WASHINGTON, D.C.—(AP) - With trillion-dollar deficits and a weakening dollar, the United States doesn't have the clout it once had at economic summits. Now Germany, France and all the new kids at the table - countries like China and Brazil - are pushing their own issues.
As the global crisis eases and nations are no longer gripped by fear, President Barack Obama faces major problems in shaping an outcome that will convince U.S. voters that they will see benefits from discussions on Thursday and Friday in Pittsburgh.
The initiative would require chronic trade deficit nations like the United States to boost their savings rates to consume fewer imports and for trade surplus countries like China to get their consumers to spend more and rely less on export-led growth.
"We can't go back to an era where the Chinese or the Germans or other countries just are selling everything to us, we're taking out a bunch of credit card debt or home equity loans, but we're not selling them anything," Obama said during a CNN interview broadcast Sunday.
Americans' personal savings rate has been rising during the current hard times as households cut back on spending and try to repair their cracked nest eggs, but the problem is that the U.S. budget deficit, a barometer of overall national savings, has been soaring, raising alarm bells in countries such as China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt.
The administration is projecting that the deficit for this budget year, which ends on Sept. 30, will total an eye-popping $1.58 trillion, more than three times the deficit for last year, which at the time seemed breathtaking at a record $455 billion.
The deficit has been driven to stratospheric heights by the billions of dollars being spent to stabilize the U.S. banking system and jump-start the economy. The administration says the economic outlook would be far bleaker if that money had not been spent, but the soaring U.S. deficits - projected to total $9 trillion over the next decade - are making Obama's G-20 colleagues nervous.
China, the largest foreign owner of U.S. Treasury securities, has not been shy about voicing worries that the U.S. deficits, unless brought under control, will undermine the value of its $800 billion in Treasury bonds.
The Chinese worry that the dollar, which has been sliding to its weakest levels in a year, will weaken further, making their holdings worth less and that all the U.S. debt could trigger inflation in the United States that would further undermine their investments.
While a U.S. commitment to rebalance the global economy by getting the country's budget deficits under control would address Chinese concerns, Chinese officials are worried that the rebalancing pledge could be used as a club by other countries to attack their trade surplus policies. The United States has sought to win a Chinese commitment to the plan by pushing to obtain a greater role for China and other emerging economies in global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
Debate on the rebalancing framework has centered on how a country's commitments would be enforced. The British have pushed for a trigger mechanism tied to a country's trade balance, which would force negotiations to get a country's policies back in line if its trade surplus or deficit reaches a certain point. The United States is seeking a peer review process in which the G-20 countries would assess each others' policies with the support of the IMF.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called last week for other leaders to be bold in their deliberations Thursday and Friday. "Pittsburgh must be remembered as the summit where recovery was won - and jobs and growth secured," he said.
But it's not at all clear how bold the G-20 will be, given the disagreements among the major nations on a variety of issues and the diminished U.S. standing given that the world's largest economy is where all the financial troubles began.
"Before other countries would complain that we acted like we owned the world. Now the complaint is that we have done a really bad job at managing the global economy and have messed it up for everybody," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel are both pushing for tough new global rules on bankers' bonuses as a way to prevent the kind of reckless behavior that contributed to the financial crisis. Russian President Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chided the United States for "an uncontrolled issue of dollars" and said other currencies should be used as a global reserve, echoing complaints the Chinese have been making.
"The U.S. economy and financial markets are wounded and as a result other G-20 countries are trying to assert their own leadership," said Sung Won Sohn, a professor at the Smith School of Business at California State University.
Obama is hoping to make progress on adopting global rules of the road for financial institutions, but his own financial overhaul package for the U.S. banking system is currently stalled in Congress.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is pushing to set higher standards for bank capital reserves, arguing that the reserve levels that exist now were totally inadequate in preventing the current crisis. Other nations have doubts about the ability to achieve global standards.
The administration will also urge that countries not be too quick to withdraw stimulus spending to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Great Depression when the nation was dumped back into a downturn because the government and the Federal Reserve did not keep supplying necessary support to the economy.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)