When the president of the World Bank talks about economic fundamentals, he very quickly turns his attention to commodities, food and hunger.
For many financial ministers a talk about fundamentals quickly turns into a discussion of finance, banks and economic reforms. At a press conference this week, World Bank President Robert Zoellick discussed lending on a global scale, which he said was "likely to be negative for the year as a whole … and this will be particularly hard on smaller countries -- poorer countries that don't have as good access to security markets.
"Also for many developing countries, the food crisis of 2008 has never fully gone away," he said.
See where this is going? Less lending in the United States tends to mean less money for minivans. Less lending from Zoellick's perspective, not that he can't appreciate a minivan, tends to mean less funding for roads, healthcare and drinking water.
"With robust IDA replenishment," Zoellick said, referring to International Development Association funding, "we could immunize 200 million more children."
Certainly, it bears a reminder from time to time. "Build it and they will come," in the United States means a fantasy baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. In other countries it means an actual road so children can get to school.
In his opening remarks at the press conference, held in advance of a financial summit scheduled for Washington this weekend, Zoellick pointed to the imbalance of our economic times, saying, "Some economies have high savings and export led growth while others are fueling their consumption with debt," which tends to mean China versus the United States and Europe.
"Developed countries are easing monetary policies. Some developing countries are tightening in response to growth," he said -- again the United States and Europe versus China. And "some surplus countries are intervening to lower the value of their currencies to boost exports," he said. "And all this is causing international tensions."
He also said, succinctly, "History shows there's no future in beggar thy neighbor policies."
It is an odd diplomatic reality: The higher up in the chain of command you go, the fewer times it is wise to name the country or leaders standing in your way. As such, China has become the currency manipulator who's-name-we-do-not-mention. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and, at times, President Obama, rely on a network of henchman -- Congress, the press, angry economists -- to do their finger-pointing for them.
In effect, what Zoellick, a few angry economists and U.S. unions have been saying recently is that the U.S. unemployment rate, which the Labor Departments said held 9.6 percent in September, is China's problem, too. Even if the standard of living is different in the United States and Europe than it is in China, strong economies in developed nations can help China achieve its goals better and faster than weak ones.
When Zoellick says, "If ever there were a time we shouldn't turn our backs on international cooperation, it's now," it's more than a punchy, feel-good sound byte. Strip the idealism away and what's left is a practical reality. Cooperation is more profitable all the way around.
In international markets Friday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan lost 0.99 percent while the Shanghai composite index in China surged 3.13 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong rose 0.26 percent while the Sensex in India slipped 0.32 percent.
In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 index fell 0.21 percent.
In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain lost 0.47 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany was off 0.08 percent. The CAC 40 in France dropped 0.23 percent while the pan-European DJ Stoxx 50 index of blue-chip companies lost 0.36 percent.