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Global Financial Crisis — Global Issues


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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

The global financial crisis, brewing for a while, really started to show its effects in the middle of 2007 and into 2008. Around the world stock markets have fallen, large financial institutions have collapsed or been bought out, and governments in even the wealthiest nations have had to come up with rescue packages to bail out their financial systems.

On the one hand many people are concerned that those responsible for the financial problems are the ones being bailed out, while on the other hand, a global financial meltdown will affect the livelihoods of almost everyone in an increasingly inter-connected world. The problem could have been avoided, if ideologues supporting the current economics models weren’t so vocal, influential and inconsiderate of others’ viewpoints and concerns.

This article provides an overview of the crisis with links for further, more detailed, coverage at the end.

On this page:

  1. A crisis so severe, the world financial system is affected
    1. Securitization and the subprime crisis
    2. Creating more risk by trying to manage risk
    3. The scale of the crisis: trillions in taxpayer bailouts
  2. A crisis so severe, those responsible are bailed out
  3. A crisis so severe, the rest suffer too
  4. The financial crisis and wealthy countries
    1. A crisis signaling the decline of US’s superpower status?
    2. Europe and the financial crisis
    3. Structural Adjustment for Industrialized Nations
    4. Focusing on debt instead of the economy
    5. Austerity as ideological opportunity
    6. Austerity without economic growth = backwards development
    7. Lost decade?
  5. The financial crisis and the developing world
    1. Asia and the financial crisis
    2. Africa and the financial crisis
    3. Latin America and the financial crisis
  6. A crisis in context
    1. A crisis of poverty for much of humanity
    2. A global food crisis affecting the poorest the most
    3. Human rights conditions made worse by the crisis
    4. Poor nations will get less financing for development
    5. Odious third world debt has remained for decades; Banks and military get money easily
  7. A crisis that need not have happened
  8. Dealing with recession
  9. Developing world saving the West?
  10. Rethinking the international financial system?
    1. Reforming international banking and finance?
    2. Reforming International Trade and the WTO
    3. Reforming the Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF and World Bank)?
    4. Reform and Resistance
    5. Rich countries resist meaningful reform
  11. Rethinking economics?
  12. More information

A crisis so severe, the world financial system is affected

Following a period of economic boom, a financial bubble—global in scope—has now burst.

A collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market and the reversal of the housing boom in other industrialized economies have had a ripple effect around the world. Furthermore, other weaknesses in the global financial system have surfaced. Some financial products and instruments have become so complex and twisted, that as things start to unravel, trust in the whole system started to fail.

The scale of the crisis: trillions in taxpayer bailouts

The extent of the problems has been so severe that some of the world’s largest financial institutions have collapsed. Others have been bought out by their competition at low prices and in other cases, the governments of the wealthiest nations in the world have resorted to extensive bail-out and rescue packages for the remaining large banks and financial institutions.

The effect of this, the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development says in its Trade and Development Report 2008 is, as summarized by the Third World Network, that

the global economy is teetering on the brink of recession. The downturn after four years of relatively fast growth is due to a number of factors: the global fallout from the financial crisis in the United States, the bursting of the housing bubbles in the US and in other large economies, soaring commodity prices, increasingly restrictive monetary policies in a number of countries, and stock market volatility.

… the fallout from the collapse of the US mortgage market and the reversal of the housing boom in various important countries has turned out to be more profound and persistent than expected in 2007 and beginning of 2008. As more and more evidence is gathered and as the lag effects are showing up, we are seeing more and more countries around the world being affected by this rather profound and persistent negative effects from the reversal of housing booms in various countries.

Kanaga Raja, Economic Outlook Gloomy, Risks to South, say UNCTAD, Third World Network, September 4, 2008

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A crisis so severe, those responsible are bailed out

Some of the bail-outs have also been accompanied with charges of hypocrisy due to the appearance of socializing the costs while privatizing the profits. The bail-outs appear to help the financial institutions that got into trouble (many of whom pushed for the kind of lax policies that allowed this to happen in the first place).

Some governments have moved to make it harder to manipulate the markets by shorting during the financial crisis blaming them for worsening an already bad situation.

(It should be noted that during the debilitating Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, Asian nations affected by short-selling complained, without success that currency speculators—operating through hedge funds or through the currency operations of commercial banks and other financial institutions—were attacking their currencies through short selling and in doing so, bringing the rates of the local currencies far below their real economic levels. However, when they complained to the Western governments and International Monetary Fund (IMF), they dismissed the claims of the Asian governments, blaming it on their own economic mismanagement instead.)

Other governments have moved to try and reassure investors and savers that their money is safe. In a number of European countries, for example, governments have tried to increase or fully guarantee depositors’ savings. In other cases, banks have been nationalized (socializing profits as well as costs, potentially.)

In the meanwhile, smaller businesses and poorer people rarely have such options for bail out and rescue when they find themselves in crisis.

There seems to be little sympathy—and even growing resentment—for workers in the financial sector, as they are seen as having gambled with other people’s money, and hence lives, while getting fat bonuses and pay rises for it in the past. Although in raw dollar terms the huge pay rises and bonuses are small compared to the magnitude of the problem, the encouragement such practices have given in the past, as well as the type of culture it creates, is what has angered so many people.

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A crisis so severe, the rest suffer too

Because of the critical role banks play in the current market system, when the larger banks show signs of crisis, it is not just the wealthy that suffer, but potentially everyone. With a globalized system, a credit crunch can ripple through the entire (real) economy very quickly turning a global financial crisis into a global economic crisis.

For example, an entire banking system that lacks confidence in lending as it faces massive losses will try to shore up reserves and may reduce access to credit, or make it more difficult and expensive to obtain.

In the wider economy, this credit crunch and higher costs of borrowing will affect many sectors, leading to job cuts. People may find their mortgages harder to pay, or remortgaging could become expensive. For any recent home buyers, the value of their homes are likely to fall in value leaving them in negative equity. As people cut back on consumption to try and weather this economic storm, more businesses will struggle to survive leading to further further job losses.

As the above has played out, the situation has been bad enough that the International Labor Organization (ILO) has described this crisis as a global job crisis.

And so, many nations, whether wealthy and industrialized, or poor and developing, are sliding into recession if they are not already there.

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The financial crisis and wealthy countries

Many blame the greed of Wall Street for causing the problem in the first place because it is in the US that the most influential banks, institutions and ideologues that pushed for the policies that caused the problems are found.

The crisis became so severe that after the failure and buyouts of major institutions, the Bush Administration offered a $700 billion bailout plan for the US financial system.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz: Bail Out Wall Street Now, Change Terms Later, Democracy Now!, October 2, 2008

This bailout package was controversial because it was unpopular with the public, seen as a bailout for the culprits while the ordinary person would be left to pay for their folly. The US House of Representatives initial rejected the package as a result, sending shock waves around the world.

It took a second attempt to pass the plan, but with add-ons to the bill to get the additional congressmen and women to accept the plan.

However, as former Nobel prize winner for Economics, former Chief Economist of the World Bank and university professor at Columbia University, Joseph Stiglitz, argued, the plan remains a very bad bill:

I think it remains a very bad bill. It is a disappointment, but not a surprise, that the administration came up with a bill that is again based on trickle-down economics. You throw enough money at Wall Street, and some of it will trickle down to the rest of the economy. It’s like a patient suffering from giving a massive blood transfusion while there’s internal bleeding; it doesn’t do anything about the basic source of the hemorrhaging, the foreclosure problem. But that having been said, it is better than doing nothing, and hopefully after the election, we can repair the very many mistakes in it.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz: Bail Out Wall Street Now, Change Terms Later, Democracy Now!, October 2, 2008

Writing in The Guardian, Stiglitz also added that,

Americans have lost faith not only in the [Bush] administration, but in its economic philosophy: a new corporate welfarism masquerading behind free-market ideology; another version of trickle-down economics, where the hundreds of billions to Wall Street that caused the problem were supposed to somehow trickle down to help ordinary Americans. Trickle-down hasn’t been working well in America over the past eight years.

The very assumption that the rescue plan has to help is suspect. After all, the IMF and US treasury bail-outs for Wall Street 10 years ago in Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and Argentina didn’t work for those countries, although it did enable Wall Street to get back most of its money. The taxpayers in these other poor countries picked up the tab for the financial markets’ mistakes. This time, it is American taxpayers who are being asked to pick up the tab. And that’s the difference. For all the rhetoric about democracy and good governance, the citizens in those countries didn’t really get a chance to vote on the bail-outs.

In environmental economics, there is a basic concept called the polluter pays principle. It is a matter of fairness, but also of efficiency. Wall Street has polluted our economy with toxic mortgages. It should now pay for the cleanup.

