Late January sees the annual global World Economic Forum meeting of politicians, businesspeople and the great and the good at Davos in Switzerland. Global economic, political, social and environmental issues are discussed and, sometimes, agreements are reached between world leaders. The 2019 meeting was somewhat subdued as worries persist about a global slowdown, Brexit and the trade war between the USA and China. Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Theresa May were all absent, each having more pressing issues to attend to at home.
There was, however, a feeling that the world economic order is changing, with the rise in populism and with less certainty about the continuance of the model of freer trade and a model of capitalism modified by market intervention. There was also concern about the roles of the three major international institutions set up at the end of World War II: the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO (formerly the GATT). In a key speech, Angela Merkel urged countries not to abandon the world economic order that such institutions help to maintain. The world can only resolve disputes and promote development, she argued, by co-operating and respecting the role of such institutions.
But the role of these institutions has been a topic of controversy for many years and their role has changed somewhat. Originally, the IMF’s role was to support an adjustable peg exchange rate system (the ‘Bretton Woods‘ system) with the US dollar as the international reserve currency. It would lend to countries in balance of payments deficit to allow them to maintain their rate pegged to the dollar unless it was perceived to be a fundamental deficit, in which case they were expected to devalue their currency. The system collapsed in 1971, but the IMF continued to provide short-term, and sometimes longer-term, finance to countries in balance of payments difficulties.
The World Bank was primarily set up to provide development finance to poorer countries. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and then the WTO were set up to encourage freer trade and to resolve trade disputes.
However, the institutions were perceived with suspicion by many developing countries and by more left-leaning developed countries, who saw them as part of the ‘Washington consensus’. Loans from the IMF and World Bank were normally contingent on countries pursuing policies of market liberalisation, financial deregulation and privatisation.
Although there has been some movement, especially by the IMF, towards acknowledging market failures and supporting a more broadly-based development, there are still many economists and commentators calling for more radical reform of these institutions. They advocate that the World Bank and IMF should directly support investment – public as well as private – and support the Green New Deal.
- What was the Bretton Woods system that was adopted at the end of World War II?
- What did Keynes propose as an alternative to the system that was actually adopted?
- Explain the roles of (a) the IMF, (b) the World Bank, (c) the WTO (formerly the GATT).
- What is meant by an adjustable exchange rate system?
- Why did the Bretton Woods system collapse in 1971?
- How have the roles of the IMF, World Bank and WTO/GATT evolved since they were founded?
- What reforms would you suggest to each of the three institutions and why?
- What threats are there currently to the international economic order?
- Summarise the arguments about the world economic order made by Angela Merkel in her address to the World Economic Forum.
Each January, world political and business leaders gather at the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. They discuss a range of economic and political issues with the hope of guiding policy.
This year, leaders meet at a time when the global political context has and is changing rapidly. This year the focus is on ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’. As the Forum’s website states:
The global context has changed dramatically: geostrategic fissures have re-emerged on multiple fronts with wide-ranging political, economic and social consequences. Realpolitik is no longer just a relic of the Cold War. Economic prosperity and social cohesion are not one and the same. The global commons cannot protect or heal itself.
One of the main ‘fissures’ which threatens social cohesion is the widening gap between the very rich and the rest of the world. Indeed, inequality and poverty is one of the main agenda items at the Davos meeting and the Forum website includes an article titled, ‘We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it’ (see second link in the Articles below). The article shows how the top 1% captured 27% of GDP growth between 1980 and 2016.
The first Guardian article below identifies seven different policy options to tackle the problem of inequality of income and wealth and asks you to say, using a drop-down menu, which one you think is most important. Perhaps it’s something you would like to do.
