V. Enhancing Political Oversight of the International Monetary System

International Monetary Fund
Published Date:
August 2002
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The Interim Committee was established in 1974 with a mandate to oversee the management and continued adaptation of the international monetary system. The Committee collaborated closely with the Executive Board and its work certainly enhanced policy formulation and decision making by the Board. A closer examination of the Committee’s activities, however, suggests that stronger political leadership to improve economic performance and policies, particularly of the industrial countries, and to tackle emerging systemic issues resulting from the globalization of financial markets would have been useful. The Interim Committee was transformed into the IMFC in 1999 with a view to making political oversight more effective in a period of reform of the systemic architecture.

The periodic ministerial meetings—and the annual meetings of the Board of Governors—are preceded by regional caucuses, constituency meetings, and meetings of groups of members, among which the meetings of the Group of 24 developing countries and the Group of Seven major industrial countries are particularly important.13 These groups promote the agendas of different constituencies within the membership. Individual member countries, particularly large shareholders, also tend to bring their weight to bear on the IMF’s activities in the pursuit of their national foreign policy objectives. Both members and the media have expressed concern in recent years that the international financial agenda appears to be increasingly set in the annual summits of the major industrial countries.

The Interim Committee: A Mixed Leadership Record

From its first meetings in 1974-75, the Interim Committee had to grapple with the oil price shock, inflation, and recession in the world economy. The Committee endorsed the enhancement of IMF financing facilities to assist members adversely affected by the oil crisis and accelerated increases in IMF quotas. The Committee also played a key role in the completion of the Second Amendment of the Articles of Agreement, including the obligations of members regarding exchange arrangements, the reduced role of gold in the international monetary system that was spelled out in the compromise that was reached at the Interim Committee’s meeting in Jamaica in 1976, and the sale of a quantity of IMF gold to provide the resources for a Trust Fund to benefit low-income developing countries.

The positive record of the first meetings set the tone for the businesslike and cordial atmosphere that prevailed throughout the life of the Interim Committee, 1974—99. In view of the deteriorating economic prospects of the developing countries in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Committee facilitated IMF financing and eased the adjustment burden of the affected countries. When the Latin American debt crisis struck, the Interim Committee supported the lead given by the Managing Director to “bail in the banks” and other lenders to “fill the financing gaps” of strong adjustment programs. While several indebted countries found it very hard to stay the difficult course of adjustment, the lackluster policies of the industrial countries as a group also failed to provide the needed external environment for successful adjustment by the developing countries.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, improved policies and the advancing globalization of financial markets stimulated an impressive economic performance of the developing countries that led the global upswing. Shortly thereafter, the financial crises that hit some of them acted as a rude reminder of the increased exposure of developing countries to external shocks. An unfortunate overall result of the last quarter of the twentieth century was that the prosperity gap between the developing countries as a group and the industrial world widened relentlessly.

In the context of the collaborative approach adopted in the late 1980s to eliminate arrears in financial obligations to the IMF, many developing countries—which had little to do with the excessive lending to a very few countries among them that accounted for the bulk of the arrears—took the view that they were pressured to endorse the Third Amendment of the Articles of Agreement, which was tied to the coming into effect of the increases in IMF quotas under the Ninth Quota Review. The amendment provided for the suspension of voting rights as an intermediate step following declaration of ineligibility, and for compulsory withdrawal of a member that remained in breach of its obligations under the Articles.

The developing countries have also been perturbed to see that successive general reviews of IMF quotas confirmed the dominance of the group of industrial countries and did not involve meaningful changes in the quota structure. While they had little alternative but to yield on the matter of the Third Amendment and on the lack of significant changes in the quota structure, they refused to do so on the question of a general allocation of SDRs. At the Interim Committee meeting in Madrid in 1994, the developing countries, led by Manmohan Singh, the Indian Finance Minister, blocked the proposal of the major industrial countries to allocate SDRs only to new members that had not received allocations. That action caused considerable discomfort among the industrial countries and demonstrated that the developing countries as a group could also use the instrument of veto power in the IMF.

The issue was subsequently tackled through the adoption in 1997 of the Fourth Amendment of the Articles of Agreement on a special one-time allocation of SDRs. This amendment is designed to enable all members to participate in the SDR system and to receive an equal share of cumulative allocations in relation to their quotas. As a result, cumulative SDR allocations would double to SDR 42.87 billion. As of mid-April 2002, 107 members accounting for 70.6 percent of the total voting power in the IMF had endorsed the fourth amendment. However, endorsement by the United States, which is required to reach the special majority of 85 percent, has not yet been forthcoming.

