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Financial Sector

This Week in #SouthAsiaDev: February 6th, 2015

Mary Ongwen's picture

The Specter Haunting Davos – Piketty as ‘Banquo’s Ghost’: Reforming 'the Mercenary Society' via an Energetic Agenda

Christopher Colford's picture



Metaphor of the month, via a deft dispatch from Davos: Thomas “Piketty was not in attendance this year – which was like putting on ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince” of Denmark, quipped Larry Elliott, the economics editor of The Guardian, as he needled ostentatious Davos-goers for only half-heartedly living up to the Davos dictum  of being “ ‘committed to improving the state of the world,’ provided nothing much changes.” 

Let’s shift the Shakespearean citation slightly, from “Hamlet” to “Macbeth”: Like Banquo’s ghost, the specter of Piketty’s analysis of inequality and injustice seemed to haunt many private-sector leaders at Davos this year – and thus the scholar from the Paris School of Economics didn’t need to be present in order to have a powerful impact at this year’s World Economic Forum.

Amid last week's self-exculpatory denialism from the unrepentant-oligarch wing of the Davos Man culture, one could almost hear the apologists for plutocracy and the free-market fatalists joining the conscience-stricken Macbeth in shrieking to Banquo's implacable apparition: “Thou canst not say I did it! Never shake thy gory locks at me!

The Davos 2015 parade of plutocrats may have been worth all the time and trouble, after all – despite its customary spectacles of self-indulgence – if the pageantry helped pique the conscience of some of the One Percenters and their courtiers, at least momentarily. “Most of the conversations between chief executives here are about Piketty-type issues. They talk about things [at Davos that] they wouldn’t be talking about back in the boardroom,” one eminent corporate leader told Elliott of The Guardian. Piketty-inspired concerns about inequality – along with fears of chronic economic stagnation and an irretrievably despoiled planetseem likely to inform this year’s top-level global policy forums, from Addis Ababa in July to the United Nations in September to Paris in December.
 
Signaling that many private-sector leaders have been awoken by, and are responding to, Piketty's landmark analysis of the intensifying concentration of capital in ever-fewer hands – which is provoking a more rigid stratification of society along hardening lines of social class – the World Economic Forum itself set the stage for Davos 2015 by publishing a 14-point agenda for promoting more inclusive growth. That analysis, searching for constructive solutions, is certainly a welcome contribution to the debate. Yet Piketty’s analysis of the widening gaps between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else – with Davos as perhaps an inadvertent self-parody of the cocooned Uber One Percent – suggests that there’s scant hope for mending a torn society unless policymakers enact policy changes on a vast scale: by (among other priorities) adopting greater progressivity in tax rates and enforcing a crackdown on cross-border tax evasion.

(An aside, regarding those who quibble with a point of Piketty-era terminology – and those who have attempted, and have conspicuously failed, to refute Piketty’s logic. Using a chicken-and-egg argument, some theorists lament the Piketty-inspired focus on the term “inequality,” insisting that inequality may be the outgrowth of, rather than the cause of, economic stagnation and social stratification. Fair enough. Yet such casuistry dwells on a distinction without a practical difference. Enacting pro-growth programs to avoid “secular stagnation” would surely be wise policymaking. Yet no serious plan would envision going back to a pre-2008-style “GDP growth at any cost” approach. The global financial crisis of 2008 revealed the recklessness of simplistic gun-the-engine, GDP-uber-alles policies that produce merely unsustainable, low-quality growthToday’s pragmatists, instead, champion a more inclusive economy that eases social divisions and sustains broader opportunity – promoting what the World Bank Group calls “shared prosperity.”)

Judging by Piketty’s esteem among Davos 2015 participants, most leaders of the private sector – all but a recalcitrant few, some of whom dwell on the free-market fundamentalist fringe – have evidently gotten the message (at last): Chronic inequality and stifled social mobility have reached a socially intolerable and perhaps politically destabilizing intensity. Yet if all but an eccentric remnant in the private sector “get it,” do public-sector policymakers – many of whom seem ever-eager to do the bidding of the most self-aggrandizing monied interests? The Davos-style ideal of “capitalism for the long term” is motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” yet many boardrooms – and those politicians who are forever at their beck and call – apparently need still more enlightenment and less self-interest.

Charting the next steps beyond Piketty's “Capital in the Twenty-First Century" – advancing from academic analysis to social action – will be the next order of business in 2015, a year with parliamentary elections in several pivotal countries. Just in time for the post-Davos and pre-election season, a newly published book seems poised to pick up where Piketty left off: emphasizing that society needs a healthier balance between private-sector dynamism and public-sector activism, undergirded by a humane sense that an economy with truly shared prosperity should prioritize social fairness.

With their appetites whetted by early excerpts published this week in The Observer, many admirers of Piketty will be eager to read “How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country” by Will Hutton, the principal of Hertford College, Oxford. Hutton – for all his gloom about the injustices inflicted on his native United Kingdom over the past 35 years – advances an optimistic agenda that might show the way toward correcting decades’ worth of policy errors.

