Germany firm on Greek leniency


Germany held firm today in insisting it was too soon to say Greece deserved more time to meet its budget-cutting goals even as the head of the IMF laid out the case for leniency.

Greece, Spain and the euro zone's slow progress toward debt reform was centre stage at International Monetary Fund meetings despite Europe's best effort to step out of the spotlight.

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, sitting next to Germany's finance minister, said Athens needed more breathing space. "Given the... lack of growth, given the market pressure, given the efforts that have been undertaken, a bit more time is necessary," she said, amplifying on remarks made yesterday.

In a softening of earlier advice, the IMF has argued that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries in Europe to reduce their deficits too quickly is counter-productive because it hurts the economy.

The shift was welcomed by some emerging market countries as well as long-time critics who say that the tough conditions attached to IMF loans inflict undue economic pain and make it harder for countries to grow their way out of debt.

"We have been arguing for some time that single-minded and draconian fiscal policies may be counterproductive and have a tendency to backfire," said Brazilian finance minister Guido Mantega.

But Germany, Europe's largest creditor country and the key to any lasting fiscal reforms, pushed back and said reversing course on promised deficit reductions would weaken credibility.

Finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said Europe had made plenty of crisis-fighting progress, echoing comments from other European officials who said there should be greater attention paid to US fiscal troubles.

He criticised Lagarde for calling for flexibility even before the "troika" of Athens's lenders - the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank - wrap up a review of their €130 billion bailout programme for Greece.

"Until we have the troika report, we must not speculate," he said.

Ms Lagarde and Mr Schäuble shared the stage as part of a panel discussion, their first public joint appearance since the IMF head surprised investors yesterday by stating unequivocally that Greece and Spain needed more time.

Spain's economy minister, Luis de Guindos, said there was "absolutely" no political resistance from within the euro zone to a Spanish bailout request, an apparent reference to Germany. Spain is under pressure to seek a bailout as it struggles to rein in central government spending.

US officials have expressed support for giving European countries extra time to deal with their debt.

In Lisbon, Portugal's prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho said his country was adjusting austerity measures to reality so it would not have to request more rescue funds.

But Italy's economy minister, Vittorio Grilli, said in Tokyo the economic pain from fiscal consolidation was "a necessary price to have for a much brighter future in the medium and long term".

Even as the euro zone debt crisis rages, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Despite some gloom in the economy in Europe, still this is a great day for Europe," said Olli Rehn, the EU's economic and monetary affairs commissioner.

The IMF's change of tune on the speed of budget cuts stems from research it released this week showing that aggressive fiscal consolidation crimps growth more sharply than previously thought.

It also reflects a desire by Ms Lagarde, a former French finance minister, to demonstrate the IMF is willing to get tough with Europe. Big emerging economies, who have helped top up the IMF's crisis-fighting coffers, had worried about the fund's independence.

"Let us not delude ourselves: without growth, the future of the global economy is in jeopardy," she said. "One lesson is clear from history: reducing public debt is incredibly difficult without growth. High debt, in turn, makes it harder to get growth.”

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the IMF's new research, contained in its latest World Economic Outlook, "an extensively documented exercise in hand-wringing".

"Kudos to the fund for having the courage to say this, which means bucking some powerful players as well as admitting that its own analysis was flawed," Mr Krugman wrote on his blog.

While the IMF has advocated a slower approach to debt reduction, it urged swifter policy action, both in Europe and the United States, to remove economic uncertainty and help lift anaemic global economic growth.

The IMF meetings officially started on a regal note, with Japan's crown prince in attendance. Ms Lagarde followed with some blunt warnings for the Fund's 188 member countries that they were losing momentum in reforming the global financial system, a running message from the IMF in the build up to the meeting.

She said it was not much safer than in 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a global meltdown.

The IMF lowered its global growth forecast this week for the second time since April. Host Japan offered another reminder on Friday that its own economy was losing steam as the government downgraded its forecast for a third straight month.

In Europe, the IMF wants to see more progress toward promised reforms that would create a tighter fiscal and banking union. In the United States, the IMF has sounded the alarm over the "fiscal cliff" of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that take effect early next year unless Congress acts.

European officials insist they are on track to deliver reforms, and want to see closer scrutiny of the US fiscal issues instead. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Washington has a window of opportunity to address the fiscal cliff after the November 6th presidential election.

Both topics are on the agenda, along with the IMF's own internal reform efforts, which have stalled.

The Fund was supposed to have completed by the Tokyo meetings a set of voting reforms that would give fast-growing emerging markets greater say in the international lender and vault China to the third spot.

But US presidential politics got in the way. The Obama administration is reluctant to seek congressional approval for additional IMF funding when the budget deficit is such a hot-button election issue. Without US support, the IMF reforms lack sufficient votes to pass.