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BUSINESS & ECONOMY

A Coup Attempt at the IMF

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Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s Managing Director since 2019, has been a bold leader in confronting the economic fallout of the pandemic, as well as in positioning the Fund as a global pioneer on climate change. The efforts now underway to remove her are not only unjust, but could hamstring the Fund’s management for years to come.

Moves are afoot to replace or at least greatly weaken Kristalina Georgieva, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director since 2019. This is the same Georgieva whose excellent response to the pandemic quickly provided funds to keep countries afloat and to address the health crisis, and who successfully advocated for a $650 billion issuance of IMF “money” (special drawing rights, or SDRs), so essential for low- and middle-income countries’ recovery. Moreover, she has positioned the Fund to take a global leadership role in responding to the existential crisis of climate change.

For all of these actions, Georgieva should be applauded. So, what is the problem? And who is behind the effort to discredit and oust her?

The problem is a report that the World Bank commissioned from the law firm WilmerHale concerning the Bank’s annual Doing Business indexwhich ranks countries according to the ease of opening and operating commercial firms. The report contains allegations – or more accurately “hints” – of improprieties involving China, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan in the 2018 and 2020 indexes.

Georgieva has come under attack for the 2018 index, in which China was ranked 78th, the same position as the previous year. But there is an insinuation that it should have been lower and was left as part of a deal to secure Chinese support for the capital increase that the Bank was then seeking. Georgieva was the World Bank’s chief executive officer at the time.

The one positive outcome of the episode may be the termination of the index. A quarter-century ago, when I was chief economist of the World Bank and Doing Business was published by a separate division, the International Finance Corporation, I thought it was a terrible product. Countries received good ratings for low corporate taxes and weak labor regulations. The numbers were always squishy, with small changes in the data having potentially large effects on the rankings. Countries were inevitably upset when seemingly arbitrary decisions caused them to slide in the rankings.Having read the WilmerHale report, having talked directly to key people involved, and knowing the whole process, the investigation appears to me to be a hatchet job. Throughout, Georgieva acted in an entirely professional way, doing exactly what I would have done (and occasionally had to do when I was chief economist): urge those working for me to be sure their numbers were right, or as accurate as possible, given the inherent limitations on data.

Shanta Devarajan, the head of the unit overseeing Doing Business who reported directly to Georgieva in 2018, insists that he never was pressured to change the data or results. The Bank’s staff did exactly as Georgieva instructed and rechecked the numbers, making miniscule changes that led to a slight upward revision.

The WilmerHale report itself is curious in many ways. It leaves the impression that there was a quid pro quo: the Bank was attempting to raise capital and offered improved rankings to help get it. But China was the most enthusiastic backer of the capital increase; it was the United States under President Donald Trump that was dragging its feet. If the objective had been to ensure the capital increase, the best way of doing so would have been to lower China’s ranking.

The report also fails to explain why it doesn’t include the full testimony of the one person – Devarajan – with firsthand knowledge of what Georgieva said. “I spent hours telling my side of the story to the World Bank’s lawyers, who included only half of what I told them,” Devarajan has said. Instead, the report proceeds largely on the basis of innuendo.

The real scandal is the WilmerHale report itself, including how David Malpass, the World Bank president, escapes unscathed. The report notes another episode – an attempt to upgrade Saudi Arabia in the 2020 Doing Business index – but concludes that the Bank’s leadership had nothing to do with what happened. Malpass would go to Saudi Arabia touting its reforms on the basis of Doing Business just a year after Saudi security officials murdered and dismembered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

He who pays the piper, it seems, calls the tune. Fortunately, investigative journalism has uncovered far worse behavior, including an unvarnished attempt by Malpass to change the methodology of Doing Business to move China down in the rankings.

If the WilmerHale report is best characterized as a hatchet job, what’s the motive? There are, not surprisingly, some who are unhappy at the direction the IMF has taken under Georgieva’s leadership. Some think it should stick to its knitting and not concern itself with climate change. Some dislike the progressive shift, with less emphasis on austerity, more on poverty and development, and greater awareness of the limits of markets.

Many financial market players are unhappy that the IMF seems not to be acting as forcefully as a credit collector – a central part of my critique of the Fund in my book Globalization and Its Discontents. In the Argentine debt restructuring that began in 2020, the Fund showed clearly the limits on what the country could pay, that is, how much debt was sustainable. Because many private creditors wanted the country to pay more than was sustainable, this simple act changed the bargaining framework.

Then, too, there are longstanding institutional rivalries between the IMF and the World Bank, heightened now by the debate about who should manage a proposed new fund for “recycling” the newly issued SDRs from the advanced economies to poorer countries.

One can add to this mix the isolationist strand of American politics – embodied by Malpass, a Trump appointee – combined with a desire to undermine President Joe Biden by creating one more problem for an administration facing so many other challenges. And then there are the normal personality conflicts.

But political intrigue and bureaucratic rivalry are the last things the world needs at a time when the pandemic and its economic fallout have left many countries facing debt crises. Now more than ever, the world needs Georgieva’s steady hand at the IMF.

Courtesy: Project Syndicate


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BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Inquiry on General Babangida’s Involvement in Conventional Banking despite Introduction of Islamic Finance in Nigeria

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Dear Editor,

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to express my curiosity and seek clarification on a matter that has caught my attention, specifically pertaining to General Babangida’s involvement in the conventional banking industry despite his role in introducing Islamic finance during the financial reforms of his military government in Nigeria. Vide your special article commemorating his 81st Birthday published in your esteemed news website: https://focus.afrief.org/trending/a-salutary-tribute-to-general-ibrahim-badamasi-babangida-architect-of-islamic-finance-in-nigeria/

It is indeed noteworthy that General Ibrahim Babangida played a pivotal role in shaping the economic landscape of Nigeria by introducing Islamic finance principles. It is fascinating to witness the implementation of Islamic finance in Nigeria, as it promotes principles that align with religious and ethical values. General Babangida’s efforts to introduce this form of finance were undoubtedly commendable, reflecting his commitment to establishing an alternative financial system that adheres to Islamic principles.

However, recent observations suggest his active participation in the conventional banking sector in Nigeria. Certainly, it is intriguing to see General Babangida’s continued involvement in the conventional banking industry, which operates under different principles. While some may argue that his involvement in both sectors is simply a matter of personal choice, it raises questions about the compatibility of his actions with the ideals and principles of Islamic finance. While the former is interest driven, the latter prohibits interest related transactions completely.

I wonder if General Babangida has ever publicly addressed this matter or explained his reasoning behind being active in both sectors. It would be enlightening to hear his perspective on how he reconciles his involvement in conventional banking with his efforts towards promoting Islamic finance. This has raised questions in my mind and perhaps in the minds of others as well.

I am keen to understand the rationale behind General Babangida’s dual engagement in both Islamic finance and conventional banking. Does this reflect a strategic approach to diversify Nigeria’s financial sector, or are there specific reasons behind his involvement in conventional banking despite advocating for Islamic finance principles?

Additionally, it would be interesting to explore the potential impact of his dual involvement on the perception and growth of Islamic finance in Nigeria. Does his presence in the conventional banking industry hinder the progress of Islamic finance, or does it have the potential to bridge the gap between the two sectors?

I believe that delving into these questions could provide valuable insights and generate constructive discussions within the Islamic finance community in Nigeria. By shedding light on General Babangida’s dual involvement and the potential implications, we can further enhance our understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by the Islamic economy in our country.

Thank you for considering my questions, and I look forward to reading more about this topic in your esteemed Focus on Islamic Economy.

Sincerely,

 

Abba Musa Mamman Lagos

Kaduna


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BUSINESS & ECONOMY

10 Megatrends Shaping the World in 2024

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The report, “Navigating Megatrends Shaping Our Future in 2024”, was launched during the first day of the World Governments Summit (WGS) 2024, being held under the theme “Shaping Future Governments” from 12th-14th February in Dubai. The report examines the indicators that shape these megatrends, supported by evidence from today as well as future expectations. These trends inform decision-makers and foresight experts about various sectors and the potential opportunities in each.

Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation, said, “This report has been launched in line with DFF’s efforts to identify and communicate those trends with the most potential to shape opportunities and strengthen local and international partnerships to overcome current and future challenges.”

“The challenges that face us on our journey to the future require that we are agile enough to be able to adapt to rapid change. It is vital we pay attention to the signals we detect – only then can we be prepared to overcome challenges and seize opportunities. The World Governments Summit provides a platform for discussing these challenges and exploring the opportunities.”

Materials revolution

New types of materials will create a shift in the industry, with solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI) such as biopolymers, biorefineries, and chemical recycling paving the way. These solutions will facilitate the development of new biological and novel materials that could rival plastics.

Boundless Multidimensional Data

Enabled by developments such as 5G and 6G in addition to advanced connectivity, the availability of raw data will vastly increase. The Internet of Things (IoT) will continue being deployed in healthcare, agriculture, and smart cities, especially in the Middle East.

Technological Vulnerabilities

The cybersecurity sector will boom amid a sharp rise in smart home devices and wearable tech. According to a report by Allianz, the annual cost of ransomware is projected to reach around $265 billion by 2031. Meanwhile, the debate on the future of decentralised finance will continue.

Energy Boundaries

Advances in tech and the growing demand for energy will drive the pursuit of alternative sources of energy. Novel materials and machine intelligence will enhance current sources of energy, including their distribution around the world – and in space.

Saving Ecosystems

Approaches to conservation will be more interdisciplinary and future-focused, taking into account both societal and environmental factors. Driven by resource scarcity, climate change, and shifts in social values, environmental impact management will become increasingly holistic.

