By Glenn Kessler and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 16, 2008
World leaders holding an emergency meeting to combat the economic crisis agreed yesterday to a far-reaching action plan that, over the next 4 1/2 months, would begin to reshape international financial institutions and reform worldwide regulatory and accounting rules.
The leaders' 11-page statement spoke of broad principles, leaving the details to be worked out by lower-level aides before another summit meeting in April, after Barack Obama assumes the presidency. But the gathering in Washington of the nearly two dozen nations -- from every region of the world -- reflected the new balance of power emerging in the aftermath of a financial crisis that has devastated even well-run economies, a wrenching process that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has dubbed "the birth pangs of this new global order."
Under the plans outlined by the leaders, countries such as China, Brazil and India would gain greater roles and responsibilities as part of a restructuring of the international financial system, while European leaders won a commitment to new regulations and controls on banks, rating agencies and exotic financial securities. The leaders also agreed that a dramatic failure of market oversight in "some advanced countries" was among the root causes of the financial crisis, an implicit rebuke of the United States.
"I'm a free market person," President Bush told reporters after the summit ended, "until you're told that if you don't take decisive measures then it's conceivable that our country could go into a depression greater than the Great Depression."
The Europeans got "virtually everything" they sought at the summit, French President Nicholas Sarkozy crowed afterward at a news conference. He said it had been difficult to persuade Bush to hold the summit, but the results were worth it. "America is still the No. 1 power in the world," he noted. "Is it the only one? No, it isn't."
The leaders, representing the Group of 20 economic powers, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Nations and other international organizations, met over dinner at the White House on Friday. They then continued their discussions yesterday arrayed in a square in the central hall of the 19th-century National Building Museum, beneath soaring 159-foot high ceilings.
"We are determined to enhance our cooperation and work together to restore global growth and achieve needed reforms in the world's financial systems," the leaders declared in their communique.
The leaders agreed to set up a new regulatory body, "a college of supervisors," to examine the books of major financial institutions that operate across national borders, so regulators could begin to have a more complete picture of banks' operations. They demanded greater scrutiny of hedge funds and the completion of a clearinghouse system to help standardize and limit risk on some of the opaque and exotic financial derivatives that helped bring down Wall Street's investment banks.
Leaders also agreed to submit their countries' financial systems to regular, vigorous reviews by the International Monetary Fund -- assessments that some countries, including the United States, had long resisted. And they urged new constraints on the pay schemes at financial firms that "reward excessive short-term returns or risk-taking."
Sarkozy was especially pleased by the mention of executive compensation, though the communique noted that action could be voluntary or regulatory in nature. "Have you ever seen in the Anglo-Saxon world even discussion to have rating agencies downgrade the banks where executive compensation has [encouraged] them to take too much risk? I have never seen it," he said.
Senior Bush administration officials played down Sarkozy's comments, arguing that the agreement yesterday did not signify a "pro-regulatory" shift by the administration but rather an acknowledgement that the regulatory system needed to be updated. They spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
Obama stayed away from the summit, though the White House extensively briefed one of his senior advisers on the deliberations and two of the president-elect's representatives met with 17 leaders or their top aides on the sidelines. Many sections in the communique may please Obama, but at least one pledge to which Bush agreed -- a 12-month hiatus on protectionist measures -- could be viewed as limiting his options.
Many leaders frown on Obama's calls to bail out the auto industry as a form of protectionism. The section of the communique on the issue of protectionism prompted fierce debate, with discussions dragging on until 11 p.m. Friday, in a pitched battle between France and the United States, diplomats said.
Sarkozy, diplomats present at the summit said, was the slowest to commit to a moratorium on protectionist measures and a reaffirmation of free trade, flustering some of the developing world leaders whose nations have been badly hit by a drop-off in exports as the global economy slows. Sources said other leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, spoke out against Sarkozy's calls for broad global regulation, arguing that even in progressive Canada, the idea would be seen as violating national sovereignty.
"Here you had everyone at the table trying to come together, and Sarkozy was out there trying to write the world according to Sarkozy," said a senior diplomat present at the summit. "It was not helpful."
Obama, in the Democratic Party's weekly radio address, commended Bush yesterday for holding the summit and also called for a new fiscal stimulus package -- which Bush has resisted. On that issue, the communique leaned toward Obama's position, calling for "using fiscal measures to stimulate domestic demand to rapid effect, as appropriate."
"Whereas five or six weeks ago you had coordinated central bank cuts, now it's moving to the fiscal side, and I think the U.S. can speak for its own position . . . but it is my own judgment that you will see a major fiscal expansion under the president-elect's administration," World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who attended the summit, said in an interview.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, who also attended, called for nations to approve a fiscal stimulus equal to 2 percent of gross domestic product. Such a move, he said, would result in a 2 percent increase in growth. When asked where fiscal stimulus was need, he said, "everywhere, everywhere where it is possible."
During the talks, developing countries demanded a greater role in elite financial institutions, and the conference's communique called for the immediate expansion of the Financial Stability Forum to a "broader membership of emerging economies."
The Swiss-based organization brings together finance ministry officials and central bankers, but while it includes Singapore and Hong Kong, China is not yet a member. In what one diplomat said was a contentious debate, Brazil and China demanded that they should be represented on the FSF.
The communique also said that, over time, the IMF and other global institutions "must be comprehensively reformed so that they can more adequately reflect changing economic weights in the world economy."
Traditionally, global economic shocks would be handled by the Group of Seven -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy -- or the G-7 and Russia, known as the G-8. The G-20 folds the G-8 into a larger group that includes emerging economies -- China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and South Africa among them.
"We are talking about the G-20 because the G-8 doesn't have anymore reason to exist. In other words, the emerging economies have to be taken into consideration in today's globalized world," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said as he headed to the session.
At the meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao called for "a new international financial order that is fair, just, inclusive and orderly," according to a translation of his remarks. Hu, however, did not address demands from Western countries that China use some of its $2 trillion in reserves to bolster the IMF.
In an interview, British Chancellor Alistair Darling said that it is not appropriate now to talk about changes in the power structure of the IMF, including possible adjustments to voting, or quota, rights. He said that it is most important that countries with surpluses contribute as much as they can. "I think people should be less concerned at the moment about quota and therefore voice than actually making sure the IMF's got money in the till," he said. "What I'd say to them is, I understand that, but there's a bigger prize here."
The communique minced no words in outlining the causes of the crisis, blaming "weak underwriting standards, unsound risk-management practices, increasingly complex and opaque financial products and consequent excessive leverage." While many nations have blamed the United States for failing to monitor excesses in the securities markets, the communique diplomatically did not.
A British official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said U.S officials privately acknowledged their role in the crisis. "The U.S. threw up their hands and said that our subprime mortgage industry left a lot to be desired," the official said. "But there was determination not to have any finger-pointing."
No decision has been made on where the next summit will be held. Sarkozy publicly recommended London because Britain will chair the G-20 in 2009.
Staff writers David Cho and Amit Paley contributed to this report.