International Monetary Fund (IMF): Kill or Cure?

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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This was the title of the cover page of the prestigious magazine, "The Economist" in its issue of 10/1/98. The more involved the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gets in the world economy, the more controversy surrounds it. Economies in transition, emerging economies, developing countries and, lately, even Asian Tigers all feel the brunt of the IMF recipes. All are not too happy with it, all are loudly complaining. Some economists regard this as a sign of the proper functioning of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - others spot some justice in some of the complaints.

In his book, "A Farewell to Alms" (Princeton University Press, 2007), Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis compares the World Bank and the IMF to "cult centers", "prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand", as the New-York Times aptly paraphrased him.

The IMF was established in 1944 as part of the Bretton Woods agreement. Originally, it was conceived as the monetary arm of the UN, an agency. It encompassed 29 countries but excluded the losers in World War II, Germany and Japan. The exclusion of the losers in the Cold war from the WTO is reminiscent of what happened then: in both cases, the USA called the shots and dictated the composition of the membership of international organization in accordance with its predilections.

Today, the IMF numbers 182 member-countries and boasts "equity" (own financial means) of 200 billion USD (measured by Special Drawing Rights, SDR, pegged at 1.35 USD each). It employs 2600 workers from 110 countries. It is truly international.

The IMF has a few statutory purposes. They are splashed across its Statute and its official publications. The criticism relates to the implementation - not to the noble goals. It also relates to turf occupied by the IMF without any mandate to do so.

The IMF is supposed to:

  1. Promote international monetary cooperation;
  2. Expand international trade (a role which reverted now to the WTO);
  3. Establish a multilateral system of payments;
  4. Assist countries with Balance of Payments (BOP) difficulties under adequate safeguards;
  5. Lessen the duration and the degree of disequilibrium in the international BOPS of member countries;
  6. Promote exchange rate stability, the signing of orderly exchange agreements and the avoidance of competitive exchange depreciation.

The IMF tries to juggle all these goals in the thinning air of the global capital markets. It does so through three types of activities:


The IMF regularly monitors exchange rate policies, the general economic situation and other economic policies. It does so through the (to some countries, ominous) mechanism of "(with the countries' monetary and fiscal authorities). The famed (and dreaded) World consultation" Economic Outlook (WEO) report amalgamates the individual country results into a coherent picture of multilateral surveillance. Sometimes, countries which have no on-going interaction with the IMF and do not use its assistance do ask it to intervene, at least by way of grading and evaluating their economies. The last decade saw the transformation of the IMF into an unofficial (and, incidentally, non-mandated) country credit rating agency. Its stamp of approval can mean the difference between the availability of credits to a given country - or its absence. At best, a bad review by the IMF imposes financial penalties on the delinquent country in the form of higher interest rates and charges payable on its international borrowings. The Precautionary Agreement is one such rating device. It serves to boost international confidence in an economy. Another contraption is the Monitoring Agreement which sets economic benchmarks (some say, hurdles) under a shadow economic program designed by the IMF. Attaining these benchmarks confers reliability upon the economic policies of the country monitored.

Financial Assistance

Where surveillance ends, financial assistance begins. It is extended to members with BOP difficulties to support adjustment and reform policies and economic agendas. Through 31/7/97, for instance, the IMF extended 23 billion USD of such help to more than 50 countries and the outstanding credit portfolio stood at 60 billion USD. The surprising thing is that 90% of these amounts were borrowed by relatively well-off countries in the West, contrary to the image of the IMF as a lender of last resort to shabby countries in despair.

Hidden behind a jungle of acronyms, an unprecedented system of international finance evolves relentlessly. They will be reviewed in detail later.

Technical Assistance

The last type of activity of the IMF is Technical Assistance, mainly in the design and implementation of fiscal and monetary policy and in building the institutions to see them through successfully (e.g., Central Banks). The IMF also teaches the uninitiated how to handle and account for transactions that they are doing with the IMF. Another branch of this activity is the collection of statistical data - where the IMF is forced to rely on mostly inadequate and antiquated systems of data collection and analysis. Lately, the IMF stepped up its activities in the training of government and non-government (NGO) officials. This is in line with the new credo of the World Bank: without the right, functioning, less corrupt institutions - no policy will succeed, no matter how right.

From the narrow point of view of its financial mechanisms (as distinct from its policies) - the IMF is an intriguing and hitherto successful example of international collaboration and crisis prevention or amelioration (=crisis management). The principle is deceptively simple: member countries purchase the currencies of other member countries (USA, Germany, the UK, etc.). Alternatively, the draw SDRs and convert them to the aforementioned "hard" currencies. They pay for all this with their own, local and humble currencies. The catch is that they have to buy their own currencies back from the IMF after a prescribed period of time. As with every bank, they also have to pay charges and commissions related to the withdrawal.

