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Quick Takes

Upending Conventional Wisdom on Pollution, Trade and the Race to the Bottom

One might anticipate that increasingly tight environmental restrictions, coupled with falling trade costs, might inspire a race to the bottom, as producers relocate to countries with less stringent regulations. However, new research by the World Bank, published in the World Development Report 2020, finds that this hypothesis has not been borne out. 

Looking at the United States as a case study, the report observed that emissions from U.S. manufacturing fell between 1990 and 2008. However, “contrary to the conventional wisdom about industrialized countries ‘offshoring’ production of polluting goods, imports to the United States have been shifting away from pollution-intensive goods even faster,” wrote the report’s authors.

“As trade costs fall, the U.S. increasingly imports goods in which it has a comparative disadvantage, which happen to be those that are relatively less pollution-intensive,” wrote the report’s authors. “Trends in Europe are similar, with imports becoming progressively less pollution-intensive, especially from low-income countries.”

Digital Exhaustion Threatens the New Hybrid Workplace

Source: Microsoft Work Trend Index survey

Time spent in meetings and chats per person spiked in 2020 and continues to grow. The number of meetings hosted in Microsoft Teams more than doubled — up 148% — as of February 2021, compared to the same time last year. Email communications to commercial and education customers also increased to 40.6 billion, compared to 12.4 billion at the start of COVID-19, according to the Microsoft Work Trend Index.

Many employees reported experiencing digital exhaustion — with 54% of survey respondents feeling overworked and 39% feeling exhausted. “The shared vulnerability of this time has given us a huge opportunity to bring real authenticity to company culture,” Microsoft employee, Jared Spataro says. When employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work, it can actually spur productivity and attract talent, according to Microsoft.

Moving forward, Microsoft recommends five strategies to help business leaders successfully shift to hybrid work: promote flexibility, invest in space and technology, prioritize addressing digital exhaustion from the top, rebuild social capital and culture and rethink employee experience to attract top and diverse talent.

Foreign Aid Is at a Record Peak, But Is It Enough?

Source: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Foreign aid rose to an all-time high of $161.2 billion last year, a 3.5% increase from 2019. In many cases, larger economies directed these funds to countries in need of significant help to respond to the short-term impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the OECD. 

An OECD survey shows that the foreign aid supported health systems, humanitarian aid and food security. However, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría added that there will need to be “a much greater effort to help developing countries with vaccine distribution … to build a truly global recovery.” 

Internationally, governments approved $16 trillion worth of COVID-19 stimulus measures, but only 1% was used to help developing countries handle the virus. Trade, foreign direct investment and remittances in developing countries have also declined as a result of the pandemic, intensifying their need for support.

Why Are Central Banks Creating Digital Currencies?

Source: Atlantic Council

Nineteen countries have started to test a central bank digital currency (CBDC) on a small-scale with a limited number of participants. The Atlantic Council defines CBDC as “the digital form of a country’s fiat currency that is also a claim on the central bank.”

As of today, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) and the European Central Bank (ECB) are prominent players in the digital currency realm. The United States currently lags behind in the research phase, yet the Federal Reserve has expressed continued interest in the digital dollar.

As digital currencies expand globally, there are challenges ahead — the legal, political and regulatory properties of CBDCs remain unclear. But the IMF notes that there are also multiple benefits to having government involvement in digital currencies, including lower cash transfer costs, greater accessibility to banking services and easier implementation of monetary policies. 

The Great Commodity Bounceback

Source: World Bank

Most global commodity prices were higher than their pre-pandemic levels during the first quarter of 2021. Metal prices are expected to continue their upward trend, rising by 30% during 2021, according to the World Bank. This jump in commodity prices parallels the rise in global economic activity, the impact of stimulus bills and changes in supply factors.  

The crude oil industry saw a record-fast recovery after a price and demand collapse in 2020. The predicted average cost of crude oil for this year is $56 per barrel —  about one-third higher than its cost in 2020. Natural gas prices also rose by one-third as a result of increased demand during the winter season.

The World Bank expects that price levels will “remain close to current levels throughout the year” driven by “global economic rebound and improved growth prospects.” The report notes that all commodity markets heavily depend on how long the economic implications from the pandemic last and how well the risk is managed by governments.

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