International Monetary Fund – Kill or Cure

Written by admin on May 20th, 2011

This was the title of the cover page of the prestigious magazine, “The Economist” in its issue of 10/1/98. The more involved the IMF gets in the world economy – the more controversy surrounds it. Economies in transition, emerging economies, developing countries and, lately, even Asian Tigers all feel the brunt of the IMF recipes. All are not too happy with it, all are loudly complaining. Some economists regard this as a sign of the proper functioning of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – others spot some justice in some of the complaints.

The IMF was established in 1944 as part of the Bretton Woods agreement. Originally, it was conceived as the monetary arm of the UN, an agency. It encompassed 29 countries but excluded the losers in World War II, Germany and Japan. The exclusion of the losers in the Cold war from the WTO is reminiscent of what happened then: in both cases, the USA called the shots and dictated the composition of the membership of international organization in accordance with its predilections.

Today, the IMF numbers 182 member-countries and boasts “equity” (own financial means) of 200 billion USD (measured by Special Drawing Rights, SDR, pegged at 1.35 USD each). It employs 2600 workers from 110 countries. It is truly international.

The IMF has a few statutory purposes. They are splashed across its Statute and its official publications. The criticism relates to the implementation – not to the noble goals. It also relates to turf occupied by the IMF without any mandate to do so.

The IMF is supposed to:

1.. Promote international monetary cooperation;
2.. Expand international trade (a role which reverted now to the WTO);
3.. Establish a multilateral system of payments;
4.. Assist countries with Balance of Payments (BOP) difficulties under adequate safeguards;
5.. Lessen the duration and the degree of disequilibrium in the international BOPS of member countries;
6.. Promote exchange rate stability, the signing of orderly exchange agreements and the avoidance of competitive exchange depreciation.
The IMF tries to juggle all these goals in the thinning air of the global capital markets. It does so through three types of activities:


The IMF regularly monitors exchange rate policies, the general economic situation and other economic policies. It does so through the (to some countries, ominous) mechanism of “(with the countries’ monetary and fiscal authorities). The famed (and dreaded) World consultation” Economic Outlook (WEO) report amalgamates the individual country results into a coherent picture of multilateral surveillance. Sometimes, countries which have no on-going interaction with the IMF and do not use its assistance do ask it to intervene, at least by way of grading and evaluating their economies. The last decade saw the transformation of the IMF into an unofficial (and, incidentally, non-mandated) country credit rating agency. Its stamp of approval can mean the difference between the availability of credits to a given country – or its absence. At best, a bad review by the IMF imposes financial penalties on the delinquent country in the form of higher interest rates and charges payable on its international borrowings. The Precautionary Agreement is one such rating device. It serves to boost international confidence in an economy. Another contraption is the Monitoring Agreement which sets economic benchmarks (some say, hurdles) under a shadow economic program designed by the IMF. Attaining these benchmarks confers reliability upon the economic policies of the country monitored.

Financial Assistance

Where surveillance ends, financial assistance begins. It is extended to members with BOP difficulties to support adjustment and reform policies and economic agendas. Through 31/7/97, for instance, the IMF extended 23 billion USD of such help to more than 50 countries and the outstanding credit portfolio stood at 60 billion USD. The surprising thing is that 90% of these amounts were borrowed by relatively well-off countries in the West, contrary to the image of the IMF as a lender of last resort to shabby countries in despair.

Hidden behind a jungle of acronyms, an unprecedented system of international finance evolves relentlessly. They will be reviewed in detail later.

Technical Assistance

The last type of activity of the IMF is Technical Assistance, mainly in the design and implementation of fiscal and monetary policy and in building the institutions to see them through successfully (e.g., Central Banks). The IMF also teaches the uninitiated how to handle and account for transactions that they are doing with the IMF. Another branch of this activity is the collection of statistical data – where the IMF is forced to rely on mostly inadequate and antiquated systems of data collection and analysis. Lately, the IMF stepped up its activities in the training of government and non-government (NGO) officials. This is in line with the new credo of the World Bank: without the right, functioning, less corrupt institutions – no policy will succeed, no matter how right.

