IMF World Bank   1 comment

The things we novelists find ourselves researching can be amazing.

Transformation Project Book 3, entitled A Threatening Fragility, is well underway. I am now writing the scenes I’d rather not … for example, the designated survivor/acting president Marshall Ellerby is learning how the IMF and the World Bank work, which means I have to learn how the IMF and the World Bank work.

Image result for image of world bankWhen I started my research, I knew … because I listen critically to the news … that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were two separate agencies … and that the IMF had been established as part of the UN under the Bretton Woods Institutions. I knew that last part only because my husband hails from New Hampshire and someone there was proud of that get-together back in 1944. I have a good head for trivia, so their comment stuck.

So are you confused yet? Yeah, well, you’re in good company. John Maynard Keynes was there pulling strings when the two institutions were created and even he admitted he was confused by the names, thought the Fund should be called a bank and the Bank should be called a fund. Nobody has really set things straight since.

In July 1944, delegates from 44 nations established the Bank and the IMF as twin intergovermental pillars supporting the world’s economic and financial structure. There are two pillars rather than one in order to establish a division of labor, but it just leads to confusion for the general public.

Similarities between the two agencies do little to resolve the confusion. Superficially the Bank and IMF exhibit many common characteristics. Both are in a sense owned and directed by the governments of member nations. The People’s Republic of China, by far the most populous state on earth, is a member, as is the United States, the world’s largest industrial power. Virtually every country on earth is a member of both institutions. Both institutions concern themselves with economic issues and concentrate their efforts on broadening and strengthening the economies of their member nations. Staff members of both the Bank and IMF often appear at international conferences, speaking the same esoteric language of the economics and development professions. The media then reports on negotiations and mystifying programs of economic adjustment without really explaining what any of it means.

Image result for image of imfThe two institutions hold joint annual meetings, which the news media cover extensively. Both are headquartered in Washington, D.C., where popular confusion over what they do and how they differ is almost as deep as it is everywhere else. For many years both occupied the same building and even now, though located on opposite sides of a street very near the White House, they share a common library and other facilities, regularly exchange economic data, sometimes present joint seminars, daily hold informal meetings, and occasionally send out joint missions to member countries.

Despite these and other similarities, however, the Bank and the IMF remain distinct. The fundamental difference is this: the Bank is primarily a development institution; the IMF is a cooperative institution that seeks to maintain an orderly system of payments and receipts between nations. Each has a different purpose, a distinct structure, receives its funding from different sources, assists different categories of members, and strives to achieve distinct goals through methods that differ from the methods of the other agency.

At Bretton Woods, the international community assigned aims to the World Bank that are implied in its formal name — the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), giving it primary responsibility for financing economic development. The Bank’s first loans were extended during the late 1940s to finance the reconstruction of the war-ravaged economies of Western Europe. When these nations recovered some measure of economic self-sufficiency, the Bank turned its attention to assisting the world’s developing countries. Since the 1940’s, the World Bank has loaned more than $330 billion to developing nations. The World Bank’s central purpose is to promote economic and social progress in developing countries by helping to raise productivity so that their people may live a better and fuller life.

In establishing the IMF, the world community was reacting to the unresolved financial problems instrumental in initiating and protracting the Great Depression of the 1930s:

  • sudden, unpredictable variations in the exchange values of national currencies
  • a widespread disinclination among governments to allow their national currency to be exchanged for foreign currency.

Set up as a “voluntary and cooperative” institution, the IMF attracts to its membership nations that are prepared, in a spirit of enlightened self-interest, to relinquish some measure of national sovereignty by giving up practices deemed injurious to the economic well-being of their fellow member nations. The rules of the institution (see IMF’s Articles of Agreement) are signed by all members and constitute a code of conduct. The code requires members to allow their currency to be exchanged for foreign currencies freely and without restriction, to keep the IMF informed of changes they contemplate in financial and monetary policies that will affect fellow members’ economies, and, to the extent possible, to modify these policies on the advice of the IMF to accommodate the needs of the entire membership.

