The world's central banks, and especially the U.S. Federal Reserve, served as the punching bag for participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos yesterday. Critics described the banks as the main culprits in the current economic crisis and ordered them to coordinate better.
One proposal called for cooperation between the U.S., Chinese and European central banks to ensure that the West does not sow the seeds of the next financial crisis in the eastern part of the globe.
George Soros, chairman of the hedge fund bearing his name, said that "central banks have lost control." This happened, he said, because the banks have let financial institutions adopt new techniques for risk management.
Soros says the current crisis marks the end of an era where markets are able to manage themselves and correct errors, and the end of an era in which foreign currency reserves are based solely on the dollar. "We need a new sheriff" he said, "not Washington consensus."
Nandan Nilekani, who jointly chairs the Indian firm Infosys, said it is impossible to create a single mechanism to regulate the global financial market. Central banks' decisions are propelled by national economic considerations, and conflicting interests among banks are common.
Former Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkel, who currently serves as vice chairman of insurance company AIG, agrees that there is room for a "central sheriff", but that his function should be defined. Although central banks base their policies on national concerns, national economies are affected by international events, which bank governors should take into consideration.
Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz said the U.S. Federal Reserve has been too preoccupied with inflation targets and not enough with the housing bubble that developed last year. Current events result from poor economic management, he said, and although the Fed talked about a bubble, it did nothing to neutralize the problem.
John Snow, the former U.S. treasury secretary who current serves as chairman of the Cerberus Fund, is more supportive of the U.S. central bank, pointing out that central banks cannot predict the future perfectly. Banks are on their guard now, he says, and if a recession does occur, it will be a mild one.
The five men spoke in Davos in a session moderated by the CNBC television station.
A survey conducted among the 200 participants shows that 59% believe that central banks have lost control. Nevertheless, 75% of the participants reject the idea that a new global financial "sheriff" is needed. A majority of 81% believes that investment bodies from the private sector - hedge funds and government funds - have become central players in the global economy.
The current liquidity crisis in the United States has put sovereign wealth funds from China, Abu Dhabi and Russia on the map, with some voices in Washington calling for a limit to investments by these institutions.
OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria agrees that these bodies have become powers to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, he vehemently opposes placing limitations on the funds, saying that there are sufficient limitations on free economies around the world.
"They have done nothing wrong, why should they be punished?" asked Gurria. There is no reason why people could do business with Gazprom, but not with the Russian sovereign wealth fund, he said, adding that the funds should be judged by their business operations, not the governments they represent.
Lawrence Summers, also a former U.S. treasury secretary, rejected Gurria's stance. Summers said the governments behind the big money are definitely important. As long as the new organizations invest in index funds or as passive investors, there is no problem with the money, he said. But what would happen if a U.S. bank with a foreign shareholder fell into difficulties? Would the handling of its crisis lead to tension between the U.S. and the other country?
But not everyone at Davos was concerned with the financial crisis. At the session on new technologies, which included companies such as AT&T, Infosys and U.S. firm Silver Lake, participants said they were not worried at all. Although the value of these companies has been cut on stock markets, demand for wireless technology products is climbing by tens of percent annually.
What worries high-tech people more is the need to produce an innovation every four months, because most profits are from the first 120 days of a product's life on the market.
The list of new high-tech sources is led by Silicon Valley, with a wide margin over its competitors. Shanghai, Israel and Ireland were also mentioned as places of interest for high-tech investment.
A few of the participants see cellular technology as the future - the phenomenon that will take over our lives over the next few years. "When we want to meet up with someone we will see who we are talking to, we will be able to order seats at a restaurant, navigate there by GPS, take pictures of ourselves having fun and send it to YouTube to share with all our friends," one of the participants said.
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