The Interim Committee worked closely with the Executive Board. The Board prepared issues for consideration by the Committee, which, in turn, endorsed prior Board decisions, offered its “advice” on pending matters, and set out the next set of issues on which it wished to receive the Board’s input for review at the political level. As the Committee’s deliberations evolved into a multilateral dialogue among officials with political responsibilities, they strengthened the reality of interdependence and cohesion among nations in the global financial framework of the IMF.

However, the Interim Committee was not forceful enough in the 1970s and 1980s in convincing the industrial countries to pursue fiscal discipline, restore price stability, and achieve exchange rate relationships that reflected economic fundamentals. The hesitancy of the Interim Committee in multilateral surveillance and international policy coordination was, in part, a reflection of the determination of the Group of Seven to keep the consideration of these issues to themselves, but the Group of Seven hardly proved more active. The Interim Committee attempted to provide more leadership on these issues in 1993 when it adopted a “Declaration on Cooperation for Sustained Global Expansion” to emphasize its determination to address the challenges and opportunities of the integrated world economy in a cooperative manner. In the fall of 1996, the Committee updated and broadened its 1993 declaration to take account of new challenges in the global environment, and designated it a “Partnership for Sustainable Global Growth.” Less than a year later, the economic outlook became clouded by the Asian crisis and the Interim Committee refocused its attention on strengthening the architecture of the system. Earlier in the decade, however, the Committee had failed to give warning signals regarding the implications for the IMF and its members of the globalization of capital markets, and of exchange arrangements and domestic policies that were inconsistent with free capital flows.

The International Monetary and Financial Committee:

Toward More Effective Systemic Oversight?

The financial crises of the 1990s heightened the awareness of the need for more effective political oversight of the IMF as part of a set of measures to strengthen the international monetary system. The Managing Director, Michel Camdessus, and some members of the Interim Committee favored its transformation into a decision-making council in the belief that increased involvement of members at the political level would strengthen the effective support of member countries for the institution at a time of strain. Most Committee members, however, remained of the view that, with further improvements, the existing arrangements would prove adequate. In fact, many developing countries remain averse to the creation of a council because of their concern that ministers from industrial countries would not have the inclination and patience for consensus building and would be tempted to settle issues through up or down voting. Some Committee members may also have hesitated to strengthen their political commitment to the institution at a time when IMF-supported programs in Asia, Russia, and elsewhere, as well as the slow progress with debt relief for the poorest countries, had come under increasing criticism in the media and from civil society groups.

In 1999, the Interim Committee was transformed into the IMFC. Members reaffirmed their support for “the IMF’s unique role as the cornerstone of the international monetary and financial system.” They also agreed, in order to strengthen the role of the IMFC, to create a group of Deputies to prepare the work of the Committee. In the past, the Interim Committee had deliberately not taken that step in order not to run the risk of weakening the authority of the Board. The Deputies enter a terrain where the Ministers and the Executive Board have felt at ease for many years. It is possible that the addition of the Deputies will strengthen political support for the IMF’s tasks. But there is a risk that the Deputies may involve themselves too much in the tasks of the Board. Governance of the monetary and financial system requires both effective political leadership and a strong Executive Board.

Mr. Camdessus had proposed that the IMFC meet periodically—say, every two years—at the level of heads of state or government. This would enhance the legitimacy of the IMFC, and of the IMF, as the representative of the global community in financial affairs and, at the same time, constitute a counterweight to the summits of the heads of state or government of the major industrial countries.

While there has been little reaction to the proposal of Mr. Camdessus, the Group of Seven in 1999 sponsored the creation of two new groups outside the IMF. These are, first, the Group of 20, which brought the principal developing and emerging market economies together with the main industrial countries, and, second, the Financial Stability Forum, which brought together the principal international regulatory and supervisory authorities (see below, pp. 40-41). It is an open question, however, why the Group of Seven did not place the two new groups under the aegis of the IMF, whose top priority task of crisis prevention requires it to be a center of expertise on issues of financial sector soundness and, especially, financial sector issues of emerging market economies, which—as was demonstrated during the crises of the 1990s—can be particularly vulnerable to shifts in financial market sentiment and contagion effects.