A country can draw up to its "Reserve Tranche Position". This is the unused part of its quota (every country has a quota which is based on its participation in the equity of the IMF and on its needs). The quota is supposed to be used only in extreme BOP distress. Credits that the country received from the IMF are not deducted from its quota (because, ostensibly, they will be paid back by it to the IMF). But the IMF holds the local currency of the country (given to it in exchange for hard currency or SDRs). These holdings are deducted from the quota because they are not credit to be repaid but the result of an exchange transaction.

A country can draw no more than 25% of its quota in the first tranche of a loan that it receives from the IMF. The first tranche is available to any country which demonstrates efforts to overcome its BOP problems. The language of this requirement is so vague that it renders virtually all the members eligible to receive the first instalment.

Other tranches are more difficult to obtain (as Russia and Zimbabwe can testify): the country must show successful compliance with agreed economic plans and meet performance criteria regarding its budget deficit and monetary gauges (for instance credit ceilings in the economy as a whole). The tranches that follow the first one are also phased. All this (welcome and indispensable) disciplining is waived in case of Emergency Assistance - BOP needs which arise due to natural disasters or as the result of an armed conflict. In such cases, the country can immediately draw up to 25% of its quota subject only to "cooperation" with the IMF - but not subject to meeting performance criteria. The IMF also does not shy away from helping countries meet their debt service obligations. Countries can draw money to retire and reduce burdening old debts or merely to service it.

It is not easy to find a path in the jungle of acronyms which sprouted in the wake of the formation of the IMF. It imposes tough guidelines on those unfortunate enough to require its help: a drastic reduction in inflation, cutting back imports and enhancing exports. The IMF is funded by the rich industrialized countries: the USA alone contributes close to 18% to its resources annually. Following the 1994-5 crisis in Mexico (in which the IMF a crucial healing role) - the USA led a round of increases in the contributions of the well-to-do members (G7) to its coffers. This became known as the Halifax-I round. Halifax-II looks all but inevitable, following the costly turmoil in Southeast Asia. The latter dilapidated the IMF's resources more than all the previous crises combined.

At first, the Stand By Arrangement (SBA) was set up. It still operates as a short term BOP assistance financing facility designed to offset temporary or cyclical BOP deficits. It is typically available for periods of between 12 to 18 months and released gradually, on a quarterly basis to the recipient member. Its availability depends heavily on the fulfilment of performance conditions and on periodic program reviews. The country must pay back (=repurchase its own currency and pay for it with hard currencies) in 3.25 to 5 years after each original purchase.

This was followed by the General Agreement to Borrow (GAB) - a framework reference for all future facilities and by the CFF (Compensatory Financing Facility). The latter was augmented by loans available to countries to defray the rising costs of basic edibles and foodstuffs (cereals). The two merged to become CCFF (Compensatory and Contingency Financing Facility) - intended to compensate members with shortfalls in export earnings attributable to circumstances beyond their control and to help them to maintain adjustment programs in the face of external shocks. It also helps them to meet the rising costs of cereal imports and other external contingencies (some of them arising from previous IMF lending!). This credit is also available for a period of 3.25 to 5 years.

1971 was an important year in the history of the world's financial markets. The Bretton Woods Agreements were cancelled but instead of pulling the carpet under the proverbial legs of the IMF - it served to strengthen its position. Under the Smithsonian Agreement, it was put in charge of maintaining the central exchange rates (though inside much wider bands). A committee of 20 members was set up to agree on a new world monetary system (known by its unfortunate acronym, CRIMS). Its recommendations led to the creation of the EFF (extended Financing Facility) which provided, for the first time, MEDIUM term assistance to members with BOP difficulties which resulted from structural or macro-economic (rather than conjectural) economic changes. It served to support medium term (3 years) programs. In other respects, it is a replica of the SBA, except that that the repayment (=the repurchase, in IMF jargon) is in 4.5-10 years.

The 70s witnessed a proliferation of multilateral assistance programs. The IMF set up the SA (Subsidy Account) which assisted members to overcome the two destructive oil price shocks. An oil facility was formed to ameliorate the reverberating economic shock waves. A Trust Fund (TF) extended BOP assistance to developing member countries, utilizing the profits from gold sales. To top all these, an SFF (Supplementary Financing Facility) was established.

