New World Order

TIME | February 05, 2009
By Justin Fox

In recent weeks, the world has been politely standing by and watching how things play out with the fiscal stimulus and latest bank-bailout plans in Washington. Yes, there's been some grumbling overseas about "buy American" provisions in the stimulus bill, but for the most part, officials elsewhere don't want to step on the toes of a new President to whom they are favorably disposed. They also don't want to endanger legislation that they hope will help jump-start the global economy.

Just wait a couple of months, though. Politicians from Beijing to Berlin to Brasília see the current crisis as the product of a messed-up global financial infrastructure dominated by the U.S., and they will soon be pushing for big changes--whether Americans like them or not.

All this will begin to gel on April 2, when the newish international organization known as the G-20--the leaders of 19 of the world's biggest national economies, plus the European Union--meets in London. An unofficial meeting has already taken place, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where G-20 officials (with the conspicuous exception of those from the U.S.) made speeches, conversed in the halls and gave a sense of the direction in which the world outside the U.S. wants to head. (Read TIME's special report on Davos 2009.)

The global discussion of the financial crisis is strikingly different from the one in the U.S. Here there's still something of a debate over whether the mess is the result of too much government interference in the housing market or too little government regulation of financial markets. In the rest of the world, that's no debate: inadequate and inconsistent financial regulation is uniformly blamed. What's more, a consensus seems to have emerged among the world's finance ministers and central-bank bosses that the chief underlying cause of the crisis was an unbalanced and out-of-control system of global capital flows in which some big-spender countries (namely the U.S.) ran up huge debts while big savers (China and India, for example) hoarded surpluses.

On the regulatory front, the path to a new global approach is pretty clear. Last spring the leaders of the G-7, a club of wealthy nations, agreed to create a "college of supervisors" to more closely coordinate regulation of multinational banks. The Group of Thirty, an influential organization of current and former central bankers and financial regulators, recommended in January that "systematically significant" financial institutions (those that are too big to fail) be identified in advance and subjected to higher capital requirements and tougher regulation. (See who's to blame for the financial crisis.)

Yet regulators around the world were already jointly setting bank-capital standards before the current crisis hit. A lot of good that did us. So there is also much talk about the need for a new architecture--"a new Bretton Woods" was a phrase that echoed around Davos--to rein in global financial flows.

Bretton Woods is the mountain resort in New Hampshire where in 1944 the Allied nations met--with the U.S. calling almost all the shots--to plan a postwar financial system. The Bretton Woods creations included the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and a quarter-century of fixed exchange rates built around a U.S. dollar that was linked to gold. The fixed exchange rates and gold standard unraveled in the 1970s, and ever since we've had a system in which the IMF occasionally steps in to help countries in currency crises (usually imposing harsh terms in the process) but exercises no real control over the global financial system.

After the emerging-market currency collapses of the late 1990s, in which IMF aid wasn't much help, the lesson that emerging economies such as China and India took was that they needed to build up gigantic reserves of U.S. dollars to protect their currencies. To build those reserves, they ran big trade surpluses, which were in turn enabled mainly by record trade deficits in the U.S., which were in turn enabled by massive borrowing from around the world. It was an extremely unbalanced financial ballet, and it has now come crashing to the ground.

In the view of many outside the U.S. (and some within), the only way to limit such excesses is through a bigger, more powerful IMF that can act as a central bank to the world--and knock heads when needed. While everybody agrees that this new IMF needs to be less dominated by the U.S. and Western Europe, things get controversial as soon as you go past voting rights. Should capital flows be restricted? Should there be limits on trade deficits and surpluses? Should the IMF be able to order around even the U.S.? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, global capitalism will have entered a new and dramatically less freewheeling era.