Syndicate content

Financial Sector

Olympic opportunity: Renew the ideal of the global Games – by restoring the Olympics to their historic home

Christopher Colford's picture

Wasting billions of dollars, time and time again, to stage self-indulgent sports spectacles is no way for any society to build shared prosperity for the long term. But just try explaining that common-sense economic logic to the sports-crazed cities that keep lining up to purchase a moment of fleeting fame – and that end up squandering vast sums, by building use-once-throw-away “white elephants” for one-off events like the Olympic Games or the World Cup soccer tournament.

The sports-industrial complex continues to beguile the gullible and the grandiose, even though scholars have long warned of the futility of sports-event-driven spending. Beijing spent about $40 billion to host the 2008 Summer Games, and Sochi spent upwards of $50 billion to stage the 2014 Winter Games – while Brazil spent $20 billion to host (and heartbreakingly lose) the final rounds of 2014 World Cup soccer. Not to be outdone for extravagance and excess, Qatar reportedly plans to spend as much as $200 billion for the 2022 festivities.

Like the deluded leaders of declining Rome – who distracted their once-industrious city into passivity by pacifying the populace with what the poet Juvenal derided as panem et circenses: "bread and circuses" – modern-day civic leaders are allowing their obsession with media-moment athletic fame to trample economic logic. The scale of their civic hubris – and the malign self-interest of the construction firms, financiers, flacks and fixers who goad credulous Olympic-wannabe cities into wanton overspending – is insightfully dissected in a valuable new book, “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup,” by Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College.

In recent remarks at the World Bank, Zimbalist deplored the reckless rush that stampedes many cities into bleeding their civic coffers in the quest for Olympic notoriety. The saddest example may be the city of Montreal, whose debt from the 1976 Summer Games burdened the sorry city for 30 years.

Yet the suckers keep taking the bait. Boston, said Zimbalist, recently put forth an extravagant multibillion-dollar bid for the 2024 Summer Games – and only later, after the initial headlines and hoopla had abated, did more complete statistics reveal the likely scale of Boston’s folly. And, of course, the Olympic organizers would again stick the long-suffering taxpayers with the bill for any revenue shortfall.

Zimbalist’s logic is a wake-up call for those who somehow imagine that “this time is different” – that one-shot wonders might somehow produce long-term economic benefits. Some occasional exceptions suggest how very rare it is that optimists are rewarded: London, for example, may have gained a much-needed morale boost after its successful 2012 Summer Games, and two (but only two) Olympic festivals actually turned a profit – both of them in Los Angeles, which shrewdly re-used some of its 1936 Olympic facilities when it again played host to the Summer Games in 1984. But for most cities – Montreal in 1976, Sarajevo in 1984Athens in 2004 and many more – the money spent on soon-to-crumble stadia, ski jumps and swimming pools was a diversion from urgent human needs and productive investment.

Zimbalist makes a compelling case – yet beyond the diagnosis of the malady, one seeks a prescription to cure it. Can such Olympic megalomania be tamed? Are there other ways to build, and pay for, worthy sports facilities that honor the spirit of the Olympic Games while avoiding the overspending that bleeds their hosts dry?

A potential solution arose amid Zimbalist’s recent World Bank discussion. Rather than build one-shot Olympic facilities that are destined to be discarded as soon as each extravaganza is finished, why not build just one enduring set of permanent Olympic facilities that can be refurbished and re-used, year after year? Build it right, and build it only once: That way, the cost of building and maintaining an Olympic complex could be spread over generations.

Pursuing that solution seems especially timely right now, and here's why. Where is the historically logical place to locate such a permanent Olympic site? Why, in Greece, of course, where the Olympics originated in 776 B.C. and continued until 393 A.D. There could be no more authentic place to have today’s marathoners run than in Marathon itself – no more meaningful place to have skiers schuss than on Mount Olympus, or to have boaters ply the very waters that warmed Odysseus’ odyssey.

Forging the link between inclusion and integrity in Ethiopia

Emily Rose Adeleke's picture



How can financial inclusion and financial integrity policies complement each other? That question was addressed in a report recently released looking at the state of Ethiopia’s anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) framework.
 
The assessment was conducted by a World Bank Group team of experts and published by the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG). This is the first assessment of a developing country to be published that uses the revised 2012 Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards.
 
Ethiopia’s compliance with the international standards on AML/CFT had never been assessed before, and this report sheds light on the functioning of a unique and vibrant economy in Africa. In addition, this is the first AML/CFT assessment to highlight the connection between financial inclusion and financial integrity policies.
 
As noted in an earlier blog post, entitled "The Royal Stamp of Inclusion," the FATF has confirmed that financial inclusion and financial integrity are mutually reinforcing public-policy objectives. The revised FATF standards have a more explicit focus on the risk-based approach in implementing an AML/CFT framework. This approach allows for the identification of lower risk scenarios and the application of simplified AML/CFT measures in certain areas (primarily customer due diligence, or CDD).
 
The Ethiopia assessment notes that only about 28 percent of the population is served by the formal financial system – leaving 72 percent of the population dependent on cash or informal financial service providers. The Ethiopian government has identified the expansion of formal financial services as a national priority, through its “Growth and Transformation Plan” and the “Ethiopian Financial Inclusion Project.”
 
The assessment makes suggestions as to how the Ethiopian authorities can “link up” the policies of inclusion and integrity – for example, by allowing for simplified customer due diligence processes, and by providing guidance to financial institutions on the issue.

Halting the 'race to the bottom’ in corporate conduct: Governance reform, focus on ethics must repair the damage

Christopher Colford's picture

When terms like “criminal conspiracy” and “felony” appear in confessions and plea bargains, the criminal-justice system sits up and takes notice. And when the confessed felons are some of the world’s largest corporations, the private sector ought to be jolted into action, too.

The continuing shame of confessed corporate misconduct – in this case, lawbreaking conducted with such a degree of guile that the U.S. Attorney General called it “breathtaking flagrancy” and that the FBI labeled it criminality “on a massive scale” – reached a new intensity this month: Four of the world’s largest banks confessed to taking part in a five-year-long conspiracy to manipulate the world’s foreign-exchange markets.

This latest in a series of stern legal judgments has damaged the corporate reputations of some of the world’s most pivotal financial institutions – with guilty pleas, to felony charges no less, entered by Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Barclays PLC and The Royal Bank of Scotland PLC. A separate guilty plea by UBS – along with earlier fines against Bank of America and HSBC in separate settlements in related cases – has brought the total of fines against those once-trusted, now-tarnished firms to about $6 billion.

The corporate confessions of deliberate lawbreaking, pursued with systematic and sinister stealth – at the very center of the international financial system – vividly validate the recent exhortation of Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund: that corporate governance must be strengthened and that a higher standard of individual ethics must prevail, especially in the financial sector.

Lagarde wisely linked skewed incentives and a short-term profit-maximization mindset to the risk of financial instability, in an eloquent recent address to the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s conference on “Finance and Society”: “There is still work to be done to address distorted incentives in the financial system. Indeed, actions that precipitated the [global financial] crisis were – mostly – not so much fraudulent as driven by short-term profit motivation. This suggests to me that we need to build a financial system that is both more ethical and oriented more to the needs of the real economy – a financial system that serves society, and not the other way round.”

Those who champion the creative potential of the private sector (including, I imagine, the regular readers of this blog) have a particular reason – one might even say, a special responsibility – to voice their anger about the foreign-exchange-rigging scandal and other acts of lawlessness.

Idealists who esteem the private sector’s ingenuity in delivering growth and jobs sans frontières know that business' creativity will be indispensable in achieving the vital development goals of eliminating extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity. Society thus rightly expects that the full measure of corporate energies should be focused on companies’ central mission of generating wealth that benefits all of society. Whenever any of those energies are diverted – especially toward criminal schemes that put short-term personal plunder ahead of long-term economic growth – the lawbreakers undermine public confidence (or what little remains of it, in the wake of the global financial crisis) in the fairness of the economic system.

Moreover, lawbreakers provide ammunition to critics who allege that today’s economic system is irredeemably corrupt, through-and-through – thus making it even more difficult for law-abiding companies, holding true to the values of honest business behavior, to make the case for policies that liberate private-sector dynamism.

Six Financial Sector Challenges for Emerging and Developing Economies

Erik Feyen's picture
The relatively weak economic growth outlook, particularly for emerging and developing economies (EMDE), provides an important backdrop for the financial challenges that some of them currently face.
 