During the 1980s, the IMF had a growing role in various adjustment processes and in the financing of payments imbalances. It began to use a basket of 5 major currencies. It began to borrow funds for its purposes - the contributions did not meet its expanding roles.

It got involved in the Latin American Debt Crisis - namely, in problems of debt servicing. It is to this period that we can trace the emergence of the New IMF: invigorated, powerful, omnipresent, omniscient, mildly threatening - the monetary police of the global economic scene.

The SAF (Structural Adjustment Facility) was created. Its role was to provide BOP assistance on concessional terms to low income, developing countries (Macedonia benefited from its successor, ESAF). Five years later, following the now unjustly infamous Louvre Accord which dealt with the stabilization of exchange rates), it was extended to become ESAF (Extended Structural Adjustment Facility). The idea was to support low income members which undertake a strong 3-year macroeconomic and structural program intended to improve their BOP and to foster growth - providing that they are enduring protracted BOP problems. ESAF loans finance 3 year programs with a subsidized symbolic interest rate of 0.5% per annum. The country has 5 years grace and the loan matures in 10 years. The economic assessment of the country is assessed quarterly and biannually. Macedonia is only one of 79 countries eligible to receive ESAF funds.

In 1989, the IMF started linking support for debt reduction strategies of member countries to sustained medium term adjustment programs with strong elements of structural reforms and with access to IMF resources for the express purposes of retiring old debts, reducing outstanding borrowing from foreign sources or otherwise servicing debt without resorting to rescheduling it. To these ends, the IMF created the STF (Systemic Transformation Facility - also used by Macedonia). It was a temporary outfit which expired in April 1995. It provided financial assistance to countries which faced BOP difficulties which arose from a transformation (transition) from planned economies to market ones. Only countries with what were judged by the IMF to have been severe disruptions in trade and payments arrangements benefited from it. It had to be repaid in 4.5-10 years.

In 1994, the Madrid Declaration set different goals for different varieties of economies. Industrial economies were supposed to emphasize sustained growth, reduction in unemployment and the prevention of a resurgence of by now subdued inflation. Developing countries were allocated the role of extending their growth. Countries in transition had to engage in bold stabilization and reform to win the Fund's approval. A new category was created, in the best of acronym tradition: HIPCs (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries). In 1997 New Arrangements to Borrow (NAB) were set in motion. They became the first and principal recourse in case that IMF supplementary resources were needed. No one imagined how quickly these would be exhausted and how far sighted these arrangement have proven to be. No one predicted the area either: Southeast Asia.

Despite these momentous structural changes in the ways in which the IMF extends its assistance, the details of the decision making processes have not been altered for more than half a century. The IMF has a Board of Governors. It includes 1 Governor (plus 1 Alternative Governor) from every member country (normally, the Minister of Finance or the Governor of the Central Bank of that member). They meet annually (in the autumn) and coordinate their meeting with that of the World Bank.

The Board of Governors oversees the operation of a Board of Executive Directors which looks after the mundane, daily business. It is composed of the Managing Director (Michel Camdessus from 1987) as the Chairman of the Board and 24 Executive Directors appointed or elected by big members or groups of members. There is also an Interim Committee of the International Monetary System.

The members' voting rights are determined by their quota which (as we said) is determined by their contributions and by their needs. The USA is the biggest gun, followed by Germany, Japan, France and the UK.

There is little dispute that the IMF is a big, indispensable, success. Without it the world monetary system would have entered phases of contraction much more readily. Without the assistance that it extends and the bitter medicines that it administers - many countries would have been in an even worse predicament than they are already. It imposes monetary and fiscal discipline, it forces governments to plan and think, it imposes painful adjustments and reforms. It serves as a convenient scapegoat: the politicians can blame it for the economic woes that their voters (or citizens) endure. It is very useful. Lately, it lends credibility to countries and manages crisis situations (though still not very skilfully).

This scapegoat role constitutes the basis for the first criticism. People the world over tend to hide behind the IMF leaf and blame the results of their incompetence and corruption on it. Where a market economy could have provided a swifter and more resolute adjustment - the diversion of scarce human and financial resources to negotiating with the IMF seems to prolong the agony. The abrogation of responsibility by decision makers poses a moral hazard: if successful - the credit goes to the politicians, if failing - the IMF is always to blame. Rage and other negative feeling which would have normally brought about real, transparent, corruption-free, efficient market economy are vented and deflected. The IMF money encourages corrupt and inefficient spending because it cannot really be controlled and monitored (at least not on a real time basis). Also, the more resources governments have - the more will be lost to corruption and inefficiency. Zimbabwe is a case in point: following a dispute regarding an austerity package dictated by the IMF (the government did not feel like cutting government spending to that extent) - the country was cut off from IMF funding. The results were surprising: with less financing from the IMF (and as a result - from donor countries, as well) - the government was forced to rationalize and to restrict its spending. The IMF would not have achieved these results because its control mechanisms are flawed: they rely to heavily on local, official input and they are remote (from Washington). They are also underfunded.