The agendas of the IMFC have, thus far, followed in the footsteps of the Interim Committee. The new Committee called for a strengthening of the role of the IMF to underpin “the broader sharing of the benefits and opportunities of an open world economy” and to make “globalization work for the benefit of all.” Its agenda continued to focus on aspects of crisis prevention and private sector involvement in crisis resolution. In 2001, the weakening economic prospects for the world economy and the policy responses of members in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11 were the main topics on the agenda of the IMFC, together with the combating of money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The latter subject was further considered in the Committee’s meeting of April 2002, together with the improving prospects of, and policy requirements for, the world economy and further consideration of issues of crisis prevention and resolution.

Joint meetings of the IMFC and the Development Committee,14 an important innovation since the Prague Annual Meetings of September 2000, have dealt with poverty alleviation and growth enhancement in the poorest countries, the conversion of ESAF into the PRGF, and the division of tasks between the IMF and the Bank in connection with the PRGF and the HIPC.

The Intergovernmental Group of 24:

Cohesion Weakened by Diverging Interests of Members

The Group of 24 was set up in 197115 and has established itself as the voice of the developing countries in international monetary affairs. The group has consistently supported the central role of the IMF in the system and has placed considerable emphasis on the importance of consensus building for decision making in the IMF. Over the years, the Deputies of the Group of 24—and of the Group of 10—have prepared a number of important parallel or complementary studies on issues in the management of the international monetary system for the attention of members of the Interim Committee, the IMFC, and Executive Directors. These have included studies on strengthening financial systems, issues in capital account liberalization, the architecture of the international financial system, crisis prevention and management, and the like. The studies have also focused on the implications of the economic policies of industrial countries for the developing world, on debt and poverty, HIPC and PRGF, good governance of nations, governance of the Bretton Woods institutions, issues of sub-Saharan Africa, and other topics.

The Group of 24 has judiciously focused its attention where it could build on earlier successes or on issues for which it could attract support from industrial countries. The Group has been successful in strengthening the voice of the developing countries in the Executive Board. It has not been successful in its efforts to raise the share of the developing countries in IMF quotas and voting power. It has not been successful either with its repeated calls for general allocations of SDRs but, as noted earlier, it was successful during the Annual Meetings in Madrid in 1994 in cementing the blocking minority against the proposal of the industrial countries to limit SDR allocations to new members that had not received allocations.

The internal cohesion of the developing countries as a group has tended to weaken in recent years as the vital interests of various sub-groups—including emerging markets, oil producers, and heavily indebted poor countries—have increasingly diverged. The creation in 1999 of the Group of 20 risks further diluting the cohesion of the Group of 24. The diverging interests among its members increasingly prevent the Group from exercising a counterweight to the Group of Seven and have affected its impact on the debate on reform of the architecture of the system.

The Group of Five and the Group of Seven:

Leading or Overbearing?

The original intent of the Economic Summits of the major industrial countries, which were initiated in 1975,16 was to improve the performance of the world economy and enhance policy coordination among the participating countries. Starting in 1982, the Managing Director of the IMF was invited to participate in the finance ministers’ meetings on multilateral surveillance. At these meetings, the Managing Director, acting as a neutral authority, has presented an overview of the issues with particular reference to the international implications of each of the major countries’ policies. He then makes recommendations on how to address these issues. Similarly, the IMF’s Economic Counsellor has participated in the meetings of the Deputies on the topics of the world economic outlook and surveillance. From headquarters, the IMF staff has provided the required data and analysis. However, the Group of Five and the Group of Seven have insisted on keeping multilateral surveillance within their group and have not invited the Managing Director to participate in their consideration of the policy options he has outlined.

By the beginning of the second administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1985, it had become increasingly urgent to strengthen the fiscal position of the United States and to promote a decisive correction in the overvaluation of the U.S. dollar. Following preparatory meetings among the Group of Five in the spring and summer of 1985, a ministerial meeting was held at the Plaza hotel in New York City on September 22, 1985, that produced a commitment to continue joint market intervention to achieve a realignment of exchange rates. The IMF Managing Director at the time, Jacques de Larosière, was not invited to the meeting.

