Tag Archives: International Monetary Fund

Greece’s Economic Crisis and the Future of the Eurozone

Greece failed to make a €1.6 billion payment due to the International Monetary Fund yesterday, making it the first developed country in the world to default to the IMF. The Greek government had asked for a postponement of the payment to permit the country to conduct a referendum on a series of austerity measures demanded by its creditors to extend repayment. After European Union negotiators refused, it was not clear how Greece would respond.

This morning, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the country would “conditionally accept” most proposed austerity measures, but he also indicated that the national referendum on the measures would proceed to a vote on July 5 as scheduled. If voters reject the austerity measures, as Tsipras has campaigned for them to do, Greece’s future in the Eurozone would be cast into doubt.

What do you think? Should the Greek government accept the austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in exchange for the loan restructuring it desires? Should Greece consider exiting the Eurozone? And what would the impacts of an exit be both for Greece and for the European Union more generally?

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Greece’s Economic Future

Less than a week after International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde accused the Greek government of failing to negotiate in good faith, it appears Greece, the IMF and the European Union are no closer to reaching a deal to restructure or postpone Greece’s looming debt crisis. Greece faces a massive €1.6bn payment due on June 30. The Greek government has already indicated it will not be able to make the payment, an option the IMF says is not acceptable.

The Greek government has several options. It may compromise with the European Union and the IMF and cut spending on social services as part of a wider austerity package. But according to the Greek government, the effects of such a move would be devastating. Equally important from their perspective, it would violate a central campaign promise made by the center-left government less than a year ago.

If no agreement can be reached by June 30, Greece could default on its loan payment. If Greece defaulted, it could be forced to exit the Eurozone. No country has ever left the Eurozone so it is unclear what that process would look like or who would be responsible for making that decision.

What do you think? Can Greece reach an agreement with the EU and the IMF to avoid default? What might that deal look like? Or is Greece better off defaulting on its loan payments? Why?

The Cyprus Bailout and European Banking Stability

Cypriot protestors demonstrate against the EU's proposed savings tax.

Cypriot protestors demonstrate against the EU’s proposed savings tax.

The Cypriot parliament on Tuesday rejected a proposed bailout package from the European Union that would have imposed a surcharge on bank deposits. The tax was resoundly defeated, with 36 members of parliament opposing the measure and 19 abstaining; no one voted in support. Meanwhile, thousands of protestors had taken to the streets to voice their opposition to the measure.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble noted that he “regretted” the Cypriot parliament’s decision, asserting that “There is a danger they won’t be able to open the banks again at all.”

The measure would have imposed a 6.75 percent levy on all deposits of less than 100,000 euros, and a 9.9 percent surcharge on deposits of more than 100,000 euros. In a last-ditch effort to save the measure, the government of Cyprus announced ahead of the vote that accounts of less than 20,000 euros would be exempted from the tax.

Cyprus, which like Ireland and Iceland had attempted to position itself as an international banking center, had an exceptionally large number of foreign depositors. It was estimated that approximately 40 percent of all deposits on the small island were held by foreigners, mostly Russians. The European Union’s measure angered the Russian government, which announced that it would need to reconsider the terms of a 2.5 billion euro loan it had made to Cyprus in 2011. Cyprus’ Finance Minister, Michalis Sarris, was in Moscow on Tuesday, hoping to extend repayment terms and lower the interest rate on the original loan.

International observers widely condemned the European Union’s proposed bailout package, the terms of which were released on Saturday. Economist Paul Krugman argued that,

You can sort of see why they’re doing this: Cyprus is a money haven, especially for the assets of Russian beeznessmen; this means that it has a hugely oversized banking sector (think Iceland) and that a haircut-free bailout would be seen as a bailout, not just of Cyprus, but of Russians of, let’s say, uncertain probity and moral character…The big problem, however, is that it’s not just large foreign deposits that are taking a haircut; the haircut on small domestic deposits is a bit smaller, but still substantial. It’s as if the Europeans are holding up a neon sign, written in Greek and Italian, saying “time to stage a run on your banks!”

The Cypriot case is particularly interesting. According to an IMF report, the country was doing well before the 2008 global economic crisis, experiencing “a long period of high growth, low unemployment, and sound public finances.” But the global financial crisis hit Cyprus particularly hard, as the country was exceptionally dependent on foreign depositors. By 2011, concerns were emerging. Cypriot banks had made loans to Greek barrowers totaling more than 160 percent of the Cypriot GDP, and those ties to the Greek economy were beginning to drag down Cyprus.

What’s interesting is the moral hazard that the imposition of the new levy poses for other banks in the European Union. As Krugman notes, Europeans watching from other troubled economies (think Spain, Portugal, and Italy) the bailout requirements in Cyprus may be an incentive for them to relocate their assets before their country is forced to undertake similar reforms.

