Why the IMF is intrinsically conservative and hard to reform

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The IMF is used by the G-5 nations and their allies to put their reputational capital behind the international monetary order. Obviously, the backing countries are only going to underwrite a system that they largely approve of and benefit from.

If the IMF didn’t exist, failed nations still periodically would be bailed out by rich ones, if only because the G-5 politicians wouldn’t wish to endanger the stability of the global financial order. But problems would arise as the bailouts would have to be organized anew each time. Which nation would put in how much? Who would pull the plug on failing nations and when? Who or what would enforce repayment? All those questions are regularized and institutionalized through the existence of the IMF.

The cronyist element is that the G-5 nations use the IMF and its lending facilities to protect the creditworthiness of their own banks and financial systems. In contrast, an IMF serving “the citizens of the world,” whatever that might mean, would be an IMF without much support from the biggest and most important financial players. It would be more like the undercapitalized Unicef than an institution that can move world markets or help preserve them…

If the directorship and board governance of the IMF were picked by a vote from all 190 member countries, the leading G-5 nations would put much less of their reputational capital behind the institution. The IMF is an international public good, but such public goods only get produced when it is in somebody’s selfish interest to do so.

And to close:

Successful international economic orders typically have been based on a fair degree of hegemony, whether it was the British-led gold standard of the 19th century, or the more recent post-World War II American dominance. Once you realize that, a lot of the current questions about the IMF answer themselves rather automatically. The real issue isn’t how to improve the IMF, but how we are going to cope as current hegemonies continue to lose their sway.



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