Nations Weigh Options as Financial Chaos Spreads
The United States and Britain appear to be converging on a common solution for the financial chaos sweeping the world, one day before a crucial meeting of financial leaders begins in Washington that the White House hopes will result in a more unified response.
The British and American plans, though far from identical, have two common elements: injection of government money into banks in return for ownership stakes and guarantees of repayment for various types of loans.
Both remedies will be center stage on Saturday, when President Bush meets with finance ministers from the world’s richest countries at an unusual White House meeting to swap ideas.
Bush’s invitation to finance ministers from Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Japan came on a day of phone calls and letters between European leaders and with Washington. Officials struggled to fashion a coordinated response to the ailing global banking system before going to Washington for annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
“As this thing has spread, the opportunities for cooperation have risen,” David H. McCormick, the under secretary of the Treasury for international affairs, said. “We need to promote and highlight these common areas.”
With credit markets still frozen and stock markets around the world in a deep swoon, there is a growing consensus that the crisis is now so fast-moving and harmful to the global economy that it demands an unprecedented degree of worldwide coordination.
The Treasury’s openness to direct infusions of cash is a remarkable change in tone from a few weeks ago, when the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., and the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, discouraged such actions in testimony before Congress.
“Putting capital in institutions is about failure,” Paulson declared on Sept. 23. “This is about success.”
Treasury officials, however, said the emphasis changed in the last week, largely because stock markets kept spiraling down.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain made the case, in a letter to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, for another option gaining favor among economists — guaranteeing short- and medium-term loans between banks. By persuading banks to resume lending to each other, the plan aims to shake loose the paralyzed credit market. “This is an area where a concerted international approach could have a very powerful effect,” Brown said Thursday in the two-page letter.
Administration officials are discussing aspects of the British proposal but said different economies have different rules that complicate a single joint action.
One senior administration official argued that expecting an agreement on proposals like Brown’s would be “irrationally raising expectations.”
Still, recapitalizing the banks and jump-starting their lending are at the top of the list of remedies that many economists are now suggesting. By acting in concert, countries can maximize the punch of their actions, these experts said, while avoiding distortions that occur when countries go different ways.