Critically evaluate the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in promoting global financial stability
This paper will explore the impact of the IMF on the global financial situation. A short history of the IMF will be followed by a summary of its principal activities and problem-solving techniques. The paper will then consider the outcomes of IMF involvement for various states, the implications of the conditions it imposes, and whether there are any differences in how the IMF deals with developed, emerging and Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs). Using qualitative data, an attempt will be made to discern whether or not the IMF’s policies actually achieve its stated goal of creating a financially more stable world.
The IMF was created at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, with the objective of creating exchange rate stability and providing crisis management funds (Dieter 2004). Indeed its official raison d’être “to provide the global public good of financial stability — is the same today as it was when the organization was established” (IMF 2010a). The IMF is a “specialized agency” of the UN (UN 1998:136), although coordination between the Fund and the UN is weak (Woods 2006:3) The founders perceived that most of Europe’s problems were caused by economic turmoil and so they tried to create a series of institutions that would support stability in both the international trading environment and convertible currencies. The IMF would monitor state banking performances, primarily balance-of-payments (BofP) positions and exchange rates, then subsequently provide temporary assistance where necessary (Judt 2007:107-108). However, during the 1970s, “the IMF’s role changed dramatically when the Bretton Woods system of exchange rates collapsed” (Woods 2001:86), and the Fund became the “international lender of last resort”(Gould-Davies & Woods 1999:2).
The IMF has a Managing Director with approximately 2,400 staff. A permanent Executive Board with 24 members co-ordinates the day-to-day running of the organization. Each of its 187 member states is required to donate an annual quota relative to the size of its economy (IMF 2010b). They can then withdraw this quota in times of financial crisis in reserves known as “Special Drawing Rights” or SDRs. Members can gain access to more than their quota; for example, if the IMF was providing a long-term structural-adjustment plan the recipient state could receive up to five times its share. Similarly, poorer countries which qualify for the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) can borrow up to 190% of their quota over a three year period, and in exceptional circumstances up to 255% (UN 1998:55-56).
The IMF has four main crisis management facilities: Stand-by arrangements, which cover short-term BofP shortfalls; Extended Fund Facility, for medium-term BofP problems caused by macroeconomic issues; ESAF, providing low-interest short-term loans; and the Compensatory and Contingency Financing Facility (CCFF) to provide assistance in temporary export shortfalls or excessive cereal import costs. The IMF can also offer technical advice and assistance at its institutes in Washington, Singapore and Vienna. This could involve institution-building, such as central bank creation. In the majority of circumstances though, members are allowed to purchase more prosperous currencies with a levy attached and then re-buy their own currency over a specified period of time (UN 1998:136-138; Karns & Mingst 2004:366). These borrowing charges provide the bulk of the IMF’s income required for its running costs (Woods 2006:23). The IMF’s other areas of practice are “multilateral surveillance, the assessment of international standards and economic research” (Woods & Lombardi 2006:498).
Voting rights within the IMF are based on a formulae constructed from economic weight and economic openness which is subject to considerable political manipulation (Woods 2006:3). Historically, voting has been dominated by the US (Karns & Mingst 2004:28) due to it being the only country with the power to veto any decision made within the apparatus (Woods 2006:19). However, this is about to shift to reflect the changes in economic power since the end of the Second World War. “[T]he 10 IMF members with the largest voting share… will be the United States, Japan… China, Brazil, India and Russia… France,Germany, Italy and Britain.” A higher quota was demanded from China, which refused until its economic input could be matched with corresponding political influence (Somerville 2010). These changes will give the Fund “the necessary credibility and influence to act as a truly global institution, and possibly assume new functions” (Inning 2010). This could mean this share reform program is merely a clever manoeuvre by the economically powerful to improve their image. Nevertheless, these changes have been welcomed as being “conducive to building a fair, just, inclusive and orderly international monetary and financial system”. Developing nations will have a far greater say on the world stage; and the promotion of China in particular will allow greater representation for the views of non-Western countries (Jianxun 2010).
