By Simon Johnson
Most Americans paid no attention this weekend when the International Monetary Fund announced it was well on its way to roughly doubling the money that it can lend to troubled countries – what the organization calls a $430 billion increase in the “global firewall.”
The United States declined to participate in this round of fund-raising, so the I.M.F. has instead sought commitments from Europe, Japan, India and other larger emerging markets.
At first glance, this might seem like a free pass for the United States. The additional I.M.F. lending capacity is available to euro-zone countries that now face pressure, such as Spain or Italy, so it might seem that global financial stability is increased without any cost to the American taxpayer.
But such an interpretation mistakes what is really happening – and actually represents a much broader problem with our budgetary thinking. The I.M.F. represents a contingent liability to taxpayer sin the United States – much as the Federal National Mortgage Association (known as Fannie Mae) and Freddie Mac (formerly the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) have in the past — and as too-big-to-fail mega-banks do now. Continue reading
By Simon Johnson
The finance ministers and central bank governors of the world gathered this weekend in Washington for the annual meeting of countries that are shareholders in the International Monetary Fund. As financial turmoil continues unabated around the world and with the IMF’s newly lowered growth forecasts to concentrate the mind, perhaps this is a good time for the Fund – or someone – to save the world.
There are three problems with this way of thinking. The world does not really need saving, at least in a short-term macroeconomic sense. If the problems do escalate, the IMF does not have enough money to make a difference. And the big dangers are primarily European — the European Union and key eurozone members have to work out some difficult political issues and their delays are hurting the global economy. But, as this weekend’s discussions illustrate, there is very little that anyone can do to push them in the right direction. Continue reading
By Simon Johnson
After receiving US support at the critical moment, Christine Lagarde was named Tuesday as the next managing director of the International Monetary Fund. In campaigning for the job, Ms. Lagarde – the French finance minister – made various promises to emerging markets with regard to improving their relationships with the IMF. But such promises count for little and the main impact of her appointment will be to encourage countries such as South Korea, Brazil, India, and Russia to back away from the IMF and to further “self-insure” by accumulating larger stockpiles of foreign exchange reserves – the strategy that has been followed by China for most of the past decade.
Seen from an individual country perspective, having large amounts of dollar reserves held by your central bank or in a so-called sovereign wealth fund makes a great deal of sense; this is a rainy day fund in a global economy prone to serious financial floods. But from the perspective of the global economy, such actions represent a major risk going forward – because it will further push down US interest rates, feed a renewed build up in private sector dollar-denominated debt, and make it even harder to get policymakers focused on a genuine fix to our long-term budget problems. Continue reading
By Simon Johnson
Just a few years ago, eurozone countries were at the forefront of those saying that the International Monetary Fund had lost its relevance and should be downsized. The organization was regarded by the French authorities as so marginal that President Nicolas Sarkozy was happy to put forward the name of a potential rival, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, to become managing director in fall 2007.
Today the French government is working overtime to make sure that a Sarkozy loyalist and the leader of his economic team – Finance Minister Christine Lagarde – becomes the next managing director. Why do they and other eurozone countries now care so much about who runs the IMF? Continue reading
By Simon Johnson
Ms. Christine Lagarde, French finance minister, is the nominee of the European Union for the recently vacant position of managing director at the International Monetary Fund. The EU has just over 30 percent of the votes in this quasi-election; the US has another 16.8 percent and seems willing to keep a European at the fund if an American can remain head of the World Bank. It should be easy for Ms. Lagarde to now travel round the world engaging in some old-fashioned horse trading, along the lines of: Support me now, and I or the French government will get you something suitable in return, either at the IMF or elsewhere.
The contest to run the IMF seems over before it has even really begun. But Ms. Lagarde has a serious problem that may still derail her candidacy, if there is ever any substantive, open, or transparent discussion of her merits. There is major design flaw in the eurozone and Ms. Lagarde is the last person that non-European governments should want to put in charge of helping sort that out. Continue reading
By Simon Johnson; for more on related issues, see my new Bloomberg column on the IMF succession. For more background on the IMF, see Tuesday’s Planet Money Podcast.
Greece has no good options. Without question, Greece brought debt problems on itself – this is the consequence of politicians using irresponsible fiscal policy to win elections.
As the International Monetary Fund put it when Greece became the first eurozone country to borrow from the fund in May 2010, “Even with the lower deficits envisaged under the program, the debt as share of GDP will continue to peak at almost 150 percent of GDP in 2013 before declining thereafter.” The situation has not improved in recent months – even under the most optimistic scenario, the debt-GDP ratio will peak above this number.
