South Asia’s Commerce Ministers meet in Thimphu on July 24. Getting there would not have been easy for many of them, with no direct flights between Thimphu and four of the seven capitals. In June, when some of us convened for a regional meeting in Kathmandu, our Pakistani colleagues had to take a 20 hour flight from Karachi to Dubai in order to get to Kathmandu! This is symptomatic of the overall state of economic engagement within South Asia—in trade in goods and services, foreign direct investment and tourism.
South Asian countries’ trade policies remain inward-looking compared to other regions, and there are even bigger barriers to trade within the region. Today, South Asia today is less economically integrated than it was 50 years ago. Figure 1 below shows that intra-regional trade in South Asia accounts for less than 5 percent of total trade, lower than any other region.
The similarities are striking. Nepal and Lao PDR are both land-locked. Both are endowed with vast hydropower potential. Both aspire to middle income status by the first quarter of this century. To their advantage, both Nepal and Lao PDR border energy-starved neighbors and see regional energy trade as their ticket out of poverty. And both countries harbor ambitions to become the “battery” that powers growth and prosperity in their respective regions.
Yet Lao PDR is going places while Nepal is stuck in stasis.
To understand this conundrum, the World Bank Group facilitated a study visit to Lao PDR last week for senior political party leaders and journalists from Nepal. The visit included a tour of the groundbreaking 1,080 MW Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project as well as meetings with hydropower champions in the Lao government, private sector developers and local communities.
To address this gap, Wasil started offering a Sharia-compliant microfinance package aimed specifically at smallholder farmers.
Wasil is an example of how microfinance and Islamic finance can be successfully combined.
An estimated 650 million Muslims live on less than $2 a day. Examples like Wasil show that Islamic microfinance can play a key role in bringing the poor into the financial mainstream in a way that doesn’t force them to choose between their religious practices and their wallets.
But despite an impressive increase in the number of financial service providers that offer Sharia-compliant microfinance products in Muslim countries, Islamic microfinance is still limited to a few countries. The range of offerings is narrow as well – most are largely focused on the cost-plus-markup product known as murabaha, which is geared toward asset purchases.
Buy a leather case for your wife’s smartphone on Amazon, select shipping from China with an estimated delivery time of 4-6 weeks, and then be pleasantly surprised when it turns up on your Virginia doorstep in 11 days. The marvels of the modern age – of technology, globalization, and shrinking distances.
Where does South Asia stand on export delivery? Figure 1 illustrates that compared to other economic units around the globe, it is a lot more difficult to trade with(in) SAFTA (South Asia Free Trade Agreement). It also shows that bureaucratic hurdles and the time it takes to trade go hand-in-hand. While the region does relatively well on trade with Europe or East Asia, intra-South Asian trade has remained low and costly. It costs South Asian countries more to trade with their immediate neighbors, compared to their costs to trade with distant Brazil (see below)! In fact, it is cheaper for South Asian countries to export to anywhere else in the world than to export to each other (Figure 3). In other words, South Asia has converted its proximity into a handicap.
Last month, the World Bank released Pakistan’s first ever Consumer Protection and Financial Literacy (CPFL) Diagnostic Review along with convening a workshop where 200 financial sector professionals discussed the recommendations, a first such deliberation on consumer protection and financial literacy in the country.
The assessment compares Pakistan’s performance standards, covering four segments of the financial sector - banking, microfinance, insurance, and securities markets. This approach brought out cross-cutting findings and a comprehensive set of recommendations. The overall objective of the review is to foster a responsible financial system that offers (a) transparency, (b) appropriate choices, (c) redress mechanisms, and (d) privacy of consumer information.
Financial exclusion in Pakistan is high – 56% of the population currently uses no formal or informal financial products – but decreasing. The past decade has seen rapid growth in household lending in Pakistan, leading to many taking on risks and obligations they do not fully understand. This growth underscores the need for CPFL to prevent unfair practices, and improve transparency and efficiency by reaching potential customers to increase their understanding of financial services.
