US ‘will lose financial superpower status’

The US will lose its role as a global financial “superpower” in the wake of the financial crisis, Peer Steinbrück, the German finance minister, said on Thursday, blaming Washington for failing to take the regulatory steps that might have averted the crisis.

“The US will lose its status as the superpower of the world financial system. This world will become multi­polar” with the emergence of stronger, better capitalised centres in Asia and Europe, Mr Steinbrück told the German parliament. “The world will never be the same again.”

His were the most out­spoken comments by a senior European government figure since Wall Street fell into chaos two weeks ago.

He later told journalists: “When we look back 10 years from now, we will see 2008 as a fundamental rupture. I am not saying the dollar will lose its reserve currency status, but it will become relative.”

The minister, who has spearheaded German efforts to rein in financial markets in the past two years, attacked the US government for opposing stricter regulations even after the subprime crisis had broken out last summer.

The US notion that markets should remain as free as possible from regulatory shackles “was as simplistic as it was dangerous”, he said.

But Mr Steinbrück had warm words for the US’s crisis management in the past fortnight, including the government’s planned $700bn rescue package for the financial sector. Washington, he said, had earned credit for acting not just in the US interest but also in the interest of other nations.

Yet he repeated Germany’s refusal to mount a similar rescue operation using taxpayers’ money to acquire toxic assets. “This crisis originated in the US and is mainly hitting the US,” he said. In Europe and Germany, such a package would be “neither sensible nor ­necessary”.

The US, Mr Steinbrück said, had failed in its oversight of investment banks, adding that the crisis was an indictment of the US two-tier banking system and its “weak, divided financial oversight”.

He blamed Washington for refusing to consider proposals Berlin had made as it chaired the Group of Eight industrial nations last year. These proposals, he said, “elicited mockery at best or were seen as a typical example of Germans’ penchant for over-regulation”.

His comments followed calls this week by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president and current holder of the European Union presidency, for an emergency G8 meeting on the crisis.

Mr Steinbrück’s proposals include a ban on “purely speculative short selling”; a crackdown on variable pay for bank managers, which had encouraged reckless risk-taking; a ban on banks securitising more than 80 per cent of the debt they hold; international standards making bank managers personally responsible for the consequences of their trades; and increased co-operation between European super­visors.

Following a meeting with Christine Lagarde, his French counterpart, in Berlin, he said France and Germany would set up a working group of treasury, central bank and supervisory authority officials that would consider tougher regulation of short selling.

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