The leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies will hold an historic meeting Saturday in a bid to head off the threat of a protracted global recession and forge a new world financial order. Called together less than two months ago by US President George W Bush, the emergency summit of the Group of 20 (G20) leaders at the Washington National Building Museum comes in the wake of the biggest crisis to engulf the world economy since the Great Depression.
Unleashed by the US mortgage meltdown, the upheaval in the world financial system that emerged in recent months has sent stock exchanges into a tailspin, undercut credit markets and prompted a drive for tighter worldwide regulation of the financial industry.
As the crisis spread from the United States to the wider world, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last week forecast global growth would slow to 2.2 per cent in 2009, considered a global recession by the organization. Most advanced economies will contract over the same period.
Billed as a Bretton Woods-style gathering, after the 1944 meeting that established the post-Second World War financial system, this week's summit marks the launch of a process world leaders hope will lead to an overhaul of the rule book for the global financial industry.
While a revision of the capitalist model itself may not be on the horizon, even financial institutions have recognized that more transparency and scrutiny of their business practices is now inevitable.
"We do believe that coming out of all this will be some rather fundamental reforms in the global financial architecture," said Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance (IIF), the world's top banking lobby.
The IIF has even called for a new global body that could coordinate such reforms, but Dallara added: "I think it would be the height of misguidedness if we concluded that capitalism is dead. I think we do need to fix the things that went wrong."
But many governments have sought to lower expectations for the summit, while others have pushed for a broader agenda that could include climate change and trade policy.
"The summit has not been well prepared," said Heribert Dieter, senior fellow with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "It is not clear what those attending the summit really want to talk about."
Indeed, a major risk facing the summit is that it could expose deep divisions between the US and other key G20 states, with the Europeans expected to try press for more regulation than the US believes is necessary.
At the same time, major emerging economies such as China, Russia and Brazil are likely to demand a key role in drawing up the blueprint for the new financial system.
Responding to the slew of proposals for the Washington summit, the White House has said world leaders will agree on a set of "principles" for a regulatory overhaul and leave the specifics to a later date.
Those principles could include raising the low capital requirements that precipitated the current credit crisis by allowing banks to take excessive risks and amass mountains of debt. International credit-rating agencies could also face tougher scrutiny, and the summit will likely set in motion moves towards closer co-operation between national bank supervisory bodies.
In addition, there are plans for a crackdown on tax havens as well as financial sectors that have so far managed to evade regulation, such as hedge funds.
One of the more concrete measures likely to result from the G20 meeting is an expansion of the role played by the IMF, a global lender of last resort that has also traditionally been charged with maintaining economic stability.
Governments, central banks and legislatures around the world have already taken a series of unprecedented measures in an effort to stabilize the financial system, including coordinated interest-rate cuts and billion-dollar rescue packages for struggling banks.
Yet governments attending Saturday's meeting are likely to face calls for the implementation of generous national economic stimulus plans to help the world economy limp through the current uncertainty.
Morris Goldstein of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said investments of 1-2 per cent of gross domestic product should be offered by every G20 member government that can afford it.
In addition to the world's leading industrialized countries such as the US, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy, Britain and France, the G20 also includes key emerging economies such as China, India, Russia and Brazil, which have been a major source of global economic growth in recent years.
Coming less than two weeks after Barack Obama's election and within a few months of Bush's departure from the White House, the process will ultimately give the new president the chance to help reshape the global financial structure.
Obama will not attend the summit, stressing last week that the US only has "one president at a time," but the White House has said his team of economic advisors will be regularly informed on its progress.
Indeed, the scale of the changes that are to be considered are expected to take several months to implement and consequently form a key part of Obama's early period in office.