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Wolfensohn predicts shift in global economy
Interview with James Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank

It's no secret that a massive shift in global economic power is under way from West to East but the question is whether the old developed economies are ready for the consequences of this change.

Former World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, thinks not. He also thinks the time is rapidly approaching where the World Bank's top job should cease to be the exclusive preserve of the United States.
JIM MIDDLETON: Your old organisation the World Bank says that China's current economic model is unsustainable in the medium term. How serious a problem for the rest of the world would it be if China's leaders do not engage in the kind of top to bottom liberalisation of their economy envisaged by the World Bank?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well I think what the World Bank is saying is that any period of 40 years growth, which they're projecting between now and 2050, will have some bumps. And I think they're saying that in terms of the remarkable growth that there's been in China in recent years there may be a slowing, there may be an adjustments in terms of housing, there may be an adjustment in terms of the amount of borrowings.

But I don't think that the World Bank is predicting any great collapse in China. It is just that there will be perhaps a slowing for a few years but they certainly still believe that by 2050 China will be confident 25 per cent of the global economy.

JIM MIDDLETON: The World Bank is worried about certain factors, for instance the notion that China could grow old before it gets wealthy. The fact that in just five years time China's work force will have more retirees than entrants. These factors do point to the need for a pretty substantial structural renovation, even though China has been so successful over the past three decades.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I think that China has shown up to now that it can adjust. It's my belief that there are many people in China, particularly in the rural areas, who have come into more industrialised and city areas. The Chinese themselves are just bringing, I think, 350 million people into that particular group. And I think they're looking forward to the creation of a pretty substantial middle class, along with the middle class that will grow in India.

So what you're saying is absolutely correct. The population will age, but it's against a backdrop, of very substantial growth and there is also the possibility of an extension of the work life in China, which is, I think, something that I is likely to happen.

JIM MIDDLETON: The World Bank is arguing the need for liberalisation; that China needs to move to a market economy. Many Chinese, of course, argue that state capitalism has worked very well, especially given the record of free market capitalism in recent years. Why wouldn't state capitalism work for China into the future?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well I think one of the reasons is that many Chinese, and if you go, as I am sure you do, to Shanghai, Beijing, even to many of the other cities in China, very large cities, you will find that the enterprise is occurring from the private sector. It is not occurring just from the government owned corporations.

It is always been true that the Chinese themselves as a people are quite entrepreneurial. They may still call it state capitalism for another 10 or 20 years but for anybody that show knows China they will, I think, comment on the fact that the individual is becoming a more important factor in the country.

JIM MIDDLETON: Broadening the discussion a little bit, you've noted that by mid -century fully 60 per cent of world GDP will come from Asia. What makes you say, though, that the old developed economies are not ready for this shift?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, first all, the proposition is that we will do as was done in the early 1800s and before that in 1500, which is that the weight of the economies of the world will shift to Asia.

And I think there's very little doubt that we will have 50 to 60 per cent of the world's GDP in Asia. If that is true, then the rest of us in the more developed or the Western world will have 30 to 40 per cent, because that's the other part of it; along with whatever Africa has and some parts of Latin America.

So what I think is happening is you're seeing a shift in terms of both population and a shift in terms of initiative and knowledge. The interesting thing to me is that the Chinese and the Indians are studying with huge numbers in the Western universities, in the United States and also, I've been interested to see, very much in Australian universities, so you're quite used to it.

The truth of the matter is that we in the West are doing very little about learning about the East, learning about what happens in China, learning about what is happening in India. And our young people are just not encouraged or maybe not themselves go to study in these part of the world. Certainly people of my age never thought of doing it. And I'm afraid in we're in a transitional period where parents of my age are a bit less - have not encouraged their children to go and do Asian studies.

I have very little doubt that it will be a necessity over the next 10, 15 years. And it is my hope that Australia could be a leading country in terms of that transition because of its proximity to Asia and frankly the importance of Asia to Australia in term of the economics.

JIM MIDDLETON: Is one of the logical implications of that shift the global economic institutions, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the World Bank, G20, also need to change to reflect that changing balance of economic power?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I don't have the slightest doubt that they need to change. They were invented really after World War II. And there's no question that the balance of the shareholding and the traditions of that 50 plus years have certainly served us well. But the world was pretty much the same until the end of the last century, but starting in 2002 we've seen a significant move in terms of share of global income towards Asia.

The international institutions have not yet adjusted for that. And in another 10 years or 15 years or 20 years we will see a totally different ranking in terms of the economic power of both the world and the representation that you need in those international institutions. It certainly cannot, in the long term, be right that a French person should head the International Monetary Fund and an American should head the World Bank. I don't have the slightest doubt that in 10 years time that will be different.

JIM MIDDLETON: Is 10 years too late, though? Is this now a timely moment for leadership of the World Bank to go to a representative of one of the fast growing and increasingly large developing economies?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: It only stands to reason that an institution which is concerned with development, and where development has taken place and where some of the developing countries have now reached sizeable positions. After all, China is now the second largest economy in the world to the United States ahead of everybody else.

So it wouldn't be surprising if at some moment a Chinese colleague would head the World Bank. It wouldn't be surprising if someone from Latin America or someone from India with global skills would head it. In my judgment, I think that that would be a healthy development. It's already happened in the management level.

And I think it would be - personally I think that at some point if not the next one it would be an important development to see happen.

JIM MIDDLETON: James Wofensohn it's been a pleasure talking to you.
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