G20

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde discusses global economic priorities at the Brookings Institution, April 12, 2012

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde discusses global economic priorities at the Brookings Institution, April 12, 2012

The Spring Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank will be the focus of market attention this week. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has set the ball rolling, with a speech calling for policy makers to “seize the day”. She is asking for a repeat of the “London moment” in February 2009, when G20 leaders announced a co-ordinated plan to rescue the global economy.

However, while her recommendations for action are perfectly sensible, there is an air of familiarity about them. They include a call for more financial resources for the IMF; delayed fiscal tightening in some countries, combined with longer term plans for budget consolidation;  easy monetary policy in the developed economies; continued reform of the financial system; renewed labour market reforms; and measures to promote fairness and eradicate poverty. With no atmosphere of crisis surrounding the Spring Meetings, there seems little chance of anything dramatic emerging on any of these fronts this week. 

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has said that gold is the “elephant in the G20 meeting room” and has suggested that the metal should be given a role in any fundamental reshaping of the global monetary system which may emerge from current international discussions. Although this was initially interpreted as a call for a return to the gold standard, Mr Zoellick on Wednesday said that this would be impractical. Instead, he seems to believe that gold should act as a kind of signalling mechanism, which flashes warning signs when uncertainty is rising, and confidence is falling, in the global economy. Maybe, but I am struggling to understand how this could be made to work in practice. 

US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has written to his G20 colleagues suggesting that they should adopt a new approach to managing external trade imbalances. Specifically, he wants the G20 to agree to a limit on their current account surpluses and deficits over a period of years, and also to correct these imbalances if they seem likely to drift away from the agreed targets. This is a good idea, because multilateral action on global imbalances would be vastly preferable to a disorderly bilateral dispute between the US and China. But the Geithner plan, as currently drafted, is fraught with difficulties. 

Martin Wolf argues in his column this morning that the world’s two superpowers are in conflict over the dollar/yuan exchange rate, and that “when such elephants fight, bystanders are likely to be trampled”. Yet in preparations for the G20 summit in Korea in November, there is no sign that any of the other participating countries – especially the Europeans – want to join the US in talking specifically about the question of yuan overvaluation. According to reports, the US is likely to be “a posse of one” on this question.