Overall, the report identifies certain gaps and overlaps in the legal, institutional, and regulatory framework for consumer protection in Pakistan and finds that there is a need for some consolidation and much more coordination amongst a fragmented range of consumer protection institutions, including regulators, industry associations and ombudsman offices. Key stakeholders agree that a consolidated approach to regulating market conduct is necessary. One critical area is the microfinance sector which serves close to 3 million active borrowers and 6 million savers. Many of these clients have limited access to consumer protection institutions or information, leaving them vulnerable to consumer rights malpractices. In this sector, microfinance banks (MFBs) are regulated by the State Bank of Pakistan, but other non-deposit taking microfinance institutions (MFIs) are unregulated. In a number of geographical areas, both MFBs and MFIs are serving the same clientele, but there is a difference in market conduct regulations on consumer protection. For example, a microfinance bank is mandated by the prudential regulations of the State Bank of Pakistan to disclose annualized lending and deposit rates in the contract signed with their clients, and to also have an officer read out these terms to their clients. In contrast, a non-deposit taking institution is not subject to these regulations and has the discretion of quoting, say, rupee amounts that might not be representative or comparable.
The key finding on transparency and disclosure is that although financial regulators have strengthened disclosure requirements, there is a lack of standardized, comparable pricing information on financial products. As a result, consumers do not always have simplified, adequate, and comparable information about the prices, terms and conditions, and inherent risks of financial products and services. Regulators, market participants, and other stakeholders agreed with the recommendation on introducing a standard Key Facts Statement sheet, but also stressed the need for some demand-driven research on what information would be most beneficial to Pakistani consumers and what would be most effective way of communicating this information.
Nepal needs to fix its budget process, remove hurdles to infrastructure development and cut down excess liquidiity.
At first glance Nepal’s economic fundamentals appear sound. Economic growth this year is expected to recover to 4.5%, after a lackluster FY13. On the fiscal and external fronts, indicators are well in the green. This year again, Nepal is likely to be the only country in South Asia to post a budget surplus (0.3% of GDP). Continued growth in revenue mobilization and higher grants will more than make up for the increase in government spending. In FY14, public debt is expected to fall below 30% of GDP, and Nepal’s risk of debt distress may fall from a “moderate” rating to “low”.
Unlike other South Asian countries, Nepal has remained largely unscathed by global monetary tightening, reflecting its limited integration into global financial markets as well as its healthy external balances. Nepali analysts often highlight the growing trade deficit as a cause for concern, but remittances (projected at over 30% of GDP) should push the current account to a comfortable surplus position of 2.4% of GDP.
The only apparent dark spot is inflation, which remains stubbornly high. With inflation close to double digits in January (year-over-year), it appears unlikely that the NRB’s target of 8.5% will be reached.
In short, Nepal appears to be doing well. Many European countries today can only dream of posting similar growth, fiscal or debt numbers. So what is the problem?
Tax revenue growth in Bangladesh this year has been one of the lowest in recent years. There is now demand for a cut in corporate income tax rate with the forthcoming FY15 budget. Is this a good idea from a fiscal point of view?
Whether or not a tax-cut will increase or lower tax revenues depend on the tax rates and the tax system in place. If tax rates are in the prohibitive range, a tax cut will result in increased tax revenues. Arthur Laffer distinguished between the arithmetic effect and the economic effect of tax cuts. The arithmetic effect means that a lowering of the tax rate will result in lower tax revenues by the amount of the decrease in the rate. The economic effect identifies a positive impact of lower tax rates on work, output and employment which expand the tax base. If tax rates that are currently in the prohibitive range are lowered, the economic effect of a tax cut will outweigh the arithmetic effect and revenue collection will increase with tax cut.
India’s stellar economic performance during the past decade has brought immense benefits to the people. Emmployment opportunities have increased, enabling millions to emerge from poverty.
But rapid growth has been clouded by a degrading environment and a growing scarcity of natural resources. Today, India ranks 155th among 178 countries accounting for all measurable environmental indicators, and almost dead last in terms of air pollution. What’s more, more than half of the most polluted cities in the G-20 countries are in India. The deteriorating environment is taking its toll on the people’s health and productivity – and costing the economy a staggering Rs. 3.75 trillion each year (US$80 billion) - or 5.7 percent of GDP. So, does growth – so essential for development – have to come at the price of worsened air quality and other environmental degradation? Fortunately, India does not have to choose between growth and the environment.