FADE IN: A LUXURY HOTEL IN HORSHAM, ENGLAND.
NINETEEN FINANCE MINISTERS SIT AT A LONG TABLE. A YOUNG AMERICAN ENTERS THE ROOM. ALL EYES TURN TO HIM:
“We believe it is important for G20 nations to commit to substantial and sustained actions for a period that matches the likely duration of the crisis,” he mumbles.
MURMUR, MURMUR, MURMUR:
“The IMF has called for countries to put in place fiscal stimulus of 2 percent of aggregate GDP each year for 2009-2010. This is a reasonable—”
THE ROOM ERUPTS:
CUT TO TIGHT SHOT OF THE AMERICAN’S FACE, NOW STRAINED AND FEARFUL...
Okay, maybe the internal debate at a finance minister meeting isn’t the stuff of your typical Hollywood plot.
But what’s unfolding this weekend amidst the green and rolling hills of southern England has all the makings of a great story: strong characters, plenty of conflict and a desperate search for resolution set against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in decades.
Better yet, this G20 finance ministers meeting offers the chance for one of Hollywood’s favorite narrative techniques: the redemption tale.
Can our protagonist — fresh from a humiliating and very public performance — bring the world to his way of thinking and, in the process, rescue his reputation and the global economy?
That’s juicy stuff for any screenwriter. But for the rest of us struggling with a widening global economic crisis, the outcome is critical.
Finance ministers from the world’s 20 largest economies are in Horsham Friday and Saturday, laying the groundwork for an April 2 head of state summit in London. It’s a chance for these money men and women to compare notes on the crisis, and to argue for the right way out of this mess before handing it all off to their respective bosses 20 days from now.
Here’s the main drama: can 20 technocrats come together on these complicated issues, peacefully, and without adding more angst to the global unease?
Clearly, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has a tough sales job.
He’s pushing for greater stimulus spending to help spur global demand. And he’s got some skin in the game: Geithner points to the $787 billion the U.S. is doling out on its own economy — an amount equivalent to 3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
But his counterparts balk at that "spend more, spend now" approach. For one, most countries simply don’t have the money. But there’s philosophy at work here, too. The Europeans — notably the Germans and the French — argue that the focus should instead be on strengthening regulation of the global financial system.
“In Europe we have invested a lot into growth,” French president Nicolas Sarkozy said this week. “The priority now is not to spend more but to put in place a system of regulation that will stop such a catastrophe from happening again.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel was equally blunt: “Fiscal stimuli are important — and Europe has made its contribution in this regard — but they cannot replace the necessary regulation.”
To be sure, Geithner isn’t ignoring the need for reform. “Now is the time for action,” he said ahead of the meeting. “The U.S. will lead in this effort.”
The differences here are really ones of priority and degree. But they are important. So all eyes are on the young American, the worldly finance chief of the world’s largest economy, and the spokesman for the freewheeling place where this thundering crisis of capitalism began.
How Geithner manages this political divide may well determine its outcome. Can he handle the pressure while the world’s economy — to borrow another Hollywood cliche — is hanging in the balance?
Geithner’s first appearance on the big stage was awkward, to say the least. His performance last month before the Senate Banking Committee did not instill confidence. It was a bumbling, stumbling affair, light on the details. (Although this Thursday he managed to hold his own in front of the Senate Budget Committee.)
He has since come under criticism for his management skills (he’s been slow to fill top positions at Treasury, a situation former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker recently called “shameful.")
Then, of course, there was the rocky confirmation Geithner had over a failure to pay all of his own income taxes.
So the pressure is on this weekend to come up with the right substance, at the time when we all need it most. But as any Hollywood writer, actor, director or producer will tell you: image matters, too.
So let the cameras roll, as our story begins.
For more on the G-20 summit, read Andrew Parlin here.
For other recent GlobalPost stories by Thomas Mucha: