Banking on Acceptance: China and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

The Beijing-headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) opened in January 2016, establishing itself as the newest member of the multilateral development bank community. Commonly billed as “China’s answer to the World Bank,” the AIIB aims to invest in infrastructure and other productive sectors across the Asian continent. Concerns about China using the AIIB as a front for its strategic and economic objectives plagued the bank’s planning stages and initial months of operations, but such concerns were difficult to substantiate before the bank had funded any projects. The recent announcement of the AIIB’s first four funding projects suggest that, while China is using the bank to its advantage, it is also maintaining the bank’s legitimacy as a multilateral institution.

China officially proposed a multilateral infrastructure bank for Asia in 2013, an announcement that received an unenthusiastic response from the United States and Japan. Both countries were concerned that founding a new bank, not necessarily beholden to “international standards of governance and transparency,” could provide China with the opportunity to exert disproportionate influence over Asia’s development agenda.

These concerns were substantiated in 2015 when it was announced that China would be the largest stakeholder in the bank, with a 26% voting share, after funding $29.78 billion of the AIIB’s $100 billion capital. Given that major changes to the bank, including capital increases or alterations to the governing structure, must be approved by a supermajority totaling 75% of the voting share, China effectively possesses an informal veto power over many AIIB decisions. However, Beijing has been keen to assuage worries of Chinese dominance. The chief of the bank stated that China will not seek to increase its voting share – in fact, he alluded that China’s voting share may decrease over time as more members join. In addition, China will not possess a formal veto power, a stark contrast to the United States’ formal veto over structural changes within the World Bank.

That said, Chinese interests were clearly supported when the AIIB began to consider development project proposals, the first of which were approved in June 2016. They included revitalizing slums in Indonesia and upgrading the power grid in Bangladesh, as well as constructing and improving roads in Pakistan and Tajikistan. While these projects will undoubtedly benefit China, they also show that AIIB’s reputation as a multilateral bank will not be undermined to serve solely Chinese interests.

To understand how the AIIB benefits China, it is necessary to look at Chinese development in the larger context of the country’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Inspired by the ancient Silk Road, OBOR seeks to connect China with trading partners through Asia, the Middle East, and Africa via an “economic land belt” and a “maritime road” that links Chinese ports to those of other countries.

The AIIB, as a formal investment institution with international support to increase regional prosperity, is partly a way to fund OBOR. It is therefore unsurprising that the AIIB’s projects for Pakistan and Tajikistan are directly related to OBOR.  Both projects call for the construction and improvement of roads, which is critical to trade between China and other Asian countries.

But consistency with OBOR’s objectives does not mean that these projects are simply moves by China to increase its regional influence. Rather, the AIIB has chosen to co-finance all of these projects, except the one for Bangladesh, with other multilateral agencies including the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the World Bank. Co-financing mitigates the risk that the young AIIB and its stakeholders are accepting and eases concerns in the international community regarding the transparency and governance standards of the AIIB. Cooperating with respected multilateral agencies ensures that the AIIB will, at least for these projects, comply with accepted international standards. This compliance strengthens the bank’s standing among multilateral institutions.

Still, some are convinced that the AIIB is prioritizing Chinese interests at the expense of regional prosperity. In particular, there is concern that AIIB rejected a project for India in favor of a road construction project for its strategic ally, Pakistan. However, the president of the ADB, which is the lead financer of the project, stated that there are “so many projects in the list in many countries. It just happened that the Pakistan project was approved first because it could be done quickly.” That this statement comes from the ADB strongly suggests that financing for the Pakistan project was not a case of the AIIB favoring China’s regional allies. Given Japan’s tenuous relationship with China, the Japan-backed ADB would have little incentive to finance a project in Pakistan if it believed that it would solely aide Chinese interests.

The AIIB is increasingly perceived as an institution that complements other development efforts, as evidenced by co-financing and support from other multilateral banks and the membership of other global powers such as Australia and Germany. Such acceptance is beneficial to both the multilateral development industry and China. Increased membership could augment the capacity of the AIIB to contribute to infrastructure development, leading to greater prosperity for China and the rest of the continent. Such a prospect is certainly motivation for the AIIB to continue to seek success not only in its project outcomes, but also in the eyes of the global development community.

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The “Pride and Prejudice” of Economists

The dominant position of economics in the field of social science has long been recognized, but Marion Fourcade, et al. recently published a new paper investigating this phenomenon in greater detail. By presenting evidence of the hierarchy that effects job prospects, getting published, and establishing influential connections, Fourcade argued that economists’ objective supremacy is intimately linked with their subjective sense of authority and entitlement. “Economists may advise governments, but they do not convince the people.”

