G20: why the Federal Reserve will be a hot topic in Russia

The prospect that the US Federal Reserve is about to taper down trillions in bond purchases is roiling emerging markets and could generate sparks at this week's G20 meeting in St. Petersburg.

By , Staff writer

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    A visitor looks at a painting by artist Alexei Sergiyenko, dedicated to the upcoming G20 summit and depicting G20 leaders, during a presentation in a gallery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday. The sign on top of the painting reads 'How nice it is that we have all gathered together here today!'
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The Group of 20 nations are holding their heads-of-state meeting this year against a backdrop of worry – and it’s not just about the question of possible military intervention in Syria.

The meeting also coincides with questions about the health of the global economy, especially the way that signals that the US Federal Reserve is close to tapering trillions of dollars in bond purchases are rippling outward to create turbulence for emerging-market nations.

Forecasters are still predicting that the world economy will grow, but this storm over tightening financial conditions is weighing on the outlook.

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And at the G20 meeting later this week in St. Petersburg, Russia, it could make for friction between advanced and less-developed nations.

“They're going to strongly remind the United States of its international responsibility,” says economist C. Fred Bergsten, referring to the way Federal Reserve policies affect interest rates and money flows in countries such as India and Brazil.

But President Obama, who will be attending the meeting along with other heads of state – including those of hard-hit India and Brazil – doesn’t have any direct influence on the Fed, since the US central bank is politically independent.

“It may not be too fruitful a discussion,” says Mr. Bergsten, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, who spoke to reporters on a conference call ahead of the summit.

Fed policymakers have been signaling that they’re close to a pivot-point in monetary policy – a decision to begin tapering the amount of US Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities that the central bank purchases each month in its efforts to keep interest rates low and promote economic growth. This pullback from so-called “quantitative easing” (QE) in the monetary realm could start as early as this month.  

The rationale for a downshift is that the US economy is showing stronger signs of self-sustaining growth, and therefore that the Fed should start transitioning from unconventional stimulus efforts (the QE program) toward a more normal policy climate.

But in recent months, the mere talk of QE tapering has roiled world financial markets. It has pushed up benchmark interest rates on US Treasury bonds. It has tightened financial conditions in many emerging or developing nations. In turn, the outlook for emerging market growth has been downgraded, and investor money has been flowing out.

A key indicator of the stress: Within the G20, a group that blends both advanced and emerging nations, currency values have plunged sharply on the “emerging” side of the membership roster. Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, and India have all seen significant erosion in currency values since May.

Emerging economies are no longer fueling world growth to the same degree, some of them are in considerable trouble, and they aren’t happy about the idea of Fed tapering.

In India, the turmoil has led recently to a change in leadership at the central bank.

Yet the challenges are hardly all of the Fed’s making. Many economists say that QE has helped to support emerging-market growth since the global financial crisis of 2008. Now, as financial conditions tighten, India is feeling pressed because of other problems that have been building under the surface. These include sizable budget deficits, high inflation, and corporate borrowing from abroad.

Similarly, nations like Brazil that have benefited from vibrant commodities markets in recent years now see the cycle turning toward leaner times.

In Bergsten’s view, all this doesn’t mean that the emerging nations face a potential financial crisis similar to what happened in Asia in 1997. And he says changes at the Fed aren’t likely to prompt any major problems for China – the emerging nation that, more than any other, is an engine of global economic growth.

This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a revised forecast for the world economy, calling for a continuation of sluggish growth. But the balance of momentum has shifted, with advanced economies strengthening a bit, even as developing nations look weaker.

One sign of the times in the OECD report: An index of manufacturing activity in long-struggling Europe has recently risen into positive territory (signaling expansion rather than recession), while an emerging-market index of industrial production has sagged to flat-line performance.

“It is necessary to continue to support demand, including through unconventional monetary policies, in order to minimize the risk of the recovery being derailed,” the OECD report said.

Fed officials, for their part, have been saying that QE stimulus shouldn’t be phased out if the economy fails to reach milestones of improvement. But Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has also said it’s possible that the bond-buying program that has driven Fed assets up to nearly $4 trillion could end by some time next year.

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