Has the US lost its role as the underwriter of the economic system?

Economics, FREEPOM

Guest Post by Willem Middelkoop, Co-founder of the Commodity Discovery Fund and author of The Big Reset

This article has also been published in an edited version of the OMFIF bulletin

Twitter: @wmiddelkoop

The recent news that Britain would become one of the founding members of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has shocked many. Larry Summers, who has served as Secretary of the US Treasury between 1999 and 2001, immediately understood the significance of the recent developments and wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post:

March 2015 may be remembered as the moment the United States lost its role as the underwriter of the global economic system. I can think of no event since Bretton Woods comparable to the combination of China’s effort to establish a major new institution and the failure of the United States to persuade dozens of its traditional allies, starting with Britain, to stay out.”

This British announcement was highly criticized by the US. The Financial Times quoted an unnamed US official:

“We are wary about a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power. This decision was taken after no consultation with the US.”

Summers was also highly critical about the US’s strategy regarding the planned start of the AIIB:

The U.S. misjudged the situation tremendously, put pressure on allies and developing countries to under no circumstances be part of AIIB, with the U.S., Japan, Mexico, and Canada as the holdouts [..] Largely because of resistance from the right, the United States stands alone in the world in failing to approve International Monetary Fund governance reforms that Washington itself pushed for in 2009. By supplementing IMF resources, this change would have bolstered confidence in the global economy. More important, it would come closer to giving countries such as China and India a share of IMF votes commensurate with their increased economic heft.”

With Britain and many more major European countries signing up as founding members of the AIIB the US economic hegemony has been dealt an enormous blow. It is the first time since the end of the Second World War the US is no longer in the driving seat at the start of the most significant global institutions. Of course this will not change the world economic system overnight, but when we look back in five, ten or even fifteen years’ time, March 2015 may be remembered as a turning point in economic history. It might be remembered as the start of an openly Chinese confrontation over the economic leadership with the US. As Summers points out this all has happened because the Chinese leadership had to wait for a change in the IMF-voting structure for the last five years.

The first ideas for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) were floated by China in 2013. The Chinese proposed to set-up a multilateral development bank able to provide finance to infrastructure projects in the Asia region. The Chinese want the AIIB to work together with the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But for the US the BRICS oriented AIIB is a potential rival for these US-dominated organizations.

In 2014 China invited India to participate in the founding of the AIIB. In October that year a signing ceremony for the AIIB was held in Beijing in which 21 mainly Asian countries signed the Memorandum of Understanding. US pressure tried to keep Australia and South Korea from signing up as founding members. In the summer of 2015, almost all Asian countries and most major countries outside Asia had joined the AIIB, except the US, Japan (which still dominates the ADB, by design of the US) and Canada. North Korea’s and Taiwan’s applications were rejected. The Chinese want the AIIB to be fully established at the end of 2015. In May 2015 almost sixty countries, including Russia have signed up as founding members.

As mentioned one of the prime reasons for the set-up of the AIIB has been Chinese frustration with, ‘the slow pace of reforms and governance in global established institutions like the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, which it claims are dominated by American, European and Japanese interests.’

The AIIB will be used to finance large infrastructural investments mainly in Asia. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has published a report stating the region required up to $9 trillion infrastructural investments in the coming years. Although China is the largest investor in the region, it only has a good 5% of the voting right in the ADB, while Japan and US have a total of 26% of the voting right (13% each). This can be seen as an attempt to keep the Asia investment developments under Western control.

This same kind of US dominance can be found within the voting structures of the IMF and the World Bank. According to some international politics play an important role in IMF decision making. The most important decisions within the IMF require a special majority of 85% of the votes, giving the USA with over 17% of the votes, an effective veto. France a country with a good 65 million people currently has more voting rights (4.29%) within the IMF than China (3.99%) with 1.3 billion inhabitants. Belgium with just over 10 million people, has more voting rights (1.86%) than Brazil (1.72%).

Another criticism is that the US move to more neoliberalism and global capitalism since the 1980’s has led to a change in the functions of the IMF. Criticasters claim allies of the US receive ‘bigger loans with fewer conditions’. Foreign governments who are non-allies have to sacrifice their political autonomy in exchange for IMF-funds and often have to sell important parts of their economy to foreign (often US) companies.

The former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who was angry that debt-ridden African states had to give sovereignty to the IMF (and World Bank) once asked; ‘Who elected the IMF to be the ministry of finance for every country in the world?’ And the Chinese has openly asked for a ‘new world wide central bank’.

Joseph Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has also agreed that the IMF ‘was reflecting the interests and ideology of the Western financial community’. The ‘helpful hand’ by the IMF and World Bank towards military dictatorships friendly to the West’ have been criticized as well.

Reforms to give more powers to emerging economies were agreed by the G20 in 2010, however until now the US Congress has not agreed to pass these reforms to the disgust of countries like China. But recent reports indicate China has chosen to take more initiative to accomplish more structural changes. The highest ranking Chinese banker at the IMF, deputy managing director Zhu Min, has recently said the IMF had already adopted, ‘Plan B, since it can no longer wait for US congressional approval for its proposed reforms.’

In light of these facts it is easy to understand why China has decided to fast-track the start of its own global institutions. By combining the powers of all BRICS-countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) China is able to pressure the US. It is the first real confrontation on a global economic level for the US, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Because Russia is part of all of these new initiatives, Putin feels backed by China.

Now the AIIB can start with the backing of even some major western countries the coming reset of world’s financial economic system could come faster than many in the West have thought possible. These changes will also have a huge geopolitical impact. We could well witness the start of a total new era. An era in which the West will loose and the East will gain power.

Willem Middelkoop, Beijing, May 2015

Co-founder of the Commodity Discovery Fund and author of The Big Reset


Subscribe to POM for detailed analysis on macroeconomic trends.


All 3 month and 1 year subscriptions receive access to the epublication series The Economic Transition Papers.

Read the new POM article:

Re-balancing World Wealth in the 21st Century – Which Currencies Will Depreciate and Which Will Appreciate