What do you think? Are the conditions imposed by the European Union on Cyprus as a prerequisite for receiving a rescue package reasonable? Or do they threaten to undermine economic stability in other troubled European economies? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

What’s Going on at the IMF?

International Monetary Fund Headquarters, Washington DC

International Monetary Fund Headquarters, Washington DC

Once the unabashed advocate for cutting government regulation and liberalizing economies worldwide, there have been recent murmurings from the International Monetary Fund moving in a dramatically different direction. This is not to suggest that critics of the IMF—most notably Joseph Stiglitz—have run out of ammunition. Rather, as Duncan Green has been reporting on his Oxfam blog, the IMF appears to be opening up to new proposals. For most, the concession that the state may have a role to play in development is hardly a dramatic finding. But from the organization that promoted cuts in government spending and liberalization of capitalism markets as the solution to nearly every economic and financial crisis from Asia to the United Kingdom, from Russia to Brazil, it’s quite a concession.

We’re specially looking at three developments, all covered by Duncan. First, in early February, the IMF began to rethink its traditional focus on inflation. In a paper co-authored by the IMF’s chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, the organization conceded that it had become too focused on inflation at expense of other goals, like fiscal policy, interest rate stability, and—wait for it—preventing global financial crises like the one that rocked the world beginning in 2008.

Later the same month, responding to increasing pressure from countries like Brazil, the IMF began to rethink its traditional opposition to capital controls.  For years, the IMF had promoted open financial markets as a central component of development strategies. But such openness carried significant risk of fostering financial instability. We saw this, for example, during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In 1997, the IMF prescribed cutting capital flows as part of its reform package. But in 2010, it reversed course, conceding that capital controls, under certain circumstances,  may be an effective part of the policy toolkit to manage capital flows.

In April, the IMF announced its most dramatic change to date, announcing its support for establishing a “Robin Hood Tax” intended to force banks to pay for the direct and indirect costs associated with government interventions to bail out the banking sector following the global financial meltdown. While this initiative has stalled amid strong divisions between major players—particularly between the United States and France—the willingness with which the IMF embraced the proposal stood in stark contrast to its earlier positions on financial deregulation and lowering tax rates.

Now, in a new working paper published this month, two IMF economists draw a connection between inequality and the outbreak of financial crises, concluding that higher levels of inequality make an economy more prone to the kinds of crises that have rocked the global economy in recent years. They conclude that preventing future economic crises may depend on reducing the total level of inequality in any given society.

Duncan Green is right. They must be putting something in the water at IMF headquarters. How else do we explain the dramatic shifts taking place there?

The Irish Crisis

Irish PM Brian Cowen

Irish PM Brian Cowen concedes Ireland requies assistance.

Once the “Celtic Tiger,” the envy of most other European (and indeed global) economies, the economoy of Ireland now lies in tatters. The economic crisis in Ireland reached boiling point over the weekend, as the government announced it would accept loans from the European Union. The Irish government had been resistant to the idea, believing that the conditions imposed on Ireland as part of the relief package were too strict.

According to a statement released Monday by European finance ministers, Ireland will now undertake dramatic “fiscal adjustment” and “structural reform” in order to receive EU and IMF assistance, amounting to some €80bn-€90bn. The proposed relief package covers just a small portion of the bailout needed to pay off foreign banks and keep the Irish economy afloat. Kan Kees de Jager, the Dutch finance minister described the cuts as “fast and deep.” The cuts will likely have profoundly negative effects on the people of Ireland. Already, dramatic cuts in the country’s minimum wages and reductions to universal child benefits have been proposed. Apparently off the table, at least for now, are tax increases. Ireland currently has a corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent and is among the lowest in the world. In many ways, the conditionalities imposed as a part of receiving the relief package echo the era of structural adjustment in the global south.

The package has already provoked considerable discussion in the blogosphere. The FT’s Brussels Blog offered extensive analysis. Also blogging at the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman explores the possible effects on the Euro, while the bloggers at Baseline Scenario point to the moral hazard of socializing the risk associated with investment decisions onto the backs of Irish taxpayers. 

Politically there are costs as well. According to the New York Times, the government of Prime Minister Brian Cowen will likely collapse as a result of the bailout package, forcing new elections early next year. By that time, however, the rescue package will be done, and the new government will be bound by the conditions it imposes.

The Irish crisis certainly raises questions about the viability of the Euro and the strength of the Eurozone economies. While Germany appears to be humming along, many other Eurozone members, including Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland are in the doldrums. Greece has already accepted a EU/IMF rescue package, and investors widely believe that Spain and Portugal will also be forced into austerity. Can the Euro survive such a widespread crisis?

