World finance chiefs chastise U.S. on budget gap

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - World finance leaders on Saturday chastised the United States for not doing enough to shrink its massive overspending and warned that budget strains in rich nations threaten the global recovery.

Finance ministers in Washington for semi-annual talks took sharper aim than in previous years at the United States' $14 trillion debt.

While most of the criticism came from emerging market economies, some rich nations also joined the chorus.

Dutch Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager warned that if the United States and other advanced nations move too slowly it could undermine confidence in the global economy.

"Insufficient budgetary consolidation may spark off further escalation of debt sustainability issues, with repercussions on confidence and the still fragile financial sector," de Jager told the International Monetary Fund's steering committee.

"Debt dynamics in other advanced economies, including the United States, are of concern."

The IMF this week said the U.S. budget deficit was on course to hit 10.8 percent of nation's economic output this year, tying with Ireland for the highest deficit-to-GDP ratio among advanced economies. It urged Washington to move quickly to put a credible plan in place to tighten its belt.

The Group of 20 countries agreed on Friday to a plan that could put more pressure on the United States to fix its deficits as well as push other leading economies to address their own shortcomings.

The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress are locked in battle over how best to fix the deficit. Republicans are pushing for deep spending cuts as part of the argument over raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit, something which is needed to avoid an unprecedented U.S. debt default.

The Republican-led House of Representatives on Friday approved a plan to slash spending by nearly $6 trillion over a decade and cut benefits for the elderly and poor.

President Barack Obama, who has offered a competing vision to curb deficits by $4 trillion over 12 years, said on Thursday the Republican plan would create "a nation of potholes."

The White House is wary about cutting spending sharply while the economic recovery remains fragile.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told fellow finance ministers on Saturday caution was needed.

"We are committed to fiscal reforms that will restrain spending and reduce deficits while not threatening the economic recovery," he said.

Geithner was quick to say others whose policies contribute to global imbalances must change too, "especially those whose fundamentals call for greater exchange rate flexibility..."

The United States has repeatedly called for China to relax its limits on the yuan currency.

Yi Gang, a deputy governor of China's central bank, called for "more rigorous" efforts by advanced economies to tighten budgets and said the IMF needs to strengthen its monitoring of these rich nations.

Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, taking aim at the U.S. Federal Reserve, said central banks that buy government debt to keep interest rates low were abetting fiscal profligacy.

The Fed is on course to complete the purchase of $600 billion in U.S. government debt by the end of June, which would take its total purchases of mortgage-related and government debt since December 2008 to nearly $2.3 trillion.

Echoing Republican lawmakers and even some Fed officials, Kudrin said those purchases blurred the line between monetary and fiscal policy in a way that could jeopardize a central bank's independence.

"We observe this process with some wonderment, since it amounts to the monetization of those countries' budget deficits," Kudrin said.

(Additional reporting by Glenn Somerville; Writing by Lesley Wroughton and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Leslie Adler)