These new changes will not, however, improve representation within the Board for the African continent as 21 of the African states will still be spoken for by just one Executive Director (Woods 2006:17). The argument could be made that as it is the most prosperous states that inject the majority of funds (Foley 2010), that they are entitled to make the majority of decisions. On the other hand, decisions made by the IMF affect loan recipients more acutely than the already thriving economic powerhouses (Ladd 2003:5), and it must therefore be more just to redistribute power to states across the globe.
Does the IMF succeed in its stated aims? There have been highly visible cases in Europe where IMF assistance was not beneficial to the population. Romania under Ceausescu, from 1965, was exporting too much to make repayments on previous IMF loans; Ceausescu did not ask the IMF for access to the CCFF, but instead let his people suffer terribly. This fact was apparently hidden from the IMF at the time (Judt 2007:582-583). In the mid-1970’s, the de-communisation of Portugal was aided by IMF loans whose conditions caused widespread unemployment (Judt 2007:515). These incidents suggest ineptitude, or perhaps indifference, on the part of the IMF towards monitoring the welfare of its debtors. Judt argues that following the delivery of IMF loans, the beneficiaries “could then blame ‘international forces’ for the unpopular domestic policy measures that ensued” (2007:458). This points to the misuse of IMF funds being at the heart of problems experienced, rather than the international institution itself. Correspondingly, in sub-Saharan Africa “[a]nalyses of corruption have identified a series of processes through which governing elites subvert the designs of donors” (Harrison 2001:531). Evans (2009) points out that blaming the IMF for unfavourable domestic policies is a sign of weakness, dependence and lack of sovereignty.
A major criticism of IMF lending policy is that in order for recipients to take advantage of IMF loans they must do so under the strict “conditionality” that they “reduce inflation… rationalize and stabilize… [their] exchange rate[s]… increase interest rates… reduce public sector expenditure… increase taxation… [and] eliminate subsidies”. In addition, the World Bank forces recipients to undergo financial de-regulation in addition to opening up their economies to foreign investors, whilst privatizing their state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Together these neoliberal requirements have become known as the “Washington Consensus” (Woods 2006:8). For underdeveloped economies, these structural adjustment policies (SAPs) are fiscal suicide. All prosperous states began by protecting their domestic markets with subsidies (Danaher 2004:72), and in many cases still do. Consider, for example, what would happen to Europe’s farming community if the CAP were to be scrapped. As it stands, the imposition of SAPs have inevitably led to the large scale take-over by multi-national corporations (MNCs) of entire countries’ economic structures (Burchill 2009:77-80).
This raises important questions of sovereignty. Who is running the country if the government has no financial control? Furthermore, with the privatization of SOEs the infrastructure of the state becomes run by overseas corporations. The interests of the people are no longer of concern and profit becomes the only goal (Weller & Singleton 2006:80; Burchill 2009:77-80). “Not only have nation-states lost direct control over the value of their currencies and the movements of capital around the world, they can no longer determine the institutional settings in which capital markets operate” (Burchill 2009:79). However, the trend of an increasingly globalized world has in itself called into question how autonomous nations are able to be. Even China, with its $7trillion worth of exchange reserves is totally reliant on the global marketplace for its survival (Frost et al. 2009).
Loss of economic sovereignty has had an especially detrimental impact in Africa. Takeovers by foreign corporations have contributed markedly to a decrease in living standards, due to the increase in price of basic goods, and have fuelled the civil unrest which is today rife upon the continent. From the 1960s through to the 1980s, some African leaders took the opportunity to sell off parastatal entities to family members and political allies at a fraction of their true worth. Consequently, the money which should have been made for the treasuries and which would have caused an increase in living standards for the general population (had the money been spent on social programmes) instead lined the pockets of African elites upon the sale of said assets to foreign corporations. Meanwhile foreign debt tripled owing to the IMF loans (Meredith 2005:368-377). This injection of cash into the continent was politically motivated by the desire to keep Africa out of the Soviet sphere of influence (Woods 2006:26).
