G20 to skirt potholes and follow growth signposts

With the road ahead looking a bit smoother, G20 finance ministers will be happy to ignore the wreck in the rear-view mirror when they meet this week to steer a course for the world economy.

The euro zone as a whole and a clutch of its members, including France, Italy and the Netherlands, are expected to report that their economies shrank last quarter - joining Germany and the United States - while Japan's barely grew, according to economists polled by Reuters.

But the Group of 20 leading economies, which meets in Moscow on Friday, should be able to take heart from a pair of more timely indicators - a New York Fed manufacturing survey and a University of Michigan poll on consumer sentiment.

Economists expect both to show an improvement, despite the gnawing uncertainty of how long-running U.S. deficit reduction negotiations will affect taxes and spending.

Luca Paolini, chief strategist at Pictet Asset Management in London, said he was more positive on the global outlook on balance but a sense of perspective was needed. Buoyant markets risked getting ahead of themselves.

"Our own leading indicators are going up, but we don't think we're in a strong growth environment. We see weak growth, and that's not going to change this year," he said.


Simon Hayes, an economist with Barclays Capital, broadly agreed. "On the whole, recent activity data have been encouraging of our view that the global economy is improving, albeit slowly," he said in a report.

January U.S. retail sales figures are likely to underline this point. Hobbled by the January 1 increase in payroll taxes, economists expect a rise of just 0.1 percent on the month.

By contrast, U.S. capital spending is finally perking up from a low level as corporations, realizing that protracted cost-cutting is hurting productivity and growth prospects, give the green light to pent-up investments, Paolini said.

"But we're not overly optimistic because investment is based on confidence. You can have all the money you want, but you're not going to invest if you expect growth to be weak. So if we have any kind of shock - it can be politics or something else - investment will fall again," he said.

China delivered a boost to confidence on Friday with a batch of strong trade and money data for January.

Economists are wary of reading too much into China's figures at the start of the year because of distortions due to the variable timing of the long Lunar New Year holidays.

But Ting Lu, Bank of America Merrill Lynch's chief China economist, said they supported his view that gross domestic product growth could accelerate to 8.3 percent in the first half of this year from 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

China is not the only developing economy that is doing its bit for global growth.

Mark Williams, chief Asia economist with Capital Economics in London, said there had been signs of a rebound across the emerging world in the past month. Goldman Sachs, too, said there had been a marked improvement in consumer confidence across emerging markets coming into 2013.

"It had been the case that Latin America and Asia were looking up at the end of last year but emerging economies in Europe were still looking very weak. But even they are now joining in the recovery. So it's looking increasingly broad-based," Williams said.


One obvious pothole on the road to recovery is the threat of a spate of competitive devaluations, as growth-hungry countries seek to give their exporters an edge by talking down their currencies or actively pushing them lower by bold monetary easing.

Japan has come in for fierce criticism in some quarters for that very reason, but Finance Minister Taro Aso sought to restore calm on Friday by saying the recent slide in the yen had gone too far.

His emollient words reinforced expectations that the G20 will not point the finger at Tokyo.

At the same time, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi's success in reversing the euro's climb with a few well-chosen words last Thursday has eased the worries of France and others for now that the single currency was approaching levels that would do real damage to the euro area.

So, although Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega fears global currency wars could intensify, the betting is on an anodyne statement from the Moscow meeting that avoids rattling confidence.

"There will be something very vague reminding everybody that if you start getting into currency wars everybody is going to lose," Paolini with Pictet said.

(Editing by Toby Chopra)