Banking on the BRICS

Since it was recognized by a Goldman Sachs strategist in 2001, BRICS — the group of Brazil, Russia, China and India, joined by South Africa in 2010 — has loomed large as a challenge to the global order established after World War II.

The collective heft of those economies was supposed to recalibrate international decision making, forcing a reorientation of global institutions.

While the reality of the BRICS has proven considerably less formidable than the idea, the leaders of those five nations remain committed to a fundamental change in the way the world works. They moved forward with that ambition last week with the decision to launch the New Development Bank (NDB), a financial institution that will rival the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the provision of financing for developing economies.

As ever, there is less to this development than meets the eye. Nevertheless, it is clear that institutional reform is a necessity: The world has changed greatly since its governing bodies were established in the aftermath of WWII. Those institutions have not kept pace. After two years of negotiations, it was agreed that the NDB would have initial authorized capital of $100 billion and initial subscribed capital of $50 billion, apportioned evenly among all founding members.

There is something for each BRICS member in the new organization. It will be headquartered in Shanghai; the first chair of the Board of Governors will be from Russia; the first chair of the Board of Directors from Brazil; and the first president will be from India.

Ensuring that South Africa is not left out, an African regional center of the NDB will be established in South Africa concurrently with the headquarters. The bank will focus on loans for infrastructure and development projects.

The division of the spoils helped minimize rumors of division among the principals. It also reinforced the message of equality that guides its founders: All members of the NDB would have equal voting rights — a stark contrast to the World Bank and the IMF, which are dominated by the West, a perennial source of complaint by emerging economies.

The bank is scheduled to make its first loan in 2016. The $100 billion reserve fund, called a “Contingency Reserve Arrangement,” could be in place next year. It will be available to members that face a foreign exchange crisis. The rules of operation, apart from the equal recognition of all members, remain to be established.

The NDB is intended to provide developing countries with an alternative to the “financial imperialism” of the World Bank and the IMF. Those institutions provide aid when economic crises hit but under rigorous terms.

Developing countries complain that they have little say in the conditions under which assistance is made available and the “one-size-fits-all” programs, which invariably focus on austerity, can cause as much damage as they help. While the BRICS seek greater democratization of international lending, the NDB is designed to “complement existing international arrangements,” a purpose that suggests it will not undermine the authority of the older institutions.

In truth, the NDB, like the BRICS concept itself, is more symbol than substance. With $50 billion in capital, the NDB will be able to lend about $3.4 billion annually in a decade. The World Bank, in contrast, lends more than $60 billion each year. China provides more aid by itself.

Ironically Beijing’s heft is one of the reasons that few people take the BRICS seriously. While the BRICS’ annual output totals nearly $16 trillion — more than the eurozone — and they represent 43 percent of the world’s population, their individual fortunes have varied greatly since the concept was first articulated. China’s growth continues, with its share of the world economy expanding from 11 percent in 2008 to an estimated 18 percent by 2018.

India is still growing, although more slowly, with its share of the global economy rising from 4.8 percent to a forecast 6.3 percent by 2018. Brazil, Russia and South Africa are encountering powerful headwinds, and their share of global output remains flat. They remain united, however, in their desire to claim more control of international decision making. Russian President Vladimir Putin has explained that “It is time to raise the BRICS’ role to a new level and to make our group an unalienable part of the global order.”

Putin shed yet more light on his thinking when he called for the BRICS to coordinate their foreign policies to avoid the “harassment” of countries that diverge from the thinking of the United States and its allies.

While that is a powerful motivator, it is not enough. Beijing’s dynamism — and wealth — gives it considerably more influence in international councils, but China is reluctant to share that leverage in the name of abstract notions of brotherhood. China has distinct goals for its foreign and economic policy, and facilitating the rise of Russia, one of its periodic competitors, at Beijing’s expense, is not one of them.

Even when the NDB opens its doors for business, few will be banking on the BRICS.