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Up Front

Can the G-20 Plan Really Boost Global Growth?

As the G-20 Summit concluded in Brisbane, Australia on November 16th, it set a target to achieve an incremental jump in global GDP growth of 2 percent by 2018 and made commitments to creating a Global Infrastructure Investment Initiative (GIII) to address an estimated $5 trillion per year in infrastructure needs around the world.

It is a valid policy idea to expose the gap between current and potential rates of economic growth to the public. That the Australians put the spotlight on this growth gap was the central achievement of their G-20 Summit in Brisbane. It is a contribution to the global effort to energize the global economy and generate both greater and smarter growth. The question is, will it work?

The gap between potential and actual growth has more to do with the patterns and sources of growth than the rates of growth. It is certainly necessary to continue to use monetary and fiscal policy to stimulate aggregate, demand-driven growth, but it will not be not sufficient.

The people-problem in global growth has to do with structural obstacles: market dynamics of globalization tend to increase income inequality; technologies can be labor displacing rather than labor absorbing; and the knowledge-economy requires technical skills that are more sophisticated than investment-driven industrialization.

As a result, the focus is now on structural policies and reforms, an issue on which the OECD has been an international leader. OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria jointly released an OECD report with Australia Minister of Finance Joseph Hockey in February of this year. At the G-20 Summit in Brisbane, Gurria said that it was possible that the global growth effort by the G-20, which the OECD and IMF are monitoring, could “overshoot” the 2 percent target.

Discussing structural reforms tends to “get in the weeds” quickly, since the details vary by each country’s circumstances—as made clear by Brisbane’s G-20 Action Plan. Going from the Brisbane G-20 Summit to regional, ministerial, and national agendas and actions becomes the next phase in this effort to boost global growth by shifting the patterns and sources of growth.

A key component in closing the growth gap will be the aforementioned Global Infrastructure Investment Initiative. The GIII is the culmination of a long discussion involving the G-20, the World Bank, the regional development banks, the private sector and others on how to accelerate much-needed investment in infrastructure—globally, and on a scale that can make a difference, especially in an era of fiscal policy constraints.

The relationship between private and public investment in global infrastructure and other global growth projects is tricky. Just because many governments face reduced flexibility with fiscal policy at the moment does not mean that the responsibility for infrastructure investment can or will or should be picked up by private investors, much less private financial institutions and markets. The public and private sector each have a vital role. One will not work without the other.

Yet rules and norms do have to be worked out to incentivize private investment in infrastructure. This work is well underway and embodied in the Brisbane GIII. Incremental investment in global infrastructure adds up over time, and prudent direction of financing toward the most impactful projects can be a big boost to global growth and directly have an impact on peoples’ lives. This is the kind of people-oriented action G-20 leaders were looking for in Brisbane.

Setting incremental “reach goals” is not just a word game or publicity play. It has proven to be a means of mobilizing resources, policies and efforts by diverse actors to stimulate higher-order results than might otherwise have happened. Just engaging in projecting likely growth outcomes can set the bar too low. In fact, all global goal setting is meant to motivate and mobilize momentum for just such incremental efforts.

Taken together, a combination of structural reforms, infrastructure investment and continued growth-oriented monetary and fiscal policies can make a real difference in boosting global growth. This combination makes the Brisbane target of an additional 2 percent of global GDP growth by 2018 a feasible, even if ambitious, goal.

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