IMFC Meeting Endorses IMF Crisis Prevention Efforts
Meeting in Washington on April 29, the IMF's International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) gave its strong support to proposals by the IMF's Managing Director, Horst Köhler, to strengthen the IMF's crisis prevention mechanisms. The committee stressed in the communiqué issued following its meeting that "strong and effective crisis prevention is a top priority."
Welcoming the Committee's support, Köhler said that the Committee's endorsement of recent moves to refocus the IMF would "hasten our progress toward an IMF that is more effective, especially at crisis prevention and promoting financial sector stability."
Specifically, the IMFC said that it welcomed the Managing Director's decision to establish an International Capital Markets Department as part of the effort to deepen the IMF's understanding of and judgment on international capital market issues; to improve its early warning capabilities; and to strengthen crisis prevention. The Committee called on the IMF to move ahead with its work on early warning indicators of potential crises, both in individual countries and in international financial markets. It also noted the progress that the IMF had made in a number of earlier initiatives in crisis prevention, including the development of financial standards and codes, the establishment of data dissemination standards, initiatives on transparency, and the strengthening of financial sector surveillance.
IMF in the process of change
The IMFC had received a report from the Managing Director on the IMF in the process of change, and it said in its communiqué that the IMF is appropriately focusing on
In a review of prospects for the global economy, the IMFC noted in its communiqué that, although the short-term prospects for global economic growth have weakened significantly, it is also likely that the current slowdown will be short-lived.
Underscoring that open markets are important to strengthen the global economy, the IMFC urged all countries—both developed and developing—to find common ground for the launch of new multilateral trade negotiations in 2001. The Committee also expressed its unanimous view that a "recourse to protectionism would be the wrong response to the global economic slowdown and the attendant difficulties in particular sectors."
The text of the IMFC communiqué and the texts of all other communiqués, press briefings, and statements issued during the April meetings are available on the IMF's website at www.imf.org.
The IMF's Role in Poverty Reduction
The IMF's Research Department sponsored a two-day workshop in April 2001 on Macroeconomic Policies and Poverty Reduction, bringing together experts from academia and international financial institutions. The following article is excerpted from remarks delivered at the workshop by the First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF.
When the IMF and the World Bank were created at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, the economic challenges facing poor countries were not at the forefront of the founders' minds. But with the breakup of colonial regimes and the spread of independence, the developing world began to assert itself more vigorously within the institutions. As the number of developing country members increased in the following years, so too did their borrowing. As it did so, familiar criticisms surfaced—particularly, that the IMF was addressing long-term problems by requiring unnecessarily demanding short-term solutions.
From the late 1970s onward, low-income and emerging market countries have been the main borrowers from the IMF. We in the IMF began lending to them on concessional terms in 1986, via the Structural Adjustment Facility, which was later expanded to become the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility, and we do so today through the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility. Hence, we have become increasingly involved in what some deride as "the poverty business." Some observers question whether we should remain involved in the poorest countries, and in poverty reduction, at all. I disagree, for several compelling reasons:
First, the IMF must be active in all of its 183 member countries. Much of the strength and cohesion of this institution and of its Executive Board derive from the fact that it is a universal institution in which all member countries have rights and obligations. Most of the countries the IMF lends to are poor countries, where the problem of poverty reduction is central to the entire policy debate. So, in conducting surveillance of those countries, and in lending to them, the IMF has to analyze the impact of policies on poverty.
But shouldn't the IMF concentrate on helping countries achieve macroeconomic stabilization and leave it to others to worry about poverty reduction? After all, isn't stabilization good for everyone? Stabilization is ultimately good for everyone, but its effects are not spread uniformly. Cuts in fiscal expenditures or changes in tax policy, for instance, have different effects on different groups. We need to know what these effects are likely to be and to make sure that the policies we support are, as far as possible, helping to reduce poverty and increase social welfare.