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Whether or not that is a problem depends on its unintended consequences. William Easterly has expressed concerns for the “tyranny” of economists in international development. The “tyranny of experts” in development posited the belief that poverty is due to a lack of technical expertise, and that autocrats are best at delivering this. The support for a benevolent authoritarian approach to development is not overt but implied, and is often altruistic rather than self-serving. Easterly sympathized with economists who, in their zeal to help the world’s poor, unwittingly favor autocracy, because he used to be one of them himself. Economists choose to advise governments on how to alleviate poverty through a top-down approach, but for Easterly the real cause of poverty is exactly the unchecked power of the state against the poor.

According to Fourcade, 57.3% of American university economics professors disagree with the statement that in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by a single discipline. But as Easterly noted, at least for development, other than national policies of technical solutions to poverty, such as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements, history, non-national factors, and spontaneous solutions also matter. Therefore development may have to give up its authoritarian mindset to avoid tragedies such as the one that happened to the farmers in Mubende District, Uganda, detailed in the beginning of Easterly’s book. Soldiers marched more than 20,000 farmers away from their land at riflepoint in 2010. Some of those farmers died and the rest never returned, because they were told the land no longer belonged to them. Four years later, the whole event has been forgotten by almost everyone except the victims.

However, it is not always wise to label people and attack economists as a homogeneous group, because criticism or compliment could be just a matter of opinion. Fourcade consented to the notion that most modern economists are talented. They simply believe in the ideal of an expert-advised democracy, in which their competence would be utilized. Unfortunately democratic societies are often deeply suspicious of expertise as described by Alexis de Tocqueville:

“When the ranks of society are unequal…there are some individuals invested with all the power of superior intelligence, learning, and enlightenment, whilst the multitude is sunk in ignorance and prejudice. Men living at these aristocratic periods are therefore naturally induced to shape their opinions by the superior standard of a person or a class of persons, whilst they are averse to recognize the infallibility of the mass of the people. The contrary takes place in ages of equality. The nearer the citizens are drawn to the common level of an equal and similar condition, the less prone does each man become to place implicit faith in a certain man or a certain class of men.” That is what Fourcade meant by saying, “democratic societies are deeply suspicious of (non-democratic) expertise, and economic advice, unlike dentistry, can never be humble.” It is our own inclination to believe in practical and results-oriented views (instrumental rationality) from objective data (quantitative research) more than value-based (value rationality) statements from our peers (qualitative research).

That being said, the perceived superiority of economists and their supposed lack of humbleness may also be a kind of resignation. In other words, are we talking about the pride and prejudice of the economists or ourselves?

FIFA World Cup: Brazil’s Development Hopes

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Around the world, Brazil is known as the mecca of soccer. The country is loaded with magnificent soccer talent and has an electrifying atmosphere that makes soccer fanatics feel at home. Not to mention that Brazil has won the FIFA World Cup a record five times, and is the only country to have qualified for the World Cup every year since the tournament’s inception. One could not dream up a more soccer obsessed nation to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup that began this week. However, the current tension in the political, economic, and social atmosphere of Brazil has given the rest of the world an apprehensive feeling about this year’s tournament.

Political tension in Brazil has risen in recent years, as a majority of the county is unhappy with the government due to inflation, corruption, and the massive investment of public funds in World Cup preparations instead of Public Programs for the poor, who are in dire need. The estimated cost of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is currently at $11.5 billion. All this unrest comes at a time when Brazil has one of the most unequal wealth distributions in the world, currently entertaining a Gini Index of 54.7, along with a struggling economy. Some Brazilians hope that the World Cup will promote progress, while others worry that the event will push Brazil’s economy over the edge. It also gives rise to the question of whether the World Cup will only benefit the wealthy and further increase the gap between the rich and poor?

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 61% of Brazilians believe that hosting the World Cup will be detrimental to the economy as it diverts public spending away from public services. 67% also believe that the economy is in bad shape, which increased from 41% last year. Milton Hatoum, a writer from Manaus, asked: “Why does a city like Manaus need an expensive and luxurious stadium when a few meters away there’s a neighborhood, Alvorada, without sidewalks and treated sewage?”

The long-term social and economic effects of a mega-event such as the World Cup should be analyzed. To predict the path that Brazil may follow, it is helpful to take a look at the economic performance of similar World Cup host countries after the tournament. Their political, social, and economic atmospheres may vary, but this is the most direct and simple way to present the possible future outcomes for Brazil. The figures below display indicator data from the World Bank, showing the economic growth of  Argentina, Mexico, France, and South Africa since they hosted the tournament:

 

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It’s worth noting that Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa are more similar to Brazil’s economy and social structure compared to France. Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa all show a sudden rise in GDP Growth Rates, GDP, and GNI following their host year. In all four cases, the indicators suggest a short-term rise in GDP growth, followed by a decline. This gives rise to the heavily debated question of whether or not FIFA World Cup host countries see sustained long-term growth or temporary ripple effect growth following the event.

As we look ahead past this year’s FIFA World Cup, it will be interesting to see how Brazil’s economy fares. Our hope is that the result is a positive one, as the country’s economy is in need of repair. Hopefully the World Cup this summer gives the country’s economy a much-needed boost. At this point, the world will just have to wait and see.

 

 

Piketty In A Coal Mine

Flooded Marina (Gas Pumps)" by Richard Misrach
“Flooded Marina (Gas Pumps)” by Richard Misrach

A new book by French economist Thomas Piketty has been causing quite a stir in academic circles over the past year. Now, with the translated publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that fervor is about to spill out of the ivory towers and onto the streets. Piketty’s book ambitiously tackles the topic of economic inequality. His central thesis, in absolute simplest terms, is that the very rich are getting richer and the poor are staying put. Those who rely on wage income for their wealth (the middle class and the poor), Piketty argues, are not likely to see their lot improve in the near future. The very rich, who do not rely on wage income because they have capital in the form of real estate, financial assets, businesses, or patents, will continue to see their wealth skyrocket into the twenty-first century. Ultimately, if capital growth continues to exceed overall economic growth, Piketty worries that this striking imbalance will cause the breakdown of democratic institutions and the social fabric of society.

The Washington Post's "Wonkblog" considered this the graph of the year in 2013.
The Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” considered this the graph of the year in 2013.

Whether or not one agrees with his final premise, Piketty has done his fair share of research and is well respected within the economics field. While studying at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and subsequently while teaching at MIT, Piketty began to collect historical data on income and wealth, something that economists at the time neglected to do. Although Capital in the Twenty-First Century was written for a global audience, Piketty has the data to back up his findings, though it has not gone without criticism. Most of Piketty’s harshest critics paint him as Marxist or Communist, when in reality he is merely challenging certain aspects of the current free market system – the part that contributes to a great deal of economic inequality. But any work that deals with inequality is bound to get political. And as Piketty notes in an interview with the New York Times, he is welcoming the debate.

Piketty’s ideas for solving this rising inequality are perhaps the weakest part of his argument. In his book he calls for a global tax on wealth that is at best impossible and at worst extremely out-of-touch with the political realities that frame any worthy discussion of policy prescriptions in developed countries. But we should not shrug off his work because of his ideas on policy. Piketty succeeds in collecting and presenting decades of historical data on an issue that has come to define the early twenty-first century. Working as an economic archaeologist, Piketty has made some fascinating discoveries. He has dug up a set of evidence that captures in a new light the increasing economic inequality today. His work is best read as a challenge to our current paradigm of economic inequality, not as a revolutionary tale of two cities.

Dark Clouds Hanging Over the Black Sea

Putin’s admiration for the Olympic flame

The Olympics have always been about stories and narratives. Athletes in sports, both obscure and relevant, represent their countries and play out the story of their nation, whether it be powerhouse nations raking in the medals or the simple story of the Jamaican bobsled team. The ability to host the event is also a story of the rise of a nation and the ability to show either one’s might or newfound brilliance on the world stage. Back in October 2013, we looked at how the story of the Sochi Olympic games were unfolding at that time. With the Winter Olympics beginning shortly, it was time revisit our intrepid heroes and villains.

One view of the Olympics has been as a giant vanity project, allowing Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin to evict Russian citizens from their homes, crack down on NGOs, gay rights activists, and roughly anybody that disagrees with the egregious cost of these games. To this list, it has recently been added that athletes will not be allowed to speak their mind, such as their displeasure at the anti-gay propaganda laws in Russia. OIC chair Thomas Bach has already stated that, though there is freedom of speech, athletes that speak their mind around the Olympic events will face punishment. The head of the Russian Olympics, Dmitry Chernyshenko, even contradicted this, saying that the athletes would only be able to express themselves at a venue far from the Olympic venues.

