The rhythm of NGO advocacy and campaigning sometimes makes it particularly hard to work on complicated issues, involving drawn-out negotiations where bad guys have more resources and staying power than we do. Campaigns on trade, climate change, debt relief etc often follow a similar trajectory – a big NGO splash as a new issue breaks, then activists realize they need to go back to school (I remember getting briefings on bond contracts during the 1998 Asia financial crisis) or employ new kinds of specialists who can talk the new talk. And then for a while we get geeky, entering into the detail of international negotiations, debating with lobbyists and academics. When it works (as in the debt campaign), we contribute to remarkable victories or to stopping bad stuff happening (which I would argue was a big civil society contribution at the WTO).
Promoting competition is considered the best available option for increasing economic well-being. The recent global financial crisis prompted policymakers to reconsider basic assumptions, but the virtues of competition were not among them. However, gone are the days when practitioners slept sound thinking the economy, if left alone, is self-correcting.
The limitations of competition as a force for universal good are well-known. Consumers can be inadequately informed, making it possible for firms to take advantage of them. The intrinsic difficulty of matching skills to positions and the costs associated with moving jobs may make workers stay with abusive employers. More basically, in a world where people have imperfect information and workers can’t always leave their employer, firms may be able to respond by cutting corners and abusing consumers and workers.
Is the problem with competition itself or the legal and informal institutions that yield this type of competition? The answer depends in part on one’s ideological lens—namely the belief of competition existing outside a regulatory framework, necessitating governmental intervention in the marketplace versus the belief that regulatory forces help create, define, and nurture competition in the market, necessitating improvements to the legal framework if competition is failing.
Some policies that supposedly restrict competition are justified for promoting competition. Intellectual property rights, for example, can restrict competition along lets say the use of a trade name. But the argument is that intellectual property and antitrust policies complement, rather than conflict, one another in promoting innovation and competition.
Life will surely be more stressful if we needed to compete for everything. Cooperation is often more relaxing. Society and competitors at times benefit when rivals cooperate in joint ventures to address collective needs. Competition can make people less cooperative, promote free-riding, and reduce contributions to public goods, thus leaving society worse off.
The point is not all forms of competition are beneficial. Just as athletic contests distinguish between fair and foul play, the law distinguishes between fair and unfair methods of competition. Bangladesh’s garment industry is a contemporary case in point. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh brought to the fore the pathetic state of working conditions in many factories serving the global supply chains. The structure of the supply chain itself—the relationship among regulators, buyers, suppliers, and workers—is fundamentally related to these problems.
The practice of subcontracting is routine in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The prevalence of competitive indirect sourcing strategies has resulted in a supply chain driven by the pursuit of nominal cost minimization. It has increased risks for business and workers by undermining prices, wages, working conditions, and investment in productivity and quality. The apparel units engaged in sub-contracting are mostly non-compliant particularly in paying wages and maintaining safety standards.
Question is why do compliant factory owners take recourse to such sub-contractors? Major global buyers see Bangladesh as a market where they can obtain the most competitive prices for a high volume of lower end products. Consequently, they set low price targets. The manufacturers compete for large orders by undercutting each other, further driving down the prices. They make delivery commitments far in excess of their capacity to produce without breaching compliance. When prices are dramatically driven down, the natural tendency of a garment manufacturer is to manage their unit at a least cost with regard to overheads and wages. The pressure to drive these down arise inevitably.
The New ICP Data and the Global Economic Landscape
The new report of the International Comparison Program published last week promises to invigorate debate about the global economic landscape. In some areas, the report challenges conventional wisdom. In other areas, it reinforces the narrative.
The headline change according to The Economist is the rise of China to potentially become the largest economy in the world by the end of 2014. According to Angus Maddison, the United States’ economy became the largest in the world in 1872, and has remained the largest ever since. The new estimates suggest that China’s economy was less than 14% smaller than that of the US in 2011. Given that the Chinese economy is growing more than 5 percentage points faster than the US (7 percent versus 2 percent), it should overtake the US this year. This is considerably earlier than what most analysts had forecast. It will mark the first time in history that the largest economy in the world ranks so poorly in per capita terms. (China stands at a mere 99th place on this ranking.)
On behalf of the International Comparison Program (ICP) Executive Board and the World Bank, I’d like to thank everyone who’s contributed to the success of the 2011 round. The results are now available in report form, as a data download, and through interactive applications.
The largest global statistical program
The ICP is hosted by the World Bank, and estimates purchasing power parities, or PPPs, for use as currency converters to compare the size and price levels of economies around the world. In terms of geographic scope, implementation time frame and institutional partnerships, many people consider it to be the largest ever global statistical initiative. It’s conducted under the authority of the United Nations Statistical Commission, and the 2011 ICP round collected over 7 million prices from 199 economies in eight regions, with the help of 15 regional and international partners. It’s the most extensive effort to measure PPPs ever undertaken.
The Nigerien city of Gaya is booming. Sitting on the banks of the Niger River not far from the borders of Benin and Nigeria, Gaya has grown from a quiet village to a hopping new hub. Its population is five times what it was just a few decades ago. So what has Gaya on the go?
To some extent, it's a trade story. Price differences across its nearby borders, helped by a ban on imports of second-hand clothes in Nigeria, and an avoidance of tax collection by customs officials have all been important factors in explaining the boom of trade in the region. Yet, combining these with an analysis of the development of transnational networks gives a more complete picture.
This is where Social Network Analysis sheds new light on the story of Gaya, by looking at these interactions to help improve our understanding of the dynamics involved.
