Scenarios: How the world can tackle skewed growth, FX

SINGAPORE (BestGrowthStock) – Finance leaders are trying to reconcile their differences over deep imbalances in the global economy and reduce the risk of a currency war.

Last week’s talks among Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank chiefs in South Korea yielded some progress. Leading emerging and developed economies pledged to refrain from damaging competitive currency devaluations and to tackle trade imbalances. They also agreed to give fast-growing nations a bigger voice at the International Monetary Fund.

Heads of G20 nations will meet at a Nov 11-12 summit to discuss more detailed targets.

Below are possible ways forward for addressing uneven global growth and currency tensions, exemplified by China’s big current account surplus, a fragile dollar and ultra-loose monetary policies in many rich economies.

WILL THERE BE PROGRESS AT THE G20 SUMMIT IN SEOUL?

PROBABILITY: Very high

For all the finger-pointing and allegations over selfish monetary policies preceding the gathering of finance ministers, the outcome was surprisingly positive.

It came nowhere close to meeting the expectations of some market participants of a repeat of the landmark 1985 Plaza Accord. Yet the group agreed broad guidelines to correct global imbalances and lent the plan some credibility by asking the IMF to police its implementation.

Redistributing voting power at the IMF in favor of emerging nations could lead to the likes of China and India, as a quid pro quo, taking on greater responsibility for tackling global issues.

The overall deal thus provides “deliverables” for G20 leaders to endorse and trumpet when they meet in Seoul next month.

That said, the G20 statement was light on most matters.

There was no explicit call for flexibility in China’s yuan or other managed currencies, no rebuke of central banks that have intervened in the currency markets and enough ambiguity to allow governments to pursue independent policy changes gradually.

It also glossed over a U.S. proposal to set numerical targets for current account balances after deep opposition from surplus countries such as Germany and Russia as well as from India, which runs a deficit.

But the two biggest players in the G20, the United States and China, appear to be on board to set some guiding principles, which means the Seoul summit may lay a foundation for some coordination in redressing current account imbalances.

WILL WE BE LEFT TO MUDDLE THROUGH?

PROBABILITY: High

G20 leaders may have signed a truce after months of trading barbs on beggar-thy-neighbor money printing and currency policies, but there is nothing to stop them from pursuing national economic solutions.

Indeed, South Africa said on Tuesday it would weaken the rand to boost growth [ID:nLDE69P111]. And officials say South Korea and Brazil might introduce fresh controls on capital inflows before long.

Likewise, a pledge at the G20 by advanced nations to be “vigilant against excess volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates” could soon be put to the test.

The U.S. Federal Reserve is expected to announce next week another round of quantitative easing that pumps hundreds of billions of dollars into the banking system [ID:nN25168493] — despite the fears of Germany, Japan, China and others that the result will be more dollar weakness.

Last week’s meeting showed there remains a veneer of the remarkable unity displayed after the credit crisis exploded.

Then, G20 leaders, determined to avert another Great Depression, slashed interest rates, refloated money markets, adopted a $1 trillion stimulus plan and pursued sweeping financial sector reform.

The group can only hope that financial markets do not test their resolve anew by stirring up a fresh crisis.

WILL THE IMF’S MAP PROCESS MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

PROBABILITY: Low

G20 finance ministers pledged to report regularly on progress in adjusting current account imbalances as part of the IMF’s mutual assessment process (MAP).

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s managing director, also proposed drawing up “spill-over reports” on how the policies of the world’s five largest economies — the United States, China, the euro zone, Japan and Britain — affect each other.

The reports would build on the annual reviews the IMF already conducts of the policies of its 187 member countries.

But the IMF has struggled for years to get governments to heed its calls for structural reforms. As Strauss-Kahnn acknowledged last week, the IMF lacks teeth: unless the fund is lending money to a country, it cannot impose its policy recommendations — be it in relation to greater currency flexibility in China or freer labor markets in Europe.

Giving the IMF more power to police the global economy would require an explicit extension of its mandate.

There is no reason to assume that developing countries, which are to get 6 percent more voting power at the fund, will be any keener than rich nations have been to strengthen the IMF’s hand. Asian nations in particular still seethe at the fund’s handling of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis.

IS THE G20 NOW THE FORUM TO THRASH OUT CURRENCY DIFFERENCES?

PROBABILITY: Possibly

The Group of 20, representing almost 90 percent of global output, last year took over from the Group of Seven industrial nations as the main forum for global economy policy-making.

Critics say last week’s communique is testament to how unwieldy, disparate and ineffective the group is. But the very fact that a consensus on currencies was forged is no mean feat.

Some officials say the talks in Gyeongju were struggling until G7 ministers struck a bargain over IMF representation at a separate meeting with their counterparts from the BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The currencies of the G7 — the dollar, euro, yen, sterling and Canadian dollar — account for the vast bulk of the $3 trillion traded daily in the global foreign exchange market (Read more about international currency trading. ).

But France, which assumes the G20 presidency after the Seoul summit, has said there is no obvious alternative to the G20.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants a review of the international monetary regime to be a centerpiece of his G20 presidency.

DEVELOPMENT OF A NEW RESERVE CURRENCY

PROBABILITY: Highly unlikely in the short term

China and Russia favor moving the global economy away from reliance on the dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency.

They have floated the idea of using a broader-based version of the Special Drawing Right, the IMF’s in-house unit of account, which is currently composed of the dollar, euro, yen and sterling.

Momentum is growing behind the idea of adding the yuan to the SDR basket, even though the Chinese currency is not convertible on the capital account.

But shifts in the status of reserve currencies do not happen overnight. Even after the United States overtook Britain in economic power, it was decades before the dollar supplanted sterling as the world’s principal reserve currency.

Sarkozy wants to examine international monetary arrangements, including the role of the SDR, during France’s G20 presidency.

Scenarios: How the world can tackle skewed growth, FX