The G-20 lost it way after 2009 when its member states abandoned efforts to coordinate global economic policies for national solutions. Going alone though has reached its limits. The way forward to sustained growth and employment is not through a flurry of one-off national initiatives, but rather through global policy coordination.
LONDON – Politics trumped sensible economics in the United States this summer, when Congress and President Barack Obama could not agree on taxes, entitlements, deficits, or an investment stimulus. Europe’s leaders were also paralyzed – ruling out defaults and devaluations, as well as deficits and stimulus. And, having run negative real interest rates, printed money, plowed in liquidity, and subsidized commercial banks, central bankers everywhere – most recently US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke – appear to have concluded that they, too, have reached the limit of what they can do.
As a result, few people today doubt that the world is drifting, rudderless and leaderless, towards a second downturn. The pre-summer debate about whether we faced a “new normal” of slower growth has been resolved: nothing now looks normal. Muddling through has failed. Unable to conclude a global trade deal, climate-change agreement, growth pact, or changes in the financial regime, the world is likely to descend into a new protectionism of competitive devaluation, currency wars, trade restrictions, and capital controls.
But this is not a time for defeatism. Countries claiming to have reached the limit of what they can do really mean that they have reached the limit of what they can do on their own. The way forward to sustained growth and employment is not through a flurry of one-off national initiatives, but rather through global policy coordination.
That was the goal back in April 2009, when the G-20 set itself three critical tasks. The first, preventing a global depression, was achieved. The other two – a growth pact, underpinned by a reformed global financial system – should now be the main items on the G-20’s agenda when it meets.
In 2010, the International Monetary Fund estimated that a coordinated approach to macroeconomic, trade, and structural policies could achieve 5.5 percent higher global GDP, create 25-50 million additional jobs, and lift 90 million people out of poverty. But a global growth pact looks even more indispensable today, given the world economy’s structural problems and huge imbalances between production and consumption.
It may seem strange to describe the greatest financial crisis since the 1930’s as a symptom of a bigger problem. But, when historians look back on the wave of globalization after 1990 – which has brought two billion new producers into the world economy – they will find a turning point around 2010. For the first time in 150 years, the West (America and the European Union) was out-manufactured, out-produced, out-exported, out-traded, and out-invested by the rest of the world.
Indeed, by the early to mid-2020’s, the Asian consumer market will be twice the size of the US market. Today, however, the West and Asia remain mutually dependent. Two-thirds of Asia’s exports still end up in the West, and south-south trade accounts for just 20 percent of global turnover.
Put another way, ten years ago the US engine could drive the world economy, and ten years from now the emerging-market countries stand to take over that role, particularly given the rising purchasing power of their middle classes. But, for now, America and Europe cannot expand their consumer spending without increasing exports, while China and the emerging markets cannot easily expand their production or consumption without the guarantee of strong Western markets.