SAO PAULO (Luciana Lopez) - The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for U.S. economic growth on Friday and warned Washington and debt-ridden European countries that they are "playing with fire" unless they take immediate steps to reduce their budget deficits.
The IMF, in its regular assessment of global economic prospects, said that bigger threats to growth had emerged since its previous report in April, citing the euro zone debt crisis and signs of overheating in emerging market economies.
The global lender forecast that U.S. gross domestic product would grow an anemic 2.5 percent this year and 2.7 percent in 2012. In its forecast just two months ago, it had expected 2.8 percent and 2.9 percent growth, respectively.
The outlook elsewhere was mixed. The IMF said it was slightly more optimistic about the euro area's growth prospects this year, but a lack of political leadership in dealing with that crisis and the budget showdown in the United States could create major financial volatility in coming months.
"You cannot afford to have a world economy where these important decisions are postponed because you're really playing with fire," said Jose Vinals, director of the IMF's monetary and capital markets department.
"We have now entered very clearly into a new phase of the (global) crisis, which is, I would say, the political phase of the crisis," he said in an interview in Sao Paulo, where the forecast was published.
In the United States, the political problems include a fight over raising the debt ceiling. Fears that the world's biggest economy could default, even briefly, have rattled markets, with Fitch Ratings saying even a "technical" default would jeopardize the country's AAA rating.
Meanwhile, Greece has edged closer to default as euro zone officials disagree on a possible second aid package for the indebted country. With strikes and protests around the country, political turmoil has added to uncertainty, stoking fears that the government will not be able to tighten its belt enough to reduce crippling deficits.
"If you make a list of the countries in the world that have the biggest homework in restoring their public finances to a reasonable situation in terms of debt levels, you find four countries: Greece, Ireland, Japan and the United States," Vinals said.
EMERGING MARKETS OVERHEATING?
Fears of contagion in the euro zone have driven global markets lower in recent sessions, with other vulnerable countries such as Ireland and Portugal feeling pressured.
The IMF raised its growth view for the euro area in 2011 to 2 percent from 1.6 percent. For 2012, the IMF saw growth at 1.7 percent, nearly stable from its previous 1.8 percent.
It raised its forecast for Germany, the powerhouse of the euro zone, to 3.2 percent from 2.5 percent, with growth moderating to 2 percent in 2012.
Forecasts for large emerging markets remained stable or slipped. While China's GDP view stayed at 9.6 percent this year, the IMF lowered its forecast for Brazil to 4.1 percent from 4.5 percent in April.
Those countries, along with Russia, India and South Africa, make up the fast-growing BRICS, a group of emerging economies whose brisk expansion has outstripped that of developed markets recently.
Robust growth has caused emerging economies to tighten monetary policy, with higher interest rates and reserve requirements, even as many developed nations keep policy ultra-loose to try to boost anemic growth.
The IMF warned that many emerging markets still need more tightening. In China, for example, the high inflation rate means negative real interest rates.
Some emerging markets have been reluctant to tighten too far, fearful of derailing growth or attracting speculative flows that could pressure currencies ever higher.
(Editing by Brian Winter and Leslie Adler)
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