Recently, financial volatility returned because of various concerns in the marketplace – including (just to name a few) shifting expectations of the shape of the Federal Reserve’s exit path from ultra-low interest rates and the rapid strengthening of the US dollar; the launch of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank and its impact on inflation expectations and bond markets; low and volatile oil prices; China’s growth slowdown, additional stimulus and financial-sector challenges; the standoff between the new Greek government and its creditors; and continuing geopolitical turmoil.
 
In this context, EMDEs face six interrelated financial challenges, although it is important to note significant differences between countries exist.
 
First: Prolonged extraordinary monetary policies (EMPs) in developed countries and the prospect of asynchronous exits create a wide range of global financial market challenges. EMPs in developed economies created an environment of ultra-low interest rates, as policymakers have aimed to rekindle economic growth and battle disinflationary pressures. Three key risks have emerged:
 
  • Low rates and excessive risk-taking have contributed to very high asset valuations, compressed risk spreads and term premiums, and stimulated non-bank-sector growth, boosting leverage, illiquidity and collateral shortages. That exposes the financial system to shocks. This has weakened risk pricing and contributed to the “illusion of liquidity,” raising the risk of pro-cyclical “fire sales” with global spillovers.
  • Sudden shifts in market expectations or a bumpy trajectory of the U.S. Federal Reserve exit path to normalized interest rates could trigger volatility in currency, equity and capital-flow markets – similar to the “Taper Tantrum” of 2013, when the Federal Reserve openly contemplated scaling back its asset purchases.
  • Increasing divergence between central bank policies in developed economies has already had significant implications for currency markets, particularly for the euro-dollar pair. Divergence creates an interference risk and the possibility of miscommunication, which could trigger new bouts of global financial market volatility.

Financial risk, resilience and realism: ‘New Economic Thinking,’ amid ominous tremors from the eurozone

Christopher Colford's picture



How safe and how stable is today’s international financial system? Eight years since the global bond markets started quaking – and almost seven years since the Lehman Brothers debacle triggered a worldwide meltdown – is the financial system resilient enough to recover from sudden shocks?

These are not just rhetorical questions, but urgent ones. Amid the ominous recent tremors within the European Union – with the intensifying risk that insolvent Greece could soon “crash out” of the eurozone if it fails to extract more bailout money from its exasperated rescuers – the global financial system may be about to get another real-life lesson in riding out traumatic turbulence.

So mark your calendars for this Wednesday, May 6, when a top-level conference with some of the world’s leading financial luminaries will be livestreamed online at (click here) this website from 9 a.m. to about 5 p.m. Many of the world’s top regulators, policymakers and scholars – brought together by the Institute for New Economic Thinking – will gather at the International Monetary Fund for a day-long exploration of “Finance and Society.”

A sense of déjà vu might seem to surround the conference agenda, especially for World Bank and IMF colleagues who recall the nonstop financial anxiety that consumed the Spring Meetings just a few weeks ago. A similar economic dread reportedly pervaded last week’s Milken Global Economic Conference in Los Angeles.

Yet the INET conference may be poised to offer a somewhat different perspective. The Spring Meetings featured the familiar lineup of business-suited, grim-and-greying Finance Ministers – mostly male, mostly middle-aged, mostly mainstream moderates – but the group of experts at the “Finance and Society” conference will reflect a welcome new dose of diversity. Every major speaker on the agenda is a woman.

The economists at the pinnacle of the world’s most powerful financial institutions – Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Janet Yellen of the U.S. Federal Reserve System – will keynote the conference, and the proceedings will include such influential financial supervisors as Sarah Booth Raskin of the U.S. Treasury and Brooksley Born and Sharon Bowen of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. There’ll also be a pre-conference speech by the woman who has suddenly galvanized the Washington economic debate: No, not Hillary Clinton, but Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The new global roster of financial leaders – in this conference's case, all of them women – illustrates how economic policymaking is now, at last, drawing on the skills of an ever-wider-ranging talent pool. The economic expertise featured this week is bound to mark a positive step forward, considering the ruinous impact of the recent mismanagement by middle-aged mainstream men. (Sorry, guys, but can you really blame people for noticing that the pale-stale-and-male crowd allowed the world to drift toward the Crash of 2008?)

This week’s conference agenda is admirably forthright about the challenge: “Complexity, special interest, and weak systems of governance and accountability continue to interfere with the ability of the financial system to serve society's needs.” With Lagarde and Yellen setting the tone – and with Warren adding an injection of populist vigor – this week’s INET conference seems likely to offer some imaginative insights that go beyond the familiar Spring Meetings formula.