Project Davos: what’s the single best way to close the world’s wealth gap? The Guardian, Aidan Mac Guill (19/1/18)
We have built an unequal world. Here’s how we can change it World Economic Forum, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/18)
Oxfam highlights sharp inequality as Davos elite gathers ABC news, Pan Pylas (21/1/18)
Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest The Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/1/18)
There’s a huge gender component to income inequality that we’re ignoring Business Insider, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa (22/1/18)
Ahead of Davos, even the 1 percent worry about inequality Washington Post, Heather Long (22/1/18)
“Fractures, Fears and Failures:” World’s Ruling Elites Stare into the Abyss GlobalResearch, Bill Van Auken (18/1/18)
Why the world isn’t getting a pay raise CNN Money, Patrick Gillespie and Ivana Kottasová (1/11/17)
Articles on Inequality World Economic Forum
- Distinguish between income and wealth. In global terms, which is distributed more unequally?
- Why has global inequality of both income and wealth grown?
- Explain which of the seven policy options identified by the Guardian you would choose/did choose?
- Go through each one of the seven policy options and identify what costs would be associated with pursuing it.
- Identify any other policy options for tackling the problem.
The World Economic Forum has been holding its annual meeting in the up-market Swiss ski resort of Davos. Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people attend these meetings, including political leaders, business leaders and representatives of various interest groups.
This year, one of the major topics has been the growth in inequality across the globe and how to reverse it. According to a report by Oxfam, Wealth: Having it all and wanting more:
The richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.
Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.
Currently, the richest 85 people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. It might seem odd that those with the wealth are talking about the problem of inequality. Indeed, some of those 85 richest people were at the conference: a conference that boasts extremely luxurious conditions. What is more, many delegates flew into the conference in private jets (at least 850 jets) to discuss not just poverty but also climate change!
Yet if the problem of global inequality is to be tackled, much of the power to do so lies in the hands of these rich and powerful people. They are largely the ones who will have to implement policies that will help to raise living standards of the poor.
But why should they want to? Part of the reason is a genuine concern to address the issues of increasingly divided societies. But part is the growing evidence that greater inequality reduces economic growth by reducing the development of skills of the lower income groups and reducing social mobility. We discussed this topic in the blog, Inequality and economic growth.
So what policies could be adopted to tackle the problem. Oxfam identifies a seven-point plan:
||Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals;
||Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education;
||Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth;
||Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers;
||Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee;
||Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal;
||Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.
But how realistic are these policies? Is it really in the interests of governments to reduce inequality? Indeed, some of the policies that have been adopted since 2008, such as bailing out the banks and quantitative easing, have had the effect of worsening inequality. QE drives up asset prices, particularly bond, share and property prices. This has provided a windfall to the rich: the more of such assets you own, the greater the absolute gain.
The following videos and articles look at the problem of growing inequality and how realistic it is to expect leaders to do anything significant about it.
Videos and podcasts
Income inequality is ‘brake on growth’, Oxfam chief warns Davos France 24, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/15)
Davos dilemma: Can the 1% cure income inequality? Yahoo Finance, Lizzie O’Leary and Shawna Ohm (21/1/15)
Richest 1% ‘Will Own Half The World’s Wealth By 2016’ ITN on YouTube, Sarah Kerr (19/1/15)
The Price of Inequality BBC Radio 4, Robert Peston (3/2/15 and 10/2/15)
Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016 Oxfam blogs, Jon Slater (19/1/15)
Global tax system can cut inequality The Scotsman, Jamie Livingstone (23/1/15)
A new framework for a new age Financial Times, Tony Elumelu (23/1/15)
The global elite in Davos must give the world a pay rise New Statesman, Frances O’Grady (22/1/15)
New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1% The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington (19/1/15)
Davos is starting to get it – inequality is the root cause of stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/1/15)
Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over The Guardian, Suzanne Moore (19/1/15)
Why extreme inequality hurts the rich BBC News, Robert Peston (19/1/15)
Eurozone stimulus ‘reinforces inequality’, warns Soros BBC News, Joe Miller (22/1/15)
Hot topic for the 1 percent at Davos: Inequality CNBC, Lawrence Delevingne (21/1/15)
Global inequality: The wrong yardstick The Economist (24/1/15)
A Richer World (a compendium of articles) BBC News (27/1/15)
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS
- Why has inequality increased in most countries in recent years?
