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G20 summit no big deal

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Nov. 17, 2008 at 10:54 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- There will be three tests of the weekend summit of the Group of 20 nations on the economic crisis. The first comes this week, with the reaction of the global markets to what had been billed as a major event.

Expectations of the summit had been deliberately scaled down to pre-empt any sense of disappointment with the meeting, or open clashes between the leaders, from sending the world's stock markets plunging down again this week. But if the markets were hoping for at least a symbolic display of collective resolve and leadership, they may be disappointed anyway.

"Our nations agree that we must make the financial markets more transparent and accountable," President Bush said, a bland statement of principle that begs the question, how is it to be done and who is to enforce it? The one clear agreement was that a central clearinghouse should be up and running within the next three months to resolve the overhang of some $40 trillion in credit default swaps.

"If you don't take decisive measures, then it's conceivable that our country could get into a depression greater than the Great Depression," Bush commented in the kind of sound bite likely to alarm even the more optimistic of market players.

Nor were all the leaders on the same page. The sense of resentment at the United States for getting the world into this mess was clear when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "Emerging markets were not the cause of this crisis, but they are amongst its most affected victims."

But behind the scenes, India signaled that it was ready for progress on the long-stalled Doha Round of world trade talks, in the hope of agreement on an outline deal before the end of this year. It would be harder for the incoming President Obama, who has been notably cool on free trade, to block such a deal once it had been agreed to by the major economies.

The summit was supposed to demonstrate the collective determination of the heads of governments that account for 85 percent of the world's wealth and productive capacity to tackle the financial crisis and produce coordinated solutions. In this they neither succeeded nor failed. At best, they kicked the can down the road with promises of further talks and further study.

As Harvard Professor Kenneth Rogoff commented: "Every country will have a different view as to what to do. They may have agreed on the areas to study," he adds, "but that's not an agreement on what to do."

At least they did no harm. We shall see how the markets react. They were given few grounds for confidence that the political leaders know what to do, or even agree what to do. Far less have they yet summoned the collective will to act, beyond some boilerplate affirmations of their belief in free-market principles and the need for more and better regulation.

The Europeans want regulatory agencies with international authority; the Americans do not. The emergent economies want more say at the key financial forums such as the International Monetary Fund. The incumbents' response is to prevaricate and stress that a seat at the table costs money, preferably in the form of cash up front for the IMF's bailout fund.

Part of the problem was the American interregnum. The Europeans, including the British, want coordinated new investment packages and tax cuts. The Bush administration does not, wary of anything that might compromise U.S. sovereignty. The Obama administration will also be wary, but prepared to compromise. So the world waits.

This brings us to the second test, which will be the second of these summits, now tentatively scheduled for London in April, 101 days after Obama takes office. A series of study groups are then supposed to report on the tricky reform measures that were identified but not agreed on over the weekend.

These include a European plan for a new College of Supervisors, a global watchdog to monitor the operations and liquidity of the world's top international banks. European sources say they also expect Obama to be more receptive to their plans for cross-border surveillance and regulation of banks, new measures to control tax havens and hedge funds and their plan to give more resources and responsibilities to the IMF.

Such measures are likely to be controversial in Washington and on Wall Street. And Obama has yet to select his Treasury team and his Council of Economic Advisers, who will need to study these measures with great care. Given the short time before the planned London summit, the prospect of decisive agreement is unclear.

So that takes us to the third test of this new hope of serious global financial governance, and that will be this year's Group of Eight summit. It will be held on the Italian island of La Maddalena July 8-10 and hosted by the mercurial and controversial Italian premier and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

We shall see then how far the world's governance structure has been changed, and how many of the emergent economic powers like China, India, Brazil and South Korea and Saudi Arabia are given permanent seats at the table. In the past, selected countries have been invited to the second day of the summit, as if they were probationary members. Given that the G8 countries, including the Italian host, do not want to dilute their own sense of importance, it is far from certain that there will be a permanent change from G8 to G20, even if the realities of the global economy point that way.

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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