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What will happen to Afghanistan’s economy under Taliban rule? – Al Jazeera English

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Afghanistan is set to receive nearly half a billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) next week, but it’s unlikely the Taliban will be able to touch any of it.

The largest-ever allocation of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), equivalent to $650bn, is set to go into effect Monday, including an estimated $460m in SDRs for Afghanistan. But the IMF has pressed pause on letting the Taliban exchange the SDRs for hard currency. Instead, Afghanistan joins countries like Myanmar and Venezuela who receive IMF assets but can’t utilise them.

“As is always the case, the IMF is guided by the views of the international community,” IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice said in a statement Wednesday. “There is currently a lack of clarity within the international community regarding recognition of a government in Afghanistan, as a consequence of which the country cannot access the Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) or other IMF resources.”

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Earlier this week, 18 members of the United States Congress urged US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in a letter (PDF) to make sure that “nearly half a billion dollars in unconditional liquidity” does not go “to a regime with a history of supporting terrorist actions against the United States and her allies”.

It’s just the latest development in efforts to keep Afghanistan’s assets out of Taliban hands. So what money does the group have access to, and what is the state of the Afghan economy? Here’s what you need to know.

What was the status of the Afghan economy before the Taliban took over?

Struggling. The country’s economy is “shaped by fragility and aid dependence,” according to the World Bank, with 75 percent of public spending funded by grants.

That aid was already set to decrease by around 20 percent from 2016-2020 levels this year after “several major donors provided only single-year pledges” during the 2020 Afghanistan Conference, “with future support made conditional upon the government achieving accelerated progress in efforts to combat corruption, reduce poverty, and advance ongoing peace talks,” the World Bank said.

Now, with the Taliban in charge, it’s uncertain whether any of those conditions will be met, potentially further reducing the foreign aid the country relies on — including in the form of SDRs.

What is an SDR, exactly?

An SDR is an international reserve asset created by the IMF from a basket of currencies including the US dollar, Japanese yen, Chinese yuan, the euro and the British pound.

While not an official currency itself, the SDR is like an artificial currency that IMF member states can exchange for freely usable hard currencies like US dollars.

Countries can exchange their SDRs for those freely usable currencies at a fixed exchange rate, which changes daily and is posted on the IMF’s website.

How many SDRs does Afghanistan currently have?

Just over 37 million, which is equivalent to about $52.5m, according to the latest SDR exchange rate. Monday’s allocation, however, will boost that number to 323.8 million SDRs, or just under $460m, according to the IMF.

What other assets does Afghanistan have?

Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB) – the country’s central bank – listed 784.6 billion afghanis ($10bn) in assets for the period ending June 21, according to its bank statement (PDF), including 102.7 billion ($1.3bn) in gold and 28.7 billion ($366m) in foreign currency cash reserves.

Are all of those assets held in Afghanistan?

No. Like many developing countries, Afghanistan holds some of its assets overseas, including in the US, where the Taliban is the subject of economic sanctions.

For example, the country had more than 101 billion afghanis ($1.3bn) worth of gold stored at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York at the end of 2020, according to an independent auditor’s report (PDF) prepared at the end of last year.

DAB’s acting governor, Ajmal Ahmady, tweeted a breakdown Wednesday of where the bank’s major reserves are held, confirming $7bn are with the US Federal Reserve, including $1.2bn in gold.

So what happened to the money the Afghan central bank has in the US?

It’s currently frozen. The US confirmed it froze $9.5bn in assets DAB has in accounts with the Federal Reserve and other American financial institutions to keep the Taliban from accessing them.

Before Kabul fell, the US had also stopped shipments of dollars to the country, Ahmady tweeted as he fled the country earlier this week.

So can the Taliban access any of the central bank’s funds abroad?

Probably only a small amount. In a tweet Wednesday, Ahmady estimated “the accessible funds to the Taliban are perhaps 0.1-0.2% of Afghanistan’s total international reserves. Not much.”

“Without Treasury approval, it is also unlikely that any donors would support the Taliban Government,” he added.

What about assets held in Afghanistan?

The 2020 auditor’s report on the country’s central bank showed there were 12.5 million afghanis ($159,600) worth of gold bars and silver coins held in the bank’s vault inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace, which the Taliban now controls.

