Sunday, October 14, 2012

IMF aid to Europeans stirrings of resentment

Members feel Eurozone countries aren't willing to swallow the necessary tough medicine

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Critical role: Last month, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi (right) gave the International Monetary Fund, headed by Christine Lagarde (left), an important new task: requesting that the Fund keep an eye on the behaviour of countries like Spain if the bank took measures to contain their borrowing costs. - PHOTO: REUTERS

IT IS one of the ironies of the eurozone crisis: the Europeans who have long dominated the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are now the ones borrowing its money and swallowing its advice.

The IMF, traditionally a lender to poor countries, now devotes more than half of its financial resources to the eurozone. Moreover, the fund and its managing director, Christine Lagarde, have emerged as the taskmasters that European leaders seem to need to flog them towards a solution to the crisis.

The Fund's critical role in Europe has revitalised the organisation's claim to relevance in world affairs. Last month, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), gave the Fund an important new task: requesting that it keep an eye on the behaviour of countries like Spain if the bank took measures to contain their borrowing costs.

"The ECB wants an independent observer," said Manuela Moschella, an assistant professor at the University of Turin who studies the IMF. ''They want someone who can blow the whistle and say what is going on.''

But there is also resentment among some of the 188 countries that belong to the fund and supply its financial firepower. These discontents are likely to surface in Tokyo when the I.M.F. and the World Bank hold their annual meetings, which were to start Tuesday.

The United States and Canada, among others, have objected to the shift of resources to Europe at the same time that European countries have blocked changes that would give emerging countries a greater voice in making I.M.F. decisions.

Tough pill to swallow

Canadian leaders, in particular, have said that countries whose people live on a few dollars a day should not be asked to help maintain the European welfare state.

''The feeling is that the Europeans don't want to swallow the tough medicine,'' said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. There is, she said, ''a more general sense that European society and way of life are passé.

''Before the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, the fund provided almost no financial assistance to Europe. Now resources committed to the European Union, including Greece and Portugal, account for 56 percent of the I.M.F. total - (EURO)110 billion, or $143 billion.

The first European countries to seek I.M.F. help in recent years were former Soviet Bloc countries, like Latvia and Hungary in 2008, both of which are members of the European Union. The I.M.F. also played a main role in the Vienna Initiative in 2009, in which the European Union and commercial banks cooperated to prevent the collapse of the financial systems in Eastern Europe.

Management of the I.M.F. has long been dominated by Europeans, leading to accusations that the region is now getting preferential treatment. Since its founding in 1946, all of the fund's managing directors have been European.

''There is at least the suspicion that the European members will get easier terms'' for financing, Ms. Moschella said.

''This is really a threat to the credibility of the organization. I think the I.M.F. has behaved correctly, but the suspicion is there.

''European countries continue to contribute more money to I.M.F. coffers than they take back in loans. Germany's quota, or maximum financial commitment, is $14.6 billion, while France's is $10.7 billion. The largest contributor is the United States, with a quota of $42.1 billion out of a total for the fund of $238 billion.

Officials at the fund argue that the euro zone crisis has become a threat to the global economy, including poorer countries, and it is in everyone's interest to fix it. As members of the I.M.F. and financial contributors, European countries have as much right to ask for help as other members.

''When there are systemic crises that affect other countries in the world, it is natural for the fund to be involved,'' said Reza Moghadam, director of the fund's European department.

''The fund has huge depth of expertise in crisis management,'' Mr. Moghadam added. ''We have dealt with a lot of crises in the past, and there is huge institutional knowledge.

''Many analysts agree that there is no other organization with the clout, money or expertise to serve as outside arbiter to quarreling euro zone members.

''Expertise and impartiality - that's what they bring to the table,'' said Carl B. Weinberg, chief economist at the research firm High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York. ''They know how to walk into a government treasury and look at the books and know what they're seeing.'' Mr. Weinberg, as a banker earlier in his career, worked with the I.M.F. on debt restructuring programs in Mexico and other countries.

Ms. Lagarde has helped Mr. Draghi and U.S. leaders put pressure on European officials to move more aggressively to fight the crisis.

 European firewall

During a speech in Washington late last month, Ms. Lagarde beseeched European leaders to ''implement the European firewall - notably the European Stability Mechanism; implement the agreed plan for fiscal union; and, at the country level, implement the programs that are essential for growth, jobs and competitiveness.

''If, as expected, Spanish leaders ask for help from the European Central Bank, the I.M.F. would monitor whether the country kept promises to overhaul the economy and contain government spending. The E.C.B. does not want to take the risk of buying Spanish bonds, a way of lowering the country's borrowing costs, without such conditions.

The euro zone crisis has also presented the I.M.F. with unprecedented organizational challenges. Instead of dealing with one country, it must deal with the 17 members of the European Union that use the euro. They frequently do not agree, and decision-making is slow. In overseeing lending and restructuring programs in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the fund has shared authority with the E.C.B. and the European Commission, with the three having come to be known as the troika.

''The fund's relationship with Europe is more complicated than anything it has ever been involved in,'' said Edwin M. Truman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

While he said the fund had done a ''reasonable job'' in Europe, Mr. Truman also called the I.M.F.'s involvement on the Continent a ''political subterfuge'' because the euro zone countries were effectively outsourcing responsibilities they should be taking on themselves.Some observers say that European countries made the fund's task more difficult because they hesitated too long to ask for help, for reasons of pride.

''We should have let the I.M.F. in earlier in Greece,'' said Erik Berglof, chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. ''We could have maybe had an earlier solution to the Greek problem and not allow it to grow in magnitude before it was addressed.

''There is a risk that European leaders will repeat the same mistake in Spain, waiting to call in the I.M.F. until the crisis is acute. No national leader likes to take orders from an outside institution, especially in Europe, where countries are not used to being charity cases. The stigma and loss of sovereignty are likely reasons that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain has delayed asking for help.The fund has learned from its own mistakes in places like Asia that too much austerity can be counterproductive, but was not always able to apply that experience. In Greece, for example, Germany and other northern countries insisted on a strict austerity program.''The I.M.F. has learned a lot how to design programs and structural reform measures and how to embed them in the local political system,'' Mr. Berglof said. ''That experience the European institutions didn't have from the beginning.

''Though the I.M.F.'s presence in Europe may not please everyone, it is likely to continue growing. No other institution, even the E.C.B., has the political independence or expertise needed to oversee restructuring programs in a country like Spain. Canada and other countries that resent paying for a European bailout are not likely to block one altogether.

Said Mr. Berglof of the E.B.R.D., ''There is a broader constituency that has a very strong stake in the resolution of the economic problems in Europe.

Political uncertainty

''The International Monetary Fund is cutting its global economic forecast yet again, calling the risks of a slowdown ''alarmingly high,'' primarily because of policy uncertainty in the United States and Europe, Annie Lowrey reported from Washington.

It foresees global growth of 3.3 percent in 2012 and 3.6 percent in 2013, down from 3.5 percent this year and 3.9 percent next year when it made its previous report in July. New estimates suggest a 15 percent chance of recession in the United States next year, 25 percent in Japan and more than 80 percent in the euro area.

Financial market stress, government spending cuts, stubbornly high unemployment and political uncertainty continue to hamper growth in high-income countries, the fund said. At the same time, the emerging-market countries that fueled much of the recovery from the global recession, like China and India, have continued to cool off, with global trade slowing.

By Jack Ewing, The International Herald Tribune

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