Speaking at a newsmaker event at Thomson Reuters’ London office, Zoellick announced a $50 billion programme to reverse a sharp drop in trade in the global crisis and urged G20 leaders to back the effort.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said on Tuesday that world trade was in free fall and should decline by 13.2 percent in 2009 as the economic crisis cuts demand across the globe.
Zoellick said the programme would include funding from governments, starting with contributions from Britain and the Netherlands, regional development banks and private-sector banks such as Standard Chartered, Standard Bank and Rabobank.
He said it was an example of how multilateral institutions like the World Bank could be used to help fix problems related to the financial crisis.
But he played down the chances of a dethroning of the dollar as the world’s leading currency.
"I think the dollar will remain the principal reserve currency. The question will be whether you have complementary measures," Zoellick said in an interview with Reuters.
China has provoked debate about the dollar’s status as the world’s main unit of exchange by suggesting the wider use of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) created by the International Monetary Fund as an international reserve asset.
While those ideas were worth discussing, for instance to increase international liquidity, Zoellick said that did not change the importance of the dollar.
"A dollar-based system and a strong dollar … will be critical to pull us out of this hole. Over time, however, you will see discussions over the role of the dollar," he said.
Given the important role the U.S. dollar plays in the global financial system, it is incumbent upon the United States to pursue sound economic, fiscal and monetary policies, he said.
It would take more than a G20 summit to establish a new reserve currency, which requires functioning financial markets.
"To create a reserve currency you need to have more than a summit or a meeting, you have to create financial markets where people feel comfortable moving in and out of the currency."
If the Chinese yuan is to start playing a larger role, it will require full convertibility of its currency and greater transparency, he said. However, China’s contribution to the debate was a healthy development showing its engagement in the international financial system.
The World Bank chief said the world economy faced a "dangerous year" and could stumble deeper into recession.
"Everyone needs to approach this crisis with a healthy dose of humility because we’ve seen surprises, we still face high uncertainty," he said.
"It remains a dangerous year in terms of downside risks."
Zoellick said the Bank had revised down its growth forecast for the world economy in 2009 to -1.7 percent — below the IMF’s most recent forecasts but still well shy of a 4.3 percent contraction predicted on Tuesday by the OECD.
He said growth would continue in China, albeit at a lower level, and the United States should begin to show signs of recovery, seeding a broader upturn.
"If the U.S. can follow through on its banking programme – there is a reasonable chance that you will start growth in the U.S first. Whether it is 2009 or 2010 is a little bit hard for me to tell," Zoellick said.
The World Bank president said his priority at the G20 financial summit of the world’s largest industrialised and developing countries on Thursday was to ensure that leaders not only debate reform and regulation, but also consider balanced global growth.
"It would be a big mistake if it were to become a summit of high finance without focusing on the poor," he said.
He is pressing leaders to contribute 0.7 percent of their stimulus packages to a World Bank-run vulnerability fund for the poor. Investment in the poorest regions, such as Africa and Asia, to raise productivity will bear dividends by achieving more balanced economic development, he said.
To this end, the World Bank is promoting a trade finance initiative.