Also in the hands of the Taliban are around $362m in foreign currency cash holdings, which “consist almost entirely of US dollars and were held at the bank’s head offices and branches as well as the presidential palace,” Reuters news agency reported.

Does the Taliban have other sources of funds?

Yes — but not all of them are legal.

The Taliban has always relied on criminal activities to fund itself, “including drug trafficking and opium poppy production, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, mineral exploitation and revenues from tax collection in areas under Taliban control or influence”, according to a United Nations Security Council report published in June.

How much income does the Taliban itself have?

That’s a tough question to answer exactly, but the UN Security Council report estimates the group has an annual income of between $300m and $1.6bn annually.

The UN noted that “external financial support, including donations from wealthy individuals and a network of non-governmental charitable foundations, also account for a significant part of Taliban income.”

The group has also sought to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, and the UN reports that “profits from the mining sector earned the Taliban approximately $464 million” in 2020.

Afghans waited in long lines for hours to try to withdraw money in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday after the Taliban entered the city and took over the government [File: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo]

Where does the current economic situation leave the Afghan people?

In an increasingly precarious position. More than 47 percent of the country already lived below the poverty line in 2020, according to data from the Asian Development Bank, and 34.3 percent of people with jobs live on less than $1.90 per day.

Most households rely on the low-productivity agriculture sector for their income, and security issues, corruption and political instability have all held back private-sector development, leading Afghanistan to rank 173rd out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Survey.

Unemployment stood at 11.7 percent in 2020 pre-Taliban rule, before people began fleeing the country and some women were dismissed from their jobs.

Ahmady summarised the grim picture in a tweet Wednesday, predicting depreciating currency, surging inflation and rising food prices.

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Canada's economy outperforms in first quarter, raising pressure on BoC ahead of next week's rate decision – The Globe and Mail

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The Canadian economy grew at an annualized rate of 3.1 per cent in the first quarter, outperforming expectations while adding pressure on the Bank of Canada to raise interest rates again, perhaps as early as next week.

After stalling in the fourth quarter of 2022, economic growth rebounded in the opening months of this year, buoyed by strong exports and robust consumer spending. That momentum appears to have continued into April, with a preliminary estimate from Statistics Canada showing stronger-than-expected growth that month despite the economic impact of the federal government workers’ strike.

Bay Street analysts had expected annualized first-quarter growth of 2.5 per cent, while the central bank had pencilled in 2.3-per-cent growth.

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‘The stars are aligned’ for a further BoC rate hike: How economists and markets are reacting to today’s surprisingly strong GDP data

The GDP numbers, published by Statscan on Wednesday, are the latest upside surprise for the Canadian economy. Despite eight consecutive interest-rate increases in 2022 and early 2023, consumers have continued to spend, while businesses have continued to hire workers, keeping the unemployment rate near a record low.

This economic resilience is a problem for the Bank of Canada, which is deliberately trying to slow down the economy to bring inflation back under control. Governor Tiff Macklem and his team paused their rate-hike campaign in January, but have said they could raise rates again if economic growth and inflation don’t slow as quickly as expected.

Another rate hike, which could come as early as the monetary-policy decision next Wednesday, would increase the benchmark rate to 4.75 per cent, upping the cost of borrowing money and further pushing up the cost of servicing a mortgage. Interest-rate swaps, which capture market expectations about upcoming rate decisions, see a nearly 40-per-cent chance the central bank will raise rates by a quarter percentage point next week, and a roughly 60-per-cent chance they’ll raise rates by July.

“The run of sturdy data undoubtedly raises the odds that the Bank of Canada needs to go back to the well of rate hikes, and even puts some chance on a move as early as next week’s policy decision,” Bank of Montreal chief economist Douglas Porter wrote in a note to clients.

“However, given the uncertain backdrop and the possibility that inflation took a big step down in May, the BoC could opt to remain patient for a bit longer and signal that it’s open to hiking in July if the strength persists.”

The annual rate of inflation was 4.4 per cent in April, up a notch from March but well below the four-decade high of 8.1 per cent reached last summer. Central bankers expect inflation to fall to around 3 per cent by this summer, although it could take much longer to get back to the Bank of Canada’s 2-per-cent target.

