November 19, 2011
G-20, APEC Summits–Without Gusto
by Dr. Lin See Yan*
WHEN President Nicolas Sarkozy of France assumed the presidency of G-20 for 2011, I was delighted for alas, international monetary reform would take centre stage. That’s what he promised. I felt it’s high time leadership was put to bear on an issue of critical international concern, where the Americans had for years “ feared to tread,” for obvious reasons: to protect US national interest which is to preserve (as long as feasible) an archaic international monetary system with the US dollar as its centrepiece, one which has outlasted its usefulness.
But this was not to be. Political turmoil in Greece had added fuel to the European financial chaos, with the G-20 meeting scrambling to arrange (and rearrange) emergency measures aimed at preventing the eurozone sovereign debt crisis from contaminating the rest of Europe and the global economy. As they gathered in Cannes on November 3-4, leaders from G-20 faced high expectations to confront the festering European turmoil. Instead, the two-day summit in this Mediterranean resort largely resulted in more pressure on Europe to respond more forcefully.
The United States, China and others were worried that Europeans may fail to avert a collapse of the Greek economy, bringing with it sovereign default and corporate bankruptcies that would inevitably send shock waves through the global financial system. Priority was placed to quickly resolve the evolving European crisis. It was clear the weight of the crisis had overshadowed other policy goals of the summit.
G-20 and France
France’s President had hoped to use the G-20 to burnish his reputation as a global statesman. I gathered Sarkozy had intended to focus the G-20 agenda on French ideas for reducing global imbalances. Instead, he found himself in the midst of a gathering euro-storm, now focused on Greece’s sudden decision to call a referendum on its bailout.
Behind the scene, France was itself subject to growing economic stress. The market’s verdict on France’s finances had since grown increasingly harsh. The spread between the yields on German & French 10-year AAA government bonds widened to a euro-era record of 1.95%-age points. France is a triple-A rated nation in name only because its debt is in danger of spiralling out of control.
Forecast by Fitch Ratings at 86.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, France’s debt is the highest among AAA-rated nations. Its recent sharp economic downturn has exposed an 8-billion-euro gap in France’s efforts to reduce its budget deficit to 4.5% of GDP in 2012 from 7.1% in 2010 more than twice the permissible limit of 3%.
At 45% of GDP, France is already among the most highly taxed in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or the OECD. The recent report by the Lisbon Council ranked France 13th out of 17 for its overall health, including growth potential, unemployment and consumption, and 15th for progress on economic adjustments, including reducing the budget deficit and unit labour cost.
G-20 and Italy
It’s quite clear G-20’s prime concern is Italy. The country is increasingly unable to raise debt at affordable cost, and its Prime Minister was struggling to push through austerity measures in the face of mounting labour unrest amid an unfriendly parliament. It was also clear the eurozone isn’t equipped to deal with the collapse of Italy.
At G-20, although they had indicated a willingness to co-operate, non-European leaders had made it clear they want the eurozone to first rely on its own resources to resolve the crisis. Nevertheless, Europeans did consider seeking outside help, in particular to boost their bailout fund, including asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for co-operative support. But no one bit. The very hint of boosting IMF’s role underscored deepening worries about the adequacy of Europe’s own response. In the end, G-20 leaders agreed only to explore options, including voluntary contributions and using its special drawing rights (SDR) in some fashion.
G-20 has little to show
As in the previous year, an all too familiar G-20 meeting ended with a long list of promises made, many of which reflected a rehash of old ones; with most promises made and then broken in the past; and still others, not known to be kept.
However, one key step did emerge: Italy, the focus of most worries in the European, and indeed the world, markets agreed to permit the IMF to monitor its progress with fiscal reforms. This is as drastic a step as can be expected, given the biggest fear among Europeans is that markets will cease financing Italy, causing a meltdown the eurozone would be quite powerless to stop.
European leaders had hoped G-20 would conclude with an endorsement of their plan announced a week before, that would boost confidence in the markets. It included new efforts to recapitalise European banks, an upgraded bailout scheme for Greece, and an increase in funding available to the eurozone’s bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).
There was also the hope to enhance EFSF’s capacity through parallel “investments” from non-European G-20 members. G-20 had noted the European Central Bank’s (ECB) refusal to act as lender of last resort and to provide financing to help leverage the EFSF’s 440 billion euro into something much larger, which had led the Europeans to pursue the non-Europeans with large surpluses, such as China.
As the eurozone crisis deepened, much of the wider G-20 agenda to encourage “strong, stable & balanced” global growth fell by the wayside at this time. As I understand it, it would appear the stronger economies, including China, Germany, Canada & Brazil, did agree to limit efforts at fiscal tightening and possibly do more to boost demand at home. This marked a reversal from last year’s summit which centred on fiscal deficit reduction.
