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Financial Sector

Greek tragedy: 'Sleepwalking' toward an economic abyss, with eurozone fears pervading the Spring Meetings

Christopher Colford's picture

“All roads lead to Rome” may have been true in ancient times, but policymakers during this Spring Meetings season in Washington have been focused on another classical crossroads: All roads now lead to Athens, as the intensifying eurozone crisis is again stoking fears that Greece may soon “crash out” of the European common currency system – potentially dealing a severe shock to the still-fragile global financial markets.

“The discussions about Greece have pervaded every meeting” during this fast-forward week of finance and diplomacy, said the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. That viewpoint was reinforced by a studious chronicler of the Greek drama’s daily details, Chris Giles of The Financial Times, who asserted – in an unusually dismissive swipe – that “the antics of Greece dominated the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.”

The Greece-focused anxiety was palpable to many Spring Meetings attendees, judging by the number of corridor conversations and solemn sidebars that dwelled on the eurozone drama – especially on the Fund’s side of 19th Street NW. While most forums and panels on the Bank’s side of the street focused on the progress of many developing countries, events at the Fund seemed consumed by the policy contortions within Greece's faltering economy, as Meetings-goers monitored every tremble of their text messages to follow the week’s the week’s staccato bulletin-bulletin-bulletin news of Greece’s financial flailing.

“The mood is notably more gloomy than at the last international gathering,” said Osborne, “and it’s clear . . . that a misstep or miscalculation on either side [of the Greece negotiations] could easily return European economies to the kind of perilous situation we saw three to four years ago.” Having received a $118 billion bailout in May 2010 and a second package of $139 billion in October 2011, Greece is now at an impasse with its creditors: the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. A new government in Greece – having denounced the loan conditions reluctantly accepted by its predecessor governments – is debating how, or whether, it should comply with lenders’ pressure for far-reaching reform. Greece's foot-dragging has exasperated the lenders even as Greece envisions a potential third bailout program.

As the Greek tragedy unfolds, the doleful observation of Wolfgang Münchau in the FT seems all too apt: “Until last week, discussions with Greece did not go well. That changed when the circus of international financial diplomacy moved to Washington for the Spring Meetings. Then it became worse.”

Achieving Universal Financial Access by 2020: what the private sector, governments and multilaterals must do

Nina Vucenik's picture
What needs to happen for everyone in the world to have access to a transaction account by 2020? And, more importantly, why does it matter?

This was the issue the president of the World Bank Group, UN Secretary-General, UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development, private and public sector leaders discussed at an event, Universal Financial Access 2020, during the 2015 World Bank Group-IMF Spring Meetings.

Institutional Investment in Infrastructure (“In3”): A view from the bridge of a development agency

Jordan Z. Schwartz's picture


Note: The first advisory council meeting of the new Global Infrastructure Facility was recently convened at the World Bank Group headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Suddenly, it seems impossible to walk through London, Washington, New Delhi or Nairobi without bumping into a conference on institutional investors in infrastructure. The G20 has discovered the link along with their business counterparts at the B20. So too has the World Economic Forum, the OECD, the United Nations and the international financial institutions. Match the long-term liabilities of pensions and insurance plans with long-term assets, the mantra goes, and the infamous infrastructure gap will close.  Win-win.

If only life were so easy. 

We are reminded of the old expression, “If your grandmother had a beard, she’d be your grandfather.” In this case: If infrastructure were perceived by investors as a truly stable, risk-adjusted investment, it would already be able to attract the financing it needed. There would be no gap.

In truth, some institutional investors found their way into infrastructure assets as far back as the 1990s and have been cautiously growing their investments, attracted by the long-term demand, steady growth and regulated returns. A few of the Canadian pensions and Australian super-annuation funds invest 10 to 12 percent of their assets in infrastructure, while equity funds that focus on infrastructure and related businesses in emerging markets, such as IFC’s Asset Management Company, are growing on the tide of this burgeoning market.

To date, the pensions are mostly exposed in equity investments in the regulated utilities of Europe, North America and Australia, while the funds are focusing on higher-risk, higher-return investments around the edges of infrastructure — in gas platforms and mobile licenses, in telecom towers, in container terminal operators or in the occasional power plant.

The real test of patience and stability will come when debt and debt-like products from the broader range of institutional investors begin flowing into large-scale, basic service infrastructure — transport, power, water and sanitation and the backbone of telecom services. And since infrastructure is highly leveraged — typically 70 to 80 percent debt in the capital structure — the broader infrastructure financing gap will not be closed until this happens.

A few questions surround these ambitions: 
 
  • Why would a development institution care so much about "In3"?
  • What are the hindrances to this happening?
  • What are we doing about it?

Closing the gender finance gap: Three steps firms can take

Heather Kipnis's picture
Despite eye-opening market potential — women control a total of $20 trillion in consumer spending —  they have somehow escaped the notice of the private sector as an engine for economic growth.  Women are 20 percent less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution. Yet a bank account is the first step toward financial inclusion.

Why is it important for the private sector to help with this first step?
 
