Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

The blame game starts at Davos

By Steve Schifferes
Economics reporter, BBC News

Staff members set up the main room at the Davos Congress Centre
Fewer bankers than usual are attending Davos

The annual gathering of politicians and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos is normally a time for celebration of the triumph of global capitalism - and a plea from those outside the magic circle to be allowed to join in.

But this time things are very different.

International bankers are keeping a low profile, and at the opening session the prime ministers of Russia and China blamed the US for the global economic crisis and called for radical reform of the world financial system.

Will the deepening global crisis lead to recriminations rather than cooperation among political leaders, despite the hopes expressed at the G20 summit of world leaders in the autumn?

US in the dock

The economic crisis may aggravate the negative tendencies that are present in global politics
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

The war of words between China and the US over the global crisis had already begun last week, with the new US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner criticising China for "currency manipulation" that led to high US trade deficits.

In his first appearance at Davos, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hit back, placing the blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the US authorities.

Among the causes of the crisis, he cited "inappropriate macro-economic policies of some economies and their unsustainable model of development" - a clear swipe at the low savings and high consumption rate of the US economy - and "the failure of financial supervision and regulation".

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao described how his country was tackling the financial crisis

He also blamed the banks for their "blind pursuit of profit" and a "lack of self-discipline" which have landed the world economy "in the most difficult situation since the Great Depression".

Further criticism came from Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who said that "poor quality regulation" led to "the collapses of the existing financial system".

Mr Putin also criticised the world's dependence on the dollar.

"Excessive dependence on what is basically the only reserve currency is dangerous for the world economy," he said.

He said that the result was "a serious malfunction in the very system of global economic growth" and that "whole regions of the world, including Europe, found themselves at the periphery of global economic processes" and "were outside the framework of the key economic and financial decisions".

And he argued that the benefits of the boom "were distributed very disproportionately" both within countries and between them.

Globalisation in retreat

Timothy Geithner, file pic from 21 January 2009
US Treasury Secretary Geithner stayed home in Washington

Whatever the criticisms, attempts at global reform will still be dependent on actions in the US, which makes up one-quarter of the world economy.

The US accepts some of the criticisms of its regulatory failures but reform is not its current priority.

Key US policy makers, including Treasury Secretary Geithner, backed out of attending Davos to focus on passing the $819bn economic stimulus package which is currently going through Congress.

They are also considering new plans to help shore up the still-fragile US financial system, and to improve the system of banking regulation.

It may not be until April, when President Obama is expected to attend the G20 Global Economic Summit in the UK, that US plans for international economic reform are revealed.

And given that the US still holds veto power in key international institutions like the IMF and World Bank, little substantive change can be expected without US agreement.

National economies first

Chinese textile worker
The global economic downturn is hitting China's growth

Meanwhile, China and Russia have little choice but to support the US bail-out by buying US Treasury bonds.

They have been more severely hit by the global downturn than they initially expected, and are concentrating on trying to stabilise their own economies.

Earlier hopes that strong growth in these countries would continue, and help pull the world out of recession, have been dashed.

Russia borrowed heavily in foreign currencies to finance its oil-induced boom, and with its currency sharply lower, the crisis has "affected us in the most serious way," Mr Putin admits.

China, whose growth rate has been halved by the crisis, is facing "severe challenges, including shrinking external demand, overcapacity in some sectors, difficult business conditions for enterprises, and rising unemployment in urban areas," the Chinese premier says.

China has launched a $600bn stimulus programme to boost domestic demand and prevent social and political unrest, which it says will also be "an important contribution to global financial stability".

It was noticeable that both leaders rejected a return to protectionism, and Mr Putin also warned against "excessive interference into economic life" by the state.

Waiting for leadership

A woman walks through the rubble of homes destroyed during the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Photo: 20 January 2009
Will global conflicts intensify during the crisis?

However, there is little sign as yet of the world leadership that may be needed to mobilise support for global reform.

The Doha round of global trade talks remained stalled, and the attitude of the Obama administration to reviving them is still unclear.

Modest reforms aimed at giving emerging market countries a bigger role in the IMF and World Bank have been implemented, but more ambitious plans have been blocked by the EU.

Developing countries fear that they will be hit hard by the crisis, and that Western aid will dry up in the downturn.

The crisis has shifted the balance of power in the world economy, weakening the US.

But it is unclear whether, without active US participation, any deal on restructuring the way the world economy is run is possible.

Meanwhile, tensions between world power blocs, and between rich and poor countries, could intensify.

Mr Putin warned that without global leadership "the economic crisis may aggravate the negative tendencies that are present in global politics".

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