George W. Bush entered office arguing for “regime change” in Iraq. He leaves it with global calls for regime change in finance. That heads of state from the biggest emerging economies are attending the crisis summit in Washington alongside their “emerged” peers shows that business is no longer as usual, even if, as Brazil’s foreign minister put it, they have only been invited for the coffee breaks.
The G20 faces two main challenges: stopping the world sliding into a depression and reforming the global financial system so that such a crisis never recurs. On the first point, governments have moved quickly to prop up banks. Central banks have slashed interest rates and put in place measures to keep credit flowing to the developing world. Consensus is now building for increased government spending. It is more efficient if all countries agree to this and if it is co-ordinated – then one man’s higher spending is not frittered away on another’s exports. Yet G20 members need not reach collective agreement for individual states to go ahead.
Meanwhile, confidence in the Anglo-Saxon model of financial capitalism is on the ropes. Yet, in spite of French enthusiasm for root and branch regulatory reform, this is too complex a subject to be sorted out in two days. The issue, anyway, is a need for better supervision rather than more regulation. After all, the heart of the current crisis lies less with unregulated hedge funds than with overleveraged, regulated banks.
The meeting’s guiding rubric should, therefore, be: first do no harm. Given that, what might it realistically generate, other than hot air? A united commitment to free trade for one, given the temptation, heightened in a recession, to raise trade barriers. Such a pledge might disappoint those hoping for a weekend makeover of capitalism. But jaw-jaw is always better than trade war-war.