G-20 Wants Governments Doing More, and Central Banks Less

  • Fiscal pledges lack specifics, risking market disappointment
  • Concern voiced over currency wars after BOJ rate surprise

Finance chiefs from the world’s top economies committed their governments to doing more to boost global growth amid mounting concerns over the potency of monetary policy. 

In a pledge that will prove easier to write than deliver and may disappoint investors looking for a coordinated stimulus plan, the Group of 20 said "we will use fiscal policy flexibly to strengthen growth, job creation and confidence." After a two-day meeting in Shanghai, finance ministers and central bank governors also doubled down on a line from their last gathering that "monetary policy alone cannot lead to balanced growth."

For those few analysts calling for a 1985 Plaza Accord-type agreement to address exchange-rate tensions, there was no such luck: International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said there were no discussions about anything like that. The G-20 members did reaffirm they will refrain from competitive devaluations, and -- in new language -- agreed to consult closely on currencies.

Reaching Limit

An increasing sense monetary policy is reaching its limit permeated officials’ briefings during the meetings that ended Saturday. While central banks proved critical in avoiding a global slide into depression last decade, there is now no consensus among the world’s top economic guardians backing stepped-up monetary stimulus. That leaves focus on fiscal polices that are subject to domestic political constraints, and a structural-reform agenda the G-20 said will be gauged through a new indicator system.

"Central bankers have done their bit in recent years to stabilize the world economy," said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong. "But as their tools are losing their effectiveness, only more aggressive fiscal policy and structural reforms will help to lift growth."

Among those publicly indicating a potentially reduced role for central banks was Lagarde, who said Friday the effects of monetary policies, even innovative ones, are diminishing. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney used a Shanghai speech ahead of the G-20 to voice skepticism over negative interest rates -- now in place in continental Europe and Japan -- and their ability to boost domestic demand.

Negative Spillovers

For his part, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, speaking in a pre-recorded video at the G-20, said quantitative easing policies can’t remove structural obstacles to growth and may lead to negative spillovers. The People’s Bank of China has been using more orthodox tools to support fiscal spending and structural reforms.

Adding to an atmosphere of unease about further central bank actions, some officials expressed concern about Japan’s policies, after its surprise move to adopt negative interest rates last month roiled the currency market.

"The debate was also about Japan to be honest -- there was some concern that we would get into a situation of competitive devaluations," Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who heads gatherings of euro area finance ministers, told reporters Saturday. "If policy decisions -- for example for domestic issues -- lead to devaluation, we should inform and consult with the different countries."

Japanese policy makers are now contending with a yen that rallied more than 6 percent in February, the biggest monthly surge since 2008 -- and one that stoked speculation among traders that officials could intervene in the market by selling the currency.

The G-20 said in the Shanghai communique that "we will consult closely on exchange markets," language that wasn’t included in its September statement.

Delivering on the G-20 statement to ease pressure on central banks will require political appetite for unpopular domestic reforms, while new spending may be constrained by already over-stretched budgets, especially across much of the advanced world.

"Where is the boost to growth going to come from? Fiscal policy? Reform?" said Richard Jerram, the chief economist at Bank of Singapore Ltd. "After six or seven years of trying to promote recovery there is no appetite for fiscal stimulus, and no easy or obvious reforms that have been neglected."

Some countries are heading in the other direction on the fiscal front. U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warned just days ago he may make further cuts in public spending in his annual budget on March 16. Japan is planning a 2017 sales-tax increase. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble rejected fiscal stimulus Friday. U.S. budget policy has proved a constant battleground between Republicans and Democratic President Barack Obama.

‘Bare Minimum’

"There is no positive surprise" from the G-20 commitments, said Mitsumaru Kumagai, chief economist at Daiwa Institute of Research in Tokyo. "There are no detailed plans in this agreement, so generally you can say they just achieved the bare minimum," he said. "Stocks may sell off a bit."

Host-nation China came through with the most specific plans, with Finance Minister Lou Jiwei pledging a wider fiscal deficit as his country’s leaders prepare for an annual gathering of the national legislature starting March 5. People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan also highlighted room for further monetary action

Other G-20 members haven’t ruled out further central bank actions, and -- for all his criticism of Japan -- Dijsselbloem said Friday that monetary policy can still do more.

Officials at the European Central Bank have signaled that, given the dimming of the global outlook and downward pressure on inflation coming from energy prices, a reduction in their deposit rate from the current minus 0.3 percent and even a boost to the pace of quantitative easing may be on the cards. The ECB’s Governing Council is due to announce its decision in Frankfurt on March 10.

Reflecting a consensus that central banks are already deploying their tools vigorously, the G-20 said that "monetary policies will continue to support economic activity and ensure price stability, consistent with central banks’ mandates."

With the Federal Reserve already signaling it has pared back plans for rate hikes this year, there was less of a focus at the G-20 gathering about U.S. monetary policy. The upshot: central bankers leave Shanghai with little pressure to act at their respective March meetings.

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