TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan called into question on Wednesday South Korea’s leadership of the Group of 20 nations forum because of Seoul’s interventions to stem the won’s rise and insisted its own currency action was qualitatively different.
The remarks by Japan’s finance minister underscored deep divisions over currency policies, an issue that will dominate G20 meetings in South Korea this month and next after a weekend International Monetary Fund meeting failed to produce any agreement.
“As chair of the G20, South Korea’s role will be seriously questioned,” Yoshihiko Noda told a parliamentary panel when asked about South Korea’s currency interventions.
Record low interest rates in rich countries have pushed global investors into emerging markets in search of higher yields, driving up their currencies.
In response, several governments have stepped into foreign exchange markets or tried to curb capital inflows, raising fears of a currency “race to the bottom” that may trigger protectionism and hobble global growth.
Japan intervened in the currency market last month for the first time in more than six years to try to stem a rise in the yen that threatens its fragile economic recovery.
Noda drew a distinction between that action and more frequent intervention by South Korea and China.
“In South Korea, intervention happens regularly, and in China, the pace of yuan reform has been slow,” Noda said.
“Our message is that we have confirmed at the Group of Seven that emerging market countries with current account surpluses should allow their currencies to be more flexible.”
South Korea did not immediately comment on the remarks.
Pressure on China to allow its currency to rise faster is likely to intensify but hopes for a G20 consensus look slim.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he saw no risk of a global currency war. But, asked about the need for a stronger yuan, he said: “We just want to make sure it’s happening at a gradual but still significant rate.
Ewald Nowotny, a European Central Bank governing council member, said the G20 was the best forum to discuss the uneven global growth that is leading to the currency disputes.
But he said his fear is retaliatory action by the U.S. Congress against China if it fails to let its currency strengthen more rapidly.
“What clearly would make us very nervous ... is if some, let’s say, unilateral steps would be taken which could spark, let’s say, a political crisis. That is something that would be damaging for the world economy in general,” he said.
China’s insistence that the yuan’s rise must be gradual is a huge obstacle to the appreciation in Asian exchange rates policymakers say is needed to reduce global imbalances.
China and other countries counter that the prospect of the Federal Reserve printing money again will flood the world economy with more liquidity, weaken the dollar and push emerging currencies yet higher.
“It’ll be impossible for the G20 to reach a consensus on currencies. Many emerging economies feel that they are being forced to intervene because of a weak dollar,” said Etsuko Yamashita, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp.
“China will not succumb to outside pressure.”
Minutes of the Fed’s last policy meeting showed its policymakers thought easier policy may be needed “before long” to bolster a struggling recovery.
China’s chief G20 currency negotiator Cui Tiankai said Beijing was trying to avoid a currency stand-off but that no specific currency should be on the G20 agenda.
“We are doing our best to avoid that,” Cui, a foreign vice-minister, said on the sidelines of a conference in Seoul. “But it requires efforts of all the G20 members, not China alone.”
The major world currency not being talked down is the euro, which rose again on Wednesday, as the ECB ponders a reversal of ultra-loose policy while the Fed is poised to ease further and Japan has already cut rates to zero.
“In the G4 space, the ECB is the only central bank that is talking of an exit policy and that is helping the euro,” said Ankita Dudani, G10 currency strategist at RBS.
Analysts said Tokyo’s criticism of Seoul stemmed from its worries about competitiveness. The yen is up about 13 percent against the dollar this year, the won only about 4 percent.
“Japan feels it has been under pressure not to intervene because of G7 rules but people outside (of G7) seem to be playing by different rules,” said Robert Feldman, chief economist at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities in Tokyo.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan urged Seoul and Beijing to act responsibly but acknowledged Tokyo’s delicate position.
“I want South Korea and China to take responsible actions within common rules, though how to say this is difficult because Japan has also intervened,” he told lawmakers.
Japan sold 2.1 trillion yen ($26 billion) last month to curb the yen’s strength versus the dollar. South Korea has intervened to the tune of about $13 billion since late September, but analysts said it has acted more aggressively in relative terms.
Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota in Tokyo, Cheon Jong-woo in Seoul and David Lawder in Washington; writing by Mike Peacock; editing by Stephen Nisbet