A huge struggle is brewing within the G-20 over the future of the
global financial system. The outcome could impact the world – and not
only the esoteric world of international finance – for decades to come.

Finance shapes power, ideas, and influence. Cynics may say that
nothing will happen to the fundamentals of the global financial system,
but they are wrong. In all likelihood, we will see huge changes in the
next few years, quite possibly in the form of an international
financial regulator or treaty. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to
resolve the current mess without some kind of compass pointing to where
the future system lies.

The United States and Britain naturally want a system conducive to
extending their hegemony. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has
recently advanced the broad outlines of a more conservative financial
regulatory regime. Even critics of past US profligacy must admit that
the Geithner proposal contains some good ideas.

Above all, regulators would force financiers to hold more cash on
hand to cover their own bets, and not rely so much on taxpayers as a
backstop. Geithner also aims to make financial deals simpler and easier
to evaluate, so that boards, regulators, and investors can better
assess the risks they face.

While the rest of the world is sympathetic to Geithner’s ideas,
other countries would like to see more fundamental reform. Russia and
China are questioning the dollar as the pillar of the international
system. In a thoughtful speech, the head of China’s Central Bank, Zhou
Xiaochuan, argued the merits of a global super-currency, perhaps issued
by the International Monetary Fund.

These are the calmer critics. The current president of the European
Union’s Council of Ministers, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek,
openly voiced the angry mood of many European leaders when he described
America’s profligate approach to fiscal policy as “the road to hell.”
He could just as well have said the same thing about European views on
US financial leadership.

The stakes in the debate over international financial reform are
huge. The dollar’s role at the center of the global financial system
gives the US the ability to raise vast sums of capital without unduly
perturbing its economy. Indeed, former US President George W. Bush cut
taxes at the same time that he invaded Iraq. However dubious Bush’s
actions may have been on both counts, interest rates on US public debt
actually fell.

More fundamentally, the US role at the center of the global
financial system gives tremendous power to US courts, regulators, and
politicians over global investment throughout the world. That is why
ongoing dysfunction in the US financial system has helped to fuel such
a deep global recession.

On the other hand, what is the alternative to Geithner’s vision? Is there another paradigm for the global financial system?

China’s approach represents a huge disguised tax on savers, who are
paid only a pittance in interest on their deposits. This allows
state-controlled banks to lend at subsidized interest rates to favored
firms and sectors.

In India, financial repression is used as a means to marshal captive
savings to help finance massive government debts at far lower interest
rates than would prevail in a liberalized market.

A big part of Russia’s current problems stems from its
ill-functioning banking system. Many borrowers, unable to get funding
on reasonable terms domestically, were forced to take hard-currency
loans from abroad, creating disastrous burdens when the ruble

Europe wants to preserve its universal banking model, with banks
that serve a broad range of functions, ranging from taking deposits to
making small commercial loans to high-level investment-banking
activities. The US proposals, on the other hand, would make universal
banking far harder, in part because they aim to ring-fence depository
institutions that pose a “systemic risk” to the financial system. Such
changes put pressure on universal banks to abandon riskier
investment-bank activities in order to operate more freely.

Of course, US behemoths such as Citigroup, Bank of America, and JP
Morgan will also be affected. But the universal banking model is far
less central to the US financial system than it is in Europe and parts
of Asia and Latin America.

Aside from its implications for different national systems, the
future shape of banking is critical to the broader financial system,
including venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds. The
Geithner proposal aims to rein in all of them to some degree. Fear of
crises is understandable, yet without these new, creative approaches to
financing, Silicon Valley might never have been born. Where does the
balance between risk and creativity lie?

Although much of the G-20 debate has concerned issues such as global
fiscal stimulus, the real high-stakes poker involves choosing a new
philosophy for the international financial system and its regulation.
If our leaders cannot find a new approach, there is every chance that
financial globalization will shift quickly into reverse, making it all
the more difficult to escape the current morass.

Kenneth Rogoff is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and was formerly chief economist at the IMF.