Reforming the International Monetary Fund

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the IMF

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the IMF

There’s a showdown brewing at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The organization, which is responsible for overseeing the global financial system, stabilizing exchange rates and balance of payments, is at a standoff over the appropriate size of its executive board. The board is arguably the most powerful body within the fund, as it is responsible for conducting the day-to-day affairs of the IMF. By tradition, the Managing Director of the IMF is a European, while the First Deputy Managing Director is an American (similarly, the World Bank President has traditionally been an American). Constitutionally, there are 20 members of the board, though a series of ad hoc decisions which must be renewed every couple of years, the number of seats was expanded to 24.

There’s the rub. The European Union, which currently holds 9 of the 24 seats on the board, wants to renew the agreement. The United States, arguing in favor of a more streamlined decision-making process, objects. Due to the voting procedures in the IMF, the United States effectively holds a veto over the body’s decisions. All decisions of the IMF must be made by an 85 percent supermajority, and the United States holds 16.74 percent of the votes. (The voting structure and board composition is detailed on the IMF website).

The likely losers in the reform process are the small European states, like Belgium and the Netherlands, which would see their seats merged with a larger European power, most likely Germany. “Musical deck chairs,” as the Global Dashboard describes it. And given the ongoing controversy over Germany’s push for fiscal austerity, this would not likely be well-received.

The United States, however, gains in other ways. According to a report by the Economist’s Free Exchange, the reforms would also give the United States greater clout with developing countries, which have been pushing to reform the voting structure of the IMF for years.

America also gains subtly by taking the side of emerging economies. They might be less likely, for example, to make a big fuss about America’s effective veto at the fund. This is something some have been highlighting as a rule that needs to change—but perhaps now that America is using its veto to make emerging countries’ case, they might prefer to pipe down about what a terrible thing it is. Which would probably suit America just fine.

The current voting structure of the IMF gives Belgium (2.08% and the Netherlands (2.34%) greater input than Mexico (1.43%), Brazil (1.38%), and South Korea (1.38%). Not to mention the fact that many IMF members have less than 1/10 of a percent of a vote. Zambia, for example, has 0.23 votes, Vietnam 0.16 votes, Uganda 0.09 votes, and so on. Even South Africa—the largest economy on the African continent—has just 0.85 votes. (For a complete list of the IMF weighted votes by country, see the IMF website).

And that is, of course, the tragic irony: the countries most affected by IMF policy have the least input in its decision-making processes. The countries most likely to need IMF assistance, and therefore most likely to be subject to the austerity measures imposed as a condition of receiving that assistance, have virtually no input in crafting the nature of those conditions, let alone influencing broader IMF policy.

Some redistribution of seats is certainly necessary. As David Bosco notes, Europe is over-represented and the developing world, particularly East Asia, is under-represented in the current IMF voting system. But does reducing the size of the board address this inequality? Not really. Even with the changes, the developing world continues to lack real input into the decisions of the IMF. The United States continues to have its de facto veto. The position of the other major powers in the IMF (Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom) remains unchanged. European control of the Managing Director position remains intact. And the developing world continues to be affected by the decisions of the IMF without having any real input into making those decisions. Under these conditions, the “failure” of developing countries to take “ownership” of the economic reform process—a criticism widely cited as the reason for the failure of structural adjustment in IMF reports—is hardly surprising. Why take ownership of a process and policy you had little input in crafting?

The Global Financial Crisis, Revisited

Blogging at Triple Crisis, Kevin Gallagher noted an interesting development in the “blame game” between the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organization regarding the causes of the global financial crisis last year. As Gallagher notes, the World Trade Organization held its much anticipated session on the WTO and the financial crisis last week, claiming that the WTO played no negative role in the crisis.

The debate centers on the role of financial controls and capital account liberalization in the broader liberalization process. While the International Monetary Fund increasingly recognizes the importance of capital controls in preventing financial crises, the World Trade Organization continues to maintain that the imposition of capital controls may be “actionable” under the General Agreement on Trade in Services. In other words, even as the IMF acknowledges that imposing limits on the ability of speculative investors to move in and out of particular economies may provide an avenue for governments to limit the negative impact of such speculative investment on their national economies, the World Trade Organization’s rules make such restrictions a punishable offense.

The recognition of the importance of capital controls is not new. Joseph Stiglitz made a similar argument following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, arguing that the IMF ignored the importance of sequencing liberalization to avoid economic crises in developing economies. But there are two important take-away points here. First, the fact that the IMF—the former bastion of unrestricted liberalization—now recognizes that liberalization must be paced represents an important development in the international economy. Indeed, as a February 2010 IMF Staff Paper noted, controls on capital inflows “can usefully form part of the policy toolkit to address the economic or financial concerns surrounding sudden surges in capital.” Second, as Gallagher argues in his paper on the topic, capital account liberalization is not associated with economic growth in developing countries. In other words, at least among developing economies, there is little benefit but much risk in liberalizing financial flows. This is something that the government of Brazil recognized early in the global financial crisis, when it imposed a two percent tax on capital inflows attempting to limit portfolio investment tin the county.