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On World Energy Day, Applauding an Energy Breakthrough: Innovation Strategy Drives Economic Success

Christopher Colford's picture

At a moment when good economic news is in short supply, today’s observance of World Energy Day provides a chance to celebrate some positive news – positive, at least, from the viewpoint of the world's developed economies, which have lately been struggling to recover from prolonged stagnation.

A major factor informing today’s World Energy Day forum on “The Green Side of Energy Security,” convened in Washington by the European Union Delegation to the United States, was the recent plunge in global energy prices. The falling cost of energy, thanks to vast increases in oil and natural-gas supplies, is now poised to give advanced economies a much-needed additional stimulus.

Moreover, the current global glut of oil and natural gas also offers a chance to underscore an example of a successful innovation program that has helped strengthen economic competitiveness. The success of the long-term U.S. program to create new and better methods of oil and natural-gas production – a success that has transformed the global energy sector – epitomizes the creativity that public-private cooperation can unleash when governments and industries, working together, patiently invest to strengthen productivity in specifically targeted industries and sectors.

The worldwide price of the crude oil has fallen about 25 percent – from more than $110 a barrel in midsummer to about $80 a barrel this week – thanks to a combination of reduced demand (due to sluggish economic activity in many industrialized countries) and vastly increased oil and natural-gas production. Despite the geopolitical tensions now afflicting several major oil-producing regions, large supplies of oil and natural gas are projected to continue arriving on the market, maintaining downward pressure on energy prices.

Much of the increased supply has its origin in North America – where “the revolution in American shale gas and ‘tight oil’ is real,” according to energy-policy scholar and historian Daniel Yergin. Writing in the Financial Times this week, Yergin noted that “U.S. crude-oil output is up almost 80 percent since 2008, supplying an extra 3.9 million barrels a day. . . . Canadian oil sands have added another 1 million barrels a day to North American supply over the same period.”

The falling price of energy supplies is helping ease some of the gloom that pervaded the recent Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. The energy revolution is poised to deliver a powerful, positive economic impact: As industries and consumers pay less for oil and natural gas, they’ll receive the equivalent of a tax cut – with Yergin estimating its benefit at about $160 billion a year, just for the U.S. economy. Such a stimulus, if it helps buoy economic activitry in Europe as well, will boost economies that have been mired in what threatens to become long-term “secular stagnation.”

For long-suffering Western motorists who are now paying less at the gasoline pump – and for home-heating-oil and natural-gas consumers who are awaiting their first chilly-season heating bills – the oil-price plunge and natural-gas glut may seem like an economic deus ex machina.

So it’s worth recalling: What inspired the arrival of these new energy supplies? New techniques – “hydraulic fracturing” and “horizontal drilling” – have helped coax once-hard-to-reach oil and natural-gas deposits out of underground rock formations.

And how were those techniques developed? Through well-targeted innovation programs that were initially funded by the U.S. government and that were then applied by innovators in the energy industry. 

Connect the dots: This revolution was brought to you by far-sighted, government-inspired investment initiatives to promote competitive industries and innovation.  

Launched during the Ford and Carter Administrations – when repeated oil shocks were raising fears that the industrialized world would be threatened by oil-rich countries’ production cuts and price increases – pragmatic R&D efforts on alternative oil-production methods were steadily pursued by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Bureau of Mines, drawing on crucial technological insights from the taxpayer-supported network of national research laboratories.

Once that initial government-funded research had laid the foundation for new technologies and techniques, the private sector stepped in and played its indispensable part. A public-private partnership through the Gas Research Institute helped perfect the new techniques, while pro-innovation tax policies granted favorable federal tax treatment for investors’ R&D commitment to the energy sector. A champion of the new technologies, George P. Mitchell, evangelized for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, even when skeptics scoffed. Researchers at the Breakthrough Institute assert: “Where Mitchell proved invaluable was [in] engaging the work of government researchers and piecing together different federally-developed technologies to develop a commercial product.” 

Delivering Solutions for Growth: Promoting Competitiveness and Innovation through Activist Strategies

Christopher Colford's picture



After all the gloom, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Front-loading the impact of its double-barreled motto, “Global Challenges, Global Solutions,” the Annual Meetings season may have finally gotten the grim “challenges” part over and done with. This week – starting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, livestreaming via “World Bank Live” from the Bank’s Preston Auditorium – we’re about to explore one of the most promising solutions now inspiring the development community: the pro-growth, pro-jobs Competitive Industries and Innovation Program (CIIP).

The competitiveness conference will brighten the mood after last week’s barrage of bad news, which seemed relentless throughout the week as downbeat economic and geopolitical forecasts dominated the debate at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. From Jim Kim’s exhortation that the world’s inadequate response to the ebola crisis must be strengthened, to Christine Lagarde’s stern warning of an “uneven and brittle” era of “prolonged subpar growth [with] excessive and rising inequality,” there was plenty of disheartening data. Lagarde offered a deflating new coinage: "the New Mediocre."