In the period from the Plaza Agreement of September 1985 through the Louvre Accord of February 1987 and the remainder of that year, the Group of Five finance ministers made a determined effort at economic policy coordination, promoting the convergence of favorable economic performance among the participating countries as well as exchange rate relationships that better reflected economic fundamentals. To guide their work, they used a set of indicators of economic policies and performance, with a particular view to examining their mutual compatibility. The IMF staff did the analytical work on indicators; the subject was examined by the Executive Board and figured more than once on the agenda of the Interim Committee. Thus, the Group of Five trusted the IMF as an objective analyst but continued to keep policy consideration of the issues within their Group. In the late 1980s, efforts at economic policy coordination subsided. New systemic issues took center stage, particularly the integration into the world economy of the countries of the former Soviet Union and other countries in that area, financial globalization, and, subsequently, the financial crises of the 1990s.

It is regrettable that the Group of Seven countries have shown little or no inclination to resume economic policy coordination or otherwise to strengthen their policy collaboration and to place it in the broader, more representative, context of the Interim Committee and the IMFC. A complex undertaking of that kind requires a sustained effort over time on the part of the participants—to which the IMF Managing Director and the staff could have contributed—to deepen their understanding of the issues and of each other’s problems and priorities, and how to deal with them in an interdependent manner. Persistent efforts could, for example, have produced more pertinent insights of the structural weaknesses in the Japanese economy, of the need for greater flexibility in goods and labor markets in Western Europe, as well as of the forces that shaped the exceptional performance of the U.S. economy in the 1990s. In short, better leadership and collaboration among the Group of Seven could have improved their economic performance and that of the rest of the world.

The attitude of the Group of Seven regarding the IMFC also remains ambivalent. On the one hand, the Group of Seven endorsed the transformation of the Interim Committee into the IMFC and welcomed it as the representative body of the global membership of the IMF. On the other hand, however, the international financial agenda appears increasingly to be set at the annual summits and at other ministerial meetings of the Group. The Group’s decisions in 1999 to sponsor the creation of the Group of 20 and of the Financial Stability Forum outside the IMF have added—rightly or wrongly—to the perception that the Group of Seven countries are determined to dominate the global financial agenda.

The Group of 20, comprising the Group of Seven and the principal developing and emerging market economies,17 together with the European Union and the heads of the Bretton Woods institutions, was presented as a forum of systemically important countries “within the framework of the Bretton Woods institutional system” and as a forum in which emerging market economies can periodically meet with the major industrial countries. However, the mandate of the new group and its membership overlap largely with the IMFC, except that the Group of 20 excludes the large body of developing countries and is, thus, flawed in that it lacks balance and universality. Moreover, the IMF Executive Board was not involved in the creation of the Group of 20.

The Financial Stability Forum was established to identify and correct vulnerabilities in financial systems, improve the functioning of markets, reduce systemic risk, and enhance coordination and information exchange among the authorities responsible for financial stability. The Forum is chaired, in a personal capacity, by the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) and is organized as a group of 40 members in which the Group of Seven countries have an absolute majority, with three members for each country. The Forum includes (1) the international regulators and supervisory groupings in the field of banking, securities, and insurance; (2) the main regulatory authorities of the Group of Seven countries, Australia, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the Netherlands, and Singapore; (3) the IMF, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and (4) two technical committees of central bank experts. Together with the World Bank, the IMF cooperates with the Forum through the preparation of financial sector assessment programs of members. The Forum’s responsibilities overlap in large part with the core financial tasks of the IMF, which should play a coordinating role in the areas that pertain to its mandate.

Competing Interests: The United States, Western Europe,

and Japan and the Asian Region

Like the activities of groups of member countries, those of individual members directly affect the governance of the monetary system. In that regard, the United States is often referred to as the “Group of One.” The United States played a unique role in the creation of the IMF. It undertook crucial responsibilities as guarantor of the fixed exchange rate system and stood ready to act as financier and global lender of last resort. Following the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system, the United States supported the formulation of the IMF’s key mandate of surveillance over exchange rates. Other members continue to look to the United States for support of major new initiatives in international monetary affairs.

Sharply differing views about the U.S. role and the future of the IMF have recently emerged in official and quasi-official circles. The report of the Congressional Advisory Commission on International Financial Institutions, chaired by Professor Allan Meltzer of Carnegie Mellon University, was published in 2000. It denigrates the role and activities of the IMF, and its recommendations would effectively sideline the institution. IMF surveillance over the international monetary system and the world economy would be sharply reduced. The IMF would no longer have the authority to negotiate policy reform and its scope for financial assistance to its members would be curtailed. In its deliberations, the Meltzer Commission did not elicit the views of other IMF member countries and its report contained sharply dissenting views from several Commission members.