The problem is that loose talk among European leadership of potentially “restructuring” or “reprofiling” Greek debt creates more problems than it solves. Financial markets fear another Lehman moment, in which authorities decide to let a significant borrower fail – without fully understanding the consequences. Continue reading
Posted in Commentary
By Simon Johnson (this post comprises the first two paragraphs of a column now running on Bloomberg)
Even before the shocking events of the past few days, the international policy community had been contemplating a successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the International Monetary Fund.
Strauss-Kahn, the IMF managing director, was expected to begin campaigning soon for the presidency of France. Now, whatever happens in the New York legal system as he defends himself against attempted rape allegations, it seems likely that the IMF will be searching for a new head sooner rather than later.
To read the rest of this column, please follow this link: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-17/emerging-markets-might-name-strauss-kahn-heir-simon-johnson.html
By Peter Boone and Simon Johnson
The EU, led by France and Germany, appears to have some sort of financing package in the works for Greece (probably still without a major role for the IMF). But the main goal seems to be to buy time – hoping for better global outcomes – rather than dealing with the issues at any more fundamental level.
Greece needs 30-35bn euros to cover its funding needs for the rest of this year. But under their current fiscal plan, we are looking at something like 60bn euros in refinancing per year over the next several years – taking their debt level to 150 percent of GDP; hardly a sustainable medium-term fiscal framework.
A fully credible package would need around 200bn euros, to cover three years. But the moral hazard involved in such a deal would be immense – there is no way the German government can sell that to voters (or find that much money through an off-government balance sheet operation). Continue reading
Posted in Commentary
Tagged Greece, imf
By Simon Johnson
European Union pressure is growing for Greece to “do the right thing” – which means, to the EU’s leaders, a massive and sudden cut in the Greek budget deficit. Greece, without doubt, has gotten itself into a fine mess; still, it is now time for the Greek government push back more effectively.
Fuming at EU arrogance will accomplish nothing. And, while global investment banks may have helped hide the evidence, it seems unlikely they actually designed the great blunder of eurozone admission (and broken Greek promises). It’s time to stop blaming others and get crafty.
Greece should open a semi-official channel to the IMF and talk discretely about taking out a loan. Continue reading
Posted in Commentary
Tagged Greece, imf
I’ve commented earlier that many economic forecasts seem to assume reversion to the mean – here, meaning average economic growth over the last two decades. For a great example, go to the Wall Street Journal and admire the GDP growth rates projected for Q3 2009 through Q2 2010, marching happily up and to the right. (The numbers are 0.6%, 1.8%, 2.3%, and 2.8%.) This recession is different, however, and even if there is a mean to revert to after U.S. households decide how much they want to save, there’s no telling how long it will take.
For one perspective, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had a session at the end of April featuring a few IMF economists. Marco Terrones (link to PowerPoint at the bottom of the page) looked at the typical duration of a recession and the ensuing recovery. The duration of recovery is measured to the point at which the economy reaches its previous peak output (the output level when the recession began – December 2007 in our case). He looked at 122 recessions since 1960.
Confidence is returning to most credit markets, consumer spending is likely to rebound for some items (autos and housing repair are leading contenders), and firms in the US are starting to sound more optimistic. On NYT.com’s Economix yesterday, Peter Boone and I suggested that we are out of the panic phase of the crisis - in large part because the US fiscal stimulus has reassured people worldwide, but also because President Obama has had a broader calming effect.
Today, the Congressional Budget Office is pointing out that it would be premature to congratulate ourselves too much (disclosure: I’ve joined the CBO’s Panel of Economic Advisers, but none of the information here comes from them). As you likely know, the administration is proposing to lend $100bn to the IMF, as part of that organization’s increase in resources following the G20 summit. Peter Orszag, head of OMB, argued that there was zero probability of this money being lost, so $100bn should be “scored” for budget purposes as $0bn – which is how this kind of transaction has been handled in the past. As the IMF likes to say, it is “the lender of last resort, but the first to be repaid.”
After considerable back and forth, the scoring issue was refered to the CBO. The CBO has reportedly decided there is a 5 percent probability of default by the IMF. This is an extraordinarily important statement. Most informed people just assume that the risk of IMF default is zero, because that would essentially constitute a complete breakdown of the global economy and payments system. But nothing is zero probability, particularly in a world of massive financial panics, incipient protectionism, and improvised global governance. Continue reading
Posted in Commentary
Tagged CBO, imf
Yesterday I testified to the House Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade (part of the House Financial Services Committee). The hearing’s title was “Implications of the G-20 Leaders Summit for Low Income Countries and the Global Economy,” and the main topic was whether Congress should support an extra $100bn for the IMF that the Obama Administration agreed at the G20 summit in early April (witness list, webcast, and written testimony).