Joseph Stiglitz, Good day for democracy; Now Congress must draw up a proposal in which costs are borne by those who created the problem, The Guardian, October 1, 2008

A crisis signaling the decline of US’s superpower status?

Even before this global financial crisis took hold, some commentators were writing that the US was in decline, evidenced by its challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its declining image in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

The BBC also asked if the US’s superpower status was shaken by this financial crisis:

The financial crisis is likely to diminish the status of the United States as the world’s only superpower. On the practical level, the US is already stretched militarily, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now stretched financially. On the philosophical level, it will be harder for it to argue in favor of its free market ideas, if its own markets have collapsed.

… Some see this as a pivotal moment.

The political philosopher John Gray, who recently retired as a professor at the London School of Economics, wrote in the London paper The Observer: “Here is a historic geopolitical shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably.

The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over… The American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained overall control of markets have been vindicated.

How symbolic that Chinese astronauts take a spacewalk while the US Treasury Secretary is on his knees.

Paul Reynolds, US superpower status is shaken, BBC, October 1, 2008

Yet, others argue that it may be too early to write of the US:

The director of a leading British think-tank Chatham House, Dr Robin Niblett … argues that we should wait a bit before coming to a judgment and that structurally the United States is still strong.

America is still immensely attractive to skilled immigrants and is still capable of producing a Microsoft or a Google, he went on. “Even its debt can be overcome. It has enormous resilience economically at a local and entrepreneurial level.

“And one must ask, decline relative to who? China is in a desperate race for growth to feed its population and avert unrest in 15 to 20 years. Russia is not exactly a paper tiger but it is stretching its own limits with a new strategy built on a flimsy base. India has huge internal contradictions. Europe has usually proved unable to jump out of the doldrums as dynamically as the US.

But the US must regain its financial footing and the extent to which it does so will also determine its military capacity. If it has less money, it will have fewer forces.

Paul Reynolds, US superpower status is shaken, BBC, October 1, 2008

Europe and the financial crisis

In Europe, a number of major financial institutions failed. Others needed rescuing.

A number of European countries have attempted different measures (as they seemed to have failed to come up with a united response).

For example, some nations have stepped in to nationalize or in some way attempt to provide assurance for people. This may include guaranteeing 100% of people’s savings or helping broker deals between large banks to ensure there isn’t a failure.

Structural Adjustment for Industrialized Nations

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The financial crisis and the developing world

For the developing world, the rise in food prices as well as the knock-on effects from the financial instability and uncertainty in industrialized nations are having a compounding effect. High fuel costs, soaring commodity prices together with fears of global recession are worrying many developing country analysts.

Summarizing a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report, the Third World Network notes the impacts the crisis could have around the world, especially on developing countries that are dependent on commodities for import or export:

Uncertainty and instability in international financial, currency and commodity markets, coupled with doubts about the direction of monetary policy in some major developed countries, are contributing to a gloomy outlook for the world economy and could present considerable risks for the developing world, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said Thursday.

… Commodity-dependent economies are exposed to considerable external shocks stemming from price booms and busts in international commodity markets.

Market liberalization and privatization in the commodity sector have not resulted in greater stability of international commodity prices. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the outcomes of unregulated financial and commodity markets, which fail to transmit reliable price signals for commodity producers. In recent years, the global economic policy environment seems to have become more favorable to fresh thinking about the need for multilateral actions against the negative impacts of large commodity price fluctuations on development and macroeconomic stability in the world economy.

Kanaga Raja, Economic Outlook Gloomy, Risks to South, say UNCTAD, Third World Network, September 4, 2008

Asia and the financial crisis

Countries in Asia are increasingly worried about what is happening in the West. A number of nations urged the US to provide meaningful assurances and bailout packages for the US economy, as that would have a knock-on effect of reassuring foreign investors and helping ease concerns in other parts of the world.

Many believed Asia was sufficiently decoupled from the Western financial systems. Asia has not had a subprime mortgage crisis like many nations in the West have, for example. Many Asian nations have witnessed rapid growth and wealth creation in recent years. This lead to enormous investment in Western countries. In addition, there was increased foreign investment in Asia, mostly from the West.

