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At G8 Summit, Business Issues Take a Back Seat

Big business is on the back burner at the Group of Eight summit.

Instead of focusing on concerns about hedge funds, fluctuating currencies and better transparency in financial dealings, the world's eight wealthiest nations are putting their full focus on climate change and watching to see if a new spat between the U.S. and Russia could develop into another cold war.

The question of how to handle hedge funds, which Germany hoped to make a major topic, was all but shelved after finance ministers from the eight countries met last month and said any decision would take months.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded as much earlier this week, telling news magazine Der Spiegel that there were "parts of the conference program on which negotiations have practically been concluded. For example, the hedge fund issue."

Germany has made tighter supervision of hedge funds a focus of its G-8 and European Union presidency and has been agitating for a voluntary code of conduct in light of the rapid expansion of the funds, which carry high risks and are often exempt from regulation.

At the end of 2006, around 9,400 hedge funds operated worldwide, controlling assets of some $1.4 trillion. That's more than twice as many hedge funds as operated five years ago, according to Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research.

Stalled Trade Talks

An issue that seems more likely to get some attention is the stalled Doha round of global trade talks, said key leaders with the EU and the World Trade Organization.

Pascal Lamy, the WTO's director-general, said he would deliver a "strong message" when he discusses the long-struggling trade talks at the G-8.

Lamy told a meeting of WTO ambassadors in Geneva that he would ask G-8 leaders to provide "active support in order to achieve the successful and balanced outcome everyone is seeking."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barosso described the situation as "a matter of urgency."

The talks, known as the Doha round, were launched six years ago with the aim of adding billions of dollars to the global economy and lifting millions of people out of poverty through trade liberalization. But the round has stumbled repeatedly since its inception in Qatar's capital, largely because of wrangling between rich and poor countries over eliminating barriers to farm trade.

Lamy had urged ministers last year to quickly agree on the framework of a deal, so that months of technical work could be completed before the expiration of U.S. President George W. Bush's authority to send trade deals to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote.

That goal was missed, and Bush's "fast-track" authority expires June 30 without its renewal on the congressional agenda. As of July, Congress will be able to pick any agreement apart line by line, making it more difficult for the U.S. to offer concessions.

China's Economic Growth

China's economic growth, and the level of its currency, may still be discussed, according to an assessment prepared by Germany for the summit.

The report says China has made progress by improving the flexibility of its exchange-rate policy, but more is needed.

Last month, the Chinese central bank widened the daily trading band for the yuan, allowing it to rise or fall as much as 0.5 percent each day from the previous day's close, up from the previous 0.3 percent limit _ a move that could allow for faster appreciation.

Even with hedge funds vanishing from the agenda, debt relief advocacy group Jubilee South called on the G-8 governments to protect poorer countries from vulture funds, or investors who buy up debt at rock-bottom prices and then sue for the full value.

"The G-8 governments claim to support calls for responsible behavior by lenders like vulture funds," Lidy Nacpil of Jubilee South said in a statement. "But the G-8 must recognize that the issue of irresponsible lending and illegitimate debt begins first and foremost with themselves."

The finance ministers of the G-8 recently agreed to examine vulture funds, but without a specific timeline.

Critics contend that a lack of direction could plague small governments who are trying to beat back debt obligations while at the same time providing services to their populations.

The World Bank extended a similar program through 2012 to provide some money to buy back commercial debt, but more is needed, Nacpil said.

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