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Hope and despair at the G-20

By D Ravi Kanth
March 17, 2009 12:15 IST
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When will the Schumpeterian perennial gale of creative destruction that started from the credit and housing bubble in the US slow down?

Despite the assurances of UK Chancellor Alistair Darling that 'markets could have confidence that countries will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to tackle the global slowdown', there is still no agreement on how long the recession will last and whether it will turn into the classic deflation with its attendant massive social unrest.

The finance ministers of the G-20 who met in West Sussex last week failed to offer a roadmap.

Ironically, even as they were debating this, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent out conflicting signals on how to revive the sinking global economy.

The politics of recovery is becoming murkier by the day, within each country and more importantly, among nations.

Meanwhile, the crisis has brought out some other sad and dramatic facts as well. Bernard Madoff, who swindled over $60 billion from investors, was not even on the radar screen of regulators who endlessly preached the virtues of financial globalisation.

It is anybody's guess as to how many more Madoffs are going to be unearthed in the coming days.

The good news is that few realised the pressure from the US, Germany and France would work in prying open the secrets of some of the world's offshore tax havens.

Despite pressure from several quarters over the last many years, countries such as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Austria, Andorra, Monaco, Man of Isle (all under Her Majesty's control), Hong Kong, and Singapore with offshore banking centres dragged their feet when it came to relaxing banking secrecy laws.

With stringent client-confidentiality procedures, these countries hold around $7 trillion from foreign tax-dodgers.

Faced with pressure from the US and others, the OECD resorted to naming and shaming countries which were unwilling to meet its standards for information disclosure on tax matters.

Though the OECD's exercise was supposed to be a preparatory move to finalise the agenda for the G-20 leaders' meeting in London, it has produced a chain reaction with these countries now agreeing to the disclosure standards.

But while there has been some success in the case of the offshore tax havens, what about action on other areas such as the much-needed global fund to help poor countries, the growing pressures for competitive devaluation of currencies, and the rising spectre of debt and wage deflation?

Clearly, concerted international action is required to address these issues on a war footing.

Sadly, the trans-Atlantic majors - the US and Britain on one side, and Germany and France on the other - are at loggerheads when it comes to addressing these boiling issues because of their conflicting interests and priorities.

Neither Washington nor London want countries to focus excessively on the need for a global regulator and first principles to oversee a range of toxic financial activities that brought the world to its knees. Instead, they want to focus on just a stimulus package.

Germany and France are reluctant to finance a global stimulus package as it would entail spending money for other weaker members in the European Union and elsewhere.

As the two sides continue to spar over the central issues of the recovery and future global financial architecture, the world economy is steadily slipping into what looks like another Great Depression. But, as Heiner Flassback, the chief economist at UNCTAD's division on Globalisation and Development Strategies, warns, the time to prevent another major economic catastrophe is running out.

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D Ravi Kanth
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