However, this crisis has shown that in an increasingly inter-connected world means there are always knock-on effects and as a result, Asia has had more exposure to problems stemming from the West. Many Asian countries have seen their stock markets suffer and currency values going on a downward trend. Asian products and services are also global, and a slowdown in wealthy countries means increased chances of a slowdown in Asia and the risk of job losses and associated problems such as social unrest.

Africa and the financial crisis

Perhaps ironically, Africa’s generally weak integration with the rest of the global economy may mean that many African countries will not be affected from the crisis, at least not initially, as suggested by Reuters in September 2008.

The wealthier ones who do have some exposure to the rest of the world, however, may face some problems.

In recent years, there has been more interest in Africa from Asian countries such as China. As the financial crisis is hitting the Western nations the hardest, Africa may yet enjoy increased trade for a while.

In the long run, it can be expected that foreign investment in Africa will reduce as the credit squeeze takes hold. Furthermore, foreign aid, which is important for a number of African countries, is likely to diminish. (Effectiveness of aid is a separate issue which the previous link details.)

Latin America and the financial crisis

Much of Latin America depends on trade with the United States (which absorbs half of Latin America’s exports, alone, for example). As such Latin America will also feel the effect of the US financial crisis and slower growth in Latin America is expected.

Due to its proximity to the US and its close relationship via the NAFTA and other agreements, Mexico is expected to have one of the lowest growth rates for the region next year at 1.9%, compared to a downgraded forecast of 3% for the rest of the region.

A number of countries in the region have come together in the form of the Latin American Pacific Arc and are hoping to improve trade and investment with Asia. Diversifying in this way might be good for the region and help provide some stability against future crises. For the moment, the integration is going ahead, despite concerns about the financial crisis.

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A crisis in context

While much mainstream media attention is on the details of the financial crisis, and some of its causes, it also needs to be put into context (though not diminishing its severity).

A crisis of poverty for much of humanity

Almost daily, some half of humanity or more, suffer a daily financial, social and emotional, crisis of poverty.

Image: Deep Sea slum in Kenya.Amnesty International)

In poorer countries, poverty is not always the fault of the individual alone, but a combination of personal, regional, national, and—importantly—international influences. There is little in the way of bail out for these people, many of whom are not to blame for their own predicament, unlike with the financial crisis.

There are some grand strategies to try and address global poverty, such as the UN Millennium Development Goals, but these are not only lofty ideals and under threat from the effects of the financial crisis (which would reduce funds available for the goals), but they only aim to halve poverty and other problems. While this of course is better than nothing it signifies that many leading nations have not had the political will to go further and aim for more ambitious targets, but are willing to find far more to save their own banks, for example.

A global food crisis affecting the poorest the most

While the media’s attention is on the global financial crisis (which predominantly affects the wealthy and middle classes), the effects of the global food crisis (which predominantly affects the poorer and working classes) seems to have fallen off the radar.

The two are in fact inter-related issues, both have their causes rooted in the fundamental problems associated with a neoliberal, one-size-fits-all, economic agenda imposed on virtually the entire world.

Poor nations will get less financing for development

The poorer countries do get foreign aid from richer nations, but it cannot be expected that current levels of aid (low as they actually are) can be maintained as donor nations themselves go through financial crisis. As such the Millennium Development Goals to address many concerns such as halving poverty and hunger around the world, will be affected.

Odious third world debt has remained for decades; Banks and military get money easily

Crippling third world debt has been hampering development of the developing countries for decades. These debts are small in comparison to the bailout the US alone was prepared to give its banks, but enormous for the poor countries that bear those burdens, having affected many millions of lives for many, many years.

Many of these debts were incurred not just by irresponsible government borrowers (such as corrupt third world dictators, many of whom had come to power with Western backing and support), but irresponsible lending (also a moral hazard) from Western banks and institutions they heavily influenced, such as the IMF and World Bank.

Despite enormous protest and public pressure for odious debt relief or write-off, hardly any has occurred, and when it does grand promises of debt relief for poor countries often turn out to be exaggerated. One recently described historic breakthrough debt relief was announced as a $40 billion debt write-off but turned out to be closer to $17 billion in real terms. To achieve even this amount required much campaigning and pressuring of the mainstream media to cover these issues.

By contrast, the $700 billion US bail out as well as bailouts by other rich country governments were very quick to put in place. The money then seemed easy to find. Talk of increasing health or education budgets in rich countries typically meets resistance. Massive military spending, or now, financial sector bail out, however, can be done extremely quickly.

And, a common view in many countries seems to be how financial sector leaders get away with it. For example, a hungry person stealing bread is likely to get thrown into jail. A financial sector leader, or an ideologue pushing for policies that are going to lead to corruption or weaknesses like this, face almost no such consequence for their action other than resigning from their jobs and perhaps public humiliation for a while.

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A crisis that need not have happened

This problem could have been averted (in theory) as people had been pointing to these issues for decades. Yet, of course, during periods of boom no-one (let alone the financial institutions and their supporting ideologues and politicians largely believed to be responsible for the bulk of the problems) would want to hear of caution and even thoughts of the kind of regulation that many are now advocating. To suggest anything would be anti-capitalism or socialism or some other label that could effectively shut up even the most prominent of economists raising concerns.

Of course, the irony that those same institutions would now themselves agree that those anti-capitalist regulations are required is of course barely noted. Such options now being considered are not anti-capitalist. However, they could be described as more regulatory or managed rather than completely free or laissez faire capitalism, which critics of regulation have often preferred. But a regulatory capitalist economy is very different to a state-based command economy, the style of which the Soviet Union was known for. The points is that there are various forms of capitalism, not just the black-and-white capitalism and communism. And at the same time, the most extreme forms of capitalism can also lead to the bigger bubbles and the bigger busts.

Quoting Stiglitz again, he captures the sentiments of a number of people:

We had become accustomed to the hypocrisy. The banks reject any suggestion they should face regulation, rebuff any move towards anti-trust measures — yet when trouble strikes, all of a sudden they demand state intervention: they must be bailed out; they are too big, too important to be allowed to fail.

America’s financial system failed in its two crucial responsibilities: managing risk and allocating capital. The industry as a whole has not been doing what it should be doing … and it must now face change in its regulatory structures. Regrettably, many of the worst elements of the US financial system … were exported to the rest of the world.

Joseph Stiglitz, The fruit of hypocrisy; Dishonesty in the finance sector dragged us here, and Washington looks ill-equipped to guide us out, The Guardian, September 16, 2008

However, this crisis wasted almost a generation of talent:

It was all done in the name of innovation, and any regulatory initiative was fought away with claims that it would suppress that innovation. They were innovating, all right, but not in ways that made the economy stronger. Some of America’s best and brightest were devoting their talents to getting around standards and regulations designed to ensure the efficiency of the economy and the safety of the banking system. Unfortunately, they were far too successful, and we are all — homeowners, workers, investors, taxpayers — paying the price.

Joseph Stiglitz, The fruit of hypocrisy; Dishonesty in the finance sector dragged us here, and Washington looks ill-equipped to guide us out, The Guardian, September 16, 2008

The wasted capital, labor and resources all add up.

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Each of these measures should no doubt come under scrutiny from opposition parties and the media, to ensure they are appropriate, but some, such as tax hikes during good times can be so politically sensitive, that governments may be afraid to make such choices, thus making economic policies during bad times even riskier as a result.

Even then, the severity of these economic problems means that these strategies are not guaranteed to work, or it may take even longer to take effect. For example, as quarterly figures for various companies start to come out, more and more companies are announcing losses, closures, layoffs or other problems; people are becoming very nervous about the economy and spending less.

The automobile industry in the US, for example, is feeling immense pressure with some of the largest companies in the world facing huge problems and are asking the government for some kind of bailout or assistance. Yet, the US public generally seems against this, having already bailed out the banks with enormous sums of money. If the automobile industry is bailed out, then other industries will all cry for more money; when would it stop?

In addition, as Joseph Stiglitz warns, some nations are turning to the IMF which is prescribing the opposite policies:

Many are already turning to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. The worry is that, at least in some cases, the IMF will go back to its old failed recipes: fiscal and monetary contraction, which would only increase global inequities. While developed countries engage in stabilizing countercyclical policies, developing countries would be forced into destabilizing policies, driving away capital when they need it most.

Joseph Stiglitz, Let’s throw away the rule book; Bretton Woods II must establish economic doctrines that work in emerging economies as well as in capitalism’s heartland, The Guardian, November 6, 2008

In Iceland, where the economy was very dependent on the finance sector, economic problems have hit them hard. The banking system virtually collapsed and the government had to borrow from the IMF and other neighbors to try and rescue the economy. However, Iceland has raised its interest rates to some 18%, partly on advice from the IMF. It would appear to be an example where high interest rates may be inappropriate. The economic problems have led to political challenges including protests and clashes.

