G20: 10 minutes to save the world

The leader of the 20 biggest economies finally get together today, but they'll only have 10 minutes each to sort out the crisis.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The ExCel Arena in London’s docklands will host what has been one of the most widely anticipated and heavily-hyped global economic conferences for decades. It’s certainly a pretty big deal as these things go – the ‘official’ G20 membership is of finance ministers and central bankers, but such is the gravity of our times that this gathering is strictly a heads-of-government affair.

Their ‘mission impossible’ is to come up with some form of action plan which presents a united front on, and a concerted response to, the global economic downturn. No small ask in view of the well-known differences in opinions between the spend, spend, spend approach of Brown and Obama and the rather more cautious – in public at least - Merkel/Sarkozy camp. Sarko in particular, perhaps emboldened by the tabloid verdict that Carla Bruni has got the measure of even Michelle Obama in the glamorous First Lady stakes, seems pretty determined not to let Gordon and Barack have it all their own way.

Their task is made even more daunting when you consider the timing and logistics of the whole thing. Assuming the 20 all arrived more or less on time and got breakfast promptly out of the way, the real work should have begun at 9am. The all-important closing statement is due to be issued at 3.30pm.

What with lunch in between (you didn’t think the French or Italian contingents would agree to working over lunch, did you?) and all the various comings and goings associated with a meeting of the world’s 20 most powerful public figures, they’ll be lucky to get more than three or four hours’ solid graft in. That works out at between 9 and 12 minutes each. Even Flash Gordon would baulk at such a tight schedule for saving the world.

Luckily for our leaders, not many of whom can claim superhero status right now, their massed teams of minions have done the hard work already. The closing statement was doubtless drafted days ago and will, provided all goes according to plan, need only minor tweaks today. Expect to see plenty of references to the importance of free trade and global commerce, plus a smattering of clauses on the need for tighter regulation of banks and the financial system and to keep the IMF’s coffers well topped-up. Nothing that anyone can really take issue with.

Because the truth about the G20 is that it is all politics and very little economics. It’s what JK Galbraith described in his classic analysis of 1929 Wall Street The Great Crash, as a ‘no business meeting'. Nothing much is transacted but it doesn’t matter – the point is that the big cheeses meet, look one another in the eye and are seen to agree on something. Provide there are no big fallings out, that’s it, job done. So let’s hope they all manage to keep smiling for the next 24 hours. Our futures may depend on it…

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