U.S. Eases Its Stance on Global Stimulus

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By Anthony Faiola and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 29, 2009

LONDON, March 29 -- The Obama administration on Saturday moved to quell a public war of words with European leaders over the need to boost government spending to combat the financial crisis, making clear it has no desire to dictate spending targets for other countries.

The diplomatic effort comes as President Obama prepares to make his first trip across the Atlantic this week for a series of meetings, including Thursday's economic summit in London. In recent days, European leaders have sharply criticized the United States, which they said was pushing them for more global stimulus.

The summit, which will bring together heads of state from more than 20 nations, inspired tens of thousands of protesters to take the streets of European capitals Saturday to voice distress over economic issues. U.S. and European officials say nations are set to agree on a number of sweeping measures, including a broad overhaul of global financial regulations and an expanded role for the International Monetary Fund.

But Europe and the United States, while set to agree on doing "whatever is necessary" to revive the economy, appear at odds philosophically over how much more government spending is necessary to jump-start the economy, now poised for the first global recession since World War II.

The administration had earlier backed a proposal for nations to spend 2 percent of the value of their economies on stimulus efforts. But officials in Europe have countered that enough public funds have been spent, with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, last week describing U.S.-style stimulus spending as "the road to hell."

U.S. officials on Saturday dismissed any notion of a rift, adding that they had never endorsed specific spending targets for other nations, despite the perception among some European leaders. They said Obama had spoken to many leaders via video conference ahead of the summit and they were in broad agreement on a range of issues.

"Nobody is asking any country to come to London to commit to do more right now" on stimulus, said Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs. Instead, he said, countries are likely to endorse a more general pledge.

Although most European nations have launched fiscal spending programs, nearly all have fallen shy of U.S. targets. Froman's comments appeared to reflect a recognition that the White House simply may not be able to persuade its European counterparts, particularly Germany and France, to open their wallets again -- suggesting that the summit's main achievements are likely to come elsewhere.

Nations, for instance, are set to agree on reforms to the global financial system. There is a growing consensus, officials say, for reforms laid out by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner last week that would, among other things, impose new regulations on hedge funds. Nations are also set to create codes of conduct for offshore tax havens. The push toward establishing those codes this week led nations including Switzerland to pledge changes to their banking secrecy laws to avoid being blacklisted by others in the Group of 20.

Administration officials said nations are also set to agree on coordinated oversight of the global financial sector, bringing regulators from major countries together to consult about the risk level of the world's 25 largest banks. "This kind of coordination is a real achievement," a European diplomatic source said. "If you think it is easy to get 20 countries to agree to such changes, you are wrong."

Leaders will also seek to bolster and, to some measure, reinvent the International Monetary Fund, an institution established at the end of World War II to help ensure the stability of the global economy and monetary systems. The IMF's finances have been harshly tested in recent months as nations in Eastern Europe and other emerging markets have fallen into crisis. The United States is pressing for a massive cash injection to help the IMF cope, calling on nations to almost triple the agency's resources to $750 billion. The Europeans are calling for a more modest increase to $500 billion.

The IMF, long criticized as a club for rich countries, is also set for a dramatic change as developing nations exert greater influence at the fund. For the first time, sources said, emerging giants China, Brazil, Russia, India and Mexico are planning major financial contributions, which in turn would grant them more say in how the IMF conducts business. China is ready to produce the biggest gift, pledging an estimated $50 billion.

The United States will also press for a review of regional development agencies, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and Asian Development Bank, to ensure they are spending money wisely. An increase in the money available to them is also being considered. Geithner is set to deliver a keynote speech on the issue in Medellin, Colombia, on Sunday before arriving in London along with Obama this week.

"We need to assess how successful they are in addressing the needs of the poorest members of these institutions," a Treasury official said.

Yet the danger, some observers said, is that the agreed-upon language at the summit will be so watered down as to be meaningless in the face of the massive economic crisis that requires fast and concrete action. Steven Schrage, an international business expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. decision to back away from a fight over stimulus means that the world is ratcheting back its expectations for the summit.

"There's a real risk of a disconnect between the level of the challenges we have to confront and what we're going to be able to achieve through a one-day conference," Schrage said, "especially with a new administration that's only been several weeks in office."

Shear reported from Washington.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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