The G-20 pact
The more important conclusions reached at the Summit included the following:
● Commitment to take decisions to reinvigorate economic growth, create jobs, ensure financial stability and promote social inclusion; and to coordinate their actions and policies.
● An action plan for growth and jobs to address short-term vulnerabilities and strengthen foundations for growth. Advanced economies committed to adopt policies to build confidence and support growth, and implement clear & credible measures at fiscal consolidation.
● Commitment by (i) countries whose public finances remain strong to take discretionary measures to support domestic demand; (ii) countries with large current surpluses commit to reforms to raise domestic demand; and (iii) all commit to further structural reforms to raise output in their countries.
● Commitment to strengthen the social dimension of globalisation.
● Set-up a taskforce to work with priority on youth unemployment.
● Agreement to (i) ensure the SDR basket composition continues to reflect the global role of currencies; (ii) review the composition of the SDR basket in 2015, or earlier; and (iii) make progress towards a more integrated, even-handed and effective IMF surveillance.
● Commitment to move rapidly toward more market-determined exchange rate systems, avoid persistent exchange rate misalignments, and refrain from competitive devaluation.
Despite the cheering about Europe’s debt deal and G-20’s role in pressuring Europe to act swiftly, worries continue to mount that the world can’t succeed without stronger growth. Europe and the United States are virtually at a standstill. At the present pace of muted expansion, unemployment will stay high and incomes stall. Debt saddled nations will have an even tougher time generating enough revenue to pay bills & service debt. This would spark more default fears or even higher borrowing rates in Italy, Greece and others under pressure.
Latest projections point to the eurozone flirting with recession in 2012. Even in Asia, a critical engine of recovery, prospects are dimming. Yet, nations remain divided on enacting new measures to boost growth or continue focus on deficit reduction. Weak nations like Italy and Greece are under intense pressure to adopt very severe austerity schemes in the face of enormous suffering by their people who fall victim to weakened social safety nets and reduced cashflows.
Towards this end, the G-20 commitments fall far short. Markets worldwide have since responded; their verdict: continuing sell-off of bonds and shares, and continuing high cost of borrowing by Italy and Spain.
Following the goings-on at G-20, the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) economic leaders met in Honolulu on November 12-13 to bolster their economies and lower trade barriers as they seek to prop up global growth and shield themselves against fallout from Europe’s debt crisis.
They adopted the Honolulu Declaration in which leaders agreed to take concrete steps towards building a “seamless regional economy” to generate growth and create jobs in “three priority areas”: (i) strengthening regional economic integration & expanding trade, (ii) promoting green growth, and (iii) advancing regulatory convergence and co-operation. Apec leaders gathered at a time when “growth and job creation have weakened and significant downside risks remain, including those arising from the financial challenges in Europe and a succession of natural disasters in the region.”
Against this uncertain backdrop, the forum had something more concrete to focus on than the usual bromides about extending free trade. This reflected in part frustration with the long-running (entering its 11th year with no end in sight) world trade talks, and in part, a desire to snap out of the poor global economic outlook. There is also a broader influence from concern about how best to grow and create jobs.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed free trade pact covering nine Apec members (the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Chile and Peru) account for 35% of the world economy, is unique, making it the blueprint for future global trade agreements since it had taken on new issues including green technologies & the digital economy. An agreement was reached on the broad outline of a deal with a final agreement in sight for 2012.
Since then, three more Apec members (Japan, Canada and Mexico) have expressed interest to join. Together, this would create a market of 800 million, the largest trade deal for the United States. The aim is to eventually cover all 21 members of Apec which accounts for more than one-half of the world’s economic output. Apec says: “We recognise that further trade liberalisation is essential to achieving a sustainable global recovery in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008-09.” An expanded TPP would provide the much needed boost.
But no trade agreement in the Pacific is complete without China. Looks like a power play between the United States and China is in the works. As such, optimism about its potential benefits needs to be tempered.
At the conclusion of Apec meeting, leaders agreed to: (i) address two key next generation trade and investment issues, viz. commitment to help the small and medium-sized enterprises grow and plug into global production chains; and to promote effective market-driven innovative policies; (ii) develop by 2012 a list of environmental goods (including solar panels, wind turbines and energy efficient light bulbs) that contribute to green growth on which members resolved to reduce tariffs to 5% or less by end 2015, and to also eliminate non-tariff barriers; and (iii) take steps by 2013 to implement good regulatory practices. In the end, the question remains how far leaders will be able to turn promises into action.
The biggest problem on the Asia-Pacific horizon remains Europe, where fiscal turmoil centred on Italy and Greece will continue to surprise and send shock waves worldwide.
As feared, both summits ended with a whimper, eclipsed by the Italian and Greek sovereign debt drama.
● Former Deputy Governor, Bank Negara Malaysian and Banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching and promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email: email@example.com.