The coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency have highlighted the weaknesses of free-market capitalism.
Governments around the world have intervened massively to provide economic support to people and businesses affected by the pandemic through grants and furlough schemes. They have also stressed the importance of collective responsibility in abiding by lockdowns, social distancing and receiving vaccinations.
The pandemic has also highlighted the huge inequalities around the world. The rich countries have been able to offer much more support to their people than poor countries and they have had much greater access to vaccines. Inequality has also been growing within many countries as rich people have gained from rising asset prices, while many people find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs, suffering from poor educational opportunities and low economic and social mobility.
The increased use of working from home and online shopping has accelerated the rise of big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google. Their command of the market makes it difficult for small companies to compete – and competition is vital if capitalism is to benefit societies. There have been growing calls for increased regulation of powerful companies and measures to stimulate competition. The problem has been recognised by governments, central banks and international agencies, such as the IMF and the OECD.
At the same time as the world has been grappling with the pandemic, global warming has contributed to extreme heat and wildfires in various parts of the world, such as western North America, the eastern Mediterranean and Siberia, and major flooding in areas such as western Europe and China. Governments again have intervened by providing support to people whose property and livelihoods have been affected. Also there is a growing urgency to tackle global warming, with some movement, albeit often limited, in implementing policies to achieve net zero carbon emissions by some specified point in the future. Expectations are rising for concerted action to be agreed at the international COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November this year.
An evolving capitalism
So are we seeing a new variant of capitalism, with a greater recognition of social responsibility and greater government intervention?
Western governments seem more committed to spending on socially desirable projects, such as transport, communications and green energy infrastructure, education, science and health. They are beginning to pursue more active industrial and regional policies. They are also taking measures to tax multinationals (see the blog The G7 agrees on measures to stop corporate tax avoidance). Many governments are publicly recognising the need to tackle inequality and to ‘level up’ society. Active fiscal policy, a central plank of Keynesian economics, has now come back into fashion, with a greater willingness to fund expenditure by borrowing and, over the longer term, to use higher taxes to fund increased government expenditure.
But there is also a growing movement among capitalists themselves to move away from profits being their sole objective. A more inclusive ‘stakeholder capitalism’ is being advocated by many companies, where they take into account the interests of a range of stakeholders, from customers, to workers, to local communities, to society in general and to the environment. For example, the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, which is a joint initiative of the Vatican and several world business and public-sector leaders, seeks to make ‘the world fairer, more inclusive, and sustainable’.
If there is to be a true transformation of capitalism from the low-tax free-market capitalism of neoclassical economists and libertarian policymakers to a more interventionist mixed market capitalism, where capitalists pursue a broader set of objectives, then words have to be matched by action. Talk is easy; long-term plans are easy; taking action now is what matters.
Articles and videos
- Why the next stage of capitalism is coming
BBC Future, Matthew Wilburn King (27/5/21)
- During the pandemic, a new variant of capitalism has emerged
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/7/21)
- When it comes to social and environmental justice, words don’t cut it
GreenBiz, C J Clouse (28/4/21)
- Introducing the Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican
Inclusive Capitalism (7/12/20)
- The State and Direction of Inclusive Capitalism
Saïd Business School, Ford Foundation and Deloitte Social Impact practice, Richard Barker, Mary Johnstone-Louis, Colin Mayer, Pradeep Prabhala, Noah Rimland Flower, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, Tony Siesfeld and Peter Tufano (2018)
- Rising Market Power—A Threat to the Recovery?
IMF Blog, Kristalina Georgieva, Federico J Díez, Romain Duval and Daniel Schwarz (15/3/21)
- The Pandemic Alone Can’t Transform Capitalism
Jacobin, Ramaa Vasudevan (30/7/21)
- Down to earth: How entrepreneurs can collaborate to rejuvenate capitalism
EU-Startups, Luca Sabia (4/8/21)
- How similar is the economic response of Western governments to the pandemic to their response to the financial crisis of 2007–8?
- What do you understand by ‘inclusive capitalism’? How can stakeholders hold companies to account?
