Pushing for global reforms at G-20

Global leaders head to Washington to discuss prospects for coordinated regulation. But real change could be a long way off.

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By David Ellis, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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11 economies in decline 11 economies in decline 11 economies in decline
A financial crisis that began when the U.S. housing bubble popped has engulfed countries large and small around the world.
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  • Lend them money
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- World leaders are descending on Washington Friday to talk about what's needed to get the global economy back on track. But few expect quick fixes.

Leaders from the so-called Group of 20, which includes the United States, members of the European Union, China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, agreed to the summit late last month at the height of the global financial crisis.

Stumbling blocks are already emerging for the two-day talks.

Some European officials including French President Nicholas Sarkozy, are expected to push for more coordinated regulation, which could include greater oversight of credit-rating agencies and hedge funds.

It is far from clear, however, that the White House would endorse any concrete measures.

For one thing, President-elect Barack Obama has said he will not attend the summit.

"The fact is that anything big will necessarily have to wait until the next administration," said Arvind Subramanian, senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics.

In addition, in a speech Thursday, President George W. Bush stressed that the purpose of the meeting was to lay the foundation for reforms, but not necessarily the exact structure.

"This undertaking is too large to be accomplished in a single discussion," President Bush said, speaking before the Manhattan Institute in New York City.

Bush administration officials said at a press briefing earlier this week that they expected another G-20 meeting to take place sometime in early 2009.

The summit represents the latest effort by countries around the globe to address what continues to be a painful and unrelenting economic crisis.

What began as a problem in the U.S. housing market more than a year ago has spread far and wide, infecting all corners of the global financial system.

Hoping to stem the crisis, countries around the globe have acted both in concert and individually in recent weeks.

Last month, for example, central banks from several countries enacted a coordinate interest rate cut.

Major economies, including the United States and China, have announced massive stimulus plans. Many have taken measures, such as investing in their banks, to lubricate credit markets.

In many ways, this weekend's talks are already shaping up to be a meeting of historic proportions, as all heads of state from the G-20 will convene for the first time.

Some observers have referred to the summit as "Bretton Woods II" - a nod to a similar global economic summit held six decades ago.

In July of 1944, world leaders convened in the New Hampshire resort town of Bretton Woods in an attempt to reverse some of the painful trade and foreign exchange policies enacted in the wake of the Great Depression. Those talks ultimately gave rise to both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Few experts expect that G-20 leaders will enact such sweeping policy measures this weekend, but there are certain areas that appear ripe for change.

Create new market for credit default swaps: One area certain to go under the regulatory knife could very well be the whopping credit default swap market, which some have argued contributed to the current crisis by helping to bring such major financial institutions as AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) and Lehman Brothers to their knees.

Friday morning, the President's Working Group on Financial Markets said member agencies includes the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, had enacted several initiatives towards creating a central clearinghouse for these over-the-counter derivatives.

Such a move could provide some clarity to this opaque market and help limit the fallout when a firm, which both buys and sells these products, fails.

"Had these instruments been traded on exchanges or more specifically a central clearinghouse, these problems would not have had such a massive ripple effect across borders," said Benn Steil, senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Accounting rules: Accounting rules have been a concern among many individuals involved in the crisis.

Some industry experts have argued that current mark-to-market accounting standards have caused billions of dollars in losses by forcing banks to report artificially low values for assets on their balance sheets.

Bush administration officials indicated this week that creating a global accounting standard could certainly win favor among leaders as G-20 talks continue.

Such a move could provide investors around the world greater clarity about the securities they purchase, such as mortgage-backed securities, which helped fuel the fallout when the U.S. housing market soured.

Global regulation; more power for the IMF: Other areas could garner attention during the talks, including what actions should be taken regarding credit rating agencies as well as the likelihood of any further economic stimulus.

But what could prove to be one of the trickiest parts of this and any future summits, are discussions centered around markets and large financial institutions.

World leaders seem to agree that the existing regulatory framework needs to be updated, but opinions on what steps need to be taken vary wildly.

One approach could involve granting greater powers to the Financial Stability Forum, which represents central bankers and regulators, or the International Monetary Fund, which has played a large role in recent weeks helping to bail out struggling countries.

Leading international economists, such as Daniel Gros, director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, note that the IMF's profile could be elevated to serve as an early warning system for the next crisis.

"G-20 members should boost IMF independence so it can act as a global 'whistleblower' to help call the next crisis," Gros wrote as part of a project sponsored by economics professors Barry Eichengreen and Richard Baldwin for the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

One idea that could crystallize, notes Steil from the Council on Foreign Relations, is the creation of a college of regulatory supervisors that would exchange notes about some of the trends and risks they are seeing within their own borders.

Take a large bank such as Deutsche Bank (DB), said Steil. It has a footprint in countries around the globe. If the company were to get into trouble, Germany could warn fellow regulators about the firm's weakened state and take coordinated action, helping to stave off a contagion.

"I think that idea has legs," Steil said. "There is a strong case for having at the very least international coordination to deal with systemically important financial institutions." To top of page

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