The European debt crisis may be at the forefront of World Bank Group President Robert Zoellick’s mind. But yesterday, he made a stop far from the Eastern side of the Atlantic.
As part of the 2011 Citigroup Foundation Lecture Series, Zoellick spoke to about 350 students yesterday in the Ross School of Business about World Bank’s perspective on the global economy and his own ideas on movements taking place worldwide.
The World Bank provides low-interest loans and grants to developing countries to invest in areas like education and infrastructure.
Zoellick also spoke about his plans for his speeches at the European Union summit this coming weekend and the G20 Summit next month. Zoellick said that at the two summit meetings, he will present his three-pillared plan for balancing the global economy.
The first component of his plan is the recapitalization, or the rearranging of debt and equity mixture, of banks. European banks are seemingly moving toward raising private capital, Zoellick said. However, he added that their stability is not yet certain.
Referencing Greece’s high amount of debt, Zoellick said his plan’s second pillar is assisting developing countries, which is crucial to his bank’s global expansion. Zoellick said the third pillar is determining whether or not Greece’s debt will worsen.
There are a variety of programs that can be initiated in the United States and worldwide to help with the growing economic crisis, Zoellick said. Among them are a comprehensive reform of tax programs and balanced budgets.
In response to the economic crisis and the public’s disillusionment with the financial industry, Zoellick explained that World Bank prides itself on adapting to the ever-expanding environment through economic policy initiatives and philanthropic work.
“Just as the world has changed, so has the World Bank Group,” he said.
There are 187 countries that are shareholders of the World Bank Group, with the U.S.’s share comprising 15 percent, according to Zoellick. While he said the World Bank differs from its competitors on Wall Street in its daily transactions and business goals, Zoellick noted that it is still a client-driven business.
“One of the things I try and get people to do is to focus on their clients — something I strongly believe in,” he said.
When asked to defend the recent criticism from The Economist, which claimed that Zoellick supports the gold standard — a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed mass of gold — he said that he was “misunderstood.”
“Let me be clear — I was not at all asking or calling for a gold standard, but stating that as people moved to gold, it was adding to their uncertainty about the value of currencies,” Zoellick said.
“My own belief is that the U.S. dollar will remain the predominant reserve currency,” he added.
In response to a question about the U.S. economy’s credit rating, Zoellick said he predicts that the downgrading — in which Standard & Poor changed the U.S. rating from AAA to AA+ in August — will “serve as a wake-up call.” He said it will show future generations there are critical steps the U.S. needs to take to improve the economy.
“I’m a big believer in more free trade,” Zoellick said. “Open markets spark the economy.”
In an interview after the event, Zoellick spoke about the Occupy Wall Street movements and the negative effect they could have on the global marketplace.
“I’m more worried about the effects on developing countries, which you can see in the markets, in the bond yields,” he said. “And the thing that we’re watching quite closely is the confidence in the business sectors or the consumer, and these countries have less cushion, or less room, for that to drop.”
Ben Pierson, a second-year MBA student in the Ross School of Business, said he appreciated Zoellick’s willingness to share his opinions.
“I wanted to hear something that doesn’t have a media filter on it, which I feel like these things often have,” Pierson said. “I feel like he was honest on what his opinions were, even if he pivoted away from questions that may have been perceived as controversial.”