The committee was mostly in favor of the US continuing to play a leading role in supporting the IMF, but pressed the witnesses to explain whether the IMF could lose this money (highly unlikely), how this would protect American jobs (definitely, but hard to quantify precisely), and if the broader package of IMF reform should also be supported (e.g., the proposed gold sales are being reassessed, to see they could generate more resources for aid to developing countries).
Politico is reporting that US funding for the IMF is likely to be attached to the war supplemental spending bill. The subcommittee’s chairman, Gregory Meeks, seemed positive – as did all the Democrats who spoke, along with Gary Miller, the Ranking Member/Senior Republican. But, based on remarks made by at least two Republican members of the subcommittee, there is likely to be a big public fight at some point. My guess is that the Democratic side will press hard for President Obama to more publicly explain why supporting the IMF (and the G20) is very much in the US interest.
The main points from my written testimony are below. While Treasury represents the US vis-a-vis the IMF and traditionally has considerable scope for action, the views of Congress on IMF details are very important as both guidance and constraints. In our advice on the wide range of IMF-related issues below, both I and the other witnesses laid out broadly similar views with varying emphasis – there was actually much more disagreement among committee members than at the witness table. Continue reading
The Washington Post is widely read on Capitol Hill and the reception among key people to The Hearing blog (run by us and the Post) has been generally very positive. Members of Congress and their staff want to get you more involved in their discussions around economic policy, and we’re experimenting with ways that will help your opinions – whatever they are – get across at a time and in a manner that increases their impact.
To that end, we’re developing on-line polls in which you can register your views on questions that are currently being debated – either in general terms or as specific legislation – on the Hill (of course, longer comments are also welcome; it’s a blog, after all). Today’s question is about whether the United States should provide an additional $100bn to the IMF, as was agreed at and immediately after the recent G20 summit; this is for a hearing held by a subcommittee of House Financial Services, which starts at 10am. Continue reading
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, is in big trouble. It turns out that a medium-sized industrialized democracy like the UK can be run in pretty much the same way as a traditional emerging market – fiscal irresponsibility (cyclically-adjusted general government deficit now forecast at 12.2 percent of GDP for 2010) gives you a boom for a while, but the eventual day of reckoning is economically painful and politically disastrous. If you also need to deal with an oversized bubble finance sector, that makes the adjustment even more painful.
It is of course sensible to use fiscal stimulus to offset a fall in private demand, and to some extent this can be effective – with a lag. But if you lose control over public spending and borrow too heavily (helped by the fact people like to hold your currency), it ends badly.
From the beginning, we’ve expressed concern here that the entire Summers Plan was overweight fiscal, i.e., not enough resources for recapitalizing banks and addressing housing directly (for the context of this assessment, see our full baseline view). Back in December/January, this was a strategic choice worth arguing about; now it’s a done deal and following the (very) limited recapitalization outcome of the bank stress tests, it seems likely that household and firm spending will remain sluggish. If that is the case, the Administration’s logic implies throwing another big fiscal stimulus into the mix – and the Summers’ team is already preparing the groundwork.
The IMF is now warning against the risks of this approach, albeit using carefully worded language. Continue reading
One of the central themes of our Atlantic article was that the current crisis in the U.S. is very similar to the crises typically seen in emerging markets, and that resolving the crisis will require (some of) the measures often prescribed for emerging markets. This, Simon said, would be the assessment of IMF veterans who had worked on emerging markets crises.
At the exact same time that we were writing that article, Desmond Lachman – who worked at the IMF for 24 years, and then worked on emerging markets for Salomon Smith Barney for another seven years – was writing an article for the Washington Post saying many of the same things.* Here are the first three paragraphs:
Back in the spring of 1998, when Boris Yeltsin was still at Russia’s helm, I led a group of global investors to Moscow to find out firsthand where the Russian economy was headed. My long career with the International Monetary Fund and on Wall Street had taken me to “emerging markets” throughout Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and I thought I’d seen it all. Yet I still recall the shock I felt at a meeting in Russia’s dingy Ministry of Finance, where I finally realized how a handful of young oligarchs were bringing Russia’s economy to ruin in the pursuit of their own selfish interests, despite the supposed brilliance of Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s economic czar at the time.