G20 wary of overconfidence as Greece cast long shadow

G20 finance leaders said on Friday they had secured a better-than-expected global economic recovery but were wary of overconfidence as Greece’s debt crisis put the focus on worsening public finances.

The Group of 20 rich and emerging countries failed to forge consensus on how best to recoup the cost of bailing out financial firms, whose risky bets sent the global economy into its worst tailspin since World War II.

They also skirted over the thorny issue of whether China should allow its yuan currency to rise more rapidly to curb its export-driven growth. G20 officials said there was no discussion of specific exchange rates.

In a six-page communiqué released at the meeting’s conclusion, finance ministers and central bankers said the recovery “has progressed better than previously anticipated” and credited their own efforts with helping to end the financial panic that gripped the global economy a year ago.

Despite that upbeat assessment, Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the International Monetary Fund had cautioned the G20 against overconfidence.

“There was some significant concern that some countries had been too optimistic in their economic projections and that cumulatively there was perhaps too much optimism,” he said.

While Greece was not formally on the agenda, it was a hot topic both at the G20 and on the sidelines, where officials rallied behind aid expected to be worth up to €45-billion euros ($60,5-billion), potentially the biggest bailout of a country.

Finance ministers said they would not allow debt troubles to fester and threaten the European Union or world economy.

“If the house of your neighbour is on fire, even if it is a small house and, maybe, it is your neighbor’s fault, you’d better not ignore the fire,” Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti said.

“You’d better use a fire extinguisher, if you have it, and we have it. Otherwise the fire will reach your house as well, even if it is a beautiful and big house.”

European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said European officials expected to complete work on a programme for Greece by early May.

Sounds familiar
The G20 has largely supplanted the rich-only G7, an acknowledgment that the financial crisis emanated from a rich world that now needs help from fast-growing emerging powerhouses to solve global problems.

The message from this meeting was similar to that agreed in September, when G20 heads of state laid out broad principles on enacting regulatory reform, securing economic recovery, and rebalancing global growth.

Finance ministers will meet in Korea in early June, ahead of a leaders summit in Toronto later that month, and officials said they were hopeful for more concrete progress then.

Economists agree that efforts to pump a combined $5-trillion in stimulus money into the economy and cut interest rates to the bone have stopped the economy’s free-fall.

However, the rescue left most advanced economies shouldering debt burdens approaching World War II highs, and Greece’s fiscal troubles highlighted how risky that can be.

Derek Scissors, an economist with the conservative Washington think tank the Heritage Foundation, said the G20 was pushing for conflicting goals of stimulus to nurture the recovery and fiscal restraint to ward off a new crisis.

“They’re going to have to decide which is more important: sound public finance or the policy stimulus that shifted corporate debt to sovereign debt,” he said.

“Attempting to embrace both in the first substantial paragraph (of the communiqué) doesn’t engender credibility.”

The G20 stressed the need to “elaborate” on how countries will withdraw emergency spending and lending programs without jeopardising the recovery, but acknowledged that different recovery rates meant countries needed different policies.

The sharpest division was over an IMF proposal to levy taxes on banks so that taxpayers would not foot the bill for costly bailouts. Britain and the United States have pushed for such policies, while Canada has been the most vocal opponent.

Canada’s Flaherty said he thought sentiment was swinging toward his country’s position.

When asked about that, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner showed a flash of humour: “All things are swinging Canada’s way. They won the medal in the Olympics — the hockey medal,” he said, referring to Canada’s victory over the United States in Vancouver. “That’s a good sign for Canada.” – Reuters

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