Published November 17, 2014
Finance chiefs of the world's dominant economies on Saturday pressured China to drop its resistance to a deal on tracking dangerous imbalances in the global economy, in an effort to revive the Group of 20 rich and developing nations as the forum to prevent further financial crises.
"I have the impression that China is aware of its responsibility in the world," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Saturday morning after holding late-night talks with his Chinese counterpart Xie Xuren. "China is also greatly affected by global developments."
France, which holds the G-20 presidency this year, asked finance ministers and central bank governors in their first meeting in 2011 to come up with a list of indicators to measure economic imbalances. Talks Friday and Saturday revolved around five specific measures: current accounts, real effective exchange rates and currency reserves, as well as public and private debt levels.
Beijing — watching over the world's second largest economy — has emerged as the power to convince to take even this first step in targeting imbalances, which most economists say not only were central to the recent financial crisis but also have been a big obstacle to getting the global economy back on track.
China has so far opposed targeting current account surpluses — which show that a country sends much more goods and capital abroad than it receives — and exchange rates, as it has resisted letting its own currency, the yuan, appreciate more quickly against the dollar.
The United States in particular accuses China of artificially lowering the price — and therefore improving the competitiveness — of its exports by preventing the yuan from rising in value. Many countries are also concerned over the political and economic influence Beijing could derive from its huge foreign currency reserves, denominated mostly in dollars.
But Germany's Schaeuble was nevertheless optimistic that a deal on all five indicators could be reached Saturday.
The stakes are high: French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde warned Friday that a failure to address imbalances "leads us straight into the wall of another debt crisis," while President Nicolas Sarkozy said that countries must not get complacent as some parts of the world are starting to recover from the crisis while others are still lagging behind.
"That would be the death of the G-20," Sarkozy warned.
France has set an ambitious agenda for its G-20 presidency in an attempt to revive the grouping, after a meeting of heads of state in Seoul last year failed to come up with specific yardsticks for measuring imbalances. But the gathering in Paris left many of the more difficult questions to be decided at later meetings.
Officials will not even attempt to set firm limits for when imbalances actually become dangerous. The still more difficult question of how to enforce any thresholds that leaders eventually sign up to is yet further off the agenda.
"Name and shame" policies like those used in the fight against international tax havens would be one, albeit toothless, possibility.
Progress on some of France's other priorities — such as tighter regulation of speculation in commodities markets and introducing a tax on financial transactions — appeared even more elusive in Paris.
While there is widespread agreement that smoothing out imbalances is key to a more even recovery of the global economy, how that should be done is more divisive. The mere existence of the imbalances points to vastly different growth models among the world's biggest economies, with each arguing that changing its strategy — whether based on exports, exchange rate controls or the free flow of money — would hurt its recovery.
What is clear to most economists is that sticking to the status quo could be fatal.
In the years before the financial meltdown of 2008, countries with trade surpluses plowed money into mortgage and other investments in the United States, helping escalate their value, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told his G-20 colleagues Friday. But the U.S. failed to safely absorb money flooding in from emerging nations like China, Middle Eastern oil countries and industrialized countries in Europe, Bernanke said.
The Fed Chairman called on surplus countries like China to let their exchange rates float freely, and urged nations like the United States to narrow their budget shortfalls and save more.
"If there is no stabilizing system, then you can have situations where like today, you have a two-speed recovery and demand is not optimally allocated around the world," Bernanke said. Emerging markets like China and Brazil have come out of the financial crisis much stronger than some of the more traditional powers such as the U.S, Europe and Japan.