Skyrocketing construction costs for the Winter Olympics in Sochi

Censorship is not the only issue plaguing the Olympics. Despite seven years to prepare, and the assurances that 97% of the venues and hotels are prepared, there have been a large amount of pictures and tweets from journalists showing half finished rooms. One hotel didn’t have a reception area while another hotel wasn’t even completed. Considering that these games cost $51 billion, $11 billion more than the Beijing Olympics, the amount of corruption and ineptitude is starting to show more and more over the media. One road has cost $8.6 million, more than the whole Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. This raises the question of whether or not these games are worth it. Supposedly, the infrastructure will stay and benefit the residents of Sochi, along with increased tourism. However, Allen Sanderson and Samantha Edds explored the question of whether Olympics have an economic impact, which they found that there is no evidence to support that.

A last branch in this narrative is a concern for the security of the event. IOC chair Thomas Bach has emphasized that these games will be safe. This mostly has to do with the massive amount of security surrounding Sochi. Roughly 40,000 security forces have been sent to the region around Sochi to prevent atrocities from happening. They have also erected a “Ring of Steel” around Sochi, with checkpoints and anti-aircraft batteries, to aid in this security. Part of the paranoia surrounding the events is that terrorist leaders in Dagestan and Chechnya located only 400 miles away, such as Doku Umarov, have already stated that they are going to target the Olympic games. The other cause for concern is the bombing in December 2013 in Volgograd, something that is considered to be a decoy to drag resources away from Sochi and make it more vulnerable. The Russians have gone so far as to contract out 400 unarmed Cossacks for the duration of the Olympics.

Security around the Winter Olympics in Sochi

Despite the lack of attendance by some world leaders, the world’s games at the Olympics will continue. One of the questions that will be asked is how much all this negative press hangs over the Olympics. What will be the effects of this event after the torch has been extinguished? This is a tale with many twists and turns, with more anti-heroes than heroes. At the least, everybody will be watching Sochi to see how the story unfolds.

Banking on Islamic Banks

Islamic finance is an ancient concept, but it has only recently developed into a modern day institution.  Adhering  to the Muslim religious law of Sharia, it has prohibitions against charging interest and investing in morally dubious industries, such as alcohol, gambling, and pornography; furthermore all lending is based on profit-sharing.

Under Shariah, hoarding is frowned upon, so savings earn no return unless put to productive use. Rasheed Mohammed al-Maraj, governor of the central bank in Bahrain explains that “money cannot generate money – money should be used for creating better value in the country or the economy.” For some Muslims, conventional mortgages are regarded as sinful; under Shariah both the lender and the borrower share the risk of the investment.  The Islamic home mortgage functions by adding what would have been the monthly interest into the purchase price of a home. Most commonly, the bank actually buys the house at a qualified customer’s direction, and then sells it to that customer through monthly installments modeled on the payments of a 30-year mortgage. If the borrower loses his job and defaults on the payments, under Sharia it is very difficult for the family to be thrown out of their home, as that would be seen as a creditor exploiting a debtor. For any transaction, borrowers must possess underlying assets, an idea primarily driven by the rationale in Islamic law that borrowers do not over-borrow.  Under Islamic finance, the lender is also an investor, so he remains an active participant through the life of the transaction and is in a position to rectify mistakes before any situation occurs. Continue reading

Sweating It Out

The word ‘sweatshop’ is often laden with emotion, evoking images of children and women slaving over machines in a congested factory, air heavy with oppression and an unspoken resentment. Public outcries and protests against corporations whose products are produced in sweatshops are commonly reported in the press. The activist community is clear on their stance regarding the sweatshop issue, but economists are often divided into two camps – the pro-sweatshop movement vs. the anti-sweatshop groups.

Sweatshop | thegoodlife101.com

The pro-sweatshop movement often cites econometric studies conducted in the early ‘90s. These studies show that, controlling for other factors such as inflation, multinational firms offer higher wages than domestic companies in developing countries. It has been shown that on average, in 9 out of 10 nations, an apparel worker’s income exceeds the national average at 50 hours per week. Additionally, apparel workers in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua earn 3 to 7 times the national average working 50 hours a week. Often, multinational firms improve the unemployment situation in developing countries by increasing the demand for labor. By compelling these factories to increase their wages and improve what is perceived to be inhumane working conditions, most multinational firms would prefer to shift production to other countries with cheaper labor, withdrawing significant levels of investment and creating unemployment. Continue reading