Canadian households were the engine of economic growth in the first quarter, with consumer spending rising 5.7 per cent on an annualized basis after two quarters of minimal growth. This was up for both goods and services, with notable increases in spending on cars, clothing, food and travel services.

Exports increased 10.1 per cent on an annualized basis, led by cross-border sales of passenger vehicles, metals and agricultural products.

Other parts of the economy, however, showed signs of weakness. Housing investment, which includes new construction, renovations and ownership transfer costs, fell for the fourth consecutive quarter as higher interest rates continued to dampen real estate activity. Meanwhile, businesses cut their investment in machinery and equipment for the third consecutive quarter and pulled back on inventory accumulation.

Much of the first-quarter growth was also front-end loaded. GDP grew 0.7 per cent in January, month to month, before slowing to 0.1 per cent in February and flatlining in March. Statscan’s preliminary estimate for April shows 0.2-per-cent month-to-month GDP growth – stronger than analysts were predicting, but hardly the blistering pace seen in January.

Most economic forecasters, at the central bank and on Bay Street, expect the economy to essentially stall throughout the remainder of 2023, with some predicting a mild recession later this year. Interest rates typically take 18 to 24 months to have a full effect on the economy, and the Bank of Canada only began raising rates 15 months ago.

So far, some of the impact of higher borrowing costs has been blunted by banks letting their customers extend the amortization period on variable-rate mortgages rather than forcing them to pay more each month. But over time, a growing portion of Canadians will need to renew their mortgages at higher rates, leaving them less money for discretionary spending.

“I do expect that we’re going to see these very big interest-rate hikes bite on the consumer side, but it’s a matter of timing,” Dawn Desjardins, chief economist at Deloitte Canada, said in an interview. The key question in the short and medium term is what happens to employment.

“The labour market hasn’t shown any significant signs of fraying. But that doesn’t mean it won’t. Because when you look at business surveys, we’re seeing businesses are a little bit nervous. They’re happy supply chains are better, but of course we have higher costs to finance,” Ms. Desjardins said.

She said that employers appear keen to keep their workers, given how difficult it’s been finding qualified employees. But the pace of hiring will likely ease in the coming months, pushing up the unemployment rate and curbing overall consumer spending.

Household disposable income fell 1 per cent in the first quarter, compared with the previous quarter, the first reduction since the fourth quarter of 2021. Employee compensation rose at a brisk quarterly pace of 1.7 per cent, but this was offset by a decrease in government transfers.

A growing number of economists think the Canadian economy can achieve a “soft landing” – where inflation falls back to the Bank of Canada’s 2-per-cent target without a major economic contraction or a sharp rise in unemployment.

But on this front, the resilience of the economy is a double-edged sword: It’s good for businesses and workers, but it could mean inflation takes longer to fall and it increases the odds of additional rate hikes, implying more pain for mortgage holders.

“In our baseline forecast, the labour market will soften as the economy slows. Wage growth will ease. Businesses will revert to more normal price-setting behaviour. And near-term inflation expectations will come into line with the inflation target,” Mr. Macklem said in a speech last month.

“But there is a risk that these adjustments will take longer or stall, and inflation will get stuck materially above the 2-per-cent target.”

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Europe's problem child no more: After years of misery, the Greek economy is on fire – The Globe and Mail

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Riot police run past a burning building during violent protests in central Athens on Feb. 12, 2012.YANNIS BEHRAKIS/Reuters

Central Athens nearly burned to the ground on the night of Feb. 12, 2012. Anti-austerity protesters and a small army of “anarchists” – violent young men clad in black and wielding pry bars – engaged in street battles with equally savage Greek riot police dressed like Roman gladiators. Some 45 buildings were set ablaze, including the lovely, restored Attikon Cinema, built in 1870.

I covered the riot, my face smeared with Maalox in a futile effort to prevent the tear gas from ravaging my skin. The poisonous white plumes billowed through the air, triggering a panicky stampede out of Syntagma Square. Stun grenades were launched over the terrified crowds. By evening, the area looked like a war zone, a hauntingly surreal one as smoke mingled with flames, making the downtown glow orange. The doors of my hotel were chained shut.

