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Global Economy

Drifting Toward Plutocracy: Inexorable Concentration of Capital Undermines the Drive for 'Shared Prosperity'

Christopher Colford's picture

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.)

Toward Shared Prosperity, With an Urgent New Focus on Overcoming Inequality

Christopher Colford's picture

The challenge of promoting shared prosperity was one of the unifying themes throughout last week’s Spring Meetings at the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund – the whirlwind of diplomacy and scholarship that sweeps through Washington every April and October. A remarkable new factor, however, energized this spring's event: In a vivid evolution of the policy debate, the seminars, forums and news-media coverage seemed focused, to a greater degree than ever, not just on the economic question of the creation of overall economic growth but on what has traditionally been seen as a social question: the distribution of wealth.

And in the wake of the Spring Meetings, Washington this week got a bracing reminder of how difficult it may be to build truly shared prosperity – not because our economic institutions lack the ability to achieve it, but because our political institutions may fail to summon the willpower to demand it.

A scholar whose work has taken the economics profession by storm, Thomas Piketty, captivated policy-watchers this week with the Washington launch of his landmark new work, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Hailed as “the most important economics book of the year, and maybe of the decade” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times – and praised by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times as “an extraordinarily important” work “of vast historical scope, grounded in exhaustive fact-based research”– “Capital” offers vital new insights into how wealth and power are distributed in modern economies. “Piketty has transformed our economic discourse,” asserts Krugman. “We’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”



Piketty’s account of “inexorably rising inequality,” according to New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter, challenges many of the economics profession’s “core beliefs about the organization of market economies” – including “the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free-market capitalism.” Instead, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.”

Assessing the Assessors: From Form to Substance

Jean Pesme's picture



How good are the experts at evaluating countries’ anti-money-laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) systems? That was the central question in a new report released last week by the Center on Law and Globalization. The report takes a critical look at the IMF’s evaluations of the AML/CFT systems of 150 countries from 2004 to 2013. Although we may differ on some of the analysis and recommendations, the report provides ample food for thought and raises issues that need to be addressed and, in certain instances, corrected.

It isn’t possible here to provide a full overview of all the points raised in the report, but a few key messages stand out:

The report finds that assessors were too focused on formal compliance (“rules on the books”) and did not, in any systematic fashion, try to ascertain the real impact of a country’s entire AML/CFT regime in practice. In the words of the report, “Reliance (by assessors) was placed on the prima facie plausibility of the claim that adherence to the [international AML] standards would help reduce money laundering and the financing of terrorism.” This criticism goes to a wider point: that evaluations were conducted without a clear articulation of the objectives to be achieved by AML/CFT measures. If you don’t know what a system is meant to accomplish, how can you evaluate it?

These are valid points and they hold true, not just for IMF evaluations, but also for others (including the World Bank) who carried out assessments using the same internationally agreed methodology. However, the report fails to take due account of the considerable work that has been undertaken in recent years to address and correct those shortcomings.

Since 2010, an intensive process of revision has been underway to improve the AML/CFT standards and the assessment methodology. There has been a long and vigorous debate within the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global standard-setter on these issues, and between the FATF and other bodies, about the best way to remedy the system’s deficiencies to make assessment reports more useful. Both the Bank and the Fund have played a very active role in this discussion.

As a result of this process, the new standards approved in 2012, along with a new methodology approved in 2013, provide a framework to address those concerns: Countries’ AML/CFT systems are to be judged based upon an assessment of their effectiveness in addressing a country’s ML/FT risks. Are government interventions commensurate to the risks faced? For example, a country with a negligible financial sector and a high use of cash should probably not spend too much money and manpower on policing its securities sector. Conversely, a sophisticated financial center providing easily usable incorporation services should probably keep a close eye on company registration. As a participant in this process, the World Bank has been a strong proponent of this pivot toward risk and effectiveness. In our view, only such an approach can help countries make meaningful decisions regarding their priorities and their strategies.

Cities’ Elusive Quest for a Post-Industrial Future

Stefano Negri's picture



What do rusting industrial cities have in common with outmoded BlackBerries? In this era of constant technological progress, talent mobility and global competition, it's striking how many similarities can be drawn between cities and companies, and the need for both to continuously adjust their industrial strategies to avoid oblivion or bankruptcy.

Cities can lose their vigor and vitality just as surely as a once-hot product can lose its cutting-edge cool. RIM, the maker of the the once-ubiquitous BackBerry,
has been leapfrogged by companies with more nimble technologies; Kodak, once synonymous with photography, went bankrupt when it failed to make the transition
from film to digital. The roll call of withering cities – once proud, yet now reduced to rusting remnants – shows how cities, like companies, can lose their historic raison d’etre if they fail to hone their competitive edge.

Heavy industries like steelmaking and automobile assembly once powered some of the world’s mightiest economic urban areas: Traditional manufacturing industries shaped their identity, giving their citizens income and pride. But globalization, competition, shifting trade patterns and changing consumer trends are continuously reshaping the competitive landscape, with dramatic impact on cities and people. Over the past century, industrialized regions like the Ruhr Valley of Germany, the Midlands of Great Britain and the north of France – along with the older shipbuilding cities around the Baltic and North Seas, and the mono-industrial cities of the former Soviet Union – have struggled to make the transition to different industries or toward a post-industrial identity. Their elusive quest for a post-industrial future has had a dramatic impact on their citizens.

The same issue has become daunting in recent decades for aging manufacturing regions in the United States, which have suffered the prolonged erosion of their industrial-era vibrancy. That kind of wrenching change is bound to soon confront other cities in the developing world, as they struggle to adapt their urban cores, civic infrastructure and industrial strategies to an era that puts a higher premium on nimble cognitive skills and advanced technologies than on bricks-and-mortar factories, blast furnaces and big-muscle brawn.

For fast-growing cities in the global South, many of which are urgently seeking solutions amid their sudden urban growth, there could be many lessons in the experience of older cities in the developed world in making such a transition.

A series of recent conferences among urban policymakers and practitioners – backed by a wide range of rigorous academic research and practical client-focused experience in building competitiveness – provide insights that city leaders and the World Bank Group’s practitioners can leverage as they craft programs for transformative urban strategies. 

Financial Education: What Works and What Doesn’t?

Margaret Miller's picture
How can we successfully design programs to promote financial literacy and financial capability – that is, not just financial knowledge in the abstract, but also the practical skills, attitudes and behaviors needed to take care of one’s everyday finances? Amid the wide-ranging scholarship on financial education, researchers have documented that there is often a strong relationship between exhibiting financial knowledge and achieving good financial outcomes (such as saving for retirement, paying bills on time or avoiding mortgage default).

Seeking Effective Policies to Promote Financial Inclusion

Margaret Miller's picture

The 2014 Global Financial Development Report, released today by the World Bank Group, presents the most comprehensive review to date of research findings on an increasingly prominent issue in international economic policy: financial inclusion. It also highlights several key topics that are linked to the growing interest in this topic – advances in technology, product design innovations and the role of financial education in financial inclusion. 

It’s easy to understand the focus on technology in this kind of report. Mobile phones and other telecommunications and digital technologies offer potential opportunities for the cost-effective expansion of financial services into previously overlooked or under-served markets. Technology is only part of the reason, however, for increased attention to financial inclusion. There is also a new appreciation for the role of financial services in the lives of the poor – an appreciation gained through a pioneering research effort using “financial diaries” methodology. This includes an awareness that even the best supply-side responses – often powered by new technologies – need to understand the demand side of the equation to be commercially successful and to offer value to consumers.

'Project Greenback 2.0 – Remittance Champion Cities' Launched in Turin, Italy

Massimo Cirasino's picture



"Project Greenback 2.0 – Remittance Champion Cities" was launched on October 29 in Turin, Italy.

A team from the World Bank's service line on Financial Infrastructure, hosting the launch event, was thrilled to welcome a room full of migrants, market paricipants, public officials, policy researchers and private-sector observers.

Since March 2013, in partnershp with the Turin city government, the World Bank team has been preparing for the launch of Project Greenback 2.0, which aims to foster the development of a sound and efficient market for remittances. The project pursues an important new approach: It focuses on remittance senders, and its priority is meeting their needs.

In the first months of our efforts in Turin, we have been working on a survey among remittance senders, and we have been mapping and monitoring the services that are available to them when they seek to send money home. The survey focused on Romanians, Moroccans and Peruvians – the most numerous immigrant groups in Turin, who together account for more than 60 percent of the city's immigrant population.

When Financial Crises Attacks

11am on a Tuesday


Since 2009, the World Bank has been conducting financial crisis simulation exercises and learning valuable lessons on where institutional vulnerabilities lie. These exercises are intended to test, or simply to practice, the use of existing or proposed legal instruments, interagency and/or cross-border agreements, and other crisis management arrangements. More than 20 exercises in all world regions have been executed so far, focusing either on the interaction among top national authorities (typically between the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, the Bank and non-bank Supervisors, and the Deposit Insurance Agency), or on the interaction among bank supervisors of different national jurisdictions dealing with cross-border issues.

Watch out for SIFIs - One size won't fit all

Ahmed Rostom's picture

 
The failure of SIFIs could set off a global financial disaster  (Credit: istock photo, BrianAJackson)

The Global Financial System can’t stand another systemic shock. Even as efforts are rallying to accelerate the recuperation of global financial systems, regulators should remain vigilant for possible deterioration. Restoring financial stability through recovery plans and extended interventions using public funds mandates closer monitoring of the financial markets as well as additional measures to minimize the likelihood and severity of potential outcomes if systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs) were to fail.