A New Multilateralism – Realisable or Wishful Thinking?

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A New Multilateralism – Realisable or Wishful Thinking?

I listened to the Richard Dimbleby Lecture on Monday evening with expectation of some new thinking on the way forward. The lecture was called ‘A New Multilateralism for the 21st Century’ and was presented by Christine Lagarde, incumbent MD of the IMF. My initial reaction was that it presented some interesting ideas, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the relevance of these ideas. So, on Tuesday, I printed off the transcript of her speech from the IMF website. Having now studied this speech in some detail I find it endorses my view that the multilateral institutions of which she leads the IMF are essentially out of touch with the real problems that we face in the 21st century.

Back in the 1970’s, during the oil boom, individuals in the Middle East were accumulating vast amounts of US Dollars in cash because Western banks did not want it. Indeed I remember Swiss banks charging up to 3% p.a. to take these deposits. I actually walked into a room in a palace and saw a pile of US Dollars, and was told that this pile amounted to USD 1 billion. In an attempt to give some visual impression of this pile I am reliably informed that a standard 40ft sea container will hold USD 1 billion in fresh print USD 100 denomination bills. This money was not participating in any economic benefit whatsoever, and there was no possibility that the owner could reasonably consume these funds in their lifetime. Yet just one mile away there were ordinary working people struggling to find the money for their next meal. It occurred to me that if these funds were deposited with SAMA, and used productively producing even a nominal return, such return could be used productively to provide food for these people without any degradation to the original money. Yet the owner had no interest in such a proposition, and was content to accumulate yet more piles to look at.

Unfortunately this sorry tale has since increased in propensity, and as we saw a few weeks ago, Oxfam calculated that the 85 richest people have the same wealth as the bottom half of the World’s population. Christine Lagarde added that the richest 1% in the USA captured 95% of all income gains since 2009, yet the number of people in the USA needing food parcels to survive is now reaching pandemic proportions. She further states that in India the net worth of the billionaire community increased 12 fold in the past 15 years, enough to eliminate the poverty of that country twice over. So why has she not rationalised this into the real threat to the World Order in the 21st century?

We have seen so many billionaires created out of emerging economies such as the former Soviet Union, China, and India, sapping vast amounts of sovereign assets. The rapid nature of such wealth creation should arouse suspicion. However the point that I make is that somehow a few own wealth beyond any reasonable expectation of spending throughout their life. Many will say that they invest much of their wealth, but this only increases their existing wealth. Having met a number of these oligarchs their primary objective is to continue to increase their wealth, usually at the expense of others.

What about if each billionaire set aside USD 1 billion for investment and applied just the income to relieving poverty.

In 2013 an investment return of 15%+ was easily achievable. This would provide in excess of USD 150 million from each billion invested. The billionaire has not lost their capital, but much could be achieved with the income stream. Of course a few of these billionaires are already philanthropic and names like Bill Gates easily come to mind, and who clearly understands that he does not need such vast wealth, so uses his business judgement to make every dollar count in his selected beneficial projects.

Having brushed along with the World Bank, the IMF, and the UN for over 30 years I would suggest that they are political institutions populated by political appointees and academics who have no idea about the real world. I have witnessed a number of World Bank projects which did no more for the recipient country than to provide work for a donor country corporate, create an inappropriate monster that, within 5 years, was derelict leaving the recipient with sovereign debt but with no value to show for it. I have also seen appropriate solutions costing a fraction of the price of the expensive inappropriate concrete alternative discarded because the amount of the appropriate solution did not warrant World Bank intervention. It is interesting that Christine Lagarde acknowledges that it was the fast response of the G20 that stopped the world descending into meltdown 5 years ago rather than the institutions such as the World Bank and IMF founded to deal with such events. I think that this is a good template to use in stating that the current multilateral institutions are not good at delivering effectively solutions.

Although I am clearly in support of the outcome of Bretton Woods, we should also remember that not enough people there were visionary enough to accept all of the ideas of Keynes, and which were subsequently quickly adopted as catastrophe loomed, e.g. removal of the gold standard. Other than those wearing rose tinted spectacles no-one would suggest that the institutions that emerged remotely fulfil their ambitious mandates. I have already mentioned the lack of effectiveness of the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN is little more than a toothless talking shop today – Bosnia being a classic failure.

Christine Legrande suggests that the multilateral outcome of Bretton Woods produced ‘unprecedented economic and financial stability …. Disease eradication, conflict diminished, child mortality reduced, life expectancy increased, and hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty’.

Do we not count Korea, Vietnam, Congo, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria …….etc as conflicts? All consumed the lives of many thousands of people including Western soldiers, left chaos and destruction in their wake, and they are still very much in our minds today. When was the last time that the USA was conclusively successful in any serious military conflict? Therefore Europe and the USA may have seen peace and prosperity since Bretton Woods but how many thousands of American and European soldiers and civilians have died in the name of preserving this peace?