Borderless World – Fluid Economies

The world is witnessing a rise in unmediated transactions in finance, health, education, trade, services, and even space, which are blurring boundaries and creating more cross-border communities. Advances in communications, computing, and advanced machine intelligence will accelerate the creation of a borderless world that will change the way we work, live, and connect.

Digital Realities

The spread of 5G and 6G networks will enhance the applications of autonomous technologies and IoT. As quantum technologies become scalable and reliable, immersive experiences will become even more realistic.

Living with Autonomous Robots and Automation

Robotics and automation will increasingly be deployed across industries beyond automotive, manufacturing and supply chain logistics. This will provide opportunities for efficiency and innovation, although there will also be ethical challenges to address.

Future Humanity

New workplace norms will emerge, with people needing to adapt to non-traditional skill sets in areas such as digital literacy, communications, culture and sustainability.

Advanced Health and Nutrition

Accelerated progress in advanced machine intelligence, nano- and biotechnology, additive manufacturing, and IoT will transform health and nutrition, improving health and wellbeing for people of all ages. Technology will reduce, if not eradicate, some communicable and non-communicable diseases and enhance the sustainable use of and access to water and food.


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BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Africa’s New Online Foreign Exchange System will Enable Cross-border Payments in Local Currencies – what you need to know

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The high cost of making cross border payments on the African continent has driven governments on the continent to seek options of settling trade and other transactions in local currencies. This has given birth to the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System which was formally launched in Accra, Ghana, in January 2022.  Development economist Christopher Adam, who has studied the exchange rate policies of African countries, answers some key questions.

Why are African countries exposed in the international currency market?

Three main reasons. First, African economies are small and as such are highly dependent on trade with the rest of the world. Their exports are dominated by primary commodities including oil and gas, minerals and cash crop agriculture. On the import side, they purchase a whole range of goods – from essential commodities not produced at home such as fooddrugs and medicines, to capital goods and energy. A large proportion of these are sourced from China and other major economies of the global north. But because African countries are small relative to their trading partners they rarely have the power to determine the prices of imports and exports. They are “price takers” in world markets. And with world prices being set in the major reserve currencies of the world (the US dollar, euro, yen and renminbi), African countries are exposed to movements in these world prices. Second, “intra-African” trade is still a relatively small proportion of the total trade of African countries.

Finally, since African countries’ currencies mostly can’t be directly exchanged in international transactions, the dollar remains the most widely used currency in trade, even between African countries.

What’s required for the system to get off the ground?

The basic idea of the system is to be able to settle trade between African countries without having to use the US dollar.  There are two major challenges with that. First, intra-African trade accounts for less than 15% of Africa’s exports at present (although supporters of the African Continental Free Trade Area expect this to grow significantly over the coming decades). The African payment system therefore does not eliminate the role of the dollar (or other foreign currencies) in trade settlement entirely.

The second issue is that trade is not balanced between African countries. For example, Kenya exports goods of higher total value to Ethiopia than it imports from Ethiopia. If Ethiopia paid in its own currency, Kenya would end up with Ethiopian currency that it didn’t need. Some form of settlement currency that is acceptable to all is required – most likely the US dollar.

What are the challenges and potential risks?

Since trade rarely occurs instantaneously, some institution in the trade financing chain carries the exchange rate risk. Because of the gap between placing an order for imports and receiving them to sell in the local economy, there is a risk that the value of local currency will change relative to the currency in which the import is denominated.

In the “old” system, this risk is borne by the trader because everything is priced in dollars. The local currency value of the income from exports or the local currency cost of imports will change with movements between the local currency and the dollar, but the banks and those counterparts pricing in the dollar are protected.

Under the new system the same allocation of risk will remain in “external trade”. This currency risk is also present for intra-African trade.

An important question for the new African payment system is: who bears the exchange risk if one African currency depreciates relative to another? Should the importer carry the risk, or the exporter? Can and should the African payment system bear this risk of exchange rate movements itself? Where both currencies are volatile, traders might still prefer the relative stability of settlement through the US dollar.

The success of this system also depends on scale. The more trade settlement is routed through it, the easier it will be to settle in local currencies. Large currency imbalances will be less common. But until the system achieves this scale, the African payment system will need a strong balance sheet so that traders and participants can have confidence that settlement will be swift and risk free. It is unclear at the moment how this is to be achieved.

What is the best case scenario?

If the system can address the trade imbalance problem, provide clarity on risk management and reach scale, it could be very successful. But this is all going to be driven by underlying economic performance. Improved settlement will help but what is really driving this is the structure of trade. The more the economies of Africa can develop intra-African trade and the less dependent they are on extra-African trade, the less will be dollar dependence in trade. This growth in trade depends to some degree on trade settlement and trade financing but much more on production, consumption, trade policy and fiscal policy.

Christopher Adam is a Professor of Development Economics, University of Oxford


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