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U.S. President Barack Obama with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at the ExCel Centre in London on April 2, 2009. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The Group of 20 Summit of the world's top leaders, held Apr. 2 at a windowless exhibition hall in London's eastside docklands, did not achieve everything its organizers originally hoped for, but it was not without substance. Clearly, the most important accomplishment is the trebling of the resources available to the International Monetary Fund to $750 billion. That will make it easier to fight financial fires that may break out in the next few months, especially in emerging economies. All told, some $1.1 trillion in new money will come on tap for the IMF, the World Bank, and to support trade finance. "That's about the size the world may need," said the IMF's director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who noted with satisfaction that "the IMF is back."
But perhaps more important, the G-20 leaders agreed on a set of principles that may mark the beginning of a new global financial architecture that will exercise more control over hedge funds, derivatives, and even traders' bonuses, while at the same time turning the screws on tax havens. This G-20 meeting by definition also represented an effort to broaden participation in global financial leadership beyond just the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan to include big emerging market economies such as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia. "This kind of cooperation really is historic," U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters at the end of the conference.
World stock markets were cheered by the leaders' ability to reach a harmonious conclusion. There had been some doubt the day before, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held their own press conference demanding a regulatory crackdown, in what seemed like an effort to counter the impact of the apparent lovefest between Obama and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Continuing the recent bull run, London's FTSE closed up 4.28% on Apr. 2, while in New York the S&P 500 was up more than 3.4% in afternoon trading.
Indeed, Sarkozy and Merkel seemed to have largely got their way in terms of the tough language of the final communiquÉ—though toughening up financial regulation is hardly controversial in the current political climate. "The conclusions are more than we could have hoped for," a delighted Sarkozy told reporters at the end of the summit.
The final communiquÉ says that regulation and oversight are to be extended to all systemically important "financial institutions, instruments, and markets." Large hedge funds also will be regulated for the first time, though how many funds will fall into the net and what sort of oversight they will have isn't spelled out. "The big unknown is what they mean by regulation," says Simon Gleeson, a partner at the law firm Clifford Chance in London.
In the coming weeks, lobbying groups will maneuver to shape whatever regulation is on the way. "Regulatory reform should strengthen the overall financial system without impeding hedge funds' ability to contribute to the global economic recovery that the leaders of the G-20 hope to advance," says Richard H. Baker, CEO of the Washington-based Managed Funds Assn., which represents hedge funds.
Tax havens—which have buckled under pressure in the last few weeks—continued to draw fire. The G-20 leaders threatened "sanctions" against "non-cooperative jurisdictions." Again, what exactly this will mean in practice is hard to say, but tax havens such as Andorra, Liechtenstein, and even Switzerland are clearly on the defensive. "The moral pressure that has built up in the last few weeks has had an effect," says Andrew Watt, managing director of tax disputes and investigations at London tax advisers Alvarez & Marsal.
With governments unable to agree on a new big bang of fiscal stimulus, beefing up the IMF and regulation were the logical directions to turn. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's experience with the IMF also may have helped boost the agency's fortunes.
At any rate, the IMF is clearly the big winner from the G-20. It will not only get more money, but it also will have a much easier time deploying it. Until now, countries that turned to the IMF usually were required to agree to tough and painful austerity regimes. Now, applicants considered basically stable will be able to borrow large quantities of money through a new facility called a Flexible Credit Line to stave off possible financial emergencies. Mexico has already requested such an arrangement, and its decision has eased concerns that countries would be wary of such borrowing because of the possible stigma attached. "Once you get the first client, the second is easier," says Kaan Nazli, an emerging markets analyst at consultants Medley Global Advisors.
The IMF also will become the pillar in a new world financial system designed to more closely monitor risk, as well as to give the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and other big players a role at the table. "The highlight of the G-20 meeting is the agreement to boost both the resources and structure of the IMF. It allows for more effective governance of the world economy," says Jim O'Neill, chief economist of Goldman Sachs (GS) in London.
The IMF, along with a new Financial Stability Board headed by Italian central bank head Mario Draghi, will be given the role of providing "early warning of macroeconomic and financial risks and the actions needed to address them." The IMF and the World Bank also may be revamped to make them less the creatures of the U.S. and Western Europe. For instance, the chiefs of these institutions now will be appointed on merit, according the communiquÉ, perhaps meaning that they will no longer come under the political patronage of Washington and Western Europe. "Emerging markets and developing countries will be given a greater voice and representation," said Britain's Prime Minister Brown, the conference's host.
All of this sounds good, but whether it will actually happen is another question. These decisions only amount to a small additional boost at best for the troubled world economy and will do little to clean up the mess on the balance sheets of the world's big banks. "The experience of the IMF is that you never recover until you complete the cleansing the financial sector," said Strauss-Kahn. By that measure, recovery is still a long way off.