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G20 nations jostling on cliff's edge

Mark Mardell | 18:49 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A two-metre concrete fence surrounds the venue for the meeting of the world's largest economies in South Korea. It's to prevent demonstrators getting anywhere near the world leaders inside. However, it is not any putative problems outside, but the very real clashes between the prime ministers and presidents within that really matter.

Ahead of the G20, China and Germany, both huge exporters, piled in attacking US monetary policy. Their target is the second round of quantitative easing announced last week by America's central bank on the same day as the mid-term election results. Oh and back home, Sarah Palin doesn't like it either.

The German finance minister called it "sly" and "clueless". The Chinese promise "frank discussions" about what they have suggested is an irresponsible policy.

They are not alone.

Brazil says the action will cause "distortions" and hosts South Korea say they will "aggressively" counter its effects.

Why are they all so angry? They think America is cheating, fiddling its currency to make its exporters cheaper.

President Barack Obama has long said that world trade has to be rebalanced. His constant refrain is that the Americans need to buy more American goods and Germany and China need to buy more from foreign countries, like the US. He says it again in his letter to other G20 leaders:

Just as the US much change, so to must those economies that have previously relied on exports to offset weaknesses in their own demand. A rebalancing of the sources of global demand, along with market determination of exchange rates that reverses significant undervaluation, are the best base for the shifts needed to bring about the vigorous and well-balanced recovery that we all want.

It is one thing saying it. It is quite another persuading other countries to buy the stuff you make. One way is to make it cheaper.

Quantitative easing is just a fancy way of saying "pumping new money into the economy", the modern equivalent of printing money. It's a great example of specialist speak. You would almost think they don't want people to understand what they are on about. It isn't even really an obscure technical or academic term. It just means the policy is meant to "ease" the situation by increasing the "quantity" of money. So if you want second helpings at dinner, just call it "quantitative easing" and no one will mind.

It keeps the dollar weak and makes American exports cheaper. The Germans and Chinese deem it unfair currency manipulation. It also gives the Germans the historical shivers, raising as it does the spectre of money printing, inflation and political instability.

Of course the US complains that China is manipulating its currency. During and after the financial crisis, world leaders huddled close, staring together over the precipice. With the danger of an immediate plunge over, they began jostling, and are now pushing. But the cliff edge is still there.

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