U.S. plan hits G20 headwinds

By Reuters
Posted Oct. 22, 2010 at 10:32 a.m.

The United States struggled on Friday to win backing for its proposal of setting numerical targets for external imbalances as a way of pressing surplus countries such as China to let their exchange rates rise.

In a letter to fellow finance ministers of the Group of 20 leading economies, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said countries should implement policies to reduce their current account imbalances below a specified share of national output.

Diplomats said the Treasury chief was proposing to limit surpluses and deficits on the current account — the broadest measure of trade in goods and services — to 4 percent of gross domestic product.

But Geithner’s proposal met a cool reception on the first day of a two-day meeting meant to smooth the path for a G20 summit in Seoul on November 11-12.

German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle warned of falling back into “planned economy thinking,” while Russian Deputy Finance Minister Dmitry Pankin said the draft communique to be issued on Saturday would stay clear of numerical targets.

“The communique is very politically correct. There’s nothing sharp in it,” Pankin said. “In the long term the focus should be on the exchange rates reflecting market conditions. Excessive state interference in currencies should be avoided.”


Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda also voiced skepticism about Geithner’s proposal.

“We said that we doubt whether rigid numerical targets should be set. But when checking the progress in rectifying imbalances, that might be an idea,” he told reporters.

The criticism underscored the difficulties facing the G20 as it strives to put the world economy on a more stable footing and defuse currency tensions that economists fear could trigger trade wars.

While the G20 won praise for coordination of stimulus packages during the global financial crisis, its unity has been tested by low growth in rich countries and various attempts by emerging market economies to preserve their export competitiveness by holding down their exchange rates.

Saudi Arabia, Germany and Russia are the G20 members with the biggest current account surpluses, but China is the chief culprit in Washington’s eyes — and the unspoken target of Geithner’s letter — because of its massive currency market intervention to keep a lid on the yuan.

Beijing has amassed $2.65 trillion in official currency reserves as a consequence and has prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill threatening retaliation unless China lets its currency off the leash to reduce its huge trade surplus with the United States.

G20 countries, Geithner said, “should commit to refrain from exchange rate policies designed to achieve competitive advantage by either weakening their currency or preventing the appreciation of an undervalued currency.”

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