To assist nations to abide by the code of conduct, the IMF administers a pool of money from which members can borrow when they are in trouble. The IMF is not, however, primarily a lending institution as is the Bank. It is first and foremost an overseer of its members’ monetary and exchange rate policies and a guardian of the code of conduct. Philosophically committed to the orderly and stable growth of the world economy, the IMF leadership abhors surprise. It receives frequent reports on members’ economic policies and prospects, which it debates, comments on, and communicates to the entire membership so that other members may respond with informed knowledge and a clear understanding of how their own domestic policies may affect other countries. The IMF is convinced that a fundamental condition for international prosperity is an orderly monetary system that will encourage trade, create jobs, expand economic activity, and raise living standards throughout the world. The IMF’s constitution requires it to oversee and maintain this system.

The IMF is small (about 2,300 staff members) and, unlike the World Bank, has no affiliates or subsidiaries. Most of its staff members work at headquarters in Washington, D.C., although three small offices are maintained in Paris, Geneva, and at the United Nations in New York. Its professional staff members are for the most part economists and financial experts.

The structure of the Bank is somewhat more complex. The World Bank itself comprises two major organizations: the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association (IDA). Also associated with, but legally and financially separate from the World Bank, are the International Finance Corporation, which mobilizes funding for private enterprises in developing countries, the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, and the Multilateral Guarantee Agency. With over 7,000 staff members, the World Bank Group is about three times as large as the IMF, and maintains about 40 offices throughout the world, although 95 percent of its staff work at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. The Bank employs a staff with an astonishing range of expertise: economists, engineers, urban planners, agronomists, statisticians, lawyers, portfolio managers, loan officers, project appraisers, as well as experts in telecommunications, water supply and sewerage, transportation, education, energy, rural development, population and health care, and other disciplines.

The World Bank is an investment bank that intermediates between investors and recipients, borrowing from one and lending to the other. Its owners are the governments of its 180 member nations with equity shares in the Bank, which were valued at about $176 billion in June 1995. The IBRD obtains most of the funds it lends to finance development by market borrowing through the issue of bonds (which carry an AAA rating because repayment is guaranteed by member governments) to individuals and private institutions in more than 100 countries. Even if a country defaults on its loans, investors still get their money because the other countries guarantee the loans. Its loan associate, IDA, is largely financed by grants from donor nations. The Bank is a major borrower in the world’s capital markets and the largest nonresident borrower in virtually all countries where its bonds are sold. It also borrows money by selling bonds and notes directly to governments, their agencies, and central banks. The proceeds of these bond sales are lent in turn to developing countries at affordable rates of interest to help finance projects and policy reform programs that give promise of success.

Despite Lord Keynes’s profession of confusion, the IMF is not a bank and does not intermediate between investors and recipients. Nevertheless, it has significant resources at its disposal, presently valued at over $215 billion. These resources come from quota subscriptions, or membership fees, paid in by the IMF’s 182 member countries. Each member contributes a certain amount of money proportionate to its economic size and strength (richer countries pay more, poorer less). While the Bank borrows and lends, the IMF is more like a credit union whose members have access to a common pool of resources (the sum total of their individual contributions) to assist them in times of need. Although under special and highly restrictive circumstances the IMF borrows from official entities (but not from private markets), it relies principally on its quota subscriptions to finance its operations. The adequacy of these resources is reviewed every five years.

Neither wealthy countries nor private individuals borrow from the World Bank, which lends only to governments of developing nations. The poorer the country, the more favorable the conditions under which it can borrow from the Bank. Developing countries whose per capita gross national product (GNP) exceeds $1,305 may borrow from the IBRD. Per capita GNP is a measure of wealth obtained by dividing the value of goods and services produced in a country during one year by the number of people in that country. These loans carry an interest rate slightly above the market rate at which the Bank itself borrows and must generally be repaid within 12-15 years. The IDA, on the other hand, lends only to governments of very poor developing nations whose per capita GNP is below $1,305, and in practice IDA loans go to countries with annual per capita incomes below $865. IDA loans are interest-free and have a maturity of 35 or 40 years.