The sobering numbers within the IMF’s new World Economic Outlook underscored the sense that the global economy (and especially its wealthier countries) may indeed be stuck in an era of “secular stagnation.” So did the conclusion by Financial Times economic scholar Martin Wolf that the once-buoyant, now-humbled leaders of the global economy are in “an extraordinary state” of not just a gnawing malaise but a ‘managed depression’.” 

As if all that weren’t dispiriting enough, the news late in the week that the world’s leading financial regulators were holding an unprecedented “stress test” of their crisis-response system – to analyze whether its newly strengthened safeguards can indeed protect against the risk of another cross-border crash of the financial system – made some skeptics wonder, “What do those guys know that we don’t know?”

Amid all the dreary news about the futile quest for elusive growth and the imbalanced rewards in a class-skewed society, one could be forgiven for feeling downcast. Yet Largarde’s rallying cry – “With the risk of mediocrity, we cannot afford complacency” – should remind optimists that we mustn’t let momentary doubts induce a drift toward the do-nothing paralysis of laissez-faire. An array of nuanced, pro-active strategies can help revive growth and jump-start job creation – and the World Bank Group conference this week will bring together some of the world’s leading economic-policy scholars to explore those strategies.

The “New Growth Strategies” conference – on Tuesday, October 14 and Wednesday, October 15 – will explain and expand upon the pro-growth thinking that undergirds the Competitive Industries approach. Targeting investment at the sector and industry levels to strengthen productivity and unlock new job creation, a wide range of analytical, investment and advisory projects are already under way – in both low-income and middle-income countries – through the Competitive Industries and Innovation Program (CIIP), which is convening the conference.

Capping the Bank-Fund Annual Meetings: Chiding Ethics Lapses, a Spokesman for an Even Higher Authority

Christopher Colford's picture



Amid the week-long procession of buttoned-down, business-suited speakers who commanded the stage during the Annual Meetings week of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the most thought-provoking comments may have come from someone who was not outfitted in business attire at all – but who was instead wearing a clerical collar.

It seemed fitting that the remarks by (some might say) the week’s most authoritative participant occurred on a Sunday morning, at an hour when many Washingtonians habitually heed an authority even more elevated than the Bank and the Fund. The major attraction at the IMF’s day-long “Future of Finance” conference was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, whose stature lent a special gravitas to the already-serious tone of the Fund forum’s focus on scrupulous ethics as a bedrock principle of sound capitalism.

On a panel with some of the titans of worldly finance – including the leaders of the IMF and the Bank of England – only someone of Welby’s ecclesiastical renown could have stolen the show. Although he did his down-to-earth best to try to avoid upstaging his fellow panelists – quipping, “I feel rather like a lion in a den of Daniels at the moment . . . slightly nerve-wracking” – the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion was clearly the marquee draw for the throng that packed the Jack Morton Auditorium, spilled beyond the extra overflow rooms and jammed the adjoining corridors.

Citing the need for “heroism in the classic sense” to overcome the spirit of “recklessness” that recently pervaded much of the financial industry, Welby called for a return to “ethical and worthwhile banking.” He urged everyone working in finance to aim to “leave a mark on the world that contributes to human flourishing.”

Welby – himself a former financier, who traded derivatives and futures before he joined the clergy – recounted the misgivings of the mournful bankers whom he had interviewed while serving as a member of the U.K.’s Banking Standards Commission in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Welby recalled the lamentations of a deeply penitent banker who had been “broken by the experience” of leading his bank to ruin: In retrospect, reasoned the banker, “you can either have a big bank that’s simple, or a small bank that’s complex, [but] you cannot have a big complex bank and run it properly. . . . If only we had kept things simple.”

Welby’s call for the highest standards of conduct in the financial sector was matched by the exhortations of his fellow panelists – including IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, who reminded the audience that every financier must see himself or herself as “a custodian of the public good.” Lagarde's message was underscored by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney – who also leads the global Financial Stability Board – who deplored the pre-crash “disembodiment and detachment of finance” from the rest of the economy.

Only by upholding the most exacting ethical standards, said Largarde and Carney, can financiers rebuild public confidence in the financial sector – confidence that, in Lagarde's words, “builds over time and dies overnight.”

The regrets voiced by the panel’s private-sector financiers contributed to the panel’s almost confessional tone.

“If we can’t get the basic incentives right, it’ll be hard to get the right outcomes,” said Philipp Hildebrand, who had served as a senior central-bank official during the financial crisis before returning to the private sector. He reflected that “with wrong incentives, you end up with a wrong business model,” which in turn attracts “the wrong kind of people” who are prone to take excessive risks. Thus he underscored the need for “a personal transformation” within the spirit of every business leader.

Putting an even sharper point on the source of the problem, longtime financier Kok-Song Ng regretted that “a virus entered the system” in the years leading up to the crash, as financial firms deliberately recruited profit-driven “mercenaries” to run their trading desks. Those firms ignored the explosive risks being taken by their hired-gun traders, because they succumbed to “the great temptations for those in ‘the money world’ to want to make a quick buck” no matter how dangerous their tactics might be.

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.

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