To suggest that Europe has been conflict free is also short-sighted. In the past 6 years Europe has been involved in an economic war. Not too many people killed with bullets and bombs, but many have become disenfranchised, lost everything, displaced, and descended into poverty. Is this not symptomatic of a conventional war? When the vision of a European Union was first put to the people the rhetoric promised peace and prosperity for all citizens. I accept that the banking crisis made a bad situation worse, but how many European politicians in France, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and the UK breathed a sigh of relief that they could hide their failure to create a credible EU behind the banking crisis?

Let us examine the two reference dates that she used, i.e. 1914 and 1944. She suggests that prior to 1914 the birth of the modern industrial society brought about massive dislocation between protectionist nations, and inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Take away the country boundaries, essentially the impact of the digital age, and what is different today?

So where do I see the powder kegs of the 21st Century? Perhaps controversially I do not see the North-South Conflict as a major threat. An implosion within the Islamic community is more likely with primarily Sunni against Shi’a. If you think about it, most of the current conflicts involve the Islamic nations, and are driven by extreme religious division. The intervention by the West in some of these conflicts in the name of protecting the West has no logical outcome. These people have no regard for Western democratic values, or of secular tolerance.

At one end of the spectrum we have the blatant inequality of the distribution of wealth. We are experiencing 2 critical phenomena, both of which are counterproductive to a peaceful, all inclusive world. We have individuals and corporates accumulating vast wealth to the point where the resulting power exceeds that of some major nations. Albeit a few of these have taken a philanthropic stance we should note that such philanthropists are mostly from Western countries. Many of the new billionaires are from emerging or developing economies where democracy does not really mean very much, and a market society is the norm, i.e. everything has a price, even social and civic values. All we need is a charismatic megalomaniac, as depicted by the Carver character in the James Bond movie, ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, to cause chaos and suffering for many throughout the world. Unfortunately Western civilisation has degraded over the past couple of decades towards a market society thus adding a significant sting to the ever increasing differential between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. For example diminish the rights of the ‘have nots’ to education, justice, political influence, and healthcare because they have no money and you have a significant pool of would-be terrorists for our megalomaniac to exploit because they have nothing else, and nothing to lose.

Then we have corporate greed. So what can the people see? During the past 6 years the people have become very aware that their corporate executives have suppressed the salaries of the workers (the value drivers) to below inflation levels whilst increasing their own already attractive remuneration by some 40% average, and which has been allowed by investors because dividends have been maintained to these investors. So the people at the top have handsomely profited whilst real income to the workers has diminished. So much for sharing the pain. In addition these executives are immune to any accountability should they fail. Have any of the avaricious people who profited from the banking crisis been prosecuted, or had their ill-gotten gains repossessed? The banks themselves are being penalised by regulators who should have been more alert to the problems in the first place, and some of these funds do go to Government coffers. But these large fines diminish the capital of the banks, and thus inhibit their capability to finance the very enterprise we need to re-energise the employment market, i.e. they inadvertently stifle recovery, increasing disenfranchised young entrepreneurs.

At a micro scale we can look at the fate of RBS under Fred Goodwin. He was a megalomaniac trying to build the biggest bank in the world. Everyone I spoke to in the City of London at the time leading up to the acquisition of ABN Amro agreed that the terms of that deal, at twice the price that anyone else was prepared to consider, was insane. Yet no-one stepped in to stop him. How much pain, and destroyed lives has RBS caused to many thousands of people. But Fred Goodwin is made for life financially; so well in fact that sticks and stones may break his bones, but he will not lose a night’s sleep over the names that he is called.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the demographic issue. We have already seen a growing view amongst the young generation of workers that their taxes should not be funding the pensions and healthcare of the graying generation. The younger generation see that they have to pay taxes to support the pensions of an ever increasing graying population, and being told that they also have to contribute a significant proportion of their disposable income to their own pension provisions as State pensions will slowly but surely phase out by the time they retire. All of this at a time when real incomes are diminishing in real purchase power terms. Rightly the graying population state that they have paid their taxes, in the form of a special National Insurance tax specifically for the right to a State pension and healthcare, throughout their working lives and thus their State pension is rightfully theirs. The problem is that successive Governments have not ring-fenced these contributions over the years, preferring to spend it in the hope that future generations with continue to fund the requirement; a little like a Ponzi scheme. Add to this the migration of young labour where they have no historic interest in the local graying population, and expect to be able to send money home to support their own aging family, and we have potential serious discourse and unrest. Bring both of the above phenomena together and we have a powder keg just looking for a fuse.

So from where can our fuse emerge? Our fuse already exists in the form of the global internet, social networking, and twitter. Christine Lagarde is right in that the Arab Spring was fuelled by the galvanising of the people through media such as Twitter and social media. But likewise these facilities can also be used to fuel discontent and confusion. Great philosophers such as Aristotle, Kent and Hume have all commented on the importance of gossip to the masses, and our lesser quality media thrives on this obsession. So the touch paper is a disenfranchised charismatic individual or group exploiting the power of gossip through Twitter and social networks. We have seen the impact of disenfranchised ‘have nots’ in riots in many cities over recent years. It is when all of these groups can be galvanised together that we need to be concerned.

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