G20 backs off austerity drive, rejects hard debt cut targets
REUTERS - Finance leaders of the G20 economies on Friday edged away from a long-running drive toward government austerity in rich nations, rejecting the idea of setting hard targets for reducing national debt in a sign of worries over a sluggish global recovery.
The G20 club of advanced and emerging economies also said it would be watching for negative effects from massive monetary stimulus, such as Japan's - a nod to concerns of developing nations that those policies risk flooding their economies with hot capital and driving up their currencies.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said at a news conference that officials from the Group of 20 nations believed overall debt reduction was more important than specific figures.
"We agreed that these would be soft parameters, these would be some kind of strategic objectives and goals which might be amended or adjusted, depending on the specific situations in the national economies," he said.
Russia - this year's G20 chair - had hoped to secure an agreement on setting fixed targets for reducing debt by the time G20 leaders meet in St. Petersburg in September.
But the United States and Japan have firmly opposed the idea of committing to fixed debt-to-GDP targets, with Washington trying to keep the focus of the G20 on growth.
"Quite frankly, the language could have been stronger but it's sufficient to move this forward," said Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
In a communique after a two-day meeting, the G20 said it would be "mindful" of possible side effects from extended periods of monetary stimulus, a phrase added the insistence of South Korea to take into account the concerns of emerging markets.
"Monetary policy should be directed toward domestic price stability and continuing to support economic recovery," the statement said.
The economic policies of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have weakened the yen, but only as a by-product of stimulus geared at pulling the country out of deflation, the country's finance minister said.
"To say that a cheap yen is our goal will grossly miss the point," Taro Aso told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"The big D - deflation - is too difficult and too persistent to get rid of. At the end of the day, a shrinking Japan can only do harm to the world."
The BOJ is not alone in flooding its economy with cheap funds to try to boost borrowing and spending. The U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and, to some extent, the European Central Bank have as well.
"Japan's growth is good for India. Stagnation in Japan is not good for India. We want Japan to grow," said Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who spoke at the Peterson Institute in Washington on Friday.
Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said that because of Japan's long history of deflation, its stimulus efforts were "understandable," but he added that the G20 must remain vigilant on exchange rates.
The G20 leaders urged the euro zone to quickly move toward a banking union in order to help revive the region's economy. However, Germany repeated its earlier position that European Union laws needed to be changed before one of the elements of the banking union, a scheme for winding down failing banks, can be introduced - which is likely to delay the process.
The struggles of the euro zone dominated G20 discussions, delegates said, as harsh austerity measures have failed to lift the region out of its economic slumber. The United States has been pressing Europe to ease up on its budget cutting.
A senior U.S. Treasury official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said that Cyprus's bailout showed Europe needs to do more to move towards banking union.
Discussions of the euro zone will likely remain prominent on Saturday as global finance officials gather again for a meeting of the International Monetary Fund's governing committee.
"Stronger demand in Europe is critical to global growth. Weak domestic demand has undercut euro area growth for six consecutive quarters and output continues to contract," U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement prepared for delivery to the IMF committee.
SOFT DEBT TARGETS
The drive toward government austerity has been undercut by weakness in economies that took severe measures to cut deficits, including Britain, which is headed into its third recession in the last five years. The U.S. economy also shows some signs of strain that economists pin on belt-tightening in Washington.
Earlier this week, the IMF reduced its forecast for global growth and reiterated its call for some European countries to throttle back their austerity drives.
Fitch cut its credit rating on Britain on Friday to double-A-plus, citing expectations that general government debt will rise to 101 percent of GDP by 2015-2016 due to weak growth.
In an interview with BBC television, IMF chief Christine Lagarde said now might be time for Britain to consider relaxing its focus on austerity given the recent weakness in its economy.
Russia's Siluanov also said a greater amount of coordination was needed with the IMF on global liquidity, with recommendations expected by next July.
G20 ministers called on the Financial Stability Board to oversee work on reforms for short-term interest rate benchmarks such as Libor in the aftermath of a global rate-rigging scandal. FSB was asked to report back in July on its progress. (Additional reporting by Reuters G20 reporting team; Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Dan Burns and Tim Ahmann)
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