Making World Safe for Money

Watchdog for central banks adjusts to 'emerging market' era

A series of locked doors guards the entrance of the Bank of International Settlements, a gold-filled bastion that watches over the stability of the world's financial systems.

But spring breezes of change sweep inside.

The BIS is - gasp - courting members from the other side of the tracks. That is, developing nations such as Mexico, China, and India.

"It was clear to me that if the BIS did not actively pursue this more global role, it risked becoming marginalized in its old role as being a European institution," says bank president Andrew Crockett.

Though little known beyond banking circles, the BIS has a vital mission, experts say.

It helps resolve financial crises and is a forum for cooperation among the world's major central banks. It also sets standards for commercial banks in member countries - to ensure their loan portfolios are backed by adequate capital.

The job often sounds dull; member central bankers meet monthly in Basel to discuss policy. But when foreign-exchange markets go haywire, the bank moves swiftly, as when President Kennedy was assassinated, or, more recently, in the Mexican financial crisis.

And the need for a global watchdog may be rising, as so-called emerging nations take a greater role in the world economy. Many have weak commercial banking systems.

Or they are prone to foreign-exchange shortfalls. That's one cause of the Mexican peso crash late in 1994. The BIS cooperated in an international rescue effort.

Now Mexico is one of the bank's new members, along with eight other major developing nations: Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, South Korea, China, India, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The list will only keep growing, says the British Mr. Crockett in an interview.

The current expansion of the bank's role moves it further from its roots in a much earlier crisis: World War I.

The BIS was founded in 1930 to deal with German reparation payments after that war. Soon it became a central bank for the central banks of key industrial nations.

More than 100 central banks and international financial institutions have $97 billion, about 7 percent of their foreign-exchange reserves, deposited at the bank.

The BIS also stockpiles other countries' gold at its headquarters in Basel.

Although the BIS has admitted more members - 32 in all - shareholder banks still come from the industrialized world. The 11 countries that form the bank's board of directors now include the United States, Canada, Japan, and Switzerland, which until 1994 refrained from full membership.

Growing US involvement and expanded membership reflect the growing interdependence of financial markets, Crockett says.

"This doesn't compromise the independence of action of the United States," he adds. That's become a big issue for America in other global organizations, such as the United Nations.

"Membership [gives top US] policymakers the opportunities to understand what is motivating Germany, Japan, China, Europe," Crockett says.

If the BIS doesn't live up to its aims, other organizations may move in on its turf.

Already, Asian nations have moved toward their own regional version of the BIS. And a European central bank is planned as part of Europe's single-currency future.

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