A sherpa's guide to the Toronto G8 and G20

Former U.S. 'sherpa' Daniel Price walks us through the origins and purpose of the G20 leaders' summit.

You might not have heard of him, but Daniel Price was one of the world's most powerful men in that final year or so of the Bush administration.

As "sherpa" to President George W. Bush, he was one of those nearly invisible senior officials who helped shape the agenda at that first G20 leaders' summit in Washington in November 2008, at the height of the world financial crisis.

If you had looked closely, you would have seen him in many of the leaders' photos of that summit as well as at the earlier G8 gathering in Tokyo in July of that year.

A lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Cambridge universities, Price specialized in international trade and arbitration before he was named assistant to the president for international economic affairs in mid-2007, just as the financial crisis was hitting the headlines.

Seen from that perspective, the Toronto G20 summit of 2010 looks pretty calm by comparison. But many of the issues are continuations of those earlier gatherings. 

Special advisor Daniel Price with then president George W. Bush at the Tokyo G8 meeting in 2008. (Photo courtesy Daniel Price)

From his office in Washington, Price, now an attorney with Sidley Austin, continues to advise companies and governments on international trade and regulatory matters.

He spoke with CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon about the key issues for the G20 and G8 this time around.

Clibbon: You are known as the man who, with President Bush, organized the first G20 leaders summit in November 2008. Could you describe the rationale at the time?

Price: Recall that, in the fall of 2008, we were really in the depths of a very, very serious financial crisis that was rapidly becoming a more broad-based economic crisis.

The president decided that it would be important to gather leaders together to address this. The question then was: Who should come to such a summit?

Some of our European colleagues felt that the gathering should be a rather limited number of countries, to include the G8 plus a few of the major emerging markets. But President Bush felt very strongly that a leaders' meeting at this particular time must be broadly representative of both developed and developing countries.

At the time, the financial crisis may have been felt most keenly in the developed world. But it was rapidly affecting developing countries as well. 

What do you see as the key priorities for G20 this year?  

Price: One of the issues that will certainly occupy attention is the level of deficits and the Greek and Euro crisis that is emblematic of what sustained deficits can produce.

Number two is continuing the important work of financial regulatory reform, particularly regarding the development of more conservative capital requirements and more stringent regulations on liquidity.

Number three, I think there will be a discussion of sustained and balanced economic growth, to deal with the persistent deficits of some countries and the persistent surpluses of others.

Finally, one item that has attracted a great deal of attention this year is the proposal by some countries that financial institutions be subject to some kind of levy.

As the meeting of the G20 finance ministers in South Korea (June 4-5) has shown, there is simply no consensus supporting a bank levy at this point.

A number of major developed and developing countries, including Canada, who will host the G20 summit, have voiced strong opposition to such a tax.

These countries believe the focus should be on new capital rules and not on a tax that could contract credit and create a headwind to recovery.

Do you anticipate a discussion of new rules for bank capital, and what direction might that take?

Price: New rules to enhance both the quantity and quality of capital held by financial institutions are widely acknowledged as essential elements of global financial reform.

There is disagreement, however, on what counts as capital, how capital should be computed, and what the macroeconomic impact of these rules will be.

These are very difficult technical issues and it is critical to get them right.

That is why a number of regulators and banks have urged that this work not be driven by a political timetable for "summit deliverables" but that the necessary time be taken to do the job right.

Many prominent people, including the head of the UN,  have urged that climate change be on the agenda. What do you think?

Price:I think the first priority of the G20 ought to be to repair and reform the global economy.

There are constituencies who would like the G20 mandate to be expanded to address a broader range of global issues. But a real risk to the G20 is mission creep.

If, in future, the G20 is thought of as the committee to save the world rather than as the board of directors of the global economy, then I think we run real risks.

What are the skills and strategies needed to achieve consensus when you are dealing with governments with such fundamentally different economic approaches?  

Price: Generally, the key for the sherpas is to listen very carefully to your counterparts. To understand fully their concerns and to try to reflect those concerns in the resulting documents. 

Finance ministers, central bank governors and heads of institutions pose for a group photograph at the G20 finance ministers and central bank meeting in Busan, South Korea, in June 2010. The core group, the G20 was essentially a gathering of financial ministers until George W. Bush invited all the national leaders of the 20 leading economies to Washington in the fall of 2008. (Reuters)

Sherpas need to be able to suspend traditional differences and find common ground.

One of the signal achievements of the G20 process was the consensus reached on the importance of maintaining open markets.

While it's true that many countries around the table came to the subject from different historical backgrounds, there was broad, and I would say, unanimous support for the fact that competitive, open economies have brought about an unparalleled period of economic prosperity, lifting millions out of poverty.

So, while there was the shared view that regulatory reform was needed and essential, there was also a great concern, particularly from developing countries, about over-regulation and its impact on credit and capital flows.

China comes to the G20 with its own set of demands, and a need for recognition. Can you reflect on accommodating and understanding China at this summit.

Price: There are certainly pressures within the global community for China to appreciate its currency, because an undervalued yuan makes it difficult both for other emerging markets and for developed countries to restart trade flows.

But China seems to have taken that concern on board. Indications are that it will appreciate its currency.

The real challenge for China and, indeed, for the United States, as the two largest economies — one reflecting persistent surpluses, one reflecting persistent deficits — is their willingness to empower the International Monetary Fund and other global institutions to monitor and, in fact, criticize government spending patterns.

This is critical to President Obama's initiative, launched at the Pittsburgh summit, for more balanced economic growth. So that will be something to watch.

How do you see the role of the smaller G8 evolving in the years ahead?  

Price: Over the last five to 10 years, the G8 has evolved away from macro economic management and towards addressing developmental issues such as AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and maternal and child health.

As these countries are really the principal cheque writers on economic development, the G8 has taken upon itself to focus on those issues that require concerted and coordinated levels of funding and aid to address.

The leaders gather with a particular agenda that tends to be focused on global development issues. But, by necessity, they will address whatever the hot issue of the day is.

The interesting thing is that the issue that tends to occupy the leaders may come up within a week or two before the summit, whether that has to do with North Korea, or Zimbabwe or Iran.