If the G-20 April meeting in London could be summarized in two words, they are regulation and internationalization.
“Major failures in financial regulation and supervision were fundamental causes of the crisis,” stated the G-20’s final communiqué, which promised to build “a stronger, more globally consistent, supervisory and regulatory framework.”
A key element of that framework will be the establishment of a new global watchdog, the Financial Stability Board, which is to closely cooperate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The latter, in turn, has been bolstered by a major cash injection. While the G-20 summit was arguably not the “new Bretton Woods,” as some politicians euphorically claimed, it did change its tune.
“We are for open economies and open markets, but open economies and open markets have to respect some rules,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Baroso. According to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the world had turned the page on the Anglo-Saxon model of free markets.
Significantly, it has not just been politicians who signaled a paradigm shift. “This is a reversal of the ideology of the 1990s, and at a very official level, a rejection of the ideas pushed by the US and others,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the World Bank’s former chief economist. “It’s a historic moment when the world came together and said we were wrong to push deregulation.”
In addition to the call for regulation, the summit agreed to increase the IMF’s cash reserves from $250 billion to $750 billion and issue $250 billion in Special Drawing Rights, the fund’s artificial currency that, based on a basket of currencies, is used to settle accounts among IMF member states.
“The IMF is back,” said the fund’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in reaction to the G-20’s decision. It should be noted however, that only half of the $500 billion increase is immediately available in the form of bilateral agreements with Japan, the EU, China and the US, while it is not clear yet where the other half will come from. Nevertheless, no one can deny that the London summit has been a real boost for the IMF.
Having witnessed the recent wave of multi-billion dollar bail-outs for banks, insurance companies and car manufacturers in response to the global financial meltdown, the G-20’s call for a stronger role of the IMF must have left a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of the inhabitants of countries like Argentina, Ecuador and Tanzania.
After all, when they went through a financial crisis in the 1980s, the IMF offered them a loan on the absolute condition that they did the exact opposite of what the world’s leading economies are doing today. They were told to liberalize, privatize, cut government spending and deregulate (financial) markets.
The IMF’s so called Structural Adjustment Programs prompted Stiglitz in 2000 to resign from the World Bank. A year onward he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, while in 2002 he published his bestselling book Globalization and its Discontents, which severely criticized IMF and World Bank policies.
In response to Stiglitz and other critics, IMF managing director Strauss-Kahn announced in late March an “overhaul” of the IMF’s lending practices. Firstly, conditions associated with future IMF lending will be better tailored to each country’s specific circumstances. The new Flexible Credit Line makes high-volume financing available without conditions attached. But to qualify, countries must have relatively sound economies.
Most observers believe the option has mainly been created to serve the needs of countries such as Iceland, Hungary and other East European economies. For the countries that do not qualify, conditionality will be focused on core areas, while “structural conditions will be judged in a less formalistic manner.”
Also, for countries that do not meet the Flexible Credit Line standards, the IMF’s “Stand-By Arrangement” will be made more flexible to allow for higher financial access even before a crisis materializes. As well, the amount of lending available from the IMF is being raised substantially.
In a kind of soft-toned mea culpa, Strauss-Kahn wrote: “These steps address the core problems — the stigma associated in the past with IMF conditionality, the availability of early pre-crisis financing and the overall size of rescue packages — that have sometimes diminished the effectiveness of the Fund’s role as a crisis lender.”
Now, it remains to be seen to what extent the G-20’s call for regulation and a greater, if modified role for international institutions, will be put into practice. Still, the current debate must come as a cold shower for the followers of such free market prophets as Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman.
Two decades after the victory of capitalism over communism, history has not ended, as Fukuyama once claimed, but just made a gigantic U-turn. Suddenly, the neo-cons’ ultra-liberal agenda seems a thing from the past, while John Maynard Keynes is firmly back from the dead.
Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist