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.
Bangladesh was born on December 16 1971, following a devastating war that cost the lives of 3,000,000 people. They were victorious in their fight for independence, yet the prospects of the Bangladeshi people living in the 70’s were disheartening, earning it the now rather infamous connotation of a basket case, as Henry Kissinger called it back in 1971. Emerging from the rubbles left by the war, the resilient Bangladeshis began the rebuilding of their newly established nation. Economic growth was slow to take off, and it rebounded to the pre-war level about twenty years later, in the 90’s. Yet, it was after the 90’s that the country began to attain palpable progress and only over the 2000-2010 decade that the country achieved great poverty reduction. The depth-of-poverty MDG target of 8 percent was attained five years ahead of schedule, and Bangladesh was set in the right path for achieving the first MDG goal of halving the poverty headcount to 28.5 percent by 2015.
South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. Intra-regional trade in South Asia is less than 2% of GDP compared to over 20% in East Asia. Labor mobility and regional travel is minimal, with few exceptions. Even remote communication is low – only 7% of international telephone calls in South Asia are to countries within the region, compared to 71% for East Asia. The case for closer integration has remained strong for a while now, and it is refreshing to see that some movement, albeit watchful, in addressing some of the region's deep rooted political economy issues, particularly between India and Pakistan.
The discussions around closer integration have centered on energy, trade, connectivity and stability. All of these offer strong potential to enhance growth in the region. However, financial sector integration overall, and access to finance in particular, hardly ever make it to the agenda of regional integration forums and deliberations. This is unfortunate, because the region has a long way to go in providing adequate access to financial services and insurance products, especially to the vulnerable segments of the population. Given that South Asia is home to more than half a billion of the world’s poor, this becomes a poverty reduction goal as much as a financial inclusion goal.
Bihar, a state in Eastern India has more than 100 million inhabitants and is India’s second poorest state. Ninety percent of the population lives in rural areas and the state has lagged behind in increasing access to finance in these areas. The credit-to deposit ratio of Bihar at 37% (an indicator of availability of credit in peri-urban and rural areas) is one of the lowest in India.
Jeevika, a program jointly supported by the World Bank and Government of Bihar, has demonstrated that investments in community institutions can deliver significant results. Investments in community institutions have helped them mature and become an institutional platform for the poor enabling them to demand better services from the public sector, improve access to finance from commercial banks and enhance their existing livelihoods.
Like a Bollywood dance sequence, South Asia’s growth numbers tend to dazzle. It is the second-fastest-growing region in the world after East Asia. But behind the glamour lies a paradox. Despite robust economic growth, the total number of people living in poverty in South Asia has not fallen fast enough. Today, there are more poor people living under $1.25 a day in South Asia than in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Social indicators are lagging as well. South Asia has the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, with 250 million children undernourished. More than 30 million children still do not go to school. Gender discrimination remains a scar. Women’s labor-force participation in the region is among the world’s lowest, boys outnumber girls in school enrollment, and legal and judicial systems still do not address systemic gender violence.