Despite these shortcomings, the IMF assumed two roles which were not historically identified with it. It became a country credit risk rating agency. The absence of an IMF seal of approval could - and usually does - mean financial suffocation. No banks or donor countries will extend credit to a country lacking the IMF's endorsement. On the other hand, as authority (to rate) is shifted - so does responsibility. The IMF became a super-guarantor of the debts of both the public and private sectors. This encourages irresponsible lending and investments (why worry, the IMF will bail me out in case of default). This is the "Moral Hazard": the safety net is fast being transformed into a licence to gamble. The profits accrue to the gambler - the losses to the IMF. This does not encourage prudence or discipline.

The IMF is too restricted both in its ability to operate and in its ability to conceptualize and to innovate. It is too stale: a scroll in the age of the video clip. It, therefore, resorts to prescribing the same medicine of austerity to all the country patients which are suffering from a myriad of economic diseases. No one would call a doctor who uniformly administers penicillin - a good doctor and, yet, this, exactly is what the IMF is doing. And it is doing so with utter disregard and ignorance of the local social, cultural (even economic) realities. Add to this the fact that the IMF's ability to influence the financial markets in an age of globalization is dubious (to use a gross understatement - the daily turnover in the foreign exchange markets alone is 6 times the total equity of this organization). The result is fiascos like South Korea where a 60 billion USD aid package was consumed in days without providing any discernible betterment of the economic situation. More and more, the IMF looks anachronistic (not to say archaic) and its goals untenable.

The IMF also displays the whole gamut of problems which plague every bureaucratic institution: discrimination (why help Mexico and not Bulgaria - is it because it shares no border with the USA), politicization (South Korean officials complained that the IMF officials were trying to smuggle trade concessions to the USA in an otherwise totally financial package of measures) and too much red tape. But this was to be expected of an organization this size and with so much power.

The medicine is no better than the doctor or, for that matter, than the disease that it is intended to cure.

The IMF forces governments to restrict flows of capital and goods. Reducing budget deficits belongs to the former - reducing balance of payments deficits, to the latter. Consequently, government find themselves between the hard rock of not complying with the IMF performance demands (and criteria) - and the hammer of needing its assistance more and more often, getting hooked on it.

The crusader-economist Michel Chossudowski wrote once that the IMF's adjustment policies "trigger the destruction of whole economies". With all due respect (Chossudowski conducted research in 100 countries regarding this issue), this looks a trifle overblown. Overall, the IMF has beneficial accounts which cannot be discounted so off-handedly. But the process that he describes is, to some extent, true:

Devaluation (forced on the country by the IMF in order to encourage its exports and to stabilize its currency) leads to an increase in the general price level (also known as inflation). In other words: immediately after a devaluation, the prices go up (this happened in Macedonia and led to a doubling of the inflation which persisted before the 16% devaluation in July 1997). High prices burden businesses and increase their default rates. The banks increase their interest rates to compensate for the higher risk (=higher default rate) and to claw back part of the inflation (=to maintain the same REAL interest rates as before the increase in inflation). Wages are never fully indexed. The salaries lag after the cost of living and the purchasing power of households is eroded. Taxes fall as a result of a decrease in wages and the collapse of many businesses and either the budget is cruelly cut (austerity and scaling back of social services) or the budget deficit increases (because the government spends more than it collects in taxes). Another bad option (though rarely used) is to raise taxes or improve the collection mechanisms. Rising manufacturing costs (fuel and freight are denominated in foreign currencies and so do many of the tradable inputs) lead to pricing out of many of the local firms (their prices become too high for the local markets to afford). A flood of cheaper imports ensues and the comparative advantages of the country suffer. Finally, the creditors take over the national economic policy (which is reminiscent of darker, colonial times).

And if this sounds familiar it is because this is exactly what is happening in Macedonia today. Communism to some extent was replaced by IMF-ism. In an age of the death of ideologies, this is a poor - and dangerous - choice. The country spends 500 million USD annually on totally unnecessary consumption (cars, jam, detergents). It gets this money from the IMF and from donor countries but an awful price: the loss of its hard earned autonomy and freedom. No country is independent if the strings of its purse are held by others.

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