“Inequality has become a challenge to us as moral beings,” declares Hutton, reinforcing Piketty’s view of a society starkly stratified by social class. A callousness toward social divisions has spilled over from the economic realm into political decision-making, resulting in an “amoral deficit of integrity” – and Hutton is not shy about pointing to a specific turning point, or about naming a specific name.

“Ever since [Margaret] Thatcher’s election in 1979, Britain’s elites have relegated concerns about inequality below the existential question of how to restore our capitalist economy to economic health, a matter deemed to transcend all other considerations,” writes Hutton. “The language of the socioeconomic landscape has been commanded by words like efficiency, productivity, wealth generation, aspiration, entrepreneur, pro-business and incentives. To the extent they are significant at all, preoccupations with inequality have been seen as of second-order importance.”

The “raw trends” of the weakened power of wage-earners and the strengthened dominance of capital-owners – the outgrowth of Piketty’s iconic formula, r>g – “are then exacerbated by the reduction of taxation on capital, companies and higher earners in the name of promoting incentives and 'wealth generation.' " No wonder, Hutton asserts, that the United Kingdom has suffered “a stunning increase in inequality, the fastest in the OECD.”

Readers who were drawn to Piketty’s logic – yet who were left by "Capital" with a despairing feeling of “where do we go from here?” – are likely to warm to Hutton’s work, which extends the logic of his influential 1995 analysis, “The State We’re In.”

“Indifference to the growing gap between rich and poor, in all its multiple dimensions, is the first-order-category mistake of our times," warns Hutton. "No lasting solution to the socioeconomic crisis through which we are living is possible without addressing it.”

Recalling his years of energetic columns in The Guardian and The Observer, Hutton’s activist economic prescription in “How Good We Can Be” seems likely to include a better-focused approach to industrial policy; targeted investment in innovation capacity; pro-entrepreneurship mechanisms to sharpen competitiveness; and pro-active tax policies that ease rather than intensify the wealth divide.

Many of those who missed this year’s Davos triumph of Piketty-style reasoning are now awaiting the arrival of Hutton’s new book on this side of the Atlantic. Piketty scored the scholarly sensation of 2014 with the publication of “Capital.” My early hunch is that Hutton, with “How Good We Can Be,” just might achieve a similar agenda-setting success in 2015.
 

#TakeOn Inequality


 

Public financial management reforms: determined by conditions or resulting from the right approach?

Verena Fritz's picture



Reforms of public financial management (PFM) systems – pursued by many countries and supported by development partners -- have attracted quite a bit of debate and analysis in recent years. Significant variation in progress achieved and lack of broad-based and sustained improvements in metrics of PFM performance, as reflected in CPIA ratings and PEFA scores, suggest to many observers that outcomes have not matched reform efforts and expectations. 

This has led to a search for better solutions in two directions. First, grounding reform efforts in stronger problem analysis, and based on this, developing a better fit of reform approaches to specific country circumstances. Second, seeking a better understanding of non-technical aspects and, in particular, the role of political economy drivers in influencing which PFM reforms are pursued where and with what degree of success. ‘Doing things differently’ along these lines sounds promising – but reformers and development partners may well question whether we know enough to pursue such alternative approaches on a wider scale. 

Measured Profit is not Welfare or is it? Intriguing evidence from when microfinance clients gave up microfinance

David McKenzie's picture
I finally got around to reading an intriguing paper by Banerjee, Duflo and Hornbeck that has been on my reading list for a while. This paper is a nice example of making lemonade out of lemons – they had intended to evaluate a health insurance product that a microfinance organization in India made mandatory for its clients in selected villages.

Apply for SAFE Trust Fund grants

Soukeyna Kane's picture



The SAFE Trust Fund application (Word document) is now open until 27 February 2015.
 
What is SAFE?
 
SAFE means Strengthening Accountability and the Fiduciary Environment. It is a Trust Fund group administered by the World Bank and established by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and the European Commission with the aim of improving public financial management in the Europe and Central Asia region. This Trust Fund group provides support for activities to assess public financial management (PFM) performance, identify and implement actions to achieve improvements and share knowledge and good practices across countries in the region.

Mind, Society, and Behavior – and Financial Inclusion

Douglas Randall's picture

Like many World Bankers, I took some time recently to look through the newly released 2015 World Development Report “Mind, Society, and Behavior.” From my perspective, in the Finance and Markets Global Practice, one thing jumped out immediately: The report is packed with insights that are directly relevant to our work on financial inclusion.

In the Overview alone, the reader is met with an abundance of findings related to consumer protection, financial capability, savings and other key topics involving financial inclusion (grouped together under the theme of “household finance,” which is fully explored in Chapter 6). We’re told of how changes to the framing of payday-loan terms dramatically altered borrowing behavior in the Unitedc States; how embedding financial messages in an engaging television soap opera in South Africa improved the financial choices of viewers; and how SMS reminders increased saving rates in Bolivia, Peru and the Philippines.

Of course, this is not the first body of work to summarize key behavioral lessons learned from decades of careful research on financial inclusion: See, for example, Chapters 6-9 of Banerjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics or the Bank’s 2014 GFDR on Financial Inclusion.) But these examples do help drive home the key message of the report: Paying attention to how people think, and to how history and context shape their thinking, can improve the design and implementation of development policies and interventions that target human behavior.