A few months later, I met with then-finance minister Yannis Stournaras. The building that housed his ministry was an ugly, modern affair at the bottom end of Syntagma Square, directly across from parliament. Steel shields, barbed wire and riot police surrounded the building. At one point, as I was taking notes in his upper-floor office, I looked up and noticed bullet holes in the window.

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Bank of Greece governor Yannis Stournaras speaks during a meeting of the bank’s shareholders in Athens on April 1, 2019.ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

“Some of the people hate me,” he told me, adding that he had recently received a curiously lumpy envelope from which a 9mm cartridge spilled out when he tore it open. “But we must keep our nerve.”

The crisis was so deep that Grexit – Greece’s exit from the euro zone – became a clear and present danger at least twice. The first time came in 2012, when the country’s economy had collapsed; the second in 2015, when the anti-austerity Syriza party was elected; Yanis Varoufakis, the self-described “libertarian Marxist” economist was installed as finance minister; and Greece defaulted on an international loan payment.

Mr. Stournaras kept his nerve. In 2014, he became Governor of the Bank of Greece, a position he will hold for another three years. Today, no one is trying to kill him; it is the economy, not the city centre, that is on fire.

In 2022, gross domestic product (GDP) expanded 5.9 per cent, second only to Ireland among the 20 countries that use the euro. Debt-to-GDP, while still Europe’s highest, at 170 per cent, has shrunk about 40 percentage points since the crisis years, when Greece (barely) survived on bailouts administered by the Troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

The Troika’s loans-for-austerity demands robbed the country of its economic sovereignty and prolonged the deep recession. Eventually, the tough-love measures brought Greece back from the brink and pushed the economy back into growth, though the process took longer than anyone expected.

The unemployment rate, which peaked at more than 28 per cent in the ugly summer of 2013, was last measured at 10.9 per cent. Foreign direct investment reached a 20-year high in 2022. Tourism has surged to street-crushing levels, and employers cannot find enough skilled workers to keep up with demand for their services and products. Tens of thousands of the half-million mostly young Greeks who fled during the crisis years to find work abroad are coming home.

No wonder New Democracy, the centre-right, tax-cutting party led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, slaughtered radical-left Syriza in the May 21 election. The talk is of the outright collapse of Syriza, whose leader, Alexis Tsipras, was prime minister from 2015 to 2019 (Greece, now ruled by a caretaker government, will hold a runoff election on June 25, because New Democracy failed to garner 50 per cent of the vote, which would have given it an outright majority).

From his apartment-sized office at the Bank of Greece in late May, I asked Mr. Stournaras if he thought Grexit would happen during the depths of the crisis. “I remember that 80 per cent of analysts and economists said that Greece would never make it in the euro,” he said. “But I thought that Greece would never leave. There was no Plan B. If Greece had left, we would have become like North Korea, totally isolated, incapable of paying our debt with a suddenly devalued currency” (Greece used the ever-decaying drachma until 2001).

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A tourist takes a picture with a smartphone of the ancient Acropolis from the Filoppapou hill in Athens on April 7.LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Stournaras has always had a reputation as an optimist and fully expects Greece to regain its investment-grade credit rating this year – the country’s debt has carried junk status since 2010. But his optimism goes only so far. In his view, Greece has a long way to go before it can be declared a modern, competitive economy.

He noted that the current account (a country’s trade in goods and services with the rest of the world) remains in deep deficit – a hefty 9.7 per cent of GDP last year – and the national investment rate is still about half the European Union average. The overall debt remains dangerously high, and GDP per capita is still well below the level of 2008, the year before the debt-soaked, free-spending economy fell off a cliff. Tax evasion remains rampant, the judiciary is broken, and big industries such as media and construction are oligopolies that block competition and keep prices high. All of which, he said, “discourages investment.”

While the economy remains a work in progress, there is no doubt the worst days already feel like ancient history. Some parts of the economy and government services are flying. The New Democracy government was particularly happy with the digital revolution launched by Kyriakos Pierrakakis, who was minister of digital convergence from 2019 until late May, when the caretaker government was put in place. He was considered one of the young stars of cabinet and, if the rumours are correct, may land as the next finance or foreign affairs minister as a reward for having made government services vastly more efficient.

