By Emily Kaiser
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While the world watches revolutions in the Arab world and a nuclear crisis in Japan, the Group of 20 is engrossed in an esoteric debate over something called indicative guidelines.
The club of rich and emerging economies banded together at the height of the financial crisis and earned praise for swiftly putting in place policies that helped prevent a repeat of the Great Depression.
But as a new list of potential economic dangers grows, the G20 seems to have few immediate answers.
Instead, finance leaders meeting in Washington this week are likely to tout progress on establishing guidelines to measure imbalances between major exporters and importers.
Andrew Kenningham, senior international economist at Capital Economics in London, said the G20 had "gone done a cul de sac" that distracted it from the global economic stability issues it was meant to address.
"It will be increasingly difficult to disguise the fact that there is no agreement on macroeconomic coordination at a global level," he said. "The G20 is struggling to find a useful role for itself, no matter how frequently it meets."
The G20 lost its crisis-forged cohesion last year as different countries recovered at different rates, generating different policy priorities.
That has made it difficult for leaders to follow through on a promise they made back in 2009 to work together to smooth out imbalances. The idea was that consumer-driven economies such as the United States would save and invest more, while export powerhouses like China would develop domestic demand.
When it came time to set specifics, however, the G20 unity broke down. When they could not agree on any numerical targets, they set their sights on "indicative guidelines" instead, and even those have become a source of friction.
Kenningham said the G20 will have to show some progress this week that puts it on track to deliver something that leaders can sign at a November summit.
That means finance ministers will probably find some way to set aside their differences and establish broad guidelines, but leave agreement on the details for a later discussion.
SLIPPING ON OIL
With oil at its highest level since 2008's record-setting run, finance leaders will no doubt acknowledge economic risks in a statement released at the conclusion of the G20 meeting on Friday.
The International Monetary Fund, which holds its twice-yearly meeting on the weekend, is scheduled to release its economic outlook on Monday. The Fund warned last week of long-term oil scarcity that could lead to persistently higher prices.
At $126 per barrel, oil prices are high enough to threaten world economic growth, and some economists predict they will continue to creep higher. If oil prices average $150 per barrel over the next three months, it would erase three-quarters of a percentage point from global growth, Barclays Capital estimated.
A slew of data this week will offer some clues on how hard the oil price spike has hit economies.
Wednesday brings U.S. retail sales for March, which may provide the first hint that steep gasoline prices are cutting into consumer spending. Economists polled by Reuters are looking for a gain of 0.5 percent, which would be half the growth rate recorded in February, and much of the gain may come from rising prices rather than demand.
China releases a report on its first-quarter gross domestic product on Friday, and it is expected to show growth eased a tad to a still-lofty 9.5 percent. China has clamped down on credit conditions to try to cool inflation, which will likely constrain growth.
"Policymakers may have to choose between higher inflation and lower growth," said Luca Ricci, a Barclays analyst in New York.
(Editing by Dan Grebler)