- What indicators are there of market power? Why have these been on the rise?
- How can entrepreneurs contribute to ‘closing the inequality gap for a more sustainable and inclusive form of society’?
- What can be done to hold governments to account for meeting various social and environmental objectives? How successful is this likely to be?
- Can inequality be tackled without redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor?
Boeing and Airbus have called a truce in their 17-year battle over subsidies. During this period, both have accused each other of unfair government subsidies to their respective plane makers.
The long-running trade dispute
In October 2004, the USA requested the establishment of a WTO panel to consider whether Airbus was providing unfair subsidies to develop its new super-jumbo – the A380. This provoked a counter-request by Airbus, claiming unfair subsidies of $27.3 billion for Boeing by the US government since 1992. In July 2005, two panels were set up to deal with the two sets of allegations.
In June 2010, the WTO panel circulated its findings on Boeing’s case against Airbus. It found Airbus guilty of using some illegal subsidies to win contracts through predatory pricing, but dismissed several of Boeing’s claims because many of the subsidies were reimbursable at commercial rates of interest. However, some of the ‘launch aid’ for research and development was given at below market rates and so violated WTO rules. The report evoked appeal and counter-appeal from both sides, but the WTO’s Appellate Body reported in May 2011 upholding the case that ‘certain subsidies’ provided by the EU and member states were incompatible with WTO rules. In June 2011, the EU accepted the findings.
In March 2011, the WTO panel circulated its findings on Airbus’s case against Boeing. The EU claimed that ten specific measures amounted to subsidies to Boeing, which were inconsistent with the WTO’s rules on subsidies (the SCM agreement). It upheld three of ten alleged breaches, including subsidies between 1989 and 2006 of at least $5.3 billion. These subsidies were adjudged to have resulted in adverse effects to the EU’s interests, specifically in lost sales, especially to third-country markets, and in significantly suppressing the price at which Airbus was able to sell its aircraft.
But these rulings were not the end of the matter. Various appeals and counter-appeals were lodged by both sides with varying degrees of success. Also the disputes extended to other wide-bodied jets and to narrow-bodied ones too with claims by both sides of unfair subsidies and tax breaks.
On 9 June 2017 the WTO’s compliance panel rejected several EU claims that the USA had failed to withdraw all illegal subsidies to Boeing. However, it also found that the USA had not complied with an earlier ruling to abolish illegal tax breaks. Both sides claimed victory. Airbus claimed that the ruling had seen the WTO condemn non-compliance and new subsidies. In particular, it focused on the WTO ruling that Washington State subsidies had resulted in a significant loss of sales for Airbus. On the other hand, a Boeing press release spoke of a US win in a major WTO compliance ruling. Boeing claimed that that ruling meant that the United States had complied with ‘virtually all’ of the WTO’s decisions in the counter-case that the EU had filed against the USA in 2006.
On 27 June 2017, as expected, the EU challenged the WTO decision. This meant that the EU’s case would go back to the WTO’s appellate body, which was still considering a separate US case over state aid to Airbus.
On 15 May 2018, the WTO ruled that Airbus did not use unfair subsidies for narrow-bodied jets, such as the A320, which competes with the 737, but did for wide-bodied jets. The EU said that it would comply with the WTO ruling over the support for wide-bodied jets.
In 2019, the WTO ruled that the EU had illegally provided support to Airbus. The USA responded with tariffs of up to $7.5bn on a range of goods imported from the EU. In a parallel case, the WTO ruled that the US benefits to Boeing also violated trade rules, authorising the EU to impose tariffs on US imports worth roughly $4bn. Then in March 2020, the USA imposed a 15% tariff on Airbus aircraft.
Agreement was reached on 15 June 2021 in trade talks between the USA and the EU in Brussels. Both sides recognised that the dispute had been a negative-sum game, with both sides losing. It was thus agreed to suspend for five years all tariffs on aircraft and on a range of other goods, such as EU cheese and wine and US tobacco and spirits. The agreement did not include ending EU tariffs on US steel, however.
