Saturday, July 4, 2009

Emerging Powers Met in Russia

June 16, 2009 - New York Times - By CLIFFORD J. LEVY

MOSCOW — Leaders of some of the world’s most powerful economies are gathering on Tuesday to plot how they can exert more control over the global financial system as it takes its first wobbly steps toward recovery.

Yet not an American or Western European will be in the bunch.

The first summit meeting of the so-called BRIC group — Brazil, Russia, India and China — is intended to underscore the rising economic clout of these four major developing countries and their demand for a greater voice in the world. And Russia, the group’s host and ideological provocateur, is especially interested in using the summit to fire a shot across Washington’s bow.

All four countries have expressed varying degrees of discomfort with Washington’s financial stewardship, and are particularly concerned about the value of the dollar at a time of rapidly mounting indebtedness in the United States. At the same time, most economists say the BRIC countries can do little to change the current architecture of the global financial system, and that the outcome of this meeting will be largely symbolic.

The BRIC countries comprise about 15 percent of the world economy and, perhaps more important, have about 40 percent of global currency reserves. Brazil, India and China have also weathered the financial crisis better than the world as a whole.

While they are far from a monolithic group, they are generally united in their frustration with the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency, which enables Washington to run budget deficits without fears of facing the kind of budgetary day of reckoning that other countries risk.

The excess dollars fill up in foreign central banks, leaving those countries with a difficult choice: reinvesting the dollars in United States securities or holding them and facing an increase in the value of their own currencies, making their products less competitive in world markets.

While there have been periodic complaints about the dollar through the years, the criticisms from the BRIC countries have become more frequent and more acerbic lately, and have included calls for a supranational currency to replace the dollar.

In March, the prime minister of China, Wen Jiabao, expressed concerns about United States budget deficits, suggesting they might lead to inflation, a weaker dollar and rising yields on Treasuries, any one of which would hurt China’s $1 trillion investment in American government debt. Later that month, the head of the Chinese central bank called for a new international currency to replace the dollar.

For the Kremlin, undermining the dollar as the prevailing medium of exchange reflects a broader Russian belief that the United States exercises a dominance in global affairs that exceeds its diminishing power.

“What we need are financial institutions of a completely new type, where particular political issues and motives, and particular countries, will not dominate,” Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said this month.

Senior officials in most of the BRIC governments — India, which does not depend as much on trade, is something of an exception — assert that while the United States has acted irresponsibly over the last 30 years by amassing too much debt, they will be the ones who suffer.

“The world economy should not remain entangled, so directly and unnecessarily, in the vicissitudes of a single great world power,” said Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazil’s minister for strategic affairs. “The developing countries should not have to see painfully accumulated hard-currency reserves fall under the shadow of major devaluations.”

China, Brazil and Russia have said recently that they will purchase notes from the International Monetary Fund to begin diversifying their reserves.

Still, the reality is that even many forceful critics of the dollar see no immediate alternative to it as the vehicle for international trade. No other markets in the world have the depth and liquidity of those in the United States, experts say.

And the four BRIC countries, while newly emboldened, have starkly different economies and relationships with the United States, complicating their attempts to unite. Each of the four also has a currency that either has been historically unstable or is not easily convertible.

“Between the BRIC countries, there is really little in common,” said Yevgeny G. Yasin, head of research at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “Each of them has its own destiny, its own special character, and it will be much more difficult for them to agree among themselves than separately with Western countries.”

China, whose economy dwarfs those of the other three, depends on the export of manufactured goods to the United States and Europe. Russia sells oil, natural gas and other natural resources abroad. Brazil focuses on agricultural exports, while India’s growth has been largely based on its domestic market.

The four countries do not necessarily do much business with one another. Only two percent of China’s trade last year was with Russia, though the countries are neighbors, according to official statistics.

At the same time, Brazil announced this year that China had surpassed the United States as its largest trading partner, and said last month that they would look for ways to finance their trade without the dollar.

The very notion of the BRIC nations was conceived in 2001 by an economist for Goldman Sachs, and only then embraced by the countries themselves. Their leaders have conducted informal discussions before, but the event on Tuesday in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg will mark their first formal gathering, officials said.

Russia has sent somewhat mixed signals recently regarding how determined it is to confront the dollar. Last week, it announced that it would purchase bonds from the International Monetary Fund, but then the finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, acknowledged that the world was not yet ready for another reserve currency.

Vladimir A. Mau, rector of the Academy of National Economy, a government advisory organization in Moscow, said Russia and the other BRIC countries had legitimate worries that the United States was piling up too much debt. But Mr. Mau said that at this point, he doubted that the Kremlin had any recourse.

Mr. Unger, the Brazilian minister, agreed, saying that the BRIC countries do not see replacing the dollar with “heavy-handed, bureaucratic machinery,” such as a global, European-style Central Bank.

In China, popular sympathies are with Russian and Brazilian demands for a robust challenge to American control, analysts said.

Yet there has been no consensus on what a new financial system should look like, and China’s dependence on exports and enormous holdings of dollar-denominated assets give it a vested interest in the status quo, leaving China’s leaders reluctant to pursue far-reaching changes.

While China’s official news media often give sizable attention to coming international gatherings, they have offered little coverage of the BRIC summit meeting.

Xu Xiaonian, an economist at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, said the silence reflected a desire not to raise hopes for the meeting. “What can they agree on? So little,” Mr. Xu said. “This meeting is more symbolic than of real effect.”

Vikas Bajaj contributed reporting from New Delhi, Alexei Barrionuevo from Rio de Janeiro, and Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong.