WASHINGTON – Differences that threaten the outbreak of a currency war persisted after a weekend meeting of global finance ministers, who left without resolving what to do.
They did agree, however, that the 187-nation International Monetary Fund was the organization best suited to deal with rising global currency tensions that risk overshadowing next month's summit meeting of the Group of 20 nations in South Korea.
The G-20 includes traditional economic powers such as the United States and Europe along with fast-growing economies such as China, Brazil and India.
Various nations are seeking to devalue their currencies as a way to increase exports and jobs during hard economic times. The concern is that such efforts could trigger a repeat of the trade wars that contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930s as country after country raises protectionist barriers to imported goods.
"Currency disputes can easily become trade disputes," cautioned Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The International Monetary Fund ended two days of talks Saturday with a communique that pledged to "deepen its work" in the area of currency movements. This included giving the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn a mandate to operate as judge, arbiter and analyst in dealing with the main players in the currency dispute, The United States, the euro area, China and Japan.
The communique essentially papered-over sharp differences on currency policies between China and the United States.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said that a successful resolution of the currency dispute with China would require a cooling of overheated rhetoric about currency wars.
Noting the potential for broader ramifications, Lagarde added: "In a war, there is always a loser and in this situation there must not be a loser."
The Obama administration, facing November elections where high U.S. unemployment will be a top issue, has been pressing China to move more quickly to allow its currency to rise in value against the dollar.
American manufacturers contend the Chinese yuan is undervalued by as much as 40 percent and this has cost millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs by making Chinese goods cheaper in the United States and U.S. products more expensive in China.
China has allowed its currency to rise in value by about 2.3 percent since announcing in June that it would introduce a more flexible exchange rate. Most of that increase has come in recent weeks after the Obama administration began taking a more hardline approach and the U.S. House passed tough legislation to impose economic sanctions on countries found to be manipulating their currencies.
Chinese officials continued to insist that their gradual efforts to revalue their currency was the best approach to take.
"China will move the exchange rate gradually," Zhou Xiaochuan, head of China's central bank, said during a panel discussion Friday. "We will do it in a gradual way rather than shock therapy."
Chinese officials say that allowing the currency to rise too rapidly would cost thousands of manufacturing jobs and destabilize the Chinese economy.
China is hardly alone in trying to gain a competitive advantage by using its currency.
The United States is contributing to a weaker dollar by pressuring Beijing and by the Federal Reserve flooding the markets with U.S. dollars.
The Japanese government intervened in currency markets for the first time in years on Sept. 15. It sold yen and bought dollars to push the yen's value lower. And this week, the Japanese central bank announced that it would pursue a policy similar to the Fed's: buy assets to lower Japanese interest rates, another way to lower the yen's value.
Brazil and South Korea have also taken recent actions to weaken their currencies as a way to protect their exporters.
Egyptian Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali told reporters Saturday at a concluding IMF news conference that despite "a number of points of friction" it was significant that all countries recognized the central role of the IMF in trying to resolve currency conflicts.
Strauss-Kahn said the G-20 countries remained committed to the goals they established a year ago of achieving more balanced global growth and that this will require changes in currency policies.
"We can talk and talk and talk," Strauss-Kahn told reporters about the outcome of the two days of meetings. "What we need is real action. I don't believe this action can be done except in a cooperative way."