Mexico City G20 Meeting: European Debt Crisis Tops Agenda

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Concerns about Europe's sovereign debt crisis topped the agenda Saturday at the meeting in Mexico City of the Group of 20 finance leaders. | PA

MEXICO CITY - Pressure mounted on Europe Saturday to build an even bigger financial stabilization fund to head off sovereign debt concerns, with the United States, Brazil, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development all urging an increase.

While the advice coming out of a meeting of G-20 finance ministers, senior officials and central bank heads seemed overwhelming, Germany — Europe's main financial engine — appeared loath to fund yet another increase to stabilization funds that already have about 500 billion euros.

Angel Gurria, the head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, set the tone at the conference, calling for about $1.5 trillion in "firewall" funds aimed at restoring confidence in European countries' debt.

"We still have to build the mother of all firewalls," Gurria said. "The thicker the firewall is, the less likely we'll have to use it."

Guido Mantega, the finance minister of Brazil, said "there is a very strongly shared opinion that first, the European countries should strengthen their firewall."

"The emerging countries are only going to help under two conditions," Mantega said. "First, that they reinforce their firewalls, and second that reforms are implemented in the International Monetary Fund." Brazil wants more representation for developing nations in the U.S.-led IMF.

Many want the IMF, which is already participating in European stabilization, to do more.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner added to the pressure, saying "I hope that we'll see, I expect that we'll see continued efforts by the Europeans ... to put in place a stronger, more credible firewall," though he didn't mention any amount.

Geithner acknowledged the work of European leaders, saying they have "made quite a bit of progress in convincing the world that they are not going to allow a catastrophic financial failure" in their countries.

But he also noted, "It's important not to rest on that progress, and recognize that progress is there in part based on the expectation that there are more things to come, more actions to come" on the financial firewall.

"They are not done. They know they've got more to do," Geithner said. He added that leaders had moved "slower than some people would like."

The Germans, whose powerful economy represents the economic keystone of Europe, seem loath to help fund yet more stabilization efforts.

In an editorial in the El Universal newspaper on the eve of the meeting, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble wrote that "should we increase even more the firewalls? The response is a resounding no." Schauble also rejected sharing other Euro-zone country debts, or expanding the euro money supply to meet countries' budget gaps.

"This would not only not solve the problems of debt and competitiveness that brought the affected countries to their current state of affairs, it would also discourage their governments from carrying out consolidation and reform."

German central bank president Jens Weidmann noted Friday that Euro-area political leaders will meet in March to decide whether to further increase the current 500-billion-euro financial stabilization effort, and while he didn't rule out increased funding, he said money alone won't do it.

"Higher walls of money can buy time, but that time must be used to tackle the roots of the crisis," Weidmann told a seminar prior to the ministers meeting. "Ultimately, Greece cannot be forced to comply with the program," he said of the indebted country's commitment to make fiscal, wage and other reforms in exchange for the European bailout.

"But it should be clear that no further disbursements will be warranted if Greece fails to keep its side of the bargain," Weidmann said.

Mexican central bank Governor Agustin Carstens said Friday that the "IMF's lending capacity is an issue that will be discussed" at Saturday's meeting among finance ministers and central bankers.

But one Canadian finance official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that "on the issues of IMF funding, I don't think we are near a consensus."

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