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IMF, World Bank chiefs urge focus on fair growth

TOKYO -- Countries should not sacrifice growth for the sake of austerity, the head of the International Monetary Fund told global financial leaders Friday, urging that the pace of government debt reduction be tempered by spending to help get the unemployed back to work.

Balancing those sometimes competing priorities is the central puzzle facing policymakers as the world economy slows further, even in dynamic Asia, IMF chief Christine Lagarde told finance leaders at the IMF and World Bank annual meeting in Tokyo.

Lagarde said she was “desperately optimistic” on prospects for a global recovery, while warning against backsliding on reforms needed to prevent future financial crises.

“The first priority, clearly, is to get beyond the crisis, and restore growth, especially to end the scourge of unemployment,” Lagarde said.

Greece, Spain and other European countries laboring under massive debts have slashed spending and raised taxes, seeking to restore confidence in their public finances and qualify for emergency financing. The economies of financially healthier European countries, such as Germany and Finland, face a potential blow to growth if those troubled economies fail to get their financial houses in order. At the same time, the recovery of the 17-nation grouping that uses the euro could founder if tax increases and spending cuts bite too deeply.

While there seems to be a wide consensus on long-term strategies for reform, there is less agreement how painful such policies should be in the near-term given the persistent risk of recession and surging unemployment.

“One lesson though is clear from history,” Lagarde said. “Reducing public debt is incredibly difficult without growth. High debt, in turn, makes it harder to get growth, so it's a very narrow path to be taken.”

“It's probably a long path, and one for which there is probably no shortcut, either. It's a path that needs to be taken,” she said.

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