- For what reasons might it be difficult to measure the distribution of wealth?
- Which gives a better indication of differences in living standards: the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income?
- Discuss the benefits and costs of using the tax system to redistribute (a) income and (b) wealth from rich to poor
- Go through each of the seven policies advocated by Oxfam and consider how practical they are and what possible objections to them might be raised by political leaders.
- Why is tax avoidance/tax evasion by multinational companies difficult to tackle?
- Does universal access to education provide the key to reducing income inequality within and between countries?
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, has warned of the danger of deflation in the eurozone. She also spoke of the risks of a slowdown in the developing world as the Fed tapers off its quantitative easing programme – a programme that has provided a boost to many emerging economies.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum, in the Swiss Alps, she did acknowledge signs of recovery across the world, but generally her speech focused on the risks to economic growth.
Some of these risks are old, such as a lack of fundamental bank reform and a re-emergence of risky behaviour by banks. Banks have taken steps towards recapitalisation, and the Basel III rules are beginning to provide greater capital buffers. But many economists believe that the reforms do not go far enough and that banks are once again beginning to behave too recklessly.
Some of the risks are new, or old ones resurfacing in a new form. In particular, the eurozone, with inflation of just 0.8%, is dangerously close to falling into a deflationary spiral, with people holding back on spending as they wait for prices to fall.
Another new risk concerns the global impact of the Fed tapering off its quantitative easing programme (see Tapering off? Not yet). This programme has provided a considerable boost, not just to the US economy, but to many emerging economies. Much of the new money flowed into these economies as investors sought better returns. Currencies such as the Indian rupee, the Brazilian real and the Turkish lira are now coming under pressure. The Argentinean peso has already been hit by speculation and fell by 11% on 24/1/14, its biggest one-day fall since 2002. Although a fall in emerging countries’ currencies will help boost demand for their exports, it will drive up prices in these countries and put pressure on central banks to raise interest rates.
Christine Lagarde was one of several speakers at a session titled, Global Economic Outlook 2014. You can see the complete session by following the link below.
Lagarde warns of risks to global economic recovery TVNZ (27/1/14)
Lagarde Cautions Davos on Global Deflation Risk Bloomberg News, Ian Katz (26/1/14)
Davos 2014: Eurozone inflation ‘way below target’ BBC News (25/1/14)
IMF fears global markets threat as US cuts back on cash stimulus The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (25/1/14)
Davos 2014: looking back on a forum that was meant to look ahead The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/1/14)
Speeches at the WEF
Global Economic Outlook 2014 World Economic Forum (25/1/14)
- Why is deflation undesirable?
- What are the solutions to deflation? Why is it difficult to combat deflation?
- What are the arguments for the USA tapering off its quantitative easing programme (a) more quickly; (b) less quickly?
- How is tapering off in the USA likely to affect the exchange rates of the US dollar against other currencies? Why will the percentage effect be different from one currency to another?
- What are Japan’s three policy arrows (search previous posts on this site)? Should the eurozone follow these three policies?
World leaders are meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the Swiss Alps. This annual conference is an opportunity for politicans, economists and businesspeople from around the world to discuss the state of the world economy and to consider policy options.
To coincide with the conference, the BBC’s Newsnight has produced the following slide show, which presents some economic facts about the world economy. The slide show provides no commentary and there is no commentary either in this blog – just some questions for you to ponder.
Using the economics you’ve learned so far, try answering these questions, which focus on the reasons for the patterns in the figures, the likely future patterns and the policy implications.
Davos: 22 facts people should know BBC Newsnight (23/1/14)
For additional international data to help you answer the questions, see:
Economic Data freely available online Economics Network
- Go through each of the slides in the Newsnight presentation and select the ones of most interest to you. Then, as an economist, provide an explanation for them.
- Identify some patterns over time in the statistics. Then project forward 20 years and discuss whether the patterns are likely to have changed and, if so, why.
- What policies could governments adopt to reverse any undesirable trends you have identified? How likely are these policies to be implemented and how successful are they likely to be?