Austerity versus growth version 3.0 at G20/IMF

By Reuters

Oct 05, 2014 07:12 AM EDT

World policymakers gather in Washington later this week to ponder how to sustain economic recovery at a time when the United States is about to turn off its money taps.

Given the same G20 finance ministers and central bankers met in Australia only two weeks ago it is not hard to guess how the debate will go: most of the western world will urge the euro zone to do more to foster growth and Germany will warn against letting up on austerity.

That debate has circled within the G20 for three years and is fizzing now in Europe with France, Italy and others pressing for a loosening of fiscal strait-jackets to allow time for economic reforms in defiance of Berlin's wishes. 

"Existing flexibility within the rules should allow governments to address the budgetary costs of major structural reforms, to support demand and to achieve a more growth-friendly composition of fiscal policies," European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said on Thursday after a monthly policy meeting.

The Federal Reserve will end its program of bond-buying with new money later this month, a prospect that has already driven the dollar higher and created jitters about a reversal of money flows out of emerging markets back into the United States.

The euro zone in the guise of the ECB has been doing its best to come up with new stimulus, though it has shied away from full quantitative easing so far.

Its most effective card may be euro weakness, the flipside of dollar strength.

The euro is down almost 10 percent from a peak against the dollar in May. With U.S. money printing about to end and speculation about the timing of a first interest rate rise, there are good reasons to think this trend could continue.

The strong U.S. jobs report on Friday did little to change the picture.

"I don't think it changes the Fed dynamics. I still think the first rate hike is maybe mid-year," said Kim Rupert, managing director at Action Economics in San Francisco. "We are trying to gauge whether it's March or June."

If the euro keeps falling, it would push the prices of imports up while making it easier for euro zone countries to sell abroad which should have an upward impact on both growth and inflation. The impact won't be immediate though, as last week's inflation reading of just 0.3 percent demonstrated.

As with Japan last year, G20 policymakers gathered in Washington for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are in a poor position to complain about competitive devaluation having demanded stronger European growth for so long.

The IMF will release its latest World Economic Outlook before the meeting starts.

"The global economy is at an inflection point: it can muddle along with sub-par growth, a 'new mediocre'; or it can aim for a better path where bold policies would accelerate growth, increase employment, and achieve a 'new momentum'," IMF chief Christine Lagarde said as she looked ahead to the annual meet.

Last month's G20 meeting again failed to secure agreement on concrete measures, largely due to resistance from Germany, Europe's largest economy.


One reason the Fed's change of gear has not caused more ructions in financial markets so far may be an assumption that the Bank of Japan and ECB will eventually fill the liquidity gap by printing more money.

The Bank of Japan meets on Tuesday and is expected to keep monetary settings unchanged ahead of a rate review on Oct. 31 that will produce quarterly long-term economic forecasts which are likely to be downgraded.

For the ECB, money-printing quantitative easing (QE) is anything but certain given the philosophical and political difficulties it throws up in Germany and elsewhere despite the bloc flirting with deflation.

"The market is very much taking for granted that quantitative easing through a government bond purchase program is coming and I think there are many, many obstacles to that," Scott Thiel, head of European and global bonds at Blackrock, who oversees assets worth around $100 billion, told Reuters.

The Bank of England also meets in the week to come. Nobody expects it to raise interest rates from a record low 0.5 percent yet because of a near absence of wage growth despite robust economic growth.

The consensus in the latest Reuters poll of economists is for a first move upwards, something two of the Bank's nine rate-setters have already voted for, in the first quarter of next year, which should put it a little ahead of the Fed.

The Reserve Bank of Australia is expected to keep rates at 2.5 percent on Tuesday as it has for the previous 12 meetings. In Europe, Poland is expected to cut.

Whatever else happens, investors are going to have to get used to a world of divergent monetary policies.

"There are significant and increasing differences in the monetary policy cycle between major advanced economies," Draghi said.

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