Tag Archives: liberalization

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?

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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.

Reviving the Doha Round

Talks intended to re-start the Doha Round of World Trade Organization liberalization began on Monday.  The Doha Round, which had been designated the “Development Round” by its proponents, was supposed to address a wide array of issues of concern to developing countries, including liberalization of trade in agricultural goods, reducing agricultural subsidies, and access to essential medicines.  The talks originally broke down two years ago, largely because of the unwillingness of US and European officials to cut subsidies to their farmers.  Parties to the talks are expressing guarded optimism about the outcome.

What’s on the table?  The major sticking point continues to be the slow pace at which the United States and some members of the European Union are willing to remove agricultural tariffs and subsidies.  While the World Trade Organization (and its predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, or GATT) has overseen a dramatic decrease of tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade in industrial sectors, the agricultural sector has remained largely outside of liberalization efforts.  The European Union has offered to cut its agricultural subsidies by 60% (from €10 billion to €4 billion in annual subsidies).  The United States has offered to trim its agricultural subsidies to $7.6 billion per year.  Both sides face strong domestic opposition to the proposed cuts; both proposals have been dismissed as inadequate by the developing countries at the WTO talks.

Developing countries have long been told by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that open markets and free trade are the most effective and efficient way to develop an economy.  From their perspective, resistance by the US and EU to liberalize their agricultural markets highlight the injustice of the world trade system, which appears to have one set of rules for the rich and another set for the poor.  That’s what makes the position of the developing countries, particularly of countries like Brazil and India, so compelling.  They have effectively turned the argument in favor of liberalization against countries which historically promoted it most.