- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 12, 2008

As shell-shocked central bankers and finance ministers gather in Washington to confront the world’s financial meltdown this weekend, that grinding noise in the background is the sound of the global balance of power shifting.

In sharp contrast to past crises — from the Latin American debt problems of the 1980s to the Asian and Russian currency collapses of the 1990s — the emerging markets of the developing world boast the strong balance sheets and deep financial pockets while the United States and Western Europe lurch from crisis to crisis.

“In a very bizarre way, roles have been reversed in the global economy,” said Alex Patelis, head of international economics at Merrill Lynch. “The typical troublemakers of the global economy, the emerging markets, are actually now the world’s creditors.

“We do need a new world financial order, and we will probably get one as a side effect of this crisis,” he said.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. gave a clear signal of the new pecking order last week on the sidelines of the annual Washington meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

With world financial markets reeling, Mr. Paulson said, he was following up an emergency meeting Friday of finance ministers from the traditional Group of Seven industrial powers — Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Japan, Italy and the United States — with a larger gathering Saturday of the so-called Group of 20, which includes China, India, Russia and Brazil.

The meeting was designed to “coordinate [policies] to lessen the effects of global market turmoil and the economic slowdown on all of our countries,” Mr. Paulson said.

Before the meeting, President Bush issued a plea for nations to work together to address the crisis, avoiding the go-it-alone protectionist trade strategies that worsened conditions during the Great Depression.

“In an interconnected world, no nation will gain by driving down the fortunes of another. We are in this together. We will come through it together,” Mr. Bush said during an appearance in the Rose Garden after a private White House meeting with ministers and officials from nearly a dozen nations and international organizations.

“There have been moments of crisis in the past when powerful nations turned their energies against each other or sought to wall themselves off from the world. This time is different,” he said.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said the rapid spread of U.S. credit, stock and asset woes to markets around the world in recent weeks demonstrated that developing countries can never fully decouple their economies from the West.

“The effects [of the crisis] have spread around the globe, so the emerging markets have to be represented,” she said Friday.

With China and other Asian markets supplying much of the liquidity that keeps the U.S. economy afloat, analysts say, the economic meltdown could signal a rearrangement of the pecking order at institutions like the IMF and World Bank that has been largely unchanged since the end of World War II.

Robert B. Zoellick, the American head of the World Bank, argued explicitly last week for a larger “steering group” of countries to replace the long dominance of Western industrial powers at the World Bank and IMF.

“The G-7 is not working,” he said. “We need a better group for a better time.”

Developing countries have not been immune to the recent market shocks.

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index fell 21 percent last week to 583.32, the biggest weekly loss since the index was established in 1988. Stock markets in Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and elsewhere were forced to shut down at times in the face of steep sell-offs.

But with bulging government coffers and relatively small exposure to the imploding U.S. mortgage market, countries such as China, India and Russia enter a period of deep global uncertainty from a position of strength.

China’s Academy of Social Sciences estimated Friday that the country’s gross domestic product will grow at a 9.5 percent rate next year, down only slightly from the 10.1 percent clip this year, even as major Western economies are bracing for severe recessions.

Although India’s currency has come under pressure in recent weeks, the country’s banks have not been “seriously affected” by the global credit crisis, Rakesh Mohan, deputy governor at the Reserve Bank of India, told IMF officials in a speech Friday.

Like several emerging Asian economies that largely steered clear of the U.S. mortgage troubles, “India has by and large been spared of global financial contagion due to the subprime turmoil,” Mr. Mohan said.

Merrill Lynch’s Mr. Patelis noted one remarkable turnaround. In 1998, a bankrupt Russian government was forced to accept an international bailout after the ruble collapsed.

Ten years later, Moscow, flush with petrodollars, is considering a massive bailout loan to Iceland, once one of the West’s wealthiest countries, after the collapse in recent days of Iceland’s three largest banks.

Philip Stephens, a columnist with the Financial Times, said the rise of China and other emerging economies comes as no surprise. But the events of the past week, he said, have punctured the hopes of policymakers in Washington and Western Europe that they could shape the global order “in their own image.”

“For more than two centuries, the U.S. and Europe have exercised an effortless economic, political and cultural hegemony,” he wrote. “That era is ending.”

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