G-20: Shaping a new world order
U.S. economic mettle is tested as emboldened leaders from throughout the world gather in Washington.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The role of the United States as the world's economic leader will be tested this weekend when 20 significant world leaders meet in Washington to address the global financial crisis.
Some European leaders are hailing the summit as the next Bretton Woods - a reference to the historic talks in the latter days of WWII that, in effect, made the dollar the world's dominant currency and laid the foundation for the economic order of the past 60 years.
The United States basically ran those meetings. Close to prevailing in the war, it was the world's undisputed military and economic leader.
But today, with the current credit crisis partly rooted in America, and with the rising economic might of China and a unified Europe, that dominance is being challenged.
"The Europeans see themselves as taking a position equal to the U.S.," said Irene Finel-Honigman, an international affairs professor at Columbia University specializing in international banking. "We're looking at a different composition of players and a different powerplay. It's going to be fascinating to watch."
To bolster their position, the Europeans come to the meeting emboldened by their belief that the credit crisis didn't originate on their soil.
They say that means the more tightly regulated European banking model has triumphed over the more lax laws favored in America.
"The initial response was accusing the U.S. of cowboy capitalism," said Finel-Honigman. "But as the weeks passed, it's become clear we're all in this together."
Together or not, deep divisions still exist between the United States and the Europeans, who initially called for this meeting and will be pushing an agenda heavy on new rules.
Their proposals include: Greater oversight of hedge funds and investment banks; increasing how much money banks need to keep in reserve; more transparent and universal accounting standards; and limits on executive pay.
All that would be accompanied by a new global network of regulators -regulators that would presumably have power over U.S. banks, a potential non-starter with the Bush administration.
"Self-regulation to solve all problems, it's finished," French President Nicholas Sarkozy was quoted saying in the Guardian newspaper last month. "Laissez-faire, it's finished. The all-powerful market that is always right, it's finished."
Moreover, the Europeans are expected to come to the talks presenting a more united front than ever. And they are likely to use one voice to gain international support to counter U.S. policies which many blame for this crisis.
For the United States, the main goal of the summit will be to derail many of these new regulations, said Robert Brusca, chief economist at Fact and Opinion Economics, a Manhattan consultancy.
It's a goal Brusca seems to fully support.
"The last thing we need is another powerless, toothless, cumbersome global agency," he said. "You need to let [banks] run their business, the government isn't going to run it any better."
The Bush Administration is of the same mindset.
While Bush has agreed some more regulation is needed, particularly when it comes to unifying accounting standards and increasing transparency, he is wary of too much government involvement.
"We must recognize that government intervention is not a cure-all," Bush said in statement just before the summit Thursday, which seemed almost designed to temper European expectations. "History has shown that the greater threat to economic prosperity is not too little government involvement in the market - but too much."
Brusca said the United States should instead focus on what he views as more fundamental causes of this economic crisis - mainly China's unwillingness to let its currency, the yuan, rise in value.
The low yuan, Brusca argues, makes Chinese goods unfairly competitive, and prods U.S. consumers to buy too much. This gives China its huge trade surplus, which it has used to buy U.S. Treasurys, mortgage-backed securities and other products that allowed all these banks to lend so freely in the first place.
"They have abused the rules of the game, and politically, this is very dangerous," he said.
The Bush administration may raise this issue at the talks. Getting China to raise the yuan was, after all, one of the administration's highest priorities just a few years ago.
When a consensus is achieved by the G-20 it carries a lot of weight. With its 19 nations plus the European Union, it represents 90% of the world's economy and 75% of its population. But reaching a consensus is the toughest part for such a big and powerful group.
And at this summit, China, Russia, and most developing countries will be pushing for more power, not just within the G-20, but in other, more exclusive clubs like the G-7, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund.
With all these nations pushing for such disparate things, it's unlikely much will get done, at least this time around.
The Europeans are unlikely to push China to reform its currency because of what China will likely ask in return, said Sebastian Mallaby, a senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"China isn't going to give up its export-led growth strategy for the sake of the international system unless it gets a bigger stake in that system - meaning a much bigger voice within the International Monetary Fund and a corresponding reduction in Europe's exaggerated influence," Mallaby wrote in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. "Naturally, the Europeans aren't proposing it."
And despite America coming to the table with a black eye from selling these rotten mortgage backed securities around the globe, nearly everyone says the country, with its massive economy and long history of solid stewardship, is still in the driver's seat when it comes to setting worldwide economic policy.
"There is no other country that could offer the leadership that would cause the G-20 to come up with anything even worth thinking about," said George Magnus, a senior economic advisor at the Swiss bank UBS.
That means the Europeans are unlikely to get the type of oversight they're proposing.
Combine the wide range of interests, the complexity of the problem, and the fact that the U.S. is being represented by a lame duck president - Barack Obama is not expected to attend - and it's unlikely anything will get accomplished besides, maybe, a commitment to meet again.