How the G-20 Succeeded — And Why It Matters

How the G-20 Succeeded — And Why It Matters

One measure of a summit’s success is the number of participants who attempt to lay claim to its outcome. And by that measure, the G-20 summit in London was a rip-roaring sensation, with several countries seeking to share in the glory. “This is the day that the world came together to fight back against the global recession, not with words but with a plan for global recovery and for reform and with a clear timetable for its delivery,” declared the summit host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Speaking of the agreements reached on tighter regulation of financial markets and institutions, French President Nicolas Sarkozy bigged up his own role in agitating for the measures: “That our Anglo-Saxon friends accepted all of this represents immense progress,” he said, adding that “while there were moments of tension, we never thought we’d obtain such a big deal.”

Yet as American officials tell it, the real hero of the hour, proving his mettle at his first summit, was President Barack Obama. The remaining point of disagreement, which threatened until the last minute to derail the consensus so devoutly wished for by all parties, centered on tax havens. Sarkozy was determined that a list of tax havens that refuse to provide information to foreign tax authorities on request should be published immediately by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development as part of a clampdown on such havens. China, not a member of the OECD, was stalling because of its concern that such a list might include Macau and Hong Kong, which have both recently moved to implement OECD standards. The U.S. President took Sarkozy aside, then Chinese President Hu Jintao, and finally brought them together in a private meeting at the side of the room. “If he hadn’t done that, we’d still be there,” remarked a White House official after the communiqué had been safely published.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who with Sarkozy had insisted on banishing any Anglo-Saxon laxity from financial regulation, also expressed satisfaction at the conclusion of the summit, which produced not only a six-point communiqué but also two detailed annexes on how a tighter regulatory regime would work. But the key to success, Merkel added at her closing press conference, would be how those measures are implemented. “That’s why I’m glad we’ve agreed to another G-20 meeting, to check our progress,” she said. A date and venue for the next meeting have not yet been set.

That’s typical of the German leader’s restrained approach and a salutary reminder, amid the backslapping, that the political success of the summit — the fact that leaders can go home and tell their citizens they did good — shouldn’t be confused with its real, practical impact.

So what are the key points agreed on, and how will they play out The leaders neatly skirted the biggest point of contention in the run-up to the summit: whether to boost national economic-stimulus packages. Instead, the G-20 focused on two other significant areas: the funds available to international institutions to help poor or struggling economies to withstand the crisis, and tougher global regulation of financial markets.

The International Monetary Fund is the biggest beneficiary of the first set of measures. Its $250 billion reserves will be tripled to enable it to better help stricken countries in the developing world — as well as others, like Mexico, who are nervous that their economy could be swept up in the global turmoil through no fault of their own. The leaders also agreed to provide an additional $250 billion in guarantees for export credits and other trade finance, which have dried up in the past few months and led to a drastic drop in global commerce. The size of these packages, plus agreement on new credit facilities from the World Bank and other multilateral lending agencies, was warmly welcomed by representatives from developing countries — including India, whose Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said, “I am going back home very satisfied.”

The other key set of decisions concerns financial regulation and corporate behavior in a wider sense, an area that had been pushed by France and Germany but long resisted by some others. Under the deal, hedge funds and other financial-market players will be subject to far greater — and properly coordinated — international scrutiny, as will big banks with activities in several countries. “We’ll begin to crack down on cowboys in global markets,” said Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The tax-haven issue that almost sank the summit means that those not complying with international standards on exchanging information will be publicly named and shamed.

One populist issue addressed may make the meeting an easier sell for the participants back home: executive pay. The leaders accepted a series of recommendations by their finance experts that would lead to sharper oversight of compensation and bonuses and tie them more specifically to long-term performance. In other words, there was something for everyone. Rudd’s conclusion, echoed by many other delegates: “People beforehand said there would be a divide, but in fact there was an overwhelming drive toward achieving real action, real commitments and real timelines.” Or as Obama put it: “I think we did O.K.”

See pictures of Michelle Obama’s London fashions.

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