Leading Article: Talk of regulating the global economy is wrong, Mr Brown

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The Independent Culture
THE CHANCELLOR of the Exchequer has a plan, and he is trying to drum up support for it in Davos at the regular big-picture talk-fest of the world's finance ministers. He wants to "do something" about the instability of global financial markets. It must be hoped that one of his fellow ministers will adopt the role of Canute, take him to a dealing-floor in Zurich and demand that the traders desist from panicking, wild fluctuation and overshooting.

When Mr Brown's plan is analysed, however, it turns out to have little substance beyond urging governments, central banks and the IMF to insist on greater "transparency" in financial markets - which is just as well. Transparency is the latest buzz-word, meaning markets should be open and based on full information so that the authorities can react quickly to any signs of trouble. Vague talk of a global financial regulator will probably mean a committee of the global great and good to talk about Very Important Things, while suggestions for a global "lender of last resort" mean beefing up the IMF's resources. Mr Brown is in favour of virtue, and against sin. Any more substance than that would be dangerous.

The increasing integration of the world economy, a process known loosely, and on the whole rather unhelpfully, as "globalisation", is something that touches on all our lives, and it is right that our politicians should be struggling to come to terms with it. Indeed, one of Mr Brown's great achievements has been to reverse entirely the Labour Party's isolationist economic policy.

So it is disappointing that he should fall prey to the temptation so often laid before politicians of wanting to be seen to be "doing something" about things about which nothing can - or should - be done. He should declare clearly that mega-mergers, such as Ford's takeover of Volvo, should not alarm us. It would not matter if, as predicted, there were soon to be just six mass car producers in the world; local markets would still be highly competitive, and the structure of the industry has changed, with the making of parts contracted out to a vast network of small, competitive companies.

And he should reject any idea of trying to regulate the flow of money around the world. There has been far too much excitement among old leftists - such as those of Marxism Today, who resurrected themselves last year for a one-off blast against the Labour Government - over the apparent recantation of one free-market economist who was influential with New Labour. Paul Krugman of MIT wrote last year of the need for developing countries to impose capital controls in order to defend themselves from "self-fulfilling speculative attacks" on their currencies. But that can be effective only in the shortest of terms. Most countries today need capital investment from outside, and cutting themselves off from world markets is damaging. Equally, while markets may overshoot, governments make mistakes, and markets tend to self-correct more quickly than governments.

Mr Brown's language of governmental activism risks giving credence to unworkable and undesirable schemes for a global tax on currency transactions. Instead, he should use his platform in Davos to restate strongly his belief that it is the role of governments to help their peoples rise to, and benefit from, the challenges of international competition - and that this is preferable to trying to protect people from the storm of economic change.

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