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For nations living the good life, the party's over, IMF says

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 24, 2010; A01

In the lingo of the International Monetary Fund, the future of the world hinges on "rebalancing and consolidation," antiseptic words that would not seem to raise a fuss.

Who doesn't want more balance in their life?

But the translation is a bit ruder, something on the order of: "Suck it up. The party's over."

To keep the global economy on track, people in the United States and the rest of the developed world need to work longer before retiring, pay higher taxes and expect less from government. And the cheap imports lining the shelves of mega-chains such as Wal-Mart and Target? They need to be more expensive.

That's the practical meaning of a series of policy papers and statements issued in recent days by IMF officials, who have a long history of stabilizing economies and solving global financial problems, as they plot a course to keep the world economy growing and reduce the risk of another "great recession."

That message has been delivered subtly, woven into documents with titles such as "Resolving the Crisis Legacy and Meeting New Challenges to Financial Stability," and justified by concepts such as "raising retirement age in line with life expectancy," as IMF economic counselor Olivier Blanchard put it this week.

But fully deciphered, it means a pretty serious reworking of expectations in the developed world: changes in labor rules, product prices, currency values and even the social contract between governments and an aging citizenry.

"It is not that living standards will lower, but they will not increase as fast as they have been," said Domenico Lombardi, a former IMF executive director. The ideas being discussed by world leaders "are coded words," he said. "They don't like words like 'imposing higher taxes' and 'cutting spending.' "

Rebalancing

The IMF has long had a reputation as a bearer of bad news -- it dispatches well-educated and diplomatically deft teams to tell economically troubled countries how many people they have to fire and which programs they have to cut to get financial assistance. But the IMF now finds itself in the odd position of having that conversation not with a single ailing sovereign but with the developed countries at the core of the world system, including the United States.

Its prescription is centered on two concepts.

"Rebalancing" is an idea that most everyone endorses -- including the technicians at the fund and President Obama and the leaders of the G-20 group of economically powerful nations. In broad strokes, it means curbing what has been a massive transfer of capital from nations that consume more than they produce, such as the United States, to nations that produce more than they consume, such as China.

The imbalance has been key to China's modernization: The country buys U.S. government bonds by the tens of billions to keep the dollar stronger than it would be and to keep its domestic currency -- and its exports -- cheaper. Looked at one way, the flow of U.S. debt to the People's Bank of China has acted like a giant, collective credit card, underwriting consumers across the United States and driving the business models of major retailers such as Wal-Mart.

The message from the IMF is that the card is about maxed out and that the imbalance in trade flows needs to be corrected.

How to do it? One way is for China -- or Asian exporters, more generally -- to let their currencies rise on world markets. The other way, which IMF economist Blanchard raised this week, would be to devalue the dollar, the euro and other developed-world currencies.

"The advanced economies as a whole may need to depreciate their currencies so as to increase their net exports," Blanchard said.

The less well-advertised side of the equation: If the dollar is worth less, then imports, regardless of their source, will cost more. U.S. exports will be proportionately cheaper -- a good thing for American businesses trying to become more competitive in overseas markets -- but everything from iPods to jeans to the latest Barbie doll would jump in price.

The ideas offered by the IMF "could certainly reorder the balance of the international economy, but not in a way that benefits the average person in the U.S.," said J. Craig Shearman, vice president of government affairs for the National Retail Federation.

He continued: "If a few factories have an increase in exports, that is good for them, but it leaves the vast majority of people paying more for consumer goods. Talking about consuming less and saving more is a nice, ivory tower approach. But it is not real world economics. People have to put clothes on their children's backs and food on the table."

Wal-Mart declined to comment.

Consolidation

"Fiscal consolidation" is another idea promoted by IMF leaders. Again, the aim seems unobjectionable: The United States and other developed-world governments ran record deficits during the crisis, both to pay for stimulus programs and because tax and other receipts cratered. Across the developed world, the IMF says, government debt will rise from about 80 percent of economic output before the crisis to roughly 115 percent of output in 2014.

That's considered a dangerous trajectory, and IMF officials say that by next year, governments need to announce "credible" plans to cut their annual deficits, turn them into surpluses and start paying off what is owed.

The level of the correction needed is large, perhaps 10 percent of gross domestic product. In the United States, that would amount to roughly $1.4 trillion annually, to be cut from government programs or raised through new taxes.

Better-than-expected growth would help, or increases in productivity, or even surprises in the form of new technologies. But what's on the horizon is, more likely, a difficult reckoning -- one that Greece is facing and that other developed nations know is in the offing, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said in an interview Thursday.

"We're all in the same boat," Lagarde said as she looked ahead to a tough debate in France over changes in pension rules that will make not just government workers but also many in the private sector add years before their expected retirements.

The IMF is studying issues such as which taxes should be raised and which programs should be cut to make "consolidation" as painless as possible. But it views a longer working life as an important tool -- one that would save large amounts of money in the future without cutting spending and decreasing economic activity today.

In the United States, a new fiscal commission is beginning to study how to bring U.S. government debt into line.

"You will see many headlines complaining and moaning and stirring the pot," Lagarde said, as issues such as pension reform are debated. But ultimately, she said, "there is no way out."

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