As many African states are former European colonies, until the early 1970s their currencies had exchange-rate links with the American dollar, British pound or French franc. However, many African states felt their self-determination would be more readily achieved by creating their own central banks. Up until this time, the dollar had been convertible to gold, but this was not providing enough capital for the US to continue waging its war in Vietnam; Nixon therefore removed the gold standard, and developed and emerging economies alike floated their currencies. This initially caused financial difficulties in all economies; however, within a decade the northern states had stabilized whilst the value of emerging economies plummeted. In parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, currency values have never recovered. Inflation remained low within the Global North but reached unprecedented heights in the Global South. It is thought that central banks are the main reason why the Third World is unable to escape its predicament (Schuler 1995).
In contrast, there have been successes amongst emerging Central Eastern European (CEE) states including Slovakia, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan and Russia, who are no longer reliant upon the IMF. This has created a two-tiered system of emerging nations. Those who do still require IMF support have difficulty in securing foreign investments (Evans 2009). This point of view is not definitive though as the economic transition in Russia is perceived by some to have been inadequate. Furthermore, the IMF has been accused of “mission creep” in other transition economies where they have pushed their new “tasks beyond their core competency” (Woods 2006:9).
A major issue, affecting predominantly developed, but also emerging, nations is the regular cycle of boom and bust. In the past two decades, dot com and property booms have made millionaires, and the recessions of the 1990s (Cecchetti 2006) and the present downturn since January 2008 have caused untold misery to businesses and households alike (National Bureau of Economic Research 2008). Arezki & Ismail (2010) perceive that fiscal policies such as those created by the IMF cause the spending trends seen during these differing periods. Their research has shown how “current spending” (wages, essential goods and services) increases during times of boom, whilst “capital spending” (long-term investments and asset procurements) declines. Likewise, during times of bust the opposite is true. If policies were designed to strike a balance during boom times between current spending and the purchase of savings and investments, this would then create a more stable financial marketplace over the long-term. But of course this would reduce the massive profits for corporations, who are the main beneficiaries of this system.
These swings have an enormous impact on “real effective exchange rate (REER) movements” (Arezki & Ismail 2010:1), which form one of the IMF’s main areas of responsibility. Countries which rely on the export of their natural resources, such as those in oil-producing regions, are hugely susceptible to price fluxes caused, in part, by fluctuations in REER’s. For net importers, current spending is typically on domestically produced goods, whereas capital expenditure comes principally from imports. As wages and the prices of essential goods and services become highly politicized during economic downturns, it is the capital expenditure which suffers. For exporters, the opposite is true. Hence, export-reliant countries’ real exchange rates do not see the decline associated with importers during these times. However, this lack of exchange rate adjustment adversely affects the non-commodity business communities and thus has a negative impact on these countries’ economies over the medium to long-term. At present, fiscal policies do not encourage any slow-down in current spending during upturns and do not give the confidence to improve capital payments. Arezki & Ismail “find limited evidence that fiscal rules have help[ed] reduce… the degree of responsiveness of current spending during booms.” In contrast, they find evidence that “fiscal rules are associated with a significant reduction in capital expenditure during busts while responsiveness to boosts is more muted” (2010:5).
This raises the question of who is benefitting from this system. As the US, UK and other major economies are all net importers and also hold the greatest sway over IMF decision-making, in whose interests are the IMF’s Board members acting if not in the interests of their own states? IMF audits have shown the prevalence of ex-Board members obtaining employment within the corporate sector, thereby bypassing the Corporate Governance regulations restricting their behaviour owing to conflicts of interests whilst they are still in the service of the Fund (Campbell 2008:6). This lends one to believe that MNCs are the chief benefactors of IMF policies. When there is a recession in the West there is a boom in oil-producing regions. In the list of countries’ spending on defence in terms of % of GDP, in 2008 the top 10 included seven Middle Eastern states. Saudi Arabia is third on the list and runs one of the largest oil companies in the world – Saudi Aramco. During the current downturn, Western oil corporations such as Halliburton have been leading the way on exploration as oil prices remain high (Fin 2010; Economist 2011:103). Is it possible that the recessions of importing countries are actually precipitated by oil corporations/OPEC deliberately raising the price of crude oil which in turn causes an increase in inflation and consequently a recession (Cavallo 2004; Austin 2010; Therramus 2010)? Therramus (2010) has studied the correlation between the spike in the price of crude oil during 2008 and the subsequent bank run within the shadow banking system. As the shadow banking system is larger than that of the depository this appears to explain the impact of the former on the latter.
