ROME, (Reuters) – The G7 industrial powers, fearing a rise of protectionism, will do all they can to combat recession and avoid distorting free trade on the way, according to a joint statement being prepared for release after talks on Saturday.
The draft statement, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters as G7 finance ministers met in Rome, sought to allay fears that governments determined to protect jobs and national industries would abandon commitments to fair cross-border competition.
Overnight, the U.S. Congress adopted a $787-billion economic rescue plan that includes tens of billions of dollars for public building projects, with conditions including that they use U.S. steel and other U.S.-made goods.
The draft G7 statement said that stabilising the economy and financial markets was paramount right now, meaning all had to work together and use all possible policy options to maximum collective effect.
“We will continue to work together to avoid undesirable spillovers and distortions,” said the draft.
At a meeting which began on Friday, Germany and Britain said the risk was that the world would otherwise see a repeat of the damaging protectionist spiral seen during the Great Depression. “The fight against protectionism has never been more needed than today,” British finance minister Alistair Darling told Reuters in an interview.
“We will have to do everything to ensure history does not repeat itself,” German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said.
Those statements highlighted mounting unease over what looks like a contradiction between pledges of principle to free trade and measures that look like something different in practice, like the “Buy American” clause in Washington’s stimulus plan or national car aid plans in France and Italy.
Britain’s Darling said he had discussed the “Buy American” issue with new U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. “I think the U.S. is very aware of its obligations to the world,” Darling told Reuters.
Darling also faces grumbles from his European partners, who fear sterling’s slide is bolstering British firms’ position in export markets at their expense.
The draft statement, however, passed over both the British pound and the yen, making reference only generally to excessive currency volatility and softening its line on China’s yuan, which it expects to appreciate further.
The G7 meeting, involving ministers and central bankers of the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada, is a step on the road to an April summit of the broader G20 grouping, which adds on the large emerging market economies.
French Economy Minister Christine Lagarde said she hoped rich and developing countries alike would not lose sight of the target they had set themselves at a summit in November — better regulation and supervision of banks and markets.
The current financial crisis, regarded as the worst since the 1930s, blew out of the United States when a housing boom ended, and with it a boom in mortgage debt derivatives that banks and investors worldwide had bought into.
Fresh data from Europe on Friday served a reminder of the scale of the economic downturn and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, said the worst had probably still to come.
In the last quarter of 2008, economic output in the euro zone shrank more than any quarter on record and the picture was much the same in the 27-country European Union — with GDP down 1.5 percent in both cases versus the preceding three months.
All of the large G7 economies contracted in the last quarter of 2008 and even rising stars such as China are slowing hard, even if they are not in quite the dire state of the more mature economies where the trouble began.
The U.S. “Buy American” clause is not the only measure that is causing concern within the G7 group.
Governments rescues for French and Italian carmakers have also raised concern, as has a campaign within Britain to keep jobs in hard times for British citizens.
The G7, in the draft statement, also touched on China’s state-controlled currency, seen as making its manufactured goods unfairly cheap in world markets.
The draft said the G7 countries welcomed China’s commitment to a more flexible currency and expected the yuan to continue to appreciate, though they avoided specific reference to other currency trends some of them are worried about, notably the decline of the British pound over the past year.
The comments directed at China were more diplomatically put than in past statements, which on official present said was due to the need to be supportive of Beijing’s attempt to stimulate its economy, a major driver of world growth in recent years.
The G7 has to ensure at the moment that its statements are conducive to cooperation in the wider G20 forum, which includes China, India and other major emerging economies, ahead of a April 2 crisis summit in London.