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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Analysis: What to do about credit and food

Page last updated at 09:13 GMT, Sunday, 13 April 2008 10:13 UK

By Andrew Walker
Business reporter, BBC News, Washington

Food and finance. Those have been the two big themes over the last week at the IMF and the World Bank.

(L-R) Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and John Lipsky
Many powerful people have been meeting in Washington this week

The international financial crisis has cast a deep shadow over the proceedings, but there is no sense of panic.

The IMF’s view is that the wider economic effects of the crisis will mean a mild recession in the US and rather slower growth in the rest of the world.

But nobody is assuming that things will turn out even that well – though some including the United States Treasury think the IMF is unnecessarily pessimistic.

A succession of observers have said the financial crisis is the worst since the great depression of the 1930s, and policy makers gathered in Washington are taking the comparison seriously.

Note that it is the financial crisis that is being compared with the 1930s.

Nobody here is suggesting that the wider economic consequences will be anything like that bad.

Indeed, the recessions in the mid-1970s and early 1980s were worse than most people expect to experience now, even if things deteriorate further.

Pressure on banks

So it is a case of all hands to the financial pumps - the pressure on the banks and others has been turned up.

G7 and IMF meetings have called on them to come clean quickly and fully on the extent of the losses they have made or could make on financial assets that are backed by dubious loans.

The banks are also being pressed to raise extra capital to plug any holes in their finances that those losses might open up.

Why press them? Because shareholders tend not to like it – they either have to come up with extra cash or find their existing stakes diluted.

And there is also a call for more effective financial supervision, in line with the recommendations of an international task force that reported to the G7.

It is technical stuff, but it does at least attempt to address many of the problems that have been exposed by the last nine months of turbulence.

Dodgy assets

There is also a debate about more unusual ideas. Perhaps governments or central banks should go into the financial markets and buy some of these dodgy assets.

It is not being ruled out, although they do not seem ready for it yet - if it comes to that it will stick in the throats of many people.

Some already feel that way about the extra loans given by central banks to the commercial and investment banks.

It is an understandable reaction - they fouled up and are being rescued.

Activists outside the IMF Spring Meeting
Some people oppose the use of IMF loans

But one big lesson of the great depression in the United States was the importance of avoiding widespread banking collapses.

It is not just another business. Bank failures helped turn a recession into something much worse.

Food prices

And from the world of high finance to the bread and butter issue of, well, bread and butter, or at least the price of it.

Developing countries have not been hit hard by the financial crisis, although it could get worse.

Food prices are another matter. Some countries have had riots. All have to worry about the effects on people with low incomes. They spend a larger share of their income on food, so the effects are acute.

The World Bank estimates that the doubling of wheat prices in the last year could erase the gains in reducing poverty that Yemen made between 1998 and 2005.

So the developing countries represented at these meetings are raising their concerns forcefully . They clearly had a sympathetic hearing from the IMF’s chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

He said that if food prices go on rising, hundreds of thousands of people will be starving and children will suffer from malnutrition.

It could lead to conflict, and undermine the legitimacy of governments.

It is strong language and the IMF might be able to provide some practical help too.

It has a lending facility that could probably be used to help countries adapt to higher food prices.

But it cannot fix the underlying fact that food is expensive. . . . .read

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