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Soaring prices pose challenge to G8 finance chiefs

by Shinichi Terada

Finance chiefs from the Group of Eight countries are expected to discuss Friday in Osaka how their economies can tame the soaring oil and food prices battering businesses and consumers around the world.

But analysts and government officials say there are no effective measures in sight, at least in the short term.

The upcoming two-day meeting brings together the financial leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the U.S. to lay the groundwork for the July 7-9 G8 summit in Hokkaido.

Prices of raw materials and foodstuffs, including wheat, corn and rice, have been driven up by surging demand in emerging economies, increased biofuel production, bad weather, and massive inflows of speculative money from hedge funds and other investors, analysts say.

The situation was so dire that riots broke out in some parts of Asia and Africa, and global economic growth, already hit by the prolonged U.S. mortgage loan problems, was dealt a further blow.

The G8 finance ministers “will discuss how soaring oil and food prices could affect the broader economy and relationship between oil-producing countries and consuming countries,” a Finance Ministry official said. “They will also discuss measures to prevent further price hikes. But when it comes to whether they can take specific action, it is unlikely” they will come up with anything concrete.

Trade minister Akira Amari said in an interview earlier this month the problem is that the current oil supply is insufficient to satisfy rising demand from emerging economies like China and India, which has triggered speculative investment in commodities. But analysts say the G8 members appear unable to respond quickly with effective new measures.

“They may deliver a message against speculative investment to try to slow it down, but the meeting is not about energy and we probably won’t see specific measures beyond a statement,” said Hideo Kumano, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

The meeting is likely to center on long-term solutions, including steps to increase food supplies by raising global food productivity and to soften oil consumption by improving energy efficiency, another senior Finance Ministry official said.

“At the G8 meeting in Osaka, we may not see results overnight, but we hope to discuss measures to tackle the issues,” Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga said in a recent speech, highlighting the need for developed countries to reduce their dependency on oil.

“It’s important for consumer countries to encourage energy conservation and for producing countries to expand production capacity and increase market transparency,” he said.

Last weekend, the G8 energy ministers and their counterparts from China, India and South Korea gathered in Aomori and voiced “serious concerns” over the record crude oil prices of $139.12 per barrel on Friday and pledged to boost energy efficiency as the most immediate remedy.

They also agreed to set up a body to exchange information and share knowhow on energy efficiency.

With central banks growing increasingly concerned about inflation, the G8 financial chiefs will probably touch on monetary policies and exchange rates, especially the depreciation of the dollar, Dai-ichi’s Kumano said.

The senior Finance Ministry official said that while the G8 ministers may discuss foreign-exchange conditions, he does not expect any statement on this topic because the meeting will not include central bankers.

Ahead of the G8 meeting, U.S. officials have been making comments to support the dollar after its slide threatened to spur inflation.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Tuesday he would not rule out the possibility of intervening in the currency market to stabilize the dollar.

“There are slight differences in the stance against inflation in the United States and Europe,” Kumano said, adding that the fight against inflation remains the priority of the European Central Bank.

Last week, ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet shocked financial markets by saying his bank could raise the interest rate next month to tame inflation.

Now, the market expects the U.S. Federal Reserve Board to leave its interest rate unchanged while the ECB may raise the rate next month.

“The underlying problem of inflation is the weak dollar, triggered by the slowing U.S. economy,” said Hidehiko Fujii, an economist at Japan Research Institute.

“If they don’t touch on the issue, we will see the dollar weaken further, which will trigger inflation and it could affect emerging economies further,” Fujii warned.

Another issue on the table in Osaka will be Japan’s proposal for a new multilateral fund to be set up by Japan, the U.S. and Britain. Japan is calling on other countries to join the fund.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on Monday pledged $1.2 billion to the fund, which is aimed at helping developing countries improve energy efficiency by cooperating on environmentally friendly technologies.

The U.S. has vowed $2 billion for the fund, while the U.K. has vowed £800 million $1.56 billion). Australia will also join the fund, although the size of its contribution has not been specified yet, the senior Finance Ministry official said.

Other countries may announce their cooperation later, such as at the main summit next month. “The multilateral fund is a long-term project,” the official said.

Other than the G8 countries, high-ranking officials from Australia, Thailand, Brazil, China and South Korea will attend the Osaka meeting.