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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The End Of IMF Credibility (Or Why Christine Lagarde Should Be Fired... But Won't Be)

The IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) issued a report a few days ago entitled ‘The IMF and the Crises in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal’. It is so damning for managing director Christine Lagarde and her closest associates, that it’s hard to see, certainly at first blush, how they could all keep their jobs. But don’t be surprised if that is exactly what will happen.
Because organizations like the IMF don’t care much, if at all, about accountability. Their leaders think they are close to untouchable, at least as long as they have the ‘blessing’ of those whose interests they serve. Which in case of the IMF means the world’s major banks and the governments of the richest nations (who also serve the same banks’ interests). And if these don’t like the course set out, a scandal with a chambermaid is easily staged.
But the IEO doesn’t answer to Lagarde, it answers to the IMF’s board of executive directors. Still, despite multiple reports over the past few years out of the ‘inner layers’ of the Fund that were critical of, and showed far more comprehension of events than, Lagarde et al, the board never criticizes the former France finance minister in public. And maybe that should change; if the IMF is to hold on to the last shreds of its credibility, that is. But that brings us back to “Organizations like the IMF don’t care much, if at all, about accountability.”
What the IEO report makes very clear is that the IMF should never have agreed, as part of the Troika, to assist the EU in forcing austerity upon Greece without insisting on significant debt relief, in the shape of a haircut, or (a) debt writedown(s). The IMF’s long established policy is that both MUST happen together. But its Troika companion, the EU, is bound by the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates: “The Union shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments”. Also, the ECB can not “finance member states”.
If Lagarde and her minions had stayed true to their own ‘principles’, they should have refused to impose austerity on Greece if and when the EU refused debt relief (note: this has been playing out since at least 2010). They did not, however.
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The IMF caved in (how willingly is hard to gauge), and the entire Troika agreed to waterboard Greece. The official excuse for bending the IMF’s own rules was the risk of ‘contagion’. But in a surefire sign that Lagarde et al were not acting with, let’s say, a “clear conscience”, they hid this decision from their own executive board.
Moreover, the IEO now says it was unable to obtain key records or assess the activities of secretive “ad-hoc task forces”. “Many documents were prepared outside the regular established channels; written documentation on some sensitive matters could not be located; [the IEO] has not been able to determine who made certain decisions or what information was available, nor has it been able to assess the relative roles of management and staff..”
One must wonder why the IMF has an executive board at all. Is it only to provide a facade of credibility and international coherence? When it becomes so clear, and -no less- through a report issued by one of its own offices, that its ‘boots on the ground’ care neither for its established policies nor for its board, isn’t it time for the board to interfere lest the Fund loses even more credibility?
The IMF’s main problem, which many insiders may ironically see as its main asset, is the lack of transparency, combined with the overwhelming power exerted by the US and Europe. And Europe’s grip on the IMF is exactly what the report is about, in that it accuses Lagarde et al of bowing to EU pressure, to the extent that it abandons its own guiding ‘laws’. It acted like it was the European Monetary Fund, not the international one.
So there’s no transparency, no accountability, and in the end that will lead to no credibility and no relevance. Well, that’s exactly how the EU lost Britain. And that shows where accountability and credibility are important even for non-democratic supra-national institutions, something these institutions are prone to neglect.
No, there will not be a vote put to the people, no referendum on the IMF. Though that would sure be interesting. What can happen, though, is that countries, even large ones like China and Russia, threaten to leave, perhaps start their own alternative fund. These things have already been widely discussed.
What is sure is that the US/Europe-centered character of the Fund will have to change. If Washington and Brussels try to appoint another European as managing director (an unwritten law thus far) they will face a rebellion.
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That next appointment may come sooner than we think. Because Christine Lagarde is in trouble. It’s even a bit strange, and that’s putting it gently, that she’s still in her job. What’s hanging over her head is a 2008 case, in which she approved a payment of €403 million to businessman Bernard Tapie, for ‘losses’ he was to have suffered in 1993 when French bank Crédit Lyonnais supposedly undervalued his stake in Adidas.

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