It was also agreed to work on an overarching agreement on subsidies, which would allow fair support by governments on both sides, and to co-operate in finding ways to counter unfair state investment in aircraft by China. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that the agreement ‘includes a commitment for concrete joint collaboration to confront the threat from China’s ambitions to build an aircraft sector on non-market practices’. China’s state-sponsored aerospace manufacturer, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, sees its C919, now in late stages of development, as a direct rival to the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 Max.
To work out the details of US-EU collaboration, a working group will be set up. It will consider ways of ensuring that finance is provided on market terms, that R&D funding is transparent and that support given to aircraft manufactures will be equivalent by each side and will avoid harming the other side. It will consider just how the two sides can co-operate to address unfair competition from elsewhere.
Two days later, an almost identically worded deal was reached between the USA and the UK to end tariffs on a range of goods and join the EU-USA co-operation on aircraft manufacture.
- US and Europe end Airbus-Boeing dispute as they eye threat from China
CNN, Charles Riley and Kevin Liptak (15/6/21)
- After 17 years, truce nears in U.S.-Europe jet subsidy war
Reuters, Tim Hepher, Andrea Shalal, David Shepardson and Philip Blenkinsop (15/6/21)
- U.S, EU agree truce in 17-year Airbus-Boeing conflict
Reuters, Philip Blenkinsop (16/6/21)
- After EU, Britain and U.S. reach truce in aircraft trade dispute
Reuters, Tim Hepher and Alistair Smout (17/6/21)
- EU and US end Airbus-Boeing trade dispute after 17 years
Financial Times, Jim Brunsden, Sam Fleming, Aime Williams and James Politi (15/6/21)
- Boeing-Airbus trade row set to end after 17 years
BBC News (16/6/21)
- Biden, E.U. end 17-year Airbus-Boeing trade dispute, seek to calm relations after Trump
The Washington Post, Michael Birnbaum, Anne Gearan and David J. Lynch
- EU, U.S. Agree to Five-Year Truce in Boeing-Airbus Trade Dispute
Bloomberg, Alberto Nardelli, Nikos Chrysoloras and Jennifer Jacobs (15/6/21)
- Choose any one particular complaint to the WTO by either Boeing or Airbus and assess the arguments used by the WTO in its ruling.
- Are subsidies by aircraft manufacturers in the interests of (a) passengers; (b) society in general?
- Is collaboration between Boeing and Airbus in the interests of (a) passengers; (b) society in general?
- How is game theory relevant to the long-running disputes between Boeing and Airbus and to their relationships in the coming years?
- Would cheaper aircraft from China be in the interests of (a) passengers; (b) society in general?
- Explain what is meant by ‘strategic trade theory’. How is it relevant to aircraft manufacture?
At a meeting of the G7 finance ministers in London from 4–5 June, it was agreed to adopt a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% and to take measures to prevent multinational companies using tax havens to avoid paying taxes. It was also agreed that part of the taxes paid should go to the countries where sales are made and not just to those where the companies are based.
This agreement is the first step on the road to a comprehensive global agreement. The next step is a meeting of the finance ministers and central bank governors of the G20 countries in Venice from 9 to 10 July. The G7 ministers hope that their agreement will be adopted by this larger group, which includes other major economies such as Russia, China, India, Brazil, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.
Later in July, the proposals will be put to a group of 139 countries and jurisdictions at a meeting co-ordinated by the OECD. It is hoped that this meeting will finalise an international agreement with precise details on corporate tax rules. It follows work by the OECD on reforming international taxation under its Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS).
These meetings follow growing concerns about the ability of multinational companies to avoid taxes by basing regional headquarters in low-tax countries, such as Luxembourg or Singapore, and declaring their profits there, despite having only a tiny proportion of their sales in these countries.
The desire to attract multinational profits has led to a prisoners’ dilemma situation, whereby countries have been competing against each other to offer lower taxes, even though it reduces global corporate tax revenues.
With many countries having seen a significant rise in government deficits as result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the support measures put in place, there has been a greater urgency to reach international agreement on corporate taxes. The G7 agreement, if implemented, will provide a significant increase in tax revenue.
