World leaders weigh stimulus versus austerity at G20

With major European economies on the brink of collapse, leaders concluding an annual Group of 20 meeting sought to reassure the world that they would find a way to put out the debt-fuelled economic wildfire that has threatened banks, wiped out jobs and toppled governments all over the Continent.

G20 and the euro

10 years ago
Duration 2:38
Days of talk but no answers as the G20 leaders discuss the eurozone crisis

With major European economies on the brink of collapse, leaders concluding an annual Group of 20 meeting sought to reassure the world that they would find a way to put out the debt-fuelled economic wildfire that has threatened banks, wiped out jobs and toppled governments all over the Continent.

But the presidents and prime ministers meeting in this seaside resort seemed content to delay any major decisions for a while longer, releasing only a general statement that stopped short of committing any nations to greater spending unless conditions worsen and urging fiscal responsibility.

For months, governments and economists have weighed two different paths to ease the financial crisis: spending more to try to stimulate growth or slashing budgets. European leaders headed home without announcing any significant agreements, and they aimed to meet again later this month in Brussels, with a goal of adopting a more detailed plan.

Still, the battle lines in the stimulus-versus-austerity debate were clearly drawn among the 24 heads of state gathered in a heavily guarded convention hall lined by a moat. The conservative leaders of the United Kingdom, South Korea and Germany came out decisively for austerity, warning that budget cuts were crucial to restoring fiscal order and worldwide confidence.

"The countries in crisis will have to find measures that might be painful and politically unpopular in the short term, but nonetheless they must pursue this path," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Monday.

On the other side were left-leaning governments such as those in Argentina, Brazil and France that have denounced the German-imposed austerity plan for struggling countries such as Spain and Greece and pushed for more stimulus spending.

After Argentine President Cristina Fernandez met with her Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, the two sides came away opposed to the existing bailout plan.

"At the same time, they agree that we need to listen to Europe, especially to Germany, to see what measures it proposes to exit the euro crisis," Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman said.

That the leaders agreed only to some general policies is typical of G20 declarations, said Jacob Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"On the big issue of the hour, of weeks and months, the G20 communiqué is not going to make a big difference," Kirkegaard said. "The communiqué will repeat the mantra about strong, balanced, global growth. With each member state free to do whatever they want, that's the way to paper over those differences."

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk in a bilateral meeting in Los Cabos. (Roberto Stuckert Filho/Presidencia Brazil/Reuters)

Indeed, the statement's reassuring words failed to soothe troubled world stock markets, which remained mixed and nervous Tuesday.

Germany must shoulder a large share of the contributions to bail out economically weaker European countries that overspent for years. In exchange, Germany has been insisting on steep cutbacks from aid recipients such as Greece.

Those cutbacks have led to dramatic economic hardship for voters in Greece and other countries. A growing number of European countries have been advocating spending and growth, not austerity, and the G20 statement made limited mention of such a possibility.

"We are united in our resolve to promote growth and jobs," the document said.

"Strong sustainable and balanced growth remains the top priority of the G20, as it leads to higher job creation and increases the welfare of people across the world," the statement said.

The statement threw support specifically behind greater government spending in countries that can afford it, if conditions get significantly worse. Countries with "sufficient fiscal space stand ready to co-ordinate and implement discretionary fiscal actions to support domestic demand."

Plan hints at flexibility

The plan also hinted at flexibility by asking that governments "take into account evolving economic conditions," which could open the way for more latitude in troubled countries such as Greece.

Both British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande said the summit's final declaration also pledges to avoid new protectionist measures until 2014 and that China has agreed to let currency fluctuate more freely, according to market forces.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde was at the conference in Mexico. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated Tuesday that Greece has to uphold its side of the bargain.

"It's obvious that the reforms that were agreed in the past are the right steps and that they therefore must be implemented," she told reporters, though she avoided directly answering the issue of giving Greece more time.

Merkel said the G20 leaders had a "very balanced" discussion on growth, though she stressed once again that growth "is not just about money."

"We need the right mix of budget consolidation ... and at the same time efforts for growth," she said.

U.S. 'encouraged' by plans

The draft plan said the Obama administration pledged to prevent sharp tax increases and government spending cuts from kicking in at the end of the year, as scheduled under current law, to avoid sending the U.S. into another recession.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the U.S. was "encouraged" by European leaders' plans to confront the Continent's economic crisis.

Speaking on the sidelines of the summit, Geither said Europe will now focus on helping Greece stay afloat, designing a more integrated financial system and improving economic growth.

"And all of us, of course, have a huge interest, a huge stake in the success of their efforts," he said.

Obama echoed that sentiment, saying Europe's leaders showed a "heightened sense of urgency" during two days of talks in this Mexican resort. The president maintained that Europe had the capacity to solve the crisis on its own, indicating the U.S., still battling its own economic woes, would not be offering any financial pledges to help its international partners

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had previously told CBC News that time was running out to tackle the eurozone's woes, had some positive comments Tuesday.

"We've had good and frank discussions with our European counterparts," Harper said from Mexico. "They understand the challenges before them are enormous, and they have made commitments through the declaration to all leaders of the G20, to undertake all the steps, all the actions that are necessary."

Repeatedly, the plan stresses shoring up banking systems. It calls for a "more integrated financial architecture, encompassing banking supervision, resolution and recapitalization, and deposit insurance."

The cost of bailing out Spain's 1.1 trillion euro ($1.39 trillion US) economy would likely outstrip current global ability, even after the International Monetary Fund announced late Monday that a round of contributions had increased its lending capacity to $456 billion. The countries making the biggest IMF contributions will be Japan, at $60 billion; Germany, at $54.7 billion; and China, at $43 billion. The United States is notably not contributing in the latest round.