The report highlights that psychological impulses such as present bias, loss aversion and cognitive overload can lead to poor financial decision-making. For those in or on the edge of poverty, the ramifications of these poor decisions – low savings, chronic over-indebtedness, investment shortsightedness – can be devastating. We are reminded that most adults in developing economies do not benefit from the sophisticated financial tools such as automatic salary deposits, mandatory retirement contributions, or default insurance programs that help mitigate the effects of automatic thinking.

Yet, as outlined in Chapter 6, there are a range of interventions that have been shown to help address behavioral constraints on financial decisions in a developing-country context. Many of those interventions take advantage of what we know about the natural processes of the mind, using techniques such as framing, default settings and emotion persuasion to nudge people toward better financial decisions.

Engaging governments to increase their capacity: lessons from Tajikistan

Oleksii Balabushko's picture
Pomegranate farm. Tajikistan. Photo: Gennadiy Ratushenko / World Bank

 In 2010-14, we were facing a challenging task: develop a new approach to increase institutional and leadership capacity in Tajikistan’s public sector, including internal capability to initiate reforms. 

How do you build government capacity in a low income fragile state  in a way that would fit with the country context?

If you are familiar with the Western part of the former Soviet Union and have never been to Tajikistan, you are in for a surprise. The differences with countries such as Ukraine or Georgia are staggering.  To put things in the global perspective, Tajikistan has a GDP per capita lower than Cameroon, Djibouti and Papua New Guinea. The country suffered a civil war that lasted five years (1992-1997), resulted in massive internal displacement and decimated civil service. Despite establishing formal governing institutions after the war, institutional capacity remains weak.

Rising Financial Pressures from the East

Aurora Ferrari's picture
It’s hard to get a break in the Europe and Central Asia region, it seems – even a short one. Hit hard by the troubles in the Eurozone at the beginning of the decade, emerging and developing countries in Eastern Europe are, at the beginning of this year, contending with renewed fears. Meanwhile, external pressures have built up on the Central Asia side as well.

All eyes turned to Russia recently, when on 16 December the ruble plunged by more than 11 percent, despite the Central Bank of Russia’s last-minute interest rate hike of 6.5 percentage points to 17 percent. When it looked like Russia’s turmoil might spread to global markets, western economies sat up and paid close attention.

What may have gone unnoticed, however, is the ongoing impact on our client countries in the Europe and Central Asia region.

The GSMA Code of Conduct for Mobile Money Providers: Does It Go Far Enough to Protect Consumers?

Ros Grady's picture


The recently launched GSM Association Code of Conduct for Mobile Money Providers is a welcome initiative. There is increasing recognition of the economic benefits that digital financial services can bring, along with an understanding that achieving ambitious financial inclusion targets may well depend on their rapid rollout. Such targets are being proposed by the World Bank, under the Maya Declaration and in other forums.

At the same time, there is a recognition that consumer protection is a critical element in building trust in the use of such services. See, for example, Principle 4 of the G20 Principles for Innovative Financial Inclusion and the recently held Responsible Finance Forum, as well as the outcomes of the 2014 deliberations of the 2014 Global Partnership on Financial Inclusion.

The code of conduct will apply to “mobile money providers” and to “mobile money.” The former term is not defined (could a bank be a provider?), whilst the latter term has a broad definition that provides (in summary)  that “mobile money is a transformational service that uses information and communication technologies (ICIs) and non-bank retail channels to extend the delivery of financial services to clients who cannot be reached profitably with traditional branch-based financial services.” The example given (in summary) is an e-wallet, payments-related service.

The object of the code is expressed as being, in short, to support the continued development of the industry by:
  • "Improving [the] quality of services and customer satisfaction;​
  • "Facilitating the implementation of trusted partnerships; and 
  • "Building trust with regulators and encouraging the implementation of appropriate and proportional regulatory standards.


To support these objectives, there are eight principles dealing with safeguarding client funds; measures to combat money laundering and terrorism financing; monitoring of staff, agents and entities providing outsourced services; reliable service provision; security of the mobile network and channel; the provision of information to customers; complaints and personal data.

The ‘safety trap’ and Eurozone secular stagnation

Biagio Bossone's picture

The ‘safety trap’ hypothesis and secular stagnation 

Noting that Eurozone inflation has been declining for almost a year, and constantly undershooting forecasts, Landau (2104) suggests that underpinning those evolutions, including the lack of growth, might be one factor: an excess demand for ‘safe assets’. Essentially — Landau argues — agents have responded to extreme risk aversion by developing a strong inclination for holding liquid and safe assets (typically money and government bonds). In order to accumulate more of these assets, they have reduced consumption and investment, thus depressing aggregate demand. When inflation is low and the economy hits the zero lower bound (ZLB), interest rates cannot reach their (negative) equilibrium levels and the economy falls into what Landau refers to as a ‘safety trap’, with cumulative disinflation, increasing real interest rates, and depression setting in. This sounds as a plausible explanation for secular stagnation in the Eurozone.


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