people’s financial capability. At least 36 countries have already established or are in the process of designing a national strategy for financial education according to the OECD. Boosting people’s ability to take sound financial decisions has emerged as a new policy objective, both in developed and developing countries. The recent financial crisis has reinforced the view that being financially capable is important. However, let’s take a step back. What do we know about how capable people are in different countries across the world in managing their finances? Which knowledge and skills gaps exist that could be filled with financial capability enhancing programs? Which populations are the least financially knowledgeable and capable and would benefit the most from any interventions?
Emerging Europe and Central Asia (ECA) is an interesting region because what you expect is not always what exists. Since this is written in honor of International Women's Day, discussing women’s labor market participation seems appropriate. The standard indicator used for this is the “female labor force participation” (LFP) rate, which is the proportion of all women between 15-64 years who either work or are looking for work.
Since much of the region has a common socialist legacy, you would expect to see similar labor market behavior among women. However, the proportion of women who work ranges from a low of 42 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina to 74 percent of adult women in Kazakhstan. And it wasn’t 20 years of social and economic transition that led to this divergence. Even in 1990, the range was about the same. The exception was Moldova which saw a 26 percentage point decline.
- Russian Federation
- Kyrgyz Republic
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Europe and Central Asia
- Labor and Social Protection
- Social Development
- Macroeconomics and Economic Growth
- labor market
- international women's day
Eleven of the less prosperous members of the European Union – Bulgaria, Croatia1, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia (EU11)—have remained attractive destinations for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovakia witnessed FDI levels in 2012 similar to pre-crisis levels. Poland and Bulgaria also experienced large gains in FDI in 2012.