Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
Economic growth has returned to Central Europe and the Baltics. With the exception of Slovenia, all countries are expected to see positive growth in 2014 - ranging from a tepid 0.8% in Croatia, to more respectable growth rates of 2.2% in Romania and 2.8% in Poland, to highs of 3-4.5% percent in the Baltic Republics. Europe, more broadly, is also turning the corner and is expected to grow at around 1.5%.
Amidst this much welcome growth, however, one question remains: will economic growth be good for the bottom 40 percent and can they expect to see their incomes grow?
Lessons from the recent history of Central Europe and the Baltics
When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched the results from the most recent assessment of mathematics, reading, and science competencies of 15 year-olds (the Program for international Student Assessment, PISA) last December, it held encouraging news for the European Union’s newest members. Estonia, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic scored above the OECD average and ahead of many richer European Union neighbors. Compared to previous assessments, the 2012 scores of most countries in Central Europe and the Baltics were up (as they were in Turkey, as Wiseman et al highlighted in this blog recently). Improvements were particularly marked in Bulgaria and Romania, traditionally the weakest PISA achievers in the EU, as well as well-performing Poland and Estonia. Only Slovakia and Hungary saw declines (see chart with PISA mathematics scores).
“A picture says a thousand words.” This old adage came to mind the other day when we presented poverty maps on Central and Eastern Europe to the European Commission. Technically speaking what we presented are small area poverty maps which give a more reliable estimate of poverty at county or local administrative unit level than would have been possible using national household surveys alone.
So what’s new? The World Bank has been drawing poverty maps for some years now, as have some governments. What’s new is that the European Union, which redistributes resources from richer countries to poorer ones, is in the process of finalizing its programs for the next financing period, 2014 to 2020. These programs are aimed at reducing disparities in standards of living. Being poorer on average than the rest of Europe, countries in Central and Eastern Europe will receive significant resources for investments to raise their standard of living.
Collectively, the 10 indicators in Doing Business 2014 are a great tool for assessing the ease of doing business in countries and measuring the quality of their regulations.
The results can be surprising for some countries in the European Union (EU): Would you ever consider that the most difficult country to start a business in the EU is Austria? That Italy is the worst place to pay taxes? That one of the top countries in protecting investors is Slovenia? Or that Poland is the global runner-up in providing information about credit?
A recent regional study that focused on Roma and non-Roma in nearby communities from five Eastern European countries finds between 28 and 45 percent of Roma children attend preschool in four of the five study countries. However, the Roma preschool rate jumps to 76 percent in Hungary, where targeted policies have been in place; and this is about the average for non-Roma preschool rates across the five countries. Hungary’s experience offers promise because surveys show that preschool matters greatly to completing secondary school and staying off social assistance.
Sovereign difficulties have divided financial markets in the Euro area, thereby increasing differences in bank lending rates across countries. Policy makers in both Brussels and Frankfurt are concerned about an uneven transmission of policy interest rate cuts by the European Central Bank (ECB) to bank lending rates across the region.
Based on this situation, a key question stands out: is the link between official, market, and retail interest rates broken?
When markets are functioning properly, interest rates on loans follow the policy rate in a uniform way across countries (granted with some lag). But, in the context of the ongoing crisis, markets became somewhat irresponsive – resulting in ECB rate cuts being unevenly passed on to borrowers across Euro-area countries. This uneven distribution has meant that those countries facing greater financial difficulties had to endure tougher financing conditions than those facing fewer difficulties – as exemplified when comparing Spanish and Italian retail rates to the much-lower French and German ones.
So far, the economic literature has been relatively robust in arguing that government bond yields or credit default swaps (CDSs), given their stability, do not exert much influence on the way banks set their interest rates for their clients. However, the crisis has shown that because of the interconnectedness of central bank and sovereign balance sheets, developments in sovereign markets affect retail interest rates.
How has this played out in the EU11 countries? Have retail interest rate decreased in those countries where central banks reduced their policy rates? Or, was this a reaction on downward movement of CDSs?
Figure 1. Interest rates on new lending to enterprises (in Percent) and CDS spreads (in basis points) in selected EU11 countries
I recently visited a math classroom in Frumusani, Romania, where half of the students are Roma. It's critically important for all countries to invest in education in order to stay competitive in the global economy. That means education for all, including communities such as the Roma that have long faced discrimination. Please watch the video to hear more.
An increasing number of countries are developing national strategies for financial education and implementing programs to enhance people’s financial capability. At least 36 countries have already established or are in the process of designing a national strategy for financial education according to the OECD. Boosting people’s ability to take sound financial decisions has emerged as a new policy objective, both in developed and developing countries. The recent financial crisis has reinforced the view that being financially capable is important. However, let’s take a step back. What do we know about how capable people are in different countries across the world in managing their finances? Which knowledge and skills gaps exist that could be filled with financial capability enhancing programs? Which populations are the least financially knowledgeable and capable and would benefit the most from any interventions?
Many of the hardest hit countries during the recent financial crisis were in Eastern Europe — and now the prospect of a "jobless recovery" is a real concern. Although the level of output has risen and growth has resumed, unemployment rates are still above pre-crisis levels, especially for youth. In addition, the episodes of unemployment are increasing in length, with a significant share unemployed for over a year.
Eleven of the less prosperous members of the European Union – Bulgaria, Croatia1, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia (EU11)—have remained attractive destinations for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The Czech Republic, Estonia, and Slovakia witnessed FDI levels in 2012 similar to pre-crisis levels. Poland and Bulgaria also experienced large gains in FDI in 2012.