It may be that this time round a more fundamental set of measures need to be considered, possibly global in scope. The very core of the global financial system is something many are now turning their attention to.

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Reforming the Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF and World Bank)?

The Bretton Woods system of international finance devised by 44 nations after the Second World War, mostly represented by the IMF, World Bank, was designed to help reconstruct and stabilize a post-war global economy.

In the 70s, the purpose of these international financial institutions (IFIs) shifted towards a neoliberal economic agenda, championed by Washington, (also known as the Washington Consensus).

It was at this time that policies such as structural adjustment started to be pushed to much of the developing world, following a one size fits all prescription of how economies should be structured, which had disastrous consequences for much of the world’s population.

As journalist John Vandaele writes,

From then on the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) were very asymmetrical organisations. The rich countries didn’t need the BWIs any more, but with more than 60 percent of the vote they called the shots in both institutions. Developing countries really depended upon the BWIs, but didn’t have a lot to say there.

And so the BWIs developed into an instrument of western power.

John Vandaele, Bretton Woods II: New Lifeline for Ailing Giants, Inter Press Service, October 28, 2008

The same policy prescriptions led to predictable problems such as

  • Developing countries opening markets before they were really ready to do so (something often forced through by gun-boat diplomacy during colonial times)
  • Rich countries became judge and party, as Vandaele puts it: When they forced developing countries to open their markets, it was no coincidence that western multinationals tended to be among the first beneficiaries.
  • Worsening poverty from things like structural adjustment policies that sapped the ability of poor country governments to make decisions about how their economies would be run.

Although such institutions have rarely been held accountable for such policies and their effects, for many years, people have been calling for their reform, or even for their abolition. Lack of transparency in these institutions has not helped.

There have been signs of discontent, however.

As mentioned on the structural adjustment page on this site, the IMF and World Bank have even admitted their policies have not always worked. For example, back in 2003, they warned that developing countries face an increasing risk of financial crisis with increasing globalization because effects in one part of the world can more easily ripple through an inter-connected world. Financial integration should be approached cautiously, they warned. In addition, they admitted that it was hard to provide a clear road-map on how this should be achieved, and instead it should be done on a case by case basis.

While former chief economist for the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz is now a well-known critic of the IMF/Washington Consensus ideological fanaticism, as also mentioned on that previous page, others at the IMF have also started to question things, noting that developing countries have not benefited from following these ideologies so rigorously.

Fast forward a few years to this financial crisis and there are more calls for reform of the global financial system, perhaps with a difference: the crisis now seems to be so deep and affecting rich countries as well that even some rich countries that benefited from the inequality structured into the global order are now calling for reform. In addition, although developing countries had called for reform many times before, they now have a slightly stronger voice that in the past.

People within the IMF/World Bank are now themselves publicly entertaining the thought of reform. The World Bank’s own president, Robert Zoellick has said the idea of the G7 is not working and that a steering group of more nations would be better.

With the limited role the IFIs have played in this crisis, until recently, it seems their significance may be dwindling. Fewer countries have turned to them as last resort, and when they have, they have been able to push for far less stringent conditions than in the past. Some countries have looked to other countries like China, Russia and Arab countries, first.

French President and head of the EU presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy has called for major changes to the IMF and World Bank. Yet, as John Vandaele added This is as much a rescue operation for two organisations that have lost muscle as a call for a new financial architecture.

Sarkozy’s ideas include tighter supervision of the international banking system and a crackdown on international tax havens to address harmful tax competition between states. These and other proposals are not new however, as many have called for this—and more—in the past 2 or 3 decades.

As Vandaele also adds, if Sarkozy is serious about a Bretton Woods II, he’d better keep in mind that developing countries want more voice. Governance issues such as better representation, more transparency and accountability are some of the things these institutions have long tried to promote, but often faced charges of hypocrisy as these institutions lack many of these fundamentals.

Reform and Resistance

Will any of these changes occur in an effective way? In recent months these institutions have warmed to changes in these areas. For example, in April 2008, it was decided that rich countries at the IMF would give in 3 percent of the votes; 2 percent went to emerging countries and 1 percent to other developing countries. However, this is still not that much and this crisis shows that more is needed in a more deeper and meaningful way.