If ever there were a time when an INET-style dose of “new economic thinking” might be needed, it’s now. Growth is sluggish and sometimes even stagnant in many developed nations, amid what Largarde calls “the new mediocre.” Markets are fragile and currencies are volatile in many developing countries. A commodity-price slump may drain the coffers of many resource-rich but undiversified economies. As mournful pundits have been lamenting seemingly ad infinitum and sans frontières, the global economy is suffering from a prolonged hangover after its pre-2008 binge of irrational exuberance.

As if the worries about “secular stagnation” were not enough, there’s also the tragedy of Greece, where an economic calamity has unfolded like a slow-motion car wreck as financial markets breathlessly await the all-too-predictable collision. Regular readers of this blog will surely have noted that fears of Greece’s potential crashout from the eurozone have been nearing a crescendo – and the possible default-to-the-drachma drama may soon reach its catharsis.

Cheap money: Addiction and ‘cold turkey’ risks

Erik Feyen's picture

The U.S. Federal Reserve System has taken new steps toward raising interest rates, but there is a disconnect between what the Fed and markets think will happen. What does it all mean for emerging and developing countries?
 
Central banks in developed economies have created an environment of ultra-low interest rates to rekindle economic growth and to battle falling inflation. They’re doing this by keeping policy rates close to zero and “printing money” on an unprecedented scale via a veritable alphabet soup of programs, such as QE, CE, LTRO and TLTRO.
 
These low interest rates have put a lot of pressure on investors, such as pension funds, to generate a decent return, setting off a massive search-for-yield frenzy.
 
This search for yield has created a cash tsunami that has also rolled on the shores of many emerging and developing economies.


 

Greek tragedy: 'Sleepwalking' toward an economic abyss, with eurozone fears pervading the Spring Meetings

Christopher Colford's picture

“All roads lead to Rome” may have been true in ancient times, but policymakers during this Spring Meetings season in Washington have been focused on another classical crossroads: All roads now lead to Athens, as the intensifying eurozone crisis is again stoking fears that Greece may soon “crash out” of the European common currency system – potentially dealing a severe shock to the still-fragile global financial markets.

“The discussions about Greece have pervaded every meeting” during this fast-forward week of finance and diplomacy, said the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. That viewpoint was reinforced by a studious chronicler of the Greek drama’s daily details, Chris Giles of The Financial Times, who asserted – in an unusually dismissive swipe – that “the antics of Greece dominated the Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.”

The Greece-focused anxiety was palpable to many Spring Meetings attendees, judging by the number of corridor conversations and solemn sidebars that dwelled on the eurozone drama – especially on the Fund’s side of 19th Street NW. While most forums and panels on the Bank’s side of the street focused on the progress of many developing countries, events at the Fund seemed consumed by the policy contortions within Greece's faltering economy, as Meetings-goers monitored every tremble of their text messages to follow the week’s the week’s staccato bulletin-bulletin-bulletin news of Greece’s financial flailing.

“The mood is notably more gloomy than at the last international gathering,” said Osborne, “and it’s clear . . . that a misstep or miscalculation on either side [of the Greece negotiations] could easily return European economies to the kind of perilous situation we saw three to four years ago.” Having received a $118 billion bailout in May 2010 and a second package of $139 billion in October 2011, Greece is now at an impasse with its creditors: the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. A new government in Greece – having denounced the loan conditions reluctantly accepted by its predecessor governments – is debating how, or whether, it should comply with lenders’ pressure for far-reaching reform. Greece's foot-dragging has exasperated the lenders even as Greece envisions a potential third bailout program.

As the Greek tragedy unfolds, the doleful observation of Wolfgang Münchau in the FT seems all too apt: “Until last week, discussions with Greece did not go well. That changed when the circus of international financial diplomacy moved to Washington for the Spring Meetings. Then it became worse.”

Institutional Investment in Infrastructure (“In3”): A view from the bridge of a development agency

Jordan Z. Schwartz's picture

The Buzz on the Street:   Can institutional investors really close the infrastructure gap? 

Once again, infrastructure is a hot topic.  Not since the first waves of energy, water and transport privatizations in the early 1990s has infrastructure been a central topic in the daily discourse of the media, of the development community, of economists and financiers.  Now, governments are crying for more of it, new development institutions are being built around it and even the IMF is asserting its central role in economic growth.