Details of the G7 agreement
The agreement has two parts or ‘pillars’.
Pillar 1 allows countries to tax large multinationals earning global profits of more than 10% if these companies are not based there but earn revenues there. Countries will be given tax rights over at least 20% of the profits earned there which exceed the 10% margin. The level of profits determined for each country will be based on the proportion of revenues earned there.
Pillar 2 sets a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% for each of the seven countries, which call on other countries to adopt the same minimum. The hope is that the G20 countries will agree to this and then at the OECD meeting in July a global agreement will be reached. If a country chooses to charge a rate below 15%, then a top-up tax can be applied by the home country to bring the total rate up to the 15%.
It is possible that these proposals will be strengthened/amended at the G20 and OECD meetings. For example, the 15% minimum rate may be raised. Indeed, the USA had initially proposed a 25% rate and then 21%, and several EU countries such as France, have been pushing for a substantially higher rate.
The agreement was hailed as ‘historic’ by Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is true in that it is the first time there has been an international agreement on minimum corporate tax rates and locating part of tax liability according to sales. What is more, the rules may be strengthened at the G20 and/or OECD meetings.
There have been various criticisms of the agreement, however. The first is that 15% is too low and is well below the rates charged in many countries. As far as the UK is concerned, the IPPR think tank estimates that the deal will raise £7.9bn whereas a 25% rate would raise £14.7bn.
Another criticism is that the reallocation of some tax liabilities to countries where sales are made rather than where profits are booked applies only to profits in excess of 10%. This would therefore not affect companies, such as Amazon, with a model of large-scale low-margin sales and hence profits of less than 10%.
Also there is the criticism that a 20% reallocation is too low and would thus provide too little tax revenue to poor countries which may record large sales but where little or no profits are booked.
The UK was one of the more reluctant countries to sign up to a deal that would have a significant impact on tax havens in various British overseas territories and crown dependencies, such as the British Virgin islands, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. The agreement also calls into question whether the announced UK freeports can go ahead. Although these are largely concerned with waiving tariffs and other taxes on raw materials and parts imported into the freeport, which are then made into finished or semi-finished products within the freeport for export, they are still seen by many as not in the spirit of the G7 agreement.
What is more, the UK has been pushing for financial services to be exempted from Pillar 1 of the deal, which would otherwise see taxes partly diverted from the UK to other countries where such firms do business. For example, HSBC generates more than half its income from China and Standard Chartered operates mostly in Asia and Africa.
Update: July 2021
The G7 plan was agreed by the finance ministers of the G20 countries on July 11 in Venice. By that point, 130 of the 139 countries which are part of the Inclusive Framework of the OECD and which represent more than 90% of global GDP, had signed up to the plan and it was expected that there would be a global agreement reached at the OECD meeting later in the month. The other nine countries were Ireland, Hungary and Estonia in the EU and Kenya, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka, Barbados and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Several of these countries use low corporate taxes to encourage inward investment and are seen as tax havens.
- G-7 nations reach historic deal on global tax reform
CNBC, Silvia Amaro, Joanna Tan and Emma Newburger (5/6/21)
- Rishi Sunak hails ‘historic’ breakthrough as G7 ministers agree global tech tax deal
The Telegraph, Lucy Burton and Edward Malnick (5/6/21)
- G7 backs Biden’s sweeping overhaul of global tax system
CNN, Tara John and Kevin Liptak (5/6/21)
- ‘Historic’ G7 deal to stop global corporate tax avoidance welcomed by tech giants Google and Facebook
Sky News, Ajay Nair (6/6/21)
- Finance Leaders Reach Global Tax Deal Aimed at Ending Profit Shifting
New York Times, Alan Rappeport (5/6/21)
- G7 strikes historic agreement on taxing multinationals
Financial Times, Chris Giles (5/6/21)
- G7 tax deal is ‘starting point’ on road to global reform
LAPM Journal, Chris Giles and Delphine Strauss (FT) (6/6/21)
- G7 tax deal doesn’t go far enough, campaigners say
BBC News (6/6/21)
- Rishi Sunak announces ‘historic agreement’ by G7 on tax reform
The Observer, Phillip Inman and Michael Savage (5/6/21)
- G7 deal is as much about balance of power as global tax reform
The Guardian, Richard Partington (6/6/21)
- Global G7 deal may let Amazon off hook on tax, say experts
The Guardian, Jasper Jolly (6/6/21)
- Explainer: G7 tax deal – what was agreed and what does it mean for Ireland?