Now, Halliburton, for example, has oil and defence interests; their no-bid contract with the US government during the Iraq War provided unprecedented profits both during the bombing campaign and the reconstruction phrase. And of course they were given preferential treatment in the division of Iraq’s oil reserves (HalliburtonWatch n.d.). The policies of the IMF could very well be set up to ensure the continuation of large corporate profits, whether through oil or arms, no matter what the economic health of the globe. To go one step further is it possible that corporations are creating their wealth out of the global financial instability perpetuated by the very institutions whose job it is to create stabilization?
The final answer lies in the phenomenon of Peak Oil. This is essentially the highest point of oil production possible, before the inevitable terminal decline ensues. As our entire economic system, and indeed the industrial world’s way of life, depends upon the production of oil – not only for energy, but also for plastics, medicines, mineral extraction, etc. With the decline in oil extraction, the global economy is already beginning to collapse and is bringing with it vast civil unrest which will only increase over time. Revolutions are presently taking place across the Arab world including Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan (Newman 2007; McPherson & Weltzin 2008; Ruppert 2010; Joseph 2011). If these popular uprisings disrupt oil supply, particularly if Saudi Arabia becomes affected, the situation will worsen even quicker (Evans-Pritchard 2011). So given that the economy is based on a finite resource which is fast running out, is it even possible for the IMF to perpetuate global financial stability? As the collapse of the system continues, hyperinflation will set in and the present currencies will become worthless. In order to solve this problem, the IMF have proposed introducing a world currency – the Keynesian-named Bancor. This would of course remove problems owing to exchange rate fluctuations and currency devaluations (Moghadam 2010). However, many fear that this is another step on the road to a one-world government (Derby 2011).
The IMF’s own Global Financial Stability Report of July 2010 exposes the Fund as a flawed institution. The present recession has caused sovereign debt to reach an all-time high, which has put added pressure on banks and deterred investors. Due to fears of a spill-over of sovereign debts, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the US Federal Reserve have been hoarding liquidity, which is proving detrimental to recovery, particularly within the Euro area. However, the ECB “has also announced a program to purchase sovereign debt”(IMF 2010c:5). Depreciation of the Euro “has the benefit of partially offsetting the adverse impact on growth in the euro area of heightened sovereign and bank risks” (IMF 2010c:6) but this heightens the volatility of the world markets as lenders will not be seeing their expected returns on investment. The lowering of capital expenditure in the Euro area is hitting the exporting emerging economies hard, and it is unclear whether the unstable dominant economies will entice investors to invest in the emerging markets (IMF 2010c). From this report it is clear that the IMF is presently either unable or unwilling to prevent regional fluctuations in prosperity or to ensure states’ BofP. In the corresponding Press Report, Viñals says that the outlook is for a “gradual improvement in financial stability” and yet is hampered by “financial system fragilities” and “vulnerabilities in financial systems” (Viñals 2010). Surely this is an open admission that the IMF is not promoting global financial stability.
The IMF’s main lever of power is its assignment of sovereign credit ratings in its Annual Report which has a commanding influence upon investment decisions. This is tantamount to the public sphere shaping the private sphere wherein the former is then able to lay blame on the latter (Datz 2004). This can be seen in the IMF blaming the private credit agencies for misusing sovereign credit ratings in order to create profit for their private customers (IMF 2010d). As countries are so concerned with their sovereign credit rating they end up implementing policies that stifle economic growth (Datz 2004).
