Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Running on Empty

. Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Macroeconomic stability, reserve accumulation, and debt relief in emerging market economies is creating budget problems for the IMF. As The Economist reports, "Its $1 billion budget is traditionally funded by the small profit it makes on lending money to cash-strapped countries. But IMF lending has collapsed in recent years as developing countries have improved their economic management. As a result, the fund looks set to run a deficit of some $400m a year for the foreseeable future."

One might think, "Right then, job well done. Last one out please turn off the lights." After all, the current placid environment reflects in many respects the end of an era that began 35 years ago with the first oil shock. Developing countries developed balance of payments problems in part (though not solely) as a consequence of the negative shocks directly and indirectly generated by the first oil shock. Governments turned to the IMF for assistance and reform. In a very broad sense, one might conclude that although it did take a long time for these problems to work their way through the system, they have finally done so.

This final working out has had two consequences. On the one hand, governments in developing societies have reflected (if that is possible) on the lessons and concluded "never again." Their response has been to recognize the importance of a stable macroeconomic environment and to accumulate foreign exchange reserves as insurance against external shocks. This is especially the case in East Asia, but ever more so in other parts of the world too. Hence, less demand for IMF resources and macroeconomic stabilization. On the other hand, because of these changes, the IMF has a vastly reduced role to play in the global economy.

If ever there were a time at which one could restructure the IMF, this is it. Yet, organizations persist. So, rather than liquidating the fund, or finding ways to fundamentally reduce its scale to bring it in line with current demand for its services, the Fund and the G7 governments are searching for alternative sources of revenue. The most popular source is the sale of some of the IMF's gold holdings (of which it holds 103.4 million ounces, currently valued at around $92 billion). The proceeds would then form a fund that would generate an annual revenue capable of contributing to the budget.

It will be interesting to watch this unfold over the next couple of months. Gold sales require Board approvals, and last time the issue arose (1999) the US Congress was not so keen to see this development. Let's see if they are any more keen this time around.


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Running on Empty




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