The Irish Times, Cliff Taylor (5/6/21)
- G7 deal: UK is badly conflicted between offshore tax havens and Biden’s global tax drive
The Conversation, Atul K. Shah (4/6/21)
- G7 tax dodging deal ‘sets bar so low companies can just step over it’
Independent, Emily Goddard (6/6/21)
- UK pushes for City of London to be exempt from G7 tax plan
The Guardian, Phillip Inman and Richard Partington (9/6/21)
- The global pandemic, sustainable economic recovery, and international taxation
Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (May 2020)
- G20 finance ministers back deal to tax companies
BBC News (11/7/21)
- How are multinationals currently able to avoid paying corporate taxes in many countries, even though their sales may be high there?
- If the deal is accepted at the OECD meeting in July, would it still be in the interests of low-tax countries to charge tax rates below the agreed minimum rate?
- Why was the UK reluctant to accept the 21% rate proposed by the Biden administration?
- Find out about the digital services tax that has been adopted by many countries, including EU countries and the UK, and why it will be abolished once a minimum corporate tax comes into force.
- Argue the case for and against taxing the whole of multinational profits in countries where they earn revenue in proportion to the company’s total global revenue. Would such a system benefit developing countries?
- Should financial services, such as those provided by City of London firms, be exempted from the deal?
The UK and Australia are set to sign a free-trade deal at the G7 summit in Cornwall on 11–13 June. This will eventually give tariff-free access to each other’s markets, with existing tariffs being phased out over a 15-year period. It is the first trade deal not based on an existing EU template. The government hopes that it will be followed by trade deals with other countries, including New Zealand, Canada and, crucially, the USA.
But what are the benefits and costs of such a deal?
Trade and comparative advantage
The classic economic argument is that free trade allows countries to benefit from the law of comparative advantage. According to the law, provided opportunity costs of various goods differ in two countries, both of them can gain from mutual trade if they specialise in producing (and exporting) those goods that have relatively low opportunity costs compared with the other country. In the case of the UK and Australia, the UK has a comparative advantage in products such as financial services and high-tech and specialist manufactured products. Australia has a comparative advantage in agricultural products, such as lamb, beef and wheat and in various ores and minerals. By increasing trade in these products, there can be a net efficiency gain to both sides and hence a higher GDP than before.
There is clearly a benefit to consumers in both countries from cheaper products, but the gains are likely to be very small. The most optimistic estimate is that the gain in UK GDP will be around 0.01% to 0.02%. Part of the reason is the physical distance between the two countries. For products such as meat, grain and raw materials, shipping costs could be relatively high. This might result in no cost advantage over imports from much nearer countries, such as EU member states.
But modern trade deals are less about tariffs, which, with various WTO trade rounds, are much lower than in the past. Many imports from Australia are already tariff free, with meat currently having a tariff of 12%. Modern trade deals are more about reducing or eliminating non-tariff barriers, such as differing standards and regulations. This is the area where there is a high degree of concern in the UK. Import-competing sectors, such as farming, fear that their products will be undercut by Australian imports produced to lower standards.
Costs of a trade deal
In a perfectly competitive world, with no externalities, labour mobile between sectors and no concerns about income distribution, eliminating tariffs would indeed provide an efficiency gain. But these conditions do not hold. Small farmers are often unable to compete with food producers with considerable market power. The danger is that by driving out such small farmers, food production and supply might not result in lower long-run prices. Much would depend on the countervailing power of supermarkets to continue bearing down on food costs.
