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UPDATE 5-G20 carves out some more wiggle room on austerity plans

Louise Egan and Julien Toyer
Monday, 5 Nov 2012 | 10:50 PM ET

* G20 countries seeking more flexibility on budget targets

* Concerns about possible U.S. tax hikes and spending cuts

* Talks on new targets to continue in early 2013

MEXICO CITY, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The world's leading economies gave themselves a bit more wiggle room on Monday to meet targets for cutting budget deficits rather than risk worsening a slowdown in many countries, chief among them the United States.

Meeting a day before the U.S. presidential election, the Group of 20 countries worried that previous commitments to cut in half the budget shortfalls of advanced economies by the end of next year might hurt the struggling global economy.

``In light of the weak pace of global growth, they will ensure that the pace of fiscal consolidation is appropriate to support the recovery,'' G20 policymakers said in a communique after a two-day meeting in Mexico.

The target for cutting deficits was agreed at a summit in Toronto back in 2010, when the global economy seemed to be over the devastating financial crisis in the previous two years.

It now looks out of reach for some economies, including the United States, as growth has slowed.

``The objective is for 2013 and there is a slight tendency to overshoot,'' said International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde. She noted the language on fiscal issues ``has evolved'' and too k ac count of situations i n dif ferent countries.

The U.S. budget gap surpassed $1 trillion for the fourth year in a row in the fiscal year 2012. The deficit was equivalent to 7.0 percent of the country's economic output.

While the United States needs to bring its deficits under control eventually, G20 countries also want it to avert a barrage of tax hikes and spending cuts from Jan. 1.

They were penciled in last year to show Washington could tackle its deep budget problems. But the so-called ``fiscal cliff'', could tip the U.S. economy back into recession next year unless Congress cuts a deal quickly after the presidential and congressional elections on Tuesday.

A TICKING CLOCK

``The clock is ticking, the cliff is getting closer and closer. It is a question of less than two months and accidents can happen,'' a senior G20 official said before adding the group is confident the U.S. Congress will find a bi-partisan solution.

Chile's finance minister, Felipe Larrain, also said there was an assumption that a deal would be found.

``If we're not able to resolve the cliff, that could be the tipping point for a much more complicated scenario in the world economy,'' he told Reuters.

The G20 communique said the United States ``will carefully calibrate the pace of fiscal tightening to ensure that public finances are placed on a sustainable long-run path while avoiding a sharp fiscal contraction in 2013.''

In a bid to show their commitment to controlling their finances over the long term, advanced G20 countries will come up with ``credible and ambitious'' debt targets for beyond 2016, the existing target for them to stabilize their debt. Those new targets will be discussed by G20 leaders next year.

Alan Ruskin, global head of G10 FX strategy at Deutsche Bank in New York, the policymakers seemed to want to show they were serious about their long-term fiscal rigor while easing off a bit on austerity now.

``The U.S. is putting out a message that it wants to be credible in the long term but in the short term it believes growth will do more good,'' he said.

ELEVATED RISKS STILL FOR WORLD ECONOMY

The G20's consensus of four years ago, which helped stave off the risk of a new depression, has given way to persistent differences over issues such as spending to boost growth and the right pace of belt-tightening to tackle high debt levels.

The global economy still faces ``elevated'' risks, including Europe's debt crisis - centered on Spain and Greece - and potential problems in Japan, the communique said.

``Global growth remains modest and downside risks are still elevated, including due to possible delays in the complex implementation of recent policy announcements in Europe, a potential sharp fiscal tightening in the United States, securing funding for this year's budget in Japan, weaker growth in some emerging markets,'' the communique said.

The wording on Europe referred to differences within the euro zone over how to build a banking union, considered an important way to bolster the bloc's shaky financial system, during 2013.

The group also recommitted to implementing tough new bank capital rules on time. The rules, known as Basel III, are the world's response to the financial crisis and are set to be phased in starting in January.

U.S. and European regulators have not yet finalized their versions of the rules, which had prompted speculation that the timetable could be pushed forward.

Few expected major agreements in Mexico with heavyweights such as U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and top Chinese officials all skipping the meeting. Geithner is expected to stand down after the U.S. election, even if President Barack Obama is re-elected.