Guest workers have played an integral role in the Gulf since the 1970s where the demographic changes accompanying these labor flows occurred at an extraordinarily rapid pace. The region’s aggregate population has increased more than tenfold in a little over half a century, but in no other region of the world do citizens comprise such a small proportion of the population. While this ‘demographic imbalance’ makes the Gulf unique, what differentiates it is not its economic and demographic expansion through migration but the degree to which the region’s governments have excluded foreign workers from being integrated into the national polity. This exclusion of foreign workers is a result of a conscious policy.
Labor migration to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are mostly governed under a sponsorship system known as Kafala. Migrant workers require a national sponsor (called Kafeel) and are only allowed to work for the visa sponsoring firm. The workers must obtain a no-objection certificate from the sponsor to resign and have to leave the country upon termination of the usual 2 to 3 years’ contract before being allowed to commence a new contract under a new sponsor. Tied to the sponsor, the migrants become immobile within the internal labor market for the duration of the contract. Consequently the sponsors benefit from non-competitive environments where they extract substantial economic rents from migrant workers at the expense of inducing significant inefficiencies in production.
The Kafeels pay workers an income above the wage in their country of origin and obtain economic rents equal to the difference between such earnings and the net marginal return from employing the migrant worker. Migrant workers are paid the initial nominal wage throughout the entire contractual period. They are even made to accept lower wages than contracted initially. Immobilized by labor restrictions, workers cannot command a higher wage even when there is demand for their services by rival firms willing to hire them in order to avoid the cost of hiring from abroad. Kafeels have also found other ways of extracting rents in recent decades by indulging in visa trading. They allow their names to be used to sponsor foreign workers in exchange for monetary gains.
Arguably, rents per-se should not directly create adverse effects because they are essentially redistributive transfers. Earnings paid to migrants are sufficient to motivate them to migrate. The migrants do not leave. But this view is over-simplistic. The combination of short contracts, flat wages, and lack of internal mobility kills the incentives for migrant workers to exercise higher effort levels in production and engage in activities that enhance their human capital. Any productivity gain would go to the sponsor in the form of rents. The system provides incentives to entrepreneurs to concentrate on low-skills, labor-intensive activities where the extraction of economic rents is easier. Such sponsor-worker behavior explains for instance why despite the massive investments in Dubai, the economy-wide efficiency levels (average labor productivity) have not improved in the last two decades while in Hong Kong, they doubled and in Singapore quadrupled.
The latest macroeconomic data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on April 18 suggest that China’s economic growth has moderated in the first quarter of 2014. GDP growth has decelerated from 7.7 percent (year-over-year) in the last quarter of 2013 to 7.4 percent (year-over-year) in the first quarter of 2014.
On a sequential basis, the quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted growth slowed from 1.7 percent in Q4 last year to 1.4 percent in Q1 2014.
The deceleration in the first quarter of this year is in line with World Bank expectations (see our latest East Asia Economic Update) (Figure1).
Figure 1: Official growth data on the demand side reflect subdued export growth and a moderation in investment growth. Consumption led growth in the first quarter of 2014, contributing 5.7 percentage points to growth, followed by investment, contributing 3.1 percentage points. Net exports dragged down growth by 1.4 percentage points.
Many economists speculate that the weakening trend in growth may put more pressure on the government to implement more and stronger growth supportive fiscal and monetary policies, following the stimulus measures unveiled recently that include accelerated expenditures on railway construction and social housing, as well as tax breaks for small businesses.
Like seismic waves rippling outward after a tectonic shift, reverberations are roiling the economic-policy landscape after the U.S. launch of the groundbreaking new analysis by Thomas Piketty, the scholar from the Paris School of Economics whose landmark tome – “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” – has newly jolted the economics profession.
Any Washingtonian or World Bank Group staffer who somehow missed the news of Piketty’s celebrated series of speeches and seminars last week – in Washington, New York and Boston – received an unmistakable signal this week about what an important intellectual breakthrough Piketty has achieved. President Jim Yong Kim on Tuesday cited Piketty while putting the issue of economic inequality at the top of his list of priorities during his review of the Spring Meetings of the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Noting that he was already about halfway through reading Piketty’s “Capital,” President Kim sent a clear message that the skewed global distribution of wealth, as analyzed by Piketty and emphasized by many officials at the Bank and Fund's semiannual conference, should be top-of-mind for policy-watchers at the Bank and beyond – indeed, at every institution that hopes to promote shared prosperity.
Piketty’s scholarship is now receiving widespread acclaim as a landmark in economic analysis, and is being recognized both for its “exhaustive fact-based research” and its sweeping historical perspective. More of a patient dissection of hard data than a political roadmap, Piketty’s book has quickly become the subject of multiple praiseworthy reviews, notably in the New York Times and the Financial Times. One usually level-headed Bloomberg View analyst, recoiling from the “rapturous reception” accorded to the book, may have gone slightly overboard this week in asserting that Piketty's insights had been greeted by American liberals with “erotic intensity.”
Predictably, Piketty's book has also quickly become the target – “Piketty Revives [Karl] Marx,” blared a Wall Street Journal headline; “Marx Rises Again,” warned the New York Times’ lonely conservative scold – of the whack-a-mole ideological purists in laissez-faire Op-Ed columns, who forever seem tempted to equate modern-day liberalism with long-gone Leninism. Eager to publish denunciations of any idea, however modest, that might justify (heaven forfend) tax increases on stratospheric income-earners and the top-fraction-of-the-One Percent, the free-market fundamentalists on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board – unabashed cheerleaders for plutocracy – have opened up one of their trademark barrages via their Op-Ed columns (“This book is less a work of economic analysis than a bizarre ideological screed”; “The professor ought to read ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Darkness at Noon’ ”). The Journal's jihad clearly aims to demean or discredit anyone who might flirt with such Piketty-style notions as restoring greater progressivity to the tax code. (Egad: Progressive taxation? Next stop: Bolshevism.)