Is Japan the only winner of the G20 meeting?
There are no operational trading tips from last week's G20 meeting held in the splendors of St. Petersburg's Konstantinovsky Palace. But in spite of all the "sound and fury" about Syria, there are some real gems for longer-term investment strategists.
Japan did good business, and that is where the gems could be. A very likely breakthrough in relations with Moscow, and the possibility of thawing ties with Beijing could add a whole new dimension to Japan's current efforts to leave behind its long period of debilitating economic stagnation.
But the emerging countries left empty-handed; they got only non-binding declaratory statements about the destabilizing impact of the widely anticipated credit tightening by the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) and the European Central Bank (ECB).
Vacuous rhetoric and misaligned policies
What, for example, can the developing countries make of the assurance given by U.S. President Obama that the withdrawal of the American monetary stimulus would proceed "gradually?" Or of an even less meaningful comment by the German Chancellor Merkel asserting that the phasing out of an extraordinary credit easing in the euro area will be implemented "step-by-step?"
Such comments offer little to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who asked for an "orderly exit from the unconventional monetary policies being pursued by the developed world for the last few years so as to avoid damaging the growth prospects of the developing world" -- a request echoed in the opening remarks by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, a host and this year's chairman of the G20 proceedings.
Indeed, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Merkel have no authority over interest-rate-setting committees at the Fed or the ECB. That leaves Mr. Singh with only one course of action: tighten monetary and fiscal policies to stabilize India's wobbly currency – a tough and politically damaging policy option in the run-up to general elections next spring.
A highly trained economist, Mr. Singh knows that there is no way around that. And that is what other G20 developing economies with trade deficits ranging from 3 percent to 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – such as Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa – will have to do to stem their capital outflows and to prepare for shrinking world liquidity in the months ahead.
(Read more: Baptism of fire for India's new central bank chief)
None of this is new, and none of this should have come as a surprise to the emerging world, whose leaders now find it politically convenient to blame outside forces for their misaligned economic policies.
Putin's lucrative "hikiwake" solutions
But here are some little-noticed geostrategic moves on the margins of the G20 that might be of interest to savvy long-term investors.
True to his word, Mr. Putin is delivering on his commitment to solve Russia's territorial dispute with Japan. At issue are the four South Kuril islands (which Japan calls Northern Territories) the Red Army took toward the end of WWII. This border problem has obstructed the signing of a peace agreement between the two nations following WWII, because Japan poses the return of the four islands as a condition for the peace treaty and for closer economic and political relations with Russia.
Mr. Putin wants to break the deadlock. In an interview with Asahi Shimbun on March 2, 2012, he said that Russia and Japan should divide these four islands, and, with a score of 2:2, it would be just like a "hikiwake" (draw) in a judo contest. He promised in that interview that he would summon Russian and Japanese experts to the negotiating table and, judo black belt that he is, that he would then give them the martial arts command "hajime" (begin).
That is exactly what he did. The bilateral expert group seems to be nearing a solution, as intimated during a friendly meeting Mr. Putin had with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in St. Petersburg. The Russian leader announced that he was sending his foreign and defense ministers to Japan next month to work with their Japanese colleagues on the details of the territorial settlement and on the peace treaty.
Investors should note that potentially huge business deals are behind all this. The development of proven and untapped mineral resources in Siberia and the Russian Far East are Moscow's priorities. And all of these projects – trapped in the long-running territorial dispute – have been of immense interest to Japan's multinational trading conglomerates for quite some time.
Apparently peeved by Europeans' indecision and incessant political hectoring, Mr. Putin has now resolutely turned to China, Japan and South Korea for closer economic cooperation.
Peace and profits in South China Sea?
And here is an interesting aside, confirming Russia's eastern orientation. G20 indiscretions suggest that Mr. Putin mediated the first direct contact between Mr. Abe and the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
According to Japanese government sources, in the course of an approximately five-minute encounter Mr. Abe told Mr. Xi that "we should develop Japan-China relations by going back to the original point of the strategic, mutually beneficial relationship." The entourage of the Chinese president says that Mr. Xi replied that China and Japan were "facing grave difficulties" which "we are unwilling to see." Mr. Xi also said that China wanted mutually beneficial relations with Japan, but he invited Mr. Abe to look at the territorial disputes and history "in line with the spirit of facing history squarely and looking forward to the future."
Whether this will lead to another island "hikiwake" or not is uncertain, but this brief meeting on the G20 sidelines does sound like a promising overture because, until now, the Chinese leader had steadfastly refused any direct contact with Mr. Abe, unless Japan gave ground in their South China Sea border disputes.
Investors should watch Sino-Japanese trade flows; that will be a clear indicator of thawing ties. I am already detecting some interesting signs in that area. If confirmed in the months ahead, you can bet that Japanese growth prospects will improve considerably.
Remember, even after dispute-induced declines in business transactions between Asia's two largest economies, China still accounted for nearly one-fifth of Japan's total overseas sales in the first half of this year. A revival of Japanese exports to China (down 1 percent in the first half of this year) and a reversal of Japan's large trade deficit with China (almost half of Japan's total trade deficit in the first six months of this year) would give a much more powerful boost to Japan's traditional exports-investments growth model than all the printing presses currently working overtime at the Bank of Japan.
It is pleasing to see that Japan could be one of the big winners of the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, and that the streak of good luck extended all the way to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where last Saturday Tokyo convincingly won the bid to host 2020 Olympics.
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Michael Ivanovitch is president of MSI Global, a New York-based economic research company. He also served as a senior economist at the OECD in Paris, international economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and taught economics at Columbia.