Tuesday, November 12, 2013

BRICS Offer Hollow Talk On Development Bank And Reinsurance

It's hard to say just what the BRICS are all about.  They share no common culture or language.  They mostly have scarce natural resources with the exception of Russia's hydrocarbons, South Africa's minerals, and China's hydroelectricity.  They compensate for their differences by finding things to do together, proudly stating to the world they they do not subscribe to the Anglo-American financial hegemony . . . except of course when it's absolutely necessary.

The BRICS have proposed to create their own BRICS Development Bank.  They are not ready to launch it because they have not funded its contingent reserve, which would require them all to liquidate sufficient US dollar holdings.  Selling US$100B worth of Treasuries is no small task and would not escape the currency markets' attention.  It remains to be seen whether the reserve will be a mix of the participants' currencies or some instrument resembling the IMF's Special Drawing Rights.

They also seek to establish their own transnational reinsurance firm.  I believe the public stance that it will serve to underwrite infrastructure investments is only one rationale.  The reinsurance firm and development bank together could theoretically send transaction confirmations that will not be subject to US interdiction through its control of the SWIFT network.  This alternative financial regime would be one way to avoid punitive sanctions against the BRICS' trading partners.  Setting up an alternative communication network means designing protocols for encryption, transmission, and storage that the NSA cannot penetrate.  No alternative financial hegemony can emerge until the BRICS own a secure network.

The BRICS are not ready for prime time as a geopolitical bloc.  This is not to say they cannot eventually emerge as an alternative to the US-led Atlantic alliance but consensus will be difficult with no clearly dominant power.  They have difficulty coordinating policy because they do not share common cultures, borders, or history.  Contrast this with US leadership during the Cold War.  Its economic strength enabled it to control institutions like the IMF and World Bank that could enforce international norms.  The BRICS bloc is about as coordinated and purposeful as the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War, and it's proving to be just as ineffective.  They should stick to their original use as an acronym among Goldman Sachs' research ideas.