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Talk is cheap

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Stephanie Flanders | 15:24 GMT, Saturday, 14 March 2009

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Downing Street was ecstatic last year when Gordon Brown stole the second G20 Summit for himself. In the wake of the UK bank bailout plan, a London summit seemed another opportunity to show the British Prime Minister at the centre of global events.

After this weekend's meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors, feelings are more mixed. After all, it's no good being the global ringmaster if the result is indeed a circus.

Nearly every country in the G20 has seen their economy weaken further since they met in Washington. That makes the summit seem that much more important. It also makes the traditional content of meetings such as these look curiously beside the point.

Yes, we have to reform the global financial system to prevent the crisis being repeated. But what good are a set of "agreed principles" and "understandings" for future reform, if your main job these days is preventing your biggest banks from going down the drain?

In a few days the US Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, is going to provide details of his scheme for dealing with toxic US bank assets. If it adds up, that could do more to underpin confidence in the US and global financial system than anything agreed in Horsham.

In effect, this is the tension at the heart of this week's "rifts" between the US and Europe. The Americans don't deny the need for major reform, including more coordinated international surveillance (though they don't necessarily want the IMF to be in the front seat).

But they think the right kind of reform needs serious thought, whereas more global fiscal stimulus is a no-brainer.

Against this the Europeans can claim, with some justice, that the G20 is not the place to decide your national budget. They have passed a fair amount of fiscal stimulus - more than the Americans give them credit for.

In their view, if the crisis has forced some agreement on a road map for future reform - isn't the G20 Summit of 2009 precisely the time to put that in writing, before quieter economic times cause everyone to change their minds?

The trouble is, the areas of agreement are a little banal. Today's communiqué talked of the need for bank capital standards to be less pro-cyclical. These days, few would disagree.

It also talked about having the right system for handling toxic, or "impaired" assets. But how do you price them? Do you try to stick with the value on banks' own balance sheets, or go for something more realistic?

On this vexed but fundamental question the G20 is unsurprisingly silent, because everyone is doing different things and no-one knows which works best. You would be forgiven for wondering if it was worth mentioning at all.

In fact, there were probably only ever two areas where the G20 was in a position to deliver something of real value to the global economy here and now.

One they will achieve, a substantial increase in the IMF's resources for helping emerging market economies - probably $500bn, but ministers are saving the number for their bosses to "agree" in April (they won't have very much else).

The other contribution would have been an ironclad commitment to keeping all their economies open in the months and years ahead. There will be language condemning protectionism - just as there was at the November meeting.

But talk is cheap. Agreeing to an absolute standstill on all trade and capital barriers - so that countries could not raise tariffs or other constraints from their current levels, even where permitted under WTO rules - would have meant something. Especially if it were policed by some independent international body.

If the Americans really wanted to focus on the immediate risks facing the global economy, championing such a standstill would have been a great way to prove it, even if it caused a bit of bother at home. But Secretary Geithner didn't even try, and nor did anyone else. What we had instead was Horsham

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