A Global Recovery for a Global Recession
The G-20 did take long-overdue action on nontransparent offshore banking centers. The large amount of banking in these centers is not a result of these countries' comparative advantage in providing banking services. It is because they avoid and evade taxes and regulations. But these problems, while important, played little if any role in the current crisis. Why was so much effort spent on these extraneous issues rather than on those more directly related to the crisis?
From the perspective of the developing countries, though, not enough was done about bank secrecy in offshore as well as onshore centers. Developing nations are often criticized for corruption, but secret bank accounts wherever they may be facilitate corruption, providing safe haven for stolen funds. Developing countries want this money returned and want access to information that will allow them to detect secret accounts.
Financial and capital market liberalization--as well as banking deregulation--contributed to the crisis and to the spread of the crisis from the United States to developing countries. Advanced industrial nations are reluctant to admit that these policies, which they pushed so hard on developing countries, are part of the problem. No wonder, then, that the G-20 did not argue for a reconsideration of these longstanding policies.
The global economic crisis highlights the deficiencies of existing international institutions. As I noted, the IMF and the Financial Stability Forum--created in the aftermath of the last global financial crisis, in 1997-98--did not prevent the crisis. In some cases they pushed policies that are now recognized as root causes. Although some of the proposals are moves in the right direction, others (such as changing the name of the Financial Stability Forum to the Financial Stability Board) are unlikely to have much effect, and as a package they are unlikely to suffice.
If we are to make our global economic system work better, we have to have better systems of global economic governance. It is important to move from ad hoc arrangements to more inclusive and representative institutional frameworks. We need a global economic coordinating council within the UN, not only to coordinate economic policies (e.g., the size of the stimulus and regulatory structures) but also to identify and rectify gaps in the global economic institutional structure. For instance, this crisis will almost surely be marked by some sovereign debt defaults. Despite extensive discussions at the time of Argentina's 2001 default, there was no progress in creating a sovereign debt-restructuring mechanism. The IMF--dominated by the creditor countries--cannot play a central role in designing such a mechanism (any more than we in the United States should turn to our banks to design a good bankruptcy law).
One of the alleged reasons for not "playing by the rules" and forcing troubled international banks to go through financial restructuring (instead, bailing them out) was that it would give rise to huge cross-border complications. Citibank, for example, operates worldwide, and depositors in many countries are not insured. What responsibility do US taxpayers have to depositors abroad if Citibank fails? They didn't pay deposit insurance; there is no contract committing us to pick up the pieces. Yet some claim it would do irreparable harm to America's image if we took no responsibility. Iceland's banking problems illustrate the potential seriousness of these cross-border problems. Its citizens' standard of living may be impaired for decades because of the bankruptcies of its banks and the Icelandic government's decision to assume some responsibility for these failures. And yet, again, nothing is being done to address these problems.
Most important, the UN commission calls attention to the need for reform in the dollar-based global reserve system; it advocates the creation of a global reserve system. Not only is the current system fraying; it contributes to an insufficiency of global aggregate demand and to global instability. Every year developing countries set aside hundreds of billions of dollars to protect themselves against the costs of such instability, made so evident by the East Asia crisis. The commission has argued persuasively that this problem must be addressed if we are to have a robust global recovery. Recent statements from the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), expressing their concerns about the dollar reserve system, have added immediacy to the commission's recommendation. This is an old idea--Keynes argued strongly for the creation of a global reserve currency more than sixty years ago--whose time has come.
Those who would like us to go back to the world as it was before the crisis will find some of the questions being asked at the UN summit uncomfortable. They would be happier with a few harsh words for the offshore islands, a few cosmetic reforms to banking regulation, a few lectures about hedge funds (which, like offshore banking centers, were not at the center of this crisis), a new name and a couple of new members for the Financial Stability Forum--and then for us to move on. Many developing countries will be less content to accept these "reforms" as going to the heart of the matter.
As developed countries struggle to ensure a quick recovery, they need to think of the effects of their actions on developing countries. It is time to begin the restructuring of our global economic and financial system in ways that ensure that the fruits of prosperity are more widely shared and that the system is more stable. This task will not be accomplished overnight. But it is a task that must be begun, now.