But the question of price is probably the least worrying issue. Meat and grain is generally produced at lower standards in Australia than in the UK, with various pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics being used that are not permitted in the UK (and the EU). Unless the trade deal can involve UK standards being enforced on products produced in Australia for export to the UK, UK farmers could be undercut by such imports. The question then would be whether labelling of imported food products could alert consumers to the different standards. And even if they did, would consumers simply prefer to buy the cheaper products? If so, this could be seen as a market failure with consumers not taking into account all the relevant health and welfare costs. Better quality food could be seen as a merit good.
Then there are the broader social issues of the protection of rural industries and societies. Labour is relatively immobile from farming and there could be a rise in rural unemployment, which could have local multiplier effects, leading to the decline of rural economies. Rural ways of life could be seriously affected, which imposes costs on local inhabitants and visitors.
Trade itself imposes environmental costs. Even if it were privately efficient to transport products half way around the world, the costs of carbon emissions and other pollution may outweigh any private gains. At a time when the world is becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, and with the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow in November, it is difficult to align such a trade deal with a greater commitment to cutting carbon emissions.
- UK makes free-trade offer to Australia despite farmers’ fears
BBC News (22/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal: What are the arguments for and against?
BBC News, Chris Morris (21/5/21)
- Australia–UK trade deal can help spur post-pandemic recovery
The Conversation, David Collins (20/5/21)
- Australia will set the precedent for UK trade deals
Prospect, David Henig (21/5/21)
- Britain beefs with Australian farmers as Boris Johnson backs trade deal
Sydney Morning Herald, Mike Foley and Bevan Shields (20/5/21)
- Boris Johnson defends Australia trade deal that will allow cheap foreign meat imports …
Mail Online, David Wilcock (19/5/21)
- City executives raise concerns over hidden costs to trade deals
Financial Times, Daniel Thomas (22/5/21)
- Australia trade deal: Ministers discuss British farmers’ concerns
BBC News (21/5/21)
- Boris Johnson Faces His First Real Brexit Trade Test
Bloomberg, Therese Raphael (21/5/21)
- UK-Australia trade deal could mean children and patients eating meat reared in ways illegal in UK, warn experts
Independent, Jane Dalton (11/5/21)
- Australian farmers rush to reassure UK over looming free trade agreement
The Guardian, Amy Remeikis (19/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson warned trade deal with Australia could ‘decimate’ British farming
Independent, Adam Forrest (20/5/21)
- Truss’s naivety on trade with Australia could leave the UK exposed
The Observer, Phillip Inman (22/5/21)
- ‘Irresponsible’ Australia trade deal will bring ruin for UK farmers, critics warn
The Observer, James Tapper and Toby Helm (23/5/21)
- Brexit: Boris Johnson rejects claim UK-Australia trade deal would see farmers ‘lose their livelihoods’
Sky News, Tom Rayner (19/5/21)
- Small farms have a huge role to play in our sustainable future
The Guardian, Charles, Prince of Wales (23/5/21)
- Farmers’ opposition to UK-Australia trade deal grows
BBC News, Claire Marshall (2/6/21)
- UK livestock farmers fear Australia trade deal will threaten way of life
Financial Times, Judith Evans and Sebastian Payne (8/6/21)
- The UK–Australia trade deal is not really about economic gain – it’s about demonstrating post-Brexit sovereignty
The Conversation, Tony Heron and Gabriel Siles-Brügge (18/6/21)
- Why might the UK government be very keen to sign a trade deal with Australia?
- Does the law of comparative advantage prove that freer trade is more efficient than less free trade? Explain.
- What externalities are involved in the UK trading with Australia? Are they similar to those from trading with the USA?
- If a trade deal resulted in lower food prices but a decline in rural communities, how would you establish whether this would be a ‘price worth paying’?
- If some people gain from a trade deal and others lose and if it were established that the benefits to the gainers were larger than the costs to the losers, would this prove that the deal should go ahead?
Many developing countries are facing a renewed debt crisis. This is directly related to Covid-19, which is now sweeping across many poor countries in a new wave.
