The IMF’s Position in a Fragmented Global Economy

by Joseph Joyce

The IMF’s Position in a Fragmented Global Economy

Ten years ago Cambridge University Press published my book, The IMF and Global Financial crises: Phoenix Rising? I had written a series of journal papers on the IMF and used the format of a book to summarize what I had learned about the Fund. I also made some evaluations and projections about the IMF and its reputation; a decade later, how has the IMF done?

The book reviewed the history of the IMF from its founding at Bretton Woods through the global financial crisis. One of the theses of the book was that the IMF had paid a high price for its handling of the Asian financial crisis. The Fund had formulated programs for Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand that proved to be controversial. Among the charges levied against the Fund was:

  • Condemnation for imposing harsh macro policies in the conditions of the programs;
  • Criticism for including inappropriate structural conditions;
  • Blame for indirectly precipitating the crisis through its support of capital decontrol.

In the aftermath of the Asian crisis as well as subsequent crises in Russia, Turkey and Argentina, the global economy entered a period of steady real growth and moderate inflation rates. The demand for the Fund’s assistance declined, and the IMF used the occurrence of relative stability to undertake post-mortem reviews and changes in its recommended policies. These included a retreat from its advocacy of full capital decontrol, and a reassessment of the purposes and scope of conditionality.

When the global financial crisis of 2008-09 occurred, it was an opportunity for the IMF to show that it had learned the lessons of the previous crisis and could adapt its playbook.  The IMF set up 17 Stand-By arrangements during the period of September 2008 through the following summer. The policy conditions attached to these programs were based on an understanding that the contractions in economic activity in the program countries were the result of falling international trade that followed the financial collapse in the advanced economies. Subsequent reviews of the programs found that credit was disbursed more quickly and in larger amounts than in past crises.

In addition to providing financial resources, the IMF called for a coordinated response to the crisis and the use of fiscal stimulus to offset its effects. The Fund’s economists completed its turnaround in its position on capital account regulation and acknowledged that capital controls could mitigate financial fragility. The IMF’s activist stance was acknowledged by the newly formed Group of 20, which approved an increase of the IMF’s financial resources, and called upon it to institute surveillance of their economies.

The IMF, therefore, came out of the global financial crisis with its reputation as a crisis manager restored. The whimsical subtitle of my book came from a line in Don Quixote that referred to a phoenix that rose from the ashes of a fure.  How the IMF used its reputation and handled new crises, however, could only be revealed with the passage of time.

The IMF does much more than serve as a crisis lender. The results of its surveillance of the global economy are published in reports such as the World Economic Outlook, and updates to its economic forecasts are widely reported. The IMF’s Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, has a high public profile, and speaks out a range of global issues. The research of its economists has grown to include work done on income inequality, gender and climate change.

The next major challenge the IMF faced was the Greek debt crisis, when it joined the “troika” of the European Central Bank and European governments in arranging a resolution. The loans extended to Greece were controversial because of the conditions the Greek government had to implment. As the crisis deepened, the IMF differed from its troika partners in advocating for debt relief. Greece eventually repaid its loans from the IMF two years earlier than planned, but in retrospect the IMF’s inclusion in the troika constrained its ability to set sustainable debt levels.

More recently, during the pandemic the IMF was active in providing financial assistance to its poorest members. Some of its funds were given through new facilities, such as the Rapid Credit Facility and the Rapid Financing Instrument, with (at most) minimal conditionality. Brad Setser of the Council of Foreign Relations pointed out that lending from the IMF and the World Bank to lower middle-income countries rose just as private credit flows fell. Setser observed:

“Such a surge made financial sense, and was a moral imperative as well. The Bank and the IMF, and thus President Malpass and Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, deserve credit for making it a reality. The system, in a sense, worked. Low income countries had to struggle through the pandemic, but they didn’t lose access to new financing at the same time.”

But not all agree that such lending by the IMF is consistent with its core missions. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard, who was chief economist at the IMF from 2002 to 2003, points out that the Fund, unlike the World Bank, is not an aid agency. It uses conditionality in part to ensure that it is repaid so that it can continue to lend.  He also argues that “forceful IMF conditionality is essential to establish financial stability and ensure that its resources do not end up financing capital flight, repayments to foreign creditors, or domestic corruption.”

More recently the IMF has become involved with a number of developing nations that can not meet their debt obligations, including Egypt, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. According to The Economist, this work is likely to escalate:

“Debt loads across poorer countries stand at the highest levels in decades. Squeezed by the high cost of food and energy, a slowing global economy and a sharp increase in interest rates around the world, emerging economies are entering an era of intense macroeconomic pain… All told, 53 countries look most vulnerable: they either are judged by the imf to have unsustainable debts (or to be at high risk of having them); have defaulted on some debts already; or have bonds trading at distressed levels.”                                                 The Economist, 7/20/2022

The Fund recently published a Staff Discussion Note on “Geoeconomic Fragmentation and the Future of Multilateralism.” The authors of the Note point out that the pace of globalization slowed notably after the global financial crisis, and geopolitical tensions have led to a reversal of economic integration. They examine the consequences of fragmentation on international trade, the diffusion of technology and the international monetary system.

Could the IMF be replaced? It is difficult to imagine how a new global organization could be organized. On the other hand, regional blocs may become more widespread. For example, the IMF’s Note on fragmentation notes that global liquidity has four sources: central bank reserves, bilateral swap agreements, regional financial arrangements, and the IMF. Bilateral swap lines and regional arrangements have grown rapidly, leaving  the Fund as the only provider of universal coverage. Further growth of regional arrangements based on geopolitical blocs would increase their coverage, but it would be uneven across blocks and could be inadequate to deal with large shocks.

I argued in my book that it is crucial to remember that the IMF is an agent for its 190 principals. Its ability to address global challenges depends on the willingness of the sovereign members to use the IMF to organize responses to the challenges. A world that is divided by U.S.-China frictions gives the IMF limited scope to play the role it seeks to have.