World finance officials seek ways to boost growth

Friday 19 April 2013 19.19
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde urges countries to focus on growth
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde urges countries to focus on growth

Finance leaders of the G20 economies have gathered to debate how best to rein in debt levels and the potential dangers from the latest round of aggressive easing of monetary policy from the world's central banks.

They were also poised to demand swifter resolution to setting guidelines for financial benchmarks like the Libor interest rate in the wake of a global rate-rigging scandal.

However a rethinking of the austerity push among the world's biggest economies loomed as the biggest talking point.

Advanced economies, particularly in Europe, have undertaken sharp austerity drives in recent years to curb growing debt, but those efforts have at times damaged economies already suffering from capital flight and under-investment from the private sector.

EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn told Reuters in an interview that a period of reduced spending and borrowing was necessary to calm markets concerned about out-of-control debt levels, particularly in peripheral European countries.

That time has passed, he said.

"Decisive action was taken. Now as we have restored the credibility in the short-term, that gives us the possibility of having a smoother path of fiscal adjustment in the medium-term," he said.

Among the topics finance officials from the G20 were debating was whether or not numerical targets should be set for debt reduction.

The United States and Japan have opposed committing to any targeted level of public debt, but Russia - this year's G20 chair - has hoped to secure an agreement on targets by the time G20 leaders meet in St Petersburg in September.

Arriving for a second and final day of talks among G20 finance officials, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told reporters that the discussion was revolving a "general goal" for deficit reduction rather a specific target.

"Colleagues said that if we make strict targets for fiscal consolidation, it reduces the room for manoeuvre for fiscal policy," he said. "I believe we will find a compromise about the formulation, that it should be a general goal we'll all be striving for, and not a strict parameter. ... All countries will have different ones."

In a 2010 study frequently cited by policymakers, Harvard professors Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart found that on average, economies contract when the debt-to-GDP ratio surpasses 90% - a level G20 officials were discussing.

However, the study's results were disputed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who said growth for countries with those ratios was actually 2.2%.

The austerity argument has also been undercut by weakness in economies that undertook the most severe measures to cut deficits, including Britain, which is suffering its third recession in the last five years.

The unprecedented level of monetary stimulus designed to reinvigorate struggling large economies, including the United States, the euro zone and Japan, has raised concerns about excessive capital flight to developing nations.

In a communiqué yesterday, the Group of 24 developing nations, whose ranks include Brazil, India, South Africa and Mexico, called on the advanced economies to "take into account the negative spillover effects ... of prolonged unconventional monetary policies including on inflation and the volatility of capital flows and commodity prices."

The Bank of Japan is attempting to end decades of stagnation by pumping $1.4 trillion into its economy, some of which is expected to find its way into emerging markets.

Local currency funds have pulled in $16.7 billion in the first quarter of 2013 worldwide, the most in more than two years, according to Lipper, a unit of Thomson Reuters.

"There is a call from the G24 members to have clear coordination and better communication between advanced economies and emerging markets ... towards using coordination as a way to mitigate these potential asset appreciation bubbles.

The consensus is that this is something that has to be closely monitored," said Mexican Finance Minister Luis Videgaray.

Mr Videgaray has cause for concern.

In the days following the Bank of Japan's announcement, for example, the Mexican peso jumped 2.5% against the dollar to its strongest in 20 months. Against the yen, the peso surged over 9%.

But delegates to the gathering, including Siluanov, said the BOJ did not face criticism during a dinner meeting on Thursday.

"Everyone was understanding about Japan's policies," Siluanov said. "After 15 years of deflation, 15 years of no growth, they need to kickstart" the economy.

Nevertheless, officials held to their previous line that the BOJ program must stick to domestic targets.

Jens Weidmann, president of Germany's Bundesbank central bank, said Japan should not use its monetary policy to manipulate exchange rates and set off a round of competitive devaluations.