Similarly, it has taken many years of argument about the impact of inflation on poverty to get to the point where it is now generally accepted that high inflation is bad for the poor. So our advice on monetary and fiscal policies also requires some knowledge of the impact of those policies on poverty.
In any country with a well-developed capacity for policy analysis, it can be left to the government to figure out and take into account the distributional impacts of policies. But the IMF is also involved in many countries that do not have that capacity, and we need to have the analytical and empirical bases to provide the right advice and technical assistance.
A second, closely related point was driven home during the Asian crisis: the impact of stabilization policies on poverty depends on the institutional structures in place. For example, if a stabilization program is going to have a particularly adverse impact on unemployment, health, or the access of the poor to basic foods, the IMF staff needs to know how to advise the country what to do when the program goes into effect. Typically, if the country needs help in developing institutions, others—such as the World Bank or the regional development banks—will provide that assistance. But the IMF cannot be ignorant of what is needed, or avoid some of the responsibility for helping ensure that what is needed gets done.
Third, we know that sustained poverty reduction requires sustained growth. But the links between growth and poverty are complicated. So it is not enough to leave it at "growth is good for the poor," even though that is true. We need to know which pro-growth macro policies are most effective in reducing poverty, and we need to promote them.
That is the intellectual basis for why we should be centrally involved in the war on poverty. But for those who are not persuaded, let me offer a political and pragmatic argument. First, policies will not be sustainable—in all countries, rich or poor—if they are not perceived as broadly equitable. So, if we want the stabilization policies we support to be sustained, we need to take account of their distributional impact. Second, the IMF will not enjoy public support in the countries that finance our lending if we are seen to be supporting policies that damage the poor.
Of course there is another reason to focus on the poverty aspects of macroeconomic policies: it is the right thing to do. But since some people are more comfortable with arguments grounded in realpolitik than in morality, it is worth establishing that both considerations point in the same direction.
If we accept that the IMF should take the impact on poverty into account in its policy advice, to what extent should it also be involved in research on poverty? Let me start with three basic propositions. First, the great bulk of research on poverty will be done elsewhere than in the IMF, for example in the World Bank and in academia. Second, the great bulk of research in the IMF will be on topics other than poverty and should continue to concentrate on the good, old-fashioned macroeconomic issues. And third, the IMF is in the process of focusing its conditionality on its main areas of expertise, which do not include poverty reduction. Our research agenda should reflect this fact.
Notwithstanding these propositions, if we do care about poverty—as I have argued we should—we will need to carry out our own research on the links between the policy environment, our policies, and poverty. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, every institution operates on the basis of an intellectual framework. But no such framework is ever complete; it has to be updated all the time. If our macroeconomic framework does not acknowledge its interlinkages with poverty, it will become less and less relevant to many of our member countries.
Of course, much of this work will be done by outsiders. Outsiders can examine issues free of our institutional blinkers. But, at the same time, we must have the capacity to absorb the research they produce and to apply its insights to the work we do. For that reason, we have to have a research capacity on poverty-related issues within the IMF.
IMF Acts to Streamline and Focus Conditionality
The conditions applied to the use of the IMF's financial resources, known collectively as "conditionality," are one of the most important aspects of its relations with its member countries. The IMF's financing and the policy reforms that a member country undertakes are, in effect, two linked aspects of a collaborative response to external balance of payments imbalances.
The logic of conditionality is quite simple. The IMF provides its financing in successive installments or "tranches," which are delivered if certain agreed conditions are met. The intention is to safeguard the IMF's resources, by ensuring that they continue to be disbursed only as long as key policies remain on track, and to assure the country that it will continue to receive financing provided that it meets the conditions.
