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G20 Summit Seeks Next Steps To Tackle Financial Crisis

U.S. President Bush (center) with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and EC President Jose Manuel Barroso at the conclusion of remarks at Camp David, 18oct2008
(RFE/RL) -- It's been more than a year since the U.S. housing market collapsed, triggering a banking and credit crisis that has since spread across the world.

The authorities have taken unprecedented measures to try and cushion the blow -- including $4.6 trillion in bank rescues and fiscal spending, and coordinated interest-rate cuts from the world's major central banks.

But the bad news keeps rolling in.

On November 13, a leading international economic organization, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said the world's developed economies are in recession and are likely to contract next year.

And a new EU report has confirmed that the 15-country eurozone has slumped into recession for the first time ever. That comes as the zone's gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen 0.2 percent in the second and third quarters of this year. Recession is defined as a fall in GDP for two consecutive quarters.

Underlining the seriousness of this, the biggest crisis in 80 years, leaders from some 20 rich and developing countries are meeting in Washington on November 15 to discuss what steps to take next.

James Boughton, the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) official historian, sees the meeting as a sign of growing global determination to face the crisis:

"As was true at Bretton Woods, the fact that everybody knew the consequences of failure were enormous, it creates the political will in which major changes can take place. And we're at that point now," Boughton says.

"The fact that the leaders of almost 20 countries are going to be coming together in Washington in a short period with just a couple of weeks' notice is a sign of just how seriously this crisis is being taken," he adds. "It's an opportunity and we need to seize the day and take advantage of it."

Bretton Woods was the site of the conference toward the end of World War II that led to the creation of the global financial institutions, still in place today, in the form of the IMF and the World Bank.

The aim was to avert another Great Depression and finance postwar Europe's reconstruction. The IMF was to oversee an international monetary system based on fixed exchange rates.

That fixed-exchange-rate system is now a thing of the past, but the IMF is still tasked with maintaining global financial stability, and lending to economies in trouble.

A New World Order?

The Washington summit is likely to hear calls from many participants to now review and overhaul the world's financial architecture.

The European Union favors tighter regulation of banking markets and greater scrutiny of rating agencies.

Several individual European countries, notably France, have urged giving the IMF greater powers, so it can act as a kind of global financial regulator.

And Britain would like a globally coordinated fiscal stimulus.

But reaching agreement on concrete actions could be difficult.

One reason is the great differences among the participants' own economies. They range from those of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries to the emerging economies of China, India, and Turkey.

And while some countries favor tightening up government controls on markets and economies, others fear that too much tightening up risks fatally weakening the free-market system.

U.S. President George W. Bush said on November 13 that trying to reinvent the global financial system is not the solution to the crisis.

"In the wake of the financial crisis, voices from the right and the left are equating the free-enterprise system with greed and exploitation and failure. It's true this crisis includes failures, by lenders and borrowers and by financial firms and by independent regulators," Bush said.

"But the crisis was not a failure of the free-market system. And the answer is not to try and reinvent that system," he added. "It is to fix the problems we face, make the reforms we need, and move forward with the free-market principles that have delivered prosperity and hope to people all across the globe."

Just The Beginning

Timing is another problem for this weekend's conference. After all, the man who will inherit the problem in the United States won't be there.

President-elect Barack Obama is only sending two representatives -- including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- to represent him in any discussions.

And then there's the issue of preparation -- or the lack of it. This hastily arranged, single gathering is not exactly Bretton Woods, which was more than a year in preparation and took weeks to hammer out.

It's all tempered expectations for the outcome.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said on November 12 that the gathering would just be the start of a long process. "This weekend provides an opportunity for nations to take an important step, but only one step, on the necessary path to reform," he said.

Still, there is much significant about the meeting.

Patrick Honohan, professor of international financial economics and development at Trinity College, Dublin, notes that the meeting gives rising powers a bigger voice in seeking fixes for the global economic troubles.

"It's a clear acknowledgment that the problems of the world economy cannot just be solved any more by the U.S. and Europe and Japan," Honohan says. "The role of China is obviously central and other countries -- India, Brazil, Russia -- their importance is increasing and they have to be at the table and they now are at the table."

So, the world's financial architecture might not be getting an overhaul yet -- but on November 15, world leaders will be busy looking at the building plans.