Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on January 29, 2009

JANUARY 29, 2009

by Marc Champion in Davos, Switzerland; Andrew Batson in Beijing and Greg White in Moscow


The premiers of Russia and China slammed the U.S. economic system in speeches Wednesday, holding it responsible for the global economic crisis.

Both focused on the role of the U.S. dollar, with China’s Premier Wen Jiabao calling for better regulation of major reserve currencies and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calling over-reliance on the dollar “dangerous.”

Speaking on the opening day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, they both urged more international cooperation to escape the downturn. They also talked up the abilities of their own economies to ride out the recession. Mr. Wen said he was “confident” China would hit its 8% growth target for this year even though that was “a tall order.” (See the full text)

The Russian and Chinese leaders also called for cooperation with U.S. President Barack Obama, but it was a chilly reception for the new administration that reflected growing anger in economies that are now getting hit hard by a financial crisis that began with subprime mortgages sold in the U.S.

Mr. Putin was characteristically blunt. He called for the development of multiple, regional reserve currencies in addition to the dollar. “Excessive dependence on a single reserve currency is dangerous for the global economy,” Mr. Putin said. (See the full text)

The Russian leader mocked U.S. businessmen who he said had boasted at last year’s Davos meeting of the U.S. economy’s fundamental strength and “cloudless” prospects. “Today, investment banks, the pride of Wall Street, have virtually ceased to exist,” he said.

Earlier, Mr. Wen called for an expansion of regulatory “coverage of the international financial system, with particular emphasis on strengthening the supervision on major reserve currencies.”

While Mr. Wen never named the U.S., his critique of its failings was as sweeping as Mr. Putin’s. The financial crisis, he said, was “attributable to inappropriate macroeconomic policies of some economies and their unsustainable model of development characterized by prolonged low savings and high consumption; excessive expansion of financial institutions in blind pursuit of profit” – and other excesses.

“The entire economic growth system, where one regional center prints money without respite and consumes material wealth, while another regional centre manufactures inexpensive goods … has suffered a major setback,” Mr. Putin said.

Mr. Wen’s comments came just days after U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner accused China of manipulating its currency for economic gain. The Chinese premier gently, but firmly warned that if Washington and Beijing chose confrontation, both would be losers.

But the different tones of the two speeches, and the fact that Mr. Wen didn’t call for replacing the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency but regulating it, reflect crucial differences in the important emerging economies.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment on the remarks in the speeches. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Many of the attendees at Davos took the remarks from Mr. Putin and Mr. Wen in stride. “The sad thing is is that we might have scoffed at this a while ago. But we really dragged the world down” economically, Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, said in an interview after the speeches.

The rapid collapse of oil and commodities prices has hit Russia hard on top of the ripples of the financial crisis. The government now forecasts the economy will shrink for the first time in a decade this year, after growing 6% last year.

“In a very real sense Russia has been kicked to the margins, while China has become pivotal to any resolution of the financial crisis,” says Bob Lo, Director of the Russia and China programs at the Center for European Reform in London.

Mr. Putin’s government has spent $200 billion of hard currency reserves to defend the Russian currency, the ruble. It has spent as much again in a bailout package that amounts to 15% of gross domestic product, one of the largest responses to the financial crisis in the world. Unlike China, Russia’s economy is too dependent on commodities exports and too small to play a significant role in any global recovery, says Mr. Lo.

Russia also has negligible trade with the U.S., while Chinese exports are heavily dependent on U.S. consumers and Beijing holds $2 trillion in U.S. debt, prompting a much more cautious approach towards Washington and the dollar in Beijing.

The net effect of falling oil prices and the downturn, however, has been to make Russia more vulnerable and the Kremlin weaker, analysts say. Russian officials have begun to send out more conciliatory signals to the new U.S. administration.

“We wish the new team success,” Mr Putin said Wednesday, calling on it to cooperate.

China, too, is suffering from the downturn. Many independent economists, including economists at the International Monetary Fund, question whether Beijing will be able to meet its 8% growth target this year.

Developed nations are increasingly calling for China to do more to stimulate its own economy. On Wednesday, Mr. Wen gave a detailed account of the four trillion yuan ($585 billion) investment program China announced in November. “As a big responsible country” China was actively boosting domestic, and particularly consumer demand, said Mr. Wen.

The headline sum in the program would likely be equivalent to around 3% of gross domestic product in 2009 and 2010. But even government officials aren’t promising that much of a boost to the economy. Zhang Ping, the head of the National Development and Reform Commission, in November estimated it would add about one percentage point to GDP growth this year and next.

That may have seemed like a lot at the time, but expectations for global and Chinese growth have rapidly deteriorated since then. Mr. Wen said growth slowed to 6.8% in the fourth quarter from the same period a year earlier. That’s a little more than half the 13% gain in 2007, at the height of the boom. Some economists believe China could grow by as little as 5% this year, too little to provide jobs for the graduates flooding into the labor market from Chinese universities and schools each year and a further drag on the global economy.

Less noticed in Mr. Geithner’s repetition of Mr. Obama’s campaign-trail assertion that China “manipulates” its currency last week was his argument that the long U.S.-Chinese dispute over currency didn’t matter as much as getting China to do more to boost its economic growth.

“Given the crisis the immediate focus needs to be on the broader issue of stabilizing domestic demand in China and the U.S.,” Mr. Geithner said in his written response to questions during his Senate confirmation process. “A further slowdown in China would lead to a substantial fall in world growth (and demand for U.S. exports) and delay recovery from the crisis.”

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A6



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