In contrast, all member nations, both wealthy and poor, have the right to financial assistance from the IMF. Maintaining an orderly and stable international monetary system requires all participants in that system to fulfill their financial obligations to other participants. Membership in the IMF gives to each country that experiences a shortage of foreign exchange–preventing it from fulfilling these obligations–temporary access to the IMF’s pool of currencies to resolve this balance-of-payment difficulty These problems are no respecter of economic size or level of per capita GNP, with the result that over the years almost all members of the IMF, from the smallest developing country to the largest industrial country, have at one time or other had recourse to the IMF and received from it financial assistance to tide them over difficult periods. Money received from the IMF must normally be repaid within three to five years, and not later than ten years. Interest rates are slightly below market rates, but are not so concessional as those assigned to the World Bank’s IDA loans. Through the use of IMF resources, countries have been able to buy time to rectify economic policies and to restore growth without having to resort to actions damaging to other members’ economies.

That is a lot of ground to cover and a major problem with the IMF in particular is the spectacular mission creep that characterizes the past 40 years of the organisation’s existence.

The original purpose of the IMF was relatively narrow — to assist in the post-war reconstruction of the international system of fixed exchange rates agreed on at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Specifically, the IMF was to provide a pool of liquidity for countries suffering from temporary payment imbalances.

The Bretton Woods system ceased to exist in the early 1970s. Since then, the IMF has tried to reinvent itself as an organisation doing everything from fostering global monetary co-operation, trade, high employment and growth, to poverty reduction around the world. There’s not a lot of evidence that it has made a difference.

Some economies standing at important economic and political crossroads — like Egypt — have chosen to simply ignore IMF’s advice and not to tap to its sources of liquidity. Since the events of the Arab Spring, the talks about an IMF loan have led nowhere; similarly, the country is making very little progress on the reform of its unsustainable system of subsidies — in spite of the subsidy reform initiative spearheaded by the Fund worldwide.

Even those countries that have navigated their way through these turbulent economic years have done so with very little help from the IMF. The Baltic countries, which had been hit the hardest by the financial crisis, received no IMF funding other than a small loan for Latvia, worth $1.16 billion, which the government repaid ahead of schedule. The reason these economies got out of their troubles quickly was that their governments pursued bold economic reforms, including massive cuts to public spending and wholesale liberalization of the economy. In 2009 alone, the fiscal adjustment in Estonia amounted to a staggering 11 per cent of GDP.

The problem is not that the Fund is irrelevant — in many instances, its lending might as well be seen as counterproductive. Its 2008 loan to Hungary, worth $15.7 billion, did not help the country restore sound public finances. Instead, the Hungarian government eroded the confidence of investors by its heavy-handed approach to bank deleveraging, by ad hoc levies imposed on the financial industry, telecommunications and retail, and by seizing the assets of private pension funds in 2011.

The central problem with IMF’s lending is that it ignores moral hazard problems. If governments know that they can access IMF loans, they will tend to behave more recklessly both in good and bad economic times.

The latest idea from the Fund — a European Fiscal Union — is a case in point. In a perfect world, the idea of pooling resources to help European countries deal with potential unexpected economic shocks would be an appealing one.

However, in reality, that would act as an invitation for the less well-governed members of the EU to spend like there is no tomorrow. To avoid future financial crises, the exact opposite of the Fund’s proposal is necessary — namely that national governments in Europe and large financial institutions face the full costs of their decisions, for good or ill.

The debt crisis in Europe, as well as the lingering effects of the global financial crisis of 2008, is an opportunity to rethink the role international organizations, and their lending, have in fostering sound policies and financial stability. In other words, it may be time to start seeing the IMF’s expansive mission as part of the problem, rather than the solution, to the world’s economic woes.

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Posted April 28, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

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