There’s no big stimulus commitment — the Europeans have been too slack for too long with their budgets — and the free trade measures look half-hearted but the G20 meeting has brought to an end — if the economic crisis hadn’t already — the current era of unregulated international finance. In its place, there will be a new framework of single global regulations and interlocking national oversight from which there will, ideally, be nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

All the suspects in the financial crisis — excepting, of course, the politicians and regulators who oversaw it — have been locked into the new framework:

  • Hedge funds will now have to be registered and will have to disclose information and submit to risk management requirements.
  • Institutions too large to be allowed to fail will have to submit to additional oversight, and won’t be permitted to jurisdiction-hop in the hope of finding the least demanding regulatory framework.
  • Credit rating agencies will have to be registered, and will be compelled to better manage conflicts of interest and to disclose their track record in ratings. Hopefully this will be retrospective so that ratings agencies — who inexplicably continue to be taken seriously by governments – will be required to show off some of their brilliant ratings decisions of the last five years.
  • Tax havens will be forced to cough up information or face collective punishment.
  • Remuneration for short-term risk will in effect be prohibited, with firms facing higher capital requirements if they fail to adhere to guidelines drawn by the Financial Stability Forum, where Australia played a significant role.
  • The derivatives sector has got just six months to come up with a plan for standardisation.
  • And above it all, a new body, the Financial Stability Board, will monitor, warn, advise and intervene with the IMF where necessary across the global financial system.

It won’t quite bring transnational corporations to heel, but life for the financial branch of that family is going to get a whole lot less private. The new regime is less about regulating behaviour than about imposing transparency on an industry used to exploiting secrecy and complexity to make trillions, until it knew too little and found things too complex to prevent themselves losing trillions.

In that context, this is more a win for the American-British (and Australian) approach to the task of financial regulation than for the European approach of controlling and restricting corporate behaviour. Indeed, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom I recall was elected for his conservative credentials, seems to have plumbed t-ts-on-a-bull depths of uselessness at the event, apart from his pre-emptive threat to walk out. He didn’t even bring his better half along.

The Prime Minister has had a direct win with the Financial Stability Forum guidelines on executive remuneration being adopted, including the model Rudd had advocated of linking risk and remuneration and imposing additional capital requirements on non-complying firms. The meeting also agreed that the reallocation of voting rights within the IMF would be accelerated, establishing a process that will eventually reward Rudd’s campaign for China and other emerging economies to be given a greater role in the financial regulatory architecture.

The agreement that the WTO will start naming and shaming G20 members who raise trade barriers is unlikely to do much to curb protectionist impulses. The Prime Minister might face an early test himself of this if Holden looks likely to make the final move from 1 shift a day to 0 shifts a day. The pressure to prop up a clearly unviable producer might prove too much.

Now, as the cliché goes, the real work begins. Each jurisdiction now has to implement these commitments, as do some industries, working groups and international bodies. There are some heroic timeframes attached, and leaders have agreed to meet again before the end of the year. But for the moment the sight of Wall St and global stock markets rallying on the back of the biggest regulatory assault on corporate behaviour ever seen is what’s important.

Peter Fray

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