Conditionality has evolved substantially and, as a consequence, it must periodically be reviewed by the IMF. A degree of conditionality has been attached to IMF financing since the mid-1950s, but its scope has expanded over the years, particularly since the early 1980s. In the process, there can be tensions between the IMF's need to monitor those policies that are central to carrying out a program and the recognition that such monitoring should not intrude unduly into national decision making. Against this background, the 1979 Guidelines on Conditionality underscored that the criteria used to judge the performance of a country's program should be limited to the minimum required to enable the IMF to evaluate whether policies that are necessary to ensure the achievement of the program's objectives are being carried out. The guidelines also stressed that the IMF should pay due regard to a country's social and political objectives, economic priorities, and particular social and economic circumstances.
The most recent review was conducted by the IMF's Executive Board in March 2001. The Board agreed that while conditionality remains indispensable, there is a need to streamline and focus it, so as to leave maximum scope for countries' policy choices while ensuring that essential policies are implemented. The timing of the latest review was given added impetus when Horst Köhler took office as IMF Managing Director in May 2000. Early on, he indicated that he saw the streamlining and focusing of IMF conditionality as a priority. He outlined this approach in his speech to the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in September of last year, and it was also endorsed by the International Monetary and Financial Committee, which comprises finance ministers (or others of comparable rank) representing the IMF's member countries.
In its March 2001 discussion, the Board identified several important issues that it would consider in the period ahead:
In addition, the Board endorsed efforts to clarify the bounds of IMF conditionality more precisely. For example, Letters of Intent, in which governments set out their overall policy programs in connection with their use of IMF resources, often have a broader scope than conditionality.
Recognizing that public comments on the subject of conditionality would be particularly useful in guiding the IMF's work, the Board decided to release to the public the IMF staff's papers that were the basis for its discussion and to invite public comment. These present an overview of the issues, review the expansion of conditionality over the past several years, and discuss approaches to streamlining conditionality. The papers have been posted on the IMF's website (www.imf.org). Copies are available free of charge from the Public Affairs Division, International Monetary Fund. Washington, D.C. 20431, U.S.A.
Timothy Lane is Chief of the Policy Review Division in the IMF's Policy Development and Review Department.
IMF Publishes Second Volume of Policy Papers
The IMF has published the second volume of its International Economic Policy Review (IEPR). The IEPR, published once a year, makes available to the general public selected nontechnical papers explaining the analytical background of IMF-supported programs in member countries and outlining the full range of policy choices open to ministries and central banks. The papers are written by IMF staff and consultants.
The first paper in Part I, "Economic Growth, Inflation, and Poverty," argues that sub-Saharan Africa's unsatisfactory growth performance, the root of the region's low living standards and widespread poverty, is due to economic distortions and institutional deficiencies that have scared off potential investors and depressed total factor productivity growth. The second paper examines the causes of rural poverty, including macroeconomic instability, policy biases, and structural problems, and proposes a strategic framework for alleviating rural poverty.
Strategies for managing the low-income country debt crisis are the subject of the third paper, which traces the evolution of policy responses from the 1980s to the present, starting with nonconcessional reschedulings and new lending and concluding with the recent Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. The fourth paper in this section examines the IMF's role in improving governance and combating corruption in the Baltic countries and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The last paper, which examines the real effects of high inflation, finds that episodes of high inflation are associated with strong contractionary effects and lead to a significant decline in real wages.
Part II, "Capital Account Liberalization and Financial Sector Vulnerability," covers an area of increasing importance for the IMF. Against the backdrop of recent financial crises and their effect on macroeconomic performance, the first paper discusses different analytical approaches to assessing financial sector vulnerability. The second paper deals with the economics of trade policy in financial services. The section closes with a case study of capital flight from Russia, from which the authors draw some conclusions for future policy.
Part III, "Exchange Rate Relations of Advanced Transition Economies," focuses on issues concerning the Central and Eastern European countries that are, or soon will be, candidates for membership in the European Union. The three papers in this section debate the question of how these countries can achieve a smooth transition to monetary union with the euro zone.
Paul Robert Masson is a Senior Advisor in the IMF's Research Department.