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Don’t bet on a bank made of BRICS

A generation ago, many wondered how many years would pass before American dominance and, by extension, the clout of Western-led financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank faced a serious challenge. So far, no single rival has proved its staying power. For better and for worse, the IMF and World Bank remain core components of international politics and development. And that's what makes collective action among the BRICS-Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa-so intriguing. The BRICS carry considerable weight as models for the next wave of developing countries-particularly following an American-made financial crisis and ongoing turmoil in the Europe.

It's no surprise then that plans announced last month to create a BRICS development bank have generated so much buzz. In particular, the ability of leading emerging market governments to finance big infrastructure construction projects across the developing world has interesting potential implications.

Yet, for many of the same reasons that the BRICS have so far struggled to institutionalize a working partnership in other areas, this bank will take longer to build than its architects think and will never realize the grand ambitions of its most forceful advocates. 

It's no secret that Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa are home to quite different political and economic systems and face different sorts of challenges. Less well understood is the diversity of their interests in creating a bank. Questions of seed money, oversight, purpose, and where the bank might be headquartered are certain to arouse controversy.

But the larger problem is that all the BRICS except China are grappling with sharper-than-expected economic slowdowns-and Brazil, India, South Africa, and Russia are all looking to spend their revenue on infrastructure projects at home to help bolster growth. For the moment, none of them can afford to invest substantial sums to build someone else's roads, bridges, and ports.

These governments face a choice. They can contribute to a BRICS bank funded in equal (modest) parts by each member and lacks the capital to accomplish much. Or they can lend their names to a much-better funded institution that is thoroughly dominated by China.

Yes, Brazil's government is interested in promoting a South-South development strategy, but the Dilma Rousseff administration is now focused mainly on reviving domestic growth following a significant slowdown last year. Its strategy rests in part on using state development bank BNDES to fund ambitious infrastructure projects inside Brazil. If the BRICS bank can be used to finance projects outside Brazil to which BNDES is already committed, it might be useful, but don't expect the Rousseff administration to offer significant new cash commitments toward these projects.

Russia's government, also faced with sluggish growth, will talk up the need for a counterweight to U.S.- and European-dominated institutions, but tepid pledges of support for the bank from Russia's finance minister and the recent tragicomedy in Cyprus make clear that Moscow is not ready to finance its bid for greater international prestige with substantial sums of cash.

Political officials in India, where national elections loom next year, are too preoccupied with a steady stream of domestic troubles to devote much capital to a BRICS development bank, and the government remains deeply ambivalent about its often troubled relations with fast-expanding China. That's in part why India's finance minister has said that the BRICS bank will complement, not challenge, existing international lending institutions.

Then there is South Africa, a country with a growing middle class but chronic high unemployment and an economy the size of China's sixth largest province. The ruling African National Congress sees obvious value in deepening trade and investment relations with China, but its greatest near-term contribution to a BRICS development bank will probably be limited mainly to providing its headquarters a home.

Finally, the bank faces obstacles even within China, the one country than can afford to give it heft. China already has a development bank. It's the most powerful financial institution in the country, one that answers only to the State Council, giving it the status almost of a government ministry. In fact, though the China Development Bank and the China Export-Import Bank may lack the perceived legitimacy of multinational institutions, they don't lack for borrowers. Together, they already lend more to developing countries and companies -- more than $100 billion per year -- than the IMF and World Bank do, extending China's strategic influence throughout Africa and Latin America, in particular.

Why share credit and benefit for these efforts with the other BRICS, especially when the rest have so much less to contribute? And why give others a say in where Chinese funds are invested? 

All five of these governments have an interest in choreographed displays of unity and rhetorical challenges to U.S. power. But like so many other aspects of BRICS cooperation, there is less to this bank than meets the eye.

Willis Sparks is director in Eurasia Group's global macro practice.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

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