In increasingly competitive global markets, companies are searching for ways to differentiate themselves, to deepen their reach in existing markets and to expand to new markets. Greater financial access for women would yield a growing market opportunity with phenomenal profit potential for companies. The size of the women’s market, and the resulting business opportunity, is striking:
 
  • Business credit: There is a $300 billion gap in lending capital for formal, women-owned small businesses. Of the 8 to 10 million such businesses in 140 countries, more than 70 percent receive few or no financial services.
  • Insurance Products: The Female Economy, a study in the Harvard Business Review, reported that the women’s market for insurance is calculated to be worth trillions of dollars.
  • Digital payments: Women’s lack of cellphone ownership and use means that millions cannot access digital-payment systems. Closing the gap in access to this technology over the next five years could open a $170 billion market to the mobile industry alone.
 

Greater financial access for women would yield a growing market opportunity with phenomenal profit potential for companies.


For the past several years at IFC, I’ve been working with the private sector, namely financial institutions, to address the supply-and-demand constraints that women face when trying to access the formal financial system. IFC tackles these constraints in three ways:
 
  • Defining the size of the women’s market, female-owned and  -led SMEs, and as individual consumers of financial services
  • Showing financial institutions how to tap into the women’s market opportunity by developing offerings that combine financial products, such as credit, savings and insurance, with non-financial services such as training in business skills
  • Increasing women’s access through convenient delivery channels, such as online, mobile and branchless banking

Updated Global Findex: 62% of adults have an account; 2 billion still unbanked

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

Today we release our new research paper and the 2014 Global Findex dataset, an updated edition of the world’s most comprehensive gauge of global progress on financial inclusion. It’s based on interviews with almost 150,000 adults in more than 140 countries worldwide.

We have plenty to celebrate:

  • Account penetration is deepening in every region. Sixty-two percent of the world’s adult population has an account, up from 51 percent in 2011, when the Global Financial Inclusion database (as it’s known formally) was launched.
  • The ranks of the unbanked are shrinking Worldwide, the number of adults without an account tumbled by 20 percent, to 2 billion.
  • Mobile money accounts — accessed via mobile phone — is powering Sub-Saharan Africa’s march toward financial inclusion. While just 1 percent of adults globally use a mobile account and nothing else, 12 percent of adults in Sub-Saharan Africa have a mobile account — versus just 2 percent worldwide. Of those adults in Sub-Saharan Africa with a mobile account, 45 percent rely on that account exclusively.

History in the making: 'Policy relevance' and long perspective, with the Spring Meetings starting a series of summits

Christopher Colford's picture

History “is a critical science for questioning short-term views, complicating simple stories about causes and consequences, and discovering roads not taken. Historical thinking – and not just by those who call themselves historians – can and should inform practice and policy today. . . . History can upset the established consensus, expand narrow horizons, and ‘keep the powerful awake at night.’ In that mission lies the public future of the past.” -- "The History Manifesto"
 
Lace up your running shoes and summon your stamina: At the starting line of the Spring Meetings sprint, policymakers and economy-watchers are now poised for an adrenaline-fueled week of debates on diplomacy and development at the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund.
 
History hangs heavily over the Bank and Fund this week, amid an animating awareness that “2015 is the most important year for global development in recent memory,” as World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim declared in a speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an environment that has provoked dire warnings by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde about the danger of prolonged low-growth, high-unemployment “secular stagnation” – with “the new mediocre” threatening to become “the new normal” – this week’s meetings will be just the starting-point in a series of events in 2015 that could define the development agenda for decades.

A July conference in Addis Ababa will determine the financing mechanisms for future development initiatives. A September summit at the United Nations in New York will adopt a detailed set of Sustainable Development Goals. A December forum in Paris will adopt – or reject – a worldwide treaty to restrain climate change. Along the way, the Bank and Fund will convene policymakers – in Lima rather than Washington – for the Annual Meetings in October.

Pulling off a success at any one such summit would be a dramatic achievement. Delivering triumphs at all three summits might require masterstrokes of diplomacy.

“When we look at the longer-term picture,” said Kim in his CSIS speech, “we see that the decisions made this year will have an enormous impact on the lives of billions of people across the world for generations to come." The challenges that Kim and Lagarde analyzed in their pre-Spring Meetings speeches require “governments [to] seize the moment” – starting this week – if they hope for success in the Addis-UN-Paris trifecta.
 

The 2014 Global Findex

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

The Little Data Book on Financial Inclusion I’m thrilled to announce the April 15 launch of the 2014 Global Findex database, the world’s most comprehensive gauge of global financial inclusion. Drawing on interviews with almost 150,000 adults in over 140 countries, the Global Findex tracks worldwide changes in account ownership and explores how adults save, borrow, make payments, and manage risk. Financial inclusion, measured by the Global Findex as having an account that allows adults to store money and make and receive electronic payments, is critical to ending global poverty. Studies show that broader access to, and participation in, the financial system can boost job creation, increase investments in education, and directly help poor people manage risk and absorb financial shocks.

Our research updates the first Global Findex database, which the World Bank launched in 2011 in partnership with Gallup, Inc. and with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Their continued support made it possible to add new features to the second edition of the database, including more nuanced questions on mobile banking and an extended module on domestic payments. The 2014 Findex for the first time sheds light on how adults use accounts — and what can be done to have people become more active users of the financial system.

There is much good news to report…. But to learn the details, you’ll need to follow our data launch during the annual World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings.


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