Not only has infrastructure re-emerged as a popular, nearly consensus solution to the economic and societal woes of developing countries and industrialized nations alike, but the font of the resources needed to fill the infrastructure financing gap has also been identified.  Suddenly, it is impossible to walk through London, Washington, Paris or Singapore without bumping into a conference on institutional investors in infrastructure.  The G20 has discovered the link along with their business counterparts at the B20.  So too has the World Economic Forum, the OECD, the UN and the international financial institutions.  Match the long-term liabilities of pensions and insurance plans with long-term assets, the mantra goes, and the infamous infrastructure gap will close.  Win-win.

If only life were so easy. 

Closing the gender finance gap: Three steps firms can take

Heather Kipnis's picture
Despite eye-opening market potential — women control a total of $20 trillion in consumer spending —  they have somehow escaped the notice of the private sector as an engine for economic growth.  Women are 20 percent less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution. Yet a bank account is the first step toward financial inclusion.

Why is it important for the private sector to help with this first step?
 
In increasingly competitive global markets, companies are searching for ways to differentiate themselves, to deepen their reach in existing markets and to expand to new markets. Greater financial access for women would yield a growing market opportunity with phenomenal profit potential for companies. The size of the women’s market, and the resulting business opportunity, is striking:
 
  • Business credit: There is a $300 billion gap in lending capital for formal, women-owned small businesses. Of the 8 to 10 million such businesses in 140 countries, more than 70 percent receive few or no financial services.
  • Insurance Products: The Female Economy, a study in the Harvard Business Review, reported that the women’s market for insurance is calculated to be worth trillions of dollars.
  • Digital payments: Women’s lack of cellphone ownership and use means that millions cannot access digital-payment systems. Closing the gap in access to this technology over the next five years could open a $170 billion market to the mobile industry alone.
 

Greater financial access for women would yield a growing market opportunity with phenomenal profit potential for companies.


For the past several years at IFC, I’ve been working with the private sector, namely financial institutions, to address the supply-and-demand constraints that women face when trying to access the formal financial system. IFC tackles these constraints in three ways:
 
  • Defining the size of the women’s market, female-owned and  -led SMEs, and as individual consumers of financial services
  • Showing financial institutions how to tap into the women’s market opportunity by developing offerings that combine financial products, such as credit, savings and insurance, with non-financial services such as training in business skills
  • Increasing women’s access through convenient delivery channels, such as online, mobile and branchless banking

History in the making: 'Policy relevance' and long perspective, with the Spring Meetings starting a series of summits

Christopher Colford's picture

History “is a critical science for questioning short-term views, complicating simple stories about causes and consequences, and discovering roads not taken. Historical thinking – and not just by those who call themselves historians – can and should inform practice and policy today. . . . History can upset the established consensus, expand narrow horizons, and ‘keep the powerful awake at night.’ In that mission lies the public future of the past.” -- "The History Manifesto"
 
Lace up your running shoes and summon your stamina: At the starting line of the Spring Meetings sprint, policymakers and economy-watchers are now poised for an adrenaline-fueled week of debates on diplomacy and development at the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund.
 
History hangs heavily over the Bank and Fund this week, amid an animating awareness that “2015 is the most important year for global development in recent memory,” as World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim declared in a speech last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an environment that has provoked dire warnings by the IMF’s Christine Lagarde about the danger of prolonged low-growth, high-unemployment “secular stagnation” – with “the new mediocre” threatening to become “the new normal” – this week’s meetings will be just the starting-point in a series of events in 2015 that could define the development agenda for decades.

A July conference in Addis Ababa will determine the financing mechanisms for future development initiatives. A September summit at the United Nations in New York will adopt a detailed set of Sustainable Development Goals. A December forum in Paris will adopt – or reject – a worldwide treaty to restrain climate change. Along the way, the Bank and Fund will convene policymakers – in Lima rather than Washington – for the Annual Meetings in October.

Pulling off a success at any one such summit would be a dramatic achievement. Delivering triumphs at all three summits might require masterstrokes of diplomacy.

“When we look at the longer-term picture,” said Kim in his CSIS speech, “we see that the decisions made this year will have an enormous impact on the lives of billions of people across the world for generations to come." The challenges that Kim and Lagarde analyzed in their pre-Spring Meetings speeches require “governments [to] seize the moment” – starting this week – if they hope for success in the Addis-UN-Paris trifecta.
 

Pages