This will be hard to predict. If history is any indicator, power and greed politics always ruin good ideas. Those who benefit from a system are less likely to be receptive to change, or want to steer change in a direction that will be good for them, but that may not mean good for everyone.

And tensions, even amongst the more powerful nations are already showing. For example, the US has not invited Spain to a financial crisis summit for mid-November. As the world’s eight largest economy and home to 2 of the world’s top 16 banks, a meeting of the G20 (G7 plus some developing nations) sees Spain (the world’s 8th largest economy) missing out of either classification. Spain, however, sees this as US retaliation for the country withdrawing its troops from Iraq. It has full EU support for being present at this meeting as well as support from a number of Latin American countries. Like France, it wants to see in-depth reform of the global financial system and focuses on IMF reform as well as giving more representation to emerging nations.

Reform of the IMF and World Bank, however, will be crucial for much of the world. Whether that actually happens and to what extent those with power are willing to truly share power is something that we will find out in the course of the next year.

The promise of rearchitecting the global financial system more fundamentally seemed to wither away slightly. As the Bretton Woods Project noted, the G20 had little time to effect much and could not do it alone, any way:

G20 governments, swept off their feet by the financial crisis, were never going to be able to reach a consensus on deeper reforms within the few weeks taken to prepare the summit. Critics argue that the G20 can never tackle this agenda alone.

As Miguel D’Escoto, president of the UN General Assembly said: Only full participation within a truly representative framework will restore the confidence of citizens in our governments and financial institutions. He continued, Solutions must involve all countries in a democratic process.

International economic architecture: cleaning up the mess?, Bretton Woods Project, November 27, 2008

Rich countries resist meaningful reform

More generally, as Vandaele also finds,

The most powerful international institutions tend to have the worst democratic credentials: the power distribution among countries is more unequal, and the transparency, and hence democratic control, is worse.

John Vandaele, Democracy Comes to World Institutions, Slowly, Inter Press Service, October 27, 2008

Yet, although history often shows that those with agendas of power tend to win out, history also shows us that power shifts. A financial crisis of this proportion may signify the beginnings of such a shift.

And so, it is perhaps only at a time of crisis that more fundamental rethinking of the entire economic system can be entertained.

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Rethinking economics?

During periods of boom, people do not want to hear of criticisms of the forms of economics they benefit from, especially when it brings immense wealth and power, regardless of whether it is good for everyone or not.

It may be that during periods of crisis such as now, the time comes to rethink economics in some way. Even mainstream media, usually quite supportive of the dominant neoliberal economic ideology entertains thoughts that economic policies and ideas need rethinking.

Stephen Marglin, Rethinking Economics, May 21, 2007, © Big Picture TV

Harvard professor of economics, Stephen Marglin, for example, notes how throughout recent decades, the political spectrum and thinking on economics has narrowed, limiting the ideas and policy options available.

Some have been writing for many years that while the current economic ideology is flawed, it only needs minor tweaking to correct it and make it work for everyone; a more compassionate capitalism, but capitalism nonetheless. Others argue that capitalism is so flawed it needs complete doing away with. Others may yet argue that the bailouts by large government will distort the markets even more (encouraging bad practices by the big institutions) and rather than more regulation, an even freer form of capitalism is needed.

What is hoped is that fruitful debate will increase in the mainstream.

This will also attract ideologues of different shades, leading to both wider discussion but also more entrenched views. Those with power and money are less likely to agree to a radical change in economics where their power and influence are going to diminish, and will be able to lobby governments, produce compelling ads and do whatever it takes to maintain options that ensure they benefit.

It is perhaps ironic to quote, at length, a warning from Adam Smith, given he is held up as the leading figure of the economic ideology they promote:

Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their good both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

Merchants and master manufacturers are … the two classes of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration. As during their whole lives they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen. As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour (which it has not been upon every occasion) is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects than with regard to the latter.

Their superiority over the country gentleman is not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his.

It is by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and persuaded him to give up both his own interest and that of the public, from a very simple but honest conviction that their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public.

The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers.

To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens.

The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, (Everyman’s Library, Sixth Printing, 1991), pp. 87-88, 231-232 (Emphasis added. Additional paragraph breaks added for readability)

With the mainstream media often representing such entrenched interests, true democratic participation will be very critical.

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More information

A lot will be written about this crisis as more will certainly unfold. Here are some starting points to read more:

From the mainstream media:

Other sources

The above are just small examples, and they will link to yet more resources for further information.

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