G20 won’t Be Worth its Carbon Footprint if Financial Sector Vulnerabilities are not Addressed

It looks like the G20 on Friday will emphasize its new “framework” for curing macroeconomic imbalances, rather than any substantive measures to regulate banks, derivatives, or any other primary cause of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

This is appealing to the G20 leaders because their call to “rebalance” global growth will involve no immediate action and no changes in policy – other than in the “medium run” (watch for this phrase in the communiqué).

When exactly is the medium run?

That’s an easy one: it’s always just around the corner.  Not today, of course; that would be short run.  And not in 20 years; that’s the long run.

The medium run is perhaps in 3 years or perhaps in 5 years.  It feels close enough not to be meaningless at the press conference, but it’s not close enough to be meaningful.

And – here’s the key – whatever you agree on for the medium-term, you know that the world will change, quite dramatically, 2 or 3 times before you get there.  At that point you can say, quite reasonably: But the conditions today are quite different from what they were when we made this medium-term commitment, so we really need to rethink it.

Of course, having the IMF report back every year on progress towards these medium-term goals is equally pointless.  This is what the IMF has been doing since 2006 and what it was preparing diligently to do just as the global crisis broke out.

Expectations for the G20 summit are low.  But unless and until the leaders take any steps to address our pressing financial sector vulnerabilities, the summit is not worth its carbon footprint.

Remember what the financial experts said at the previous summit (April) and the one before that (November): we can’t fix the financial system in the height of the crisis.  True enough, although the opportunity to break the power of the largest players was squandered in both the US and Europe.

So, now the crisis is over – as the G20 heads of government will affirm – where are their efforts to fix the financial system?  Please don’t tell me, “that’s what we’re doing, in the medium-term.”

About Simon Johnson 101 Articles

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., a co-founder of BaselineScenario.com, a widely cited website on the global economy, and is a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Johnson appears regularly on NPR's Planet Money podcast in the Economist House Calls feature, is a weekly contributor to NYT.com's Economix, and has a video blog feature on The New Republic's website. He is co-director of the NBER project on Africa and President of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies (term of office 2008-2009).

From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, Professor Johnson was the International Monetary Fund's Economic Counsellor (chief economist) and Director of its Research Department. At the IMF, Professor Johnson led the global economic outlook team, helped formulate innovative responses to worldwide financial turmoil, and was among the earliest to propose new forms of engagement for sovereign wealth funds. He was also the first IMF chief economist to have a blog.

His PhD is in economics from MIT, while his MA is from the University of Manchester and his BA is from the University of Oxford.

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