Between 2016 and 2020, debt service as a percentage of GDP rose from an average of 7.1% to 27.1% for South Asian countries, from 8.1% to 14.1% for Sub-Saharan African countries, from 13.1% to 42.3% for North African and Middle Eastern countries, and from 5.6% to 14.7% for East Asian and Pacific countries. These percentages are expected to climb again in 2021 by around 10% of GDP.
Incomes have fallen in developing countries with illness, lockdowns and business failures. This has been compounded by a fall in their exports as the world economy has contracted and by a 19% fall in aid in 2020. The fall in incomes has led to a decline in tax revenues and demands for increased government expenditure on healthcare and social support. Public-sector deficits have thus risen steeply.
And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Vaccination roll-outs in most developing countries are slow, with only a tiny fraction of the population having received just one jab. With the economic damage already caused, growth is likely to be subdued for some time.
This has put developing countries in a ‘trilemma’, as the IMF calls it. Governments must balance the objectives of:
- meeting increased spending needs from the emergency and its aftermath;
- limiting the substantial increase in public debt;
- trying to contain rises in taxes.
Developing countries are faced with a difficult trade-off between these objectives, as addressing one objective is likely to come at the expense of the other two. For example, higher spending would require higher deficits and debt or higher taxes.
The poorest countries have little scope for increased domestic borrowing and have been forced to borrow on international markets. But such debt is costly. Although international interest rates are generally low, many developing countries have had to take on increasing levels of borrowing from private lenders at much higher rates of interest, substantially adding to the servicing costs of their debt.
International agencies and groups, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the G20, have all advocated increased help to tackle this debt crisis. The IMF has allocated $100bn in lending through the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) and the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and nearly $500m in debt service relief grants through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The World Bank is increasing operations to $160bn.
The IMF is also considering an increase in special drawing rights (SDRs) from the current level of 204.2bn ($293.3bn) to 452.6bn ($650bn) – a rise of 121.6%. This would be the first such expansion since 2009. It has received the support of both the G7 and the G20. SDRs are reserves created by the IMF whose value is a weighted average of five currencies – the US dollar (41.73%), the euro (30.93%), the Chinese yuan (10.92%), the Japanese yen (8.33%) and the pound sterling (8.09%).
Normally an increase in SDRs would be allocated to countries according their IMF quotas, which largely depend on the size of their GDP and their openness. Any new allocation under this formula would therefore go mainly to developed countries, with developing economies getting only around $60bn of the extra $357bn. It has thus been proposed that developed countries give much of their allocation to developing countries. These could then be used to cancel debts. This proposal has been backed by Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who said she would “strongly encourage G20 members to channel excess SDRs in support of recovery efforts in low-income countries, alongside continued bilateral financing”.
The G20 countries, with the support of the IMF and World Bank, have committed to suspend debt service payments by eligible countries which request to participate in its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). There are 73 eligible countries. The scheme, now extended to 31 December 2021, provides a suspension of debt-service payments owed to official bilateral creditors. In return, borrowers commit to use freed-up resources to increase social, health or economic spending in response to the crisis. As of April 2021, 45 countries had requested to participate, with savings totalling more than $10bn. The G20 has also called on private creditors to join the DSSI, but so far without success.
Despite these initiatives, the scale of debt relief (as opposed to extra or deferred lending) remains small in comparison to earlier initiatives. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC, launched 1996) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI, launched 2005) more than $100bn of debt was cancelled.
Since the start of the pandemic, major developed countries have spent between $10 000 and $20 000 per head in stimulus and social support programmes. Sub-Saharan African countries on average are seeking only $365 per head in support.
Articles and blogs
- Imagine you are an economic advisor to a developing country attempting to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. How would you advise it to proceed, given the ‘trilemma’ described above?
- How does the News24 article define ‘smart debt relief’. Do you agree with the definition and the means of achieving smart debt relief?
- To what extent is it in the interests of the developed world to provide additional debt relief to poor countries whose economies have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
- Research ‘debt-for-nature swaps’. To what extent can debt relief for countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic be linked to tackling climate change?