From the narrow point of view of its financial mechanisms (as distinct from its policies) – the IMF is an intriguing and hitherto successful example of international collaboration and crisis prevention or amelioration (=crisis management). The principle is deceptively simple: member countries purchase the currencies of other member countries (USA, Germany, the UK, etc.). Alternatively, the draw SDRs and convert them to the aforementioned “hard” currencies. They pay for all this with their own, local and humble currencies. The catch is that they have to buy their own currencies back from the IMF after a prescribed period of time. As with every bank, they also have to pay charges and commissions related to the withdrawal.

A country can draw up to its “Reserve Tranche Position”. This is the unused part of its quota (every country has a quota which is based on its participation in the equity of the IMF and on its needs). The quota is supposed to be used only in extreme BOP distress. Credits that the country received from the IMF are not deducted from its quota (because, ostensibly, they will be paid back by it to the IMF). But the IMF holds the local currency of the country (given to it in exchange for hard currency or SDRs). These holdings are deducted from the quota because they are not credit to be repaid but the result of an exchange transaction.

A country can draw no more than 25% of its quota in the first tranche of a loan that it receives from the IMF. The first tranche is available to any country which demonstrates efforts to overcome its BOP problems. The language of this requirement is so vague that it renders virtually all the members eligible to receive the first instalment.

Other tranches are more difficult to obtain (as Russia and Zimbabwe can testify): the country must show successful compliance with agreed economic plans and meet performance criteria regarding its budget deficit and monetary gauges (for instance credit ceilings in the economy as a whole). The tranches that follow the first one are also phased. All this (welcome and indispensable) disciplining is waived in case of Emergency Assistance – BOP needs which arise due to natural disasters or as the result of an armed conflict. In such cases, the country can immediately draw up to 25% of its quota subject only to “cooperation” with the IMF – but not subject to meeting performance criteria. The IMF also does not shy away from helping countries meet their debt service obligations. Countries can draw money to retire and reduce burdening old debts or merely to service it.

It is not easy to find a path in the jungle of acronyms which sprouted in the wake of the formation of the IMF. It imposes tough guidelines on those unfortunate enough to require its help: a drastic reduction in inflation, cutting back imports and enhancing exports. The IMF is funded by the rich industrialized countries: the USA alone contributes close to 18% to its resources annually. Following the 1994-5 crisis in Mexico (in which the IMF a crucial healing role) – the USA led a round of increases in the contributions of the well-to-do members (G7) to its coffers. This became known as the Halifax-I round. Halifax-II looks all but inevitable, following the costly turmoil in Southeast Asia. The latter dilapidated the IMF’s resources more than all the previous crises combined.

At first, the Stand By Arrangement (SBA) was set up. It still operates as a short term BOP assistance financing facility designed to offset temporary or cyclical BOP deficits. It is typically available for periods of between 12 to 18 months and released gradually, on a quarterly basis to the recipient member. Its availability depends heavily on the fulfilment of performance conditions and on periodic program reviews. The country must pay back (=repurchase its own currency and pay for it with hard currencies) in 3.25 to 5 years after each original purchase.

This was followed by the General Agreement to Borrow (GAB) – a framework reference for all future facilities and by the CFF (Compensatory Financing Facility). The latter was augmented by loans available to countries to defray the rising costs of basic edibles and foodstuffs (cereals). The two merged to become CCFF (Compensatory and Contingency Financing Facility) – intended to compensate members with shortfalls in export earnings attributable to circumstances beyond their control and to help them to maintain adjustment programs in the face of external shocks. It also helps them to meet the rising costs of cereal imports and other external contingencies (some of them arising from previous IMF lending!).

Pages: 1 2 3

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply