Most international summit meetings are long on photo-opportunities and short on substance. There was a great danger that last Thursday’s G-20 meeting in London would be merit comparison to the failed World Economic Conference of 1933, which was also held in London. This one, however, did have genuine substance.
Top of the list of accomplishments was expansion of IMF resources. The new SDR allocation was perhaps the most noteworthy and unexpected decision: those observers who have proposed such a step in the current international crisis, or in past international crises, have usually been dismissed as pipe-dreamers (John Williamson, Dani Rodrik, George Soros, Joe Stiglitz…). In addition, there seems to have been some forward movement on international regulation of the financial sector, as the Europeans wanted. Although President Obama acquitted himself well overall, the failure to achieve agreement for coordinated additional fiscal stimulus, as the Americans wanted, was probably the greatest shortcoming of the meeting.
The members of the G-20 are meeting in Washington on November 15 to discuss reform of the global financial system. The first thing to say about the calls for a “new Bretton Woods” is that they overreach, in the sense that it is very unlikely that any changes in the structure of the international monetary or financial system will or should, at this point in history, come out of multilateral discussions that are big enough to merit comparison with the first Bretton Woods. Certainly we are not talking about fixing exchange rates, as the 1944 meeting did.