The growing influence of private speculators upon the global financial system has, according to governments in the Eurozone, caused the present recession. For instance, speculators were short-selling shares in Greek banks, i.e. betting that Greece’s economy would plummet (Civitas 2010). It is very difficult to see how such financial instruments could be regulated and therefore should these commodities be banned altogether (Sabha 2007)?
If the IMF along with all other Bretton Woods institutions did redistribute economic power throughout the globe, this would unsettle all of the present relative balance of power relations (Frost et al. 2009). As has been shown by Rowe (2005) any change in the international strategic order can severely disrupt security stability and lead to major wars. This occurred in the build up to World War I due to the large increase in globalization which upset the relative economic balance of power relations which caused the global strategic insecurity. This therefore illustrates the difficulty of redistributing economic goods whilst retaining a stable strategic climate. It could certainly be argued that overall the world is not a stable place, particularly within sub-Saharan Africa (Frost et al. 2009). However, since the creation of the Bretton Woods system no major wars have been seen within the northern hemisphere. This is if one excludes the Balkans conflicts of the 1990’s (Hobsbawn 2002). Even the break-up of the Soviet Union was a surprisingly peaceful affair (Judt 2007:633).
From its inception, the IMF has been used as a political and strategic tool, which implies that it has considerable power and influence. In respect of this, “[e]conomic power” can be defined as “the ability to control or influence the behavior of others through the deliberate and politically motivated use of economic assets. [Meanwhile] [n]ational economic power implies that a government is in a position to use, offer, or withhold such assets even when they are in private hands (for example, by mandating trade embargoes or imposing controls on exports to targeted countries)” (Frost et al. 2009:7). In 1949, Tito of Yugoslavia was “loaned… $20 million [from the US Export-Import Bank followed by] $3 million from the International Monetary Fund, and [on signing] a trade agreement with Great Britain… received $8 million in credits” (Judt 2007:173-174). This was in addition to further Western donations which totalled $1.2 billion, as Yugoslavia was seen as a major pawn in the emerging Cold War (Judt 2007:174). This is one example of how the IMF has propped up dictators in line with the West’s agenda. Conversely, in Poland during 1986 the recently released Solidarity members usurped Jaruzelski’s leadership by liaising directly with the IMF (Judt 2007:606). This made a significant contribution to the dissolution of communism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc in general.
Instead of creating global financial stability, the IMF with its neo-liberal agenda has created a global financial structure akin to the anarchic global strategic structure. This has meant that “the competition for economic security is as intense as the search for strategic security” (Burchill 2009:81). From a realist perspective, the nations of the northern hemisphere have a lot to gain from the maintenance of the status quo. Whilst money may be redistributed within the northern hemisphere, predominantly from the poor to the rich as can be seen by the widening of the gulf between them (Karns & Mingst 2004:23), it is never directed southward. As the IMF is controlled by states in proportion to their economic weight (IMF 2010b), it is unlikely that this situation will alter. Supporters of the IMF would argue that this situation is no bad thing if it continues to prevent the outbreak of a third world war.
This paper has shown how the IMF is part of a global economic system that is heavily stacked in favour of the strongest nations and corporations, and is not concerned with promoting economic stability except in areas where this is in the strategic interest of the most powerful states or MNCs. The IMF actually perpetuates the very problems inherent in economic cycles. MNCs are asserting their influence by wielding the might of this hugely powerful institution to create enormous corporate profit. Despite this bleak assessment, a positive change is afoot with the expansion of voting rights within the IMF’s Executive Board which will bring an increase in democracy to the Fund’s decision-making process.
A massive upheaval in the present financial system would be required in order for poorer countries to enjoy the same standard of living as those in the northern hemisphere. This could upset the relative balance of power relations and cause the military instability of the Global South to spread to the North. However, with a more level financial playing field perhaps this would not occur. The remaining question is how could this be achieved? The continued existence of the IMF in its present form and with its present policies would make such changes impossible. But with the collapse of the monetary system as oil production declines there will soon be no need for the institution to exist at all.
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