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Thursday, July 1, 2010

The G20's expensive party

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Leaders of the world's most powerful nations and a few less powerful hangers-on, like Canada and Italy, have just spent a few more billions of their taxpayers' money as they failed to devise a rescue plan for a world economy that is still perilously close to the cliff edge of disaster.

Well, that's not entirely true. The leaders meeting in Toronto produced a communique that papers over the cracks between the countries, notably the United States, pressing for renewed economic growth as the answer to the world's woes and those, mainly the Europeans but with Prime Minister Naoto Kan's Japan in support, urging that cutting government deficits and the heavy overhang of debts is the most urgent task.

The folly was shown when downtown Toronto, one of the world's most vibrant cities, was turned into a no-go area so that the leaders could enjoy their group photograph in peace. The Canadian media reported that the security bill for the summit accounted for $888 million out of a total cost of nearly $1.15 billion.

What is going on? The security cost for the Group of 20 summit held last year in Pittsburgh came to $18 million, and South Africa is spending $130 million on security for the monthlong the FIFA World Cup with all the opportunities for rival football hooligans and criminal gangs. How come that the U.S., sworn target for al-Qaida and so many other disaffected groups could spend relatively little while peaceable, peace-loving Canada spent so much?

How can anyone trust a government that throws away such large sums of money for a day's partying — or trust the other leaders of the world who attend such a meeting inside a wire fence fortress while they discuss how to spend money wisely and well?

There must be a less wasteful way of holding these get-togethers, and there must be a more productive way than the G20 of trying to achieve global cooperation on burning economic issues.

The G20 has no buildings, no secretariat and no existence at all outside these expensive summits and perhaps the preliminary meetings of the so-called sherpas (the officials who carry the baggage and do the heavy lifting in preparing the communique).

More damaging, there is no real G20 view, just a collection of national views. The G20 does not have the collegiality of even an incompetent England soccer team.

Before the announcement by China that it was going to make the yuan exchange rate more flexible, there was a buzz that the Chinese currency was going to be the issue alongside growth versus deficits. Some of the fellow-traveling rah-rah commentary on Beijing's move declared that China had scored a major political victory in its timing, so that the G20 leaders could not now discuss the currency issue.

So it proved. The communique made only a passing reference to the need for "greater exchange rate flexibility" without mentioning Beijing's pre-emptive strike. This is no way for a truly global economic body to work, fearlessly ducking every major issue.

The communique is littered with fine promises postponed — like St. Augustine's famous plea for chastity. The industrialized countries agreed to halve their government deficits as a proportion of gross domestic product by 2013 and to ensure that by 2016 overall debt wouldn't grow as quickly as the economy.

The leaders could not reach agreement even on the question of financial reform which everyone regards in principle as a Good Thing. New bank capital standards — to ensure that banks have enough money to withstand future crises — were supposed to be in place by the end of 2012, but now the date is merely an "aim," as arguments rage on what constitutes capital. American and European plans for a bank tax failed because of opposition from Australia, Canada and Japan.

It was left to U.S. President Barack Obama to use a post-G20 press conference to challenge China to play its part as a new world power, but China plainly resents attempts, especially by the rest of the has-been world, to tell it to behave responsibly and consider the 80 percent of the world's people who are not Chinese.

The issue is highly pertinent when the so-called developed world is aging rapidly and discovering painfully that it can no longer enjoy the lifestyle that it used to do, jobs until 55 or 60 then pensions and medical care for the rest of their lives. So-called emerging markets are only just beginning to enjoy the fruits of their efforts and are suspicious that the old gang just wants to impose a latter-day economic colonialism.

There are people and institutions trying to create a bridge. The International Monetary Fund produced its "Ten Commandments for fiscal adjustment in advanced countries," a useful exercise that nonetheless shows how complicated it is to cut spending without damaging growth, yet how continued government spending will send debts out of control.

Angel Gurria, the secretary general of the OECD, the club of industrialized nations, pleaded that, "The rise of the rest is not a threat to the West: Overall, the newfound prosperity in the developing world represents an enormous opportunity for citizens in the developing and developed world alike. Improvements in the range and quality of their exports, greater technological dynamism, better prospects for doing business, a larger consumption base — all these factors can create substantial welfare benefits for the world."

Fine words, but it will not be so easy, and especially not if banks are not lending to businesses and people rely on governments to provide them with the standard of living they have been accustomed to. Bank lending in the U.S. has fallen by almost 25 percent in the last two years, an unprecedented drop that does nothing for growth.

The bottom line is that the G20 is not equipped to tell the home truths that government leaders need to hear. Few of the individual country leaders have any global vision. China's Hu Jintao is preoccupied with the succession and his own legacy. Obama is bogged down in expensive foreign wars and has elections to consider. Europe squabbles on. Even the dedicated Kan pleads St. Augustine in actually increasing the consumption tax.

In these broken circumstances, we can only hope that the IMF and World Bank can put their proven international expertise to better use. Their reports may be dull but they are usually sensible, and the two bodies do not cost as much as wasteful G20 binges.

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor of publications for the World Bank.

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