When he became minister, everything from enrolling for prescription medications to registering a death certificate was largely paper-based, with people lining up for hours at decrepit offices. Inspired by the digital transformations seen in Estonia and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Pierrakakis, with the help of billions of euros from the EU, launched the gov.gr website, which initially offered 501 digital services. Today, the site lists more than 1,550, including the ability to register a one-person business in several minutes, a process that used to take a miserable five office visits.

Greek company Mytilineos to launch Canada’s largest solar farm in Alberta

In an interview, Mr. Pierrakakis said that, in 2018, Greek citizens collectively performed 8.8 million digital transactions; last year, the number was 1.2 billion, saving 133 physical office visits per adult. “The Recovery and Resilience Facility of the EU, which is financing the digital and green transformation of the economy, is the intellectual equivalent of the Marshall Plan for us,” he said. “Removing administrative burdens and red tape. This is also about getting young people back.”

Technology is at the heart of Greece’s economic revival. Nikos Papathanasis, the Greek-Canadian University of Toronto engineering graduate who was alternate minister of development and investments until the government stepped down, said foreign investment is soaring, much of it in the tech industry. Microsoft plans to spend about €1-billion to open three data centres and a training site just outside Athens. Google, Amazon and TeamViewer are among the other tech biggies to have placed bets on the Greek turnaround.

Other Greek industries have not been so lucky, though Canada’s Eldorado Gold is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into its big gold mine in the north. “They have sent a message that Greece is back,” Mr. Papathanasis said.

Unlike Mr. Stournaras, Mr. Papathanasis feared a decade ago that Greece would sink below the Aegean waves. “We were very afraid we would leave the euro zone,” he said. Eventually, the painful austerity measures, plus three bailout programs, restored financial stability. That, plus government incentives for tech investments and the thinning of the bureaucracy, triggered a rise in foreign interest. In 2022, foreign direct investment exceeded €7.2-billion, up from €5.3-billion in 2021, according to the Bank of Greece. During the crisis years, the inflow was almost zero.

Greece is no longer an investment pariah, and some business owners think the pro-business New Democracy party helped resurrect the entrepreneurial mentality, one with a pro-Europe attitude. Danae Bezantakou, the chief executive of Navigator Shipping Consultants – unofficial motto: “Ship Happens” – said previous governments looked at businesses as something to be milked, not as social and economic value creators. “Ten years ago, even five, if you were profitable, that just meant you would pay more taxes,” she said. “The system punished entrepreneurs, like they were doing something bad. This government has changed that mentality. We’re not just starting restaurants and coffee shops here.”

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The Greek and European Union flags wave under the ancient Acropolis hill in Athens on July 5, 2015.Petr David Josek/The Associated Press

Some businesses are doing so well they cannot keep up with demand. Theodorou Group is an Athens company with about 200 employees that provides automation systems, such as packaging and labelling machines, to manufacturers. Chairman Evangelos Theodorou said he is happy that New Democracy and the EU have put Greece back on the investment map, but he thinks the government has overstimulated some business sectors. For instance, it is providing incentives for companies that want to automate. “The government is pumping too much money into parts of the economy,” he said. “Demand for automation exceeds supply. We have to let customers down. They have to wait two years for our systems. They expect more than I can deliver.”

Could the Greek economic revival go off the rails?

George Tzogopoulos, a Greek lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, fears Greece could go back to its undisciplined, free-spending ways now that it has exited its bailout programs, which means the Troika no longer counts every euro that goes out the parliamentary door. “They are no longer putting pressure on Greece, so Greek politicians have the opportunity to spend as much as they like without direct supervision,” he said.

Mr. Stournaras thinks a return to the bad old days is unlikely because New Democracy is aware that spending discipline is required to guarantee enduring financial stability. But he points out that Greece has a decade-long grace period, after which the payments on its high debt will rise by about half, to make the economy more competitive and greener. “We have 10 years to exploit this window of opportunity,” he said. “Our competitiveness is still low.”

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Equities may rally since the U.S. economy remains strong: Dennis Mitchell – BNN Bloomberg

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