G20 Divided on Monetary, Trade Policy

As the finance ministers of the G20 meet in Paris this weekend, discord remains among the world’s largest economies.

While the finance ministers of the world’s twenty largest economies meet in Paris this week under French tutelage for the first time, divisions among the G20 nations remain profound. Chairing the top economies of the world is French president Nicolas Sarkozy who, up for reelection in 2012, is counting on international success to bolster his popularity.

France assumed the presidency of the G20 earlier this year and aims to curb the volatility of food and fuel prices while gradually reducing the world’s dependency on the American dollar. Monetary and trade policy differences continue to set the agenda however as China and Germany, both net exporters, are recovering while the United States remain mired in recession.

American president Barack Obama unsuccessfully urged his fellow G20 leaders to continue their economic stimulus programs in the summer of last year. The July summit in Toronto, Canada agreed to slash budget deficits instead. Germany in particular has been championing austerity over high deficit spending.

At November’s summit in Seoul, Germany, along with China, resisted American efforts to mend global trade imbalances.

Ahead of the meeting of government leaders in South Korea, American treasury secretary Timothy Geithner complained that, “For too long many countries oriented their economies toward producing for export, rather than consuming at home — counting on the United States to import more of their goods and services than they bought of ours.”

Germany is booming because of a recent surge in exports while China fears that any slowdown in economic expansion could unleash its internal forces of discontent. That is also why it has resisted calls to let its currency appreciate more steeply.

As the Seoul summit was unable to forge consensus, France has been tasked to find agreement on determining the “indicative guidelines” of the global balance of trade. The French don’t expect to find that agreement during the upcoming ministerial meeting however.

“China exports and saves, Europe consumes and the United States prints money and consumes. Is that a balanced model?” Christine Lagarde, France’s economy minister, wondered on Monday.

She voiced not only the concerns of Europe but of China which has pointed at the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing as a cloaked method of driving down the exchange rate of the dollar and artificially enhancing American competitiveness.

While Lagarde hopes to reach agreement on setting trade indicators next Saturday, “it’s not a drama” if the G20 ministers do not, she professed. “France has the luxury of time,” at least until the end of this year.

It is not only the Fed’s expansionary monetary policy that worries policymakers from Beijing to Frankfurt. As the United States are likely to continue to set record deficits for the rest of this decade, Chinese and European central bankers have reason to fear high inflation.

Last month, European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet publicly criticized the notion of only considering “core inflation,” which excludes food and energy costs, as the Federal Reserve has been doing. The world’s three most powerful central banks are unlikely to agree on common action to curb inflation when they convene this weekend as each each faces vastly different economic challenges at home and is subject to different mandates.

While the world’s major economies are currently unwilling to compromise on questions of exchange rates and fiscal consolidation, France is trying to win support for its quest to end high volatility in food and fuel prices by improving the transparency of inventory data and limiting speculation in financial markets. Brazil, Canada and the United States, all major food producers, are critical. No substantive moves on reform are expected until the G20’s agriculture ministers meet in June.