The U.S. Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers, in testimony on Capitol Hill, emphasized that a number of recommendations of the Meltzer report were contrary to the interest of the United States. At the same time, he said, the United States would insist on important reforms in the IMF, with regard to the emphasis of surveillance, the IMF’s financing role, the sustainability of exchange rate regimes, and the continued involvement of the private sector in crisis prevention and resolution.

At about the same time, the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. nonpartisan national organization, created a task force to examine the roots of the financial crises and to formulate recommendations on strengthening the architecture of the system and refocusing the IMF. The recommendations focused on the following issues for which broad political support has been forthcoming: The IMF should provide financial assistance only when there are good prospects of resolving the underlying balance of payments problems, and should establish favorable lending terms for countries that have reduced their vulnerability and comply with international financial standards. Countries should shift the composition of capital inflows to longer term, less volatile flows, and are advised to maintain flexible exchange rate arrangements. The IMF should not lend to countries that maintain a pegged rate and it should have a leaner agenda with focus on crisis prevention. Large IMF rescue packages should be considered only for systemic cases and with very high support of the creditors. Collective action clauses should facilitate orderly debt rescheduling, with lenders carrying a fair share of the risk. Moral hazard should be avoided.

The intense interest of the United States in the IMF sometimes borders on a proprietary interest. More than any other member, the United States has viewed the IMF as an instrument of its foreign policy objectives. When the then Managing Director, Pierre-Paul Schweitzer, in 1971 suggested that a general currency realignment among the industrial countries should include a depreciation of the dollar, in terms of gold, the U.S. Treasury gave a negative signal regarding his possible selection for a further term at the head of the IMF. In the late 1980s, Michel Camdessus, as Managing Director, incurred the displeasure of the U.S. Treasury for not accepting its view that the Argentinean policy program merited continued support of the IMF. The veto power over major policy decisions has been an important instrument in the hands of the United States. The proximity of the IMF’s headquarters to the U.S. Treasury has also added to the day-to-day influence of the host country.

The Western European countries, for their part, have focused in the 1980s and 1990s on the development of the European Union, the establishment of their common central bank, and the introduction of the euro, and have given considerably less priority to global monetary affairs than in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving the initiative to the United States. Europe’s emphasis on its regional objectives is understandable, but it should have gone hand in hand with giving a higher priority to the management of the international monetary system, in which Europe’s fundamental interest is as strong as that of the United States. As the European Union matures, it can soon be expected that it will seek to have a stronger voice in global monetary affairs.

Japan has been frustrated by the slowness of other IMF members to recognize its increased role in the world economy and its leadership position in Asia. Some in Japan were sharply critical of the manner in which the IMF tackled the Asian crisis. Japan also felt slighted when its proposal to create an Asian Monetary Fund was negatively received by other industrial countries and by the IMF. More recently, there has been increased recognition in Japan of the importance of the weaknesses in the corporate and financial sectors in the Asian crisis. Japan has also received broad support in its efforts to promote regional monetary cooperation in Asia, which until a few years ago was virtually nonexistent. Of course, other Asian countries such as China and India may also aspire to play a leading role in the development of regional cooperation. While Japan’s crucial role in Asia and in the IMF is now better acknowledged, the further development of Japan’s voice will depend on its success in revitalizing its economy. While China obtained satisfaction in its quest for a special increase in its quota in the IMF, when it resumed Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, the Asian region as a whole contends that its present position in the IMF does not adequately reflect the remarkable growth of the region in the past decades and its present place in the world economy.

As noted earlier, the limited occurrence of political decisions in the IMF has been remarkable. Nevertheless, it could not be expected that decisions would always be taken exclusively on technical grounds. Historically, the expulsion of Czechoslovakia and decisions on noncollaboration with South Africa, China, Uganda, Vietnam, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were examples of political decisions affecting the IMF’s relations with certain countries. Other authors18 have drawn attention to some cases where political pressures at times prevailed over technical judgment: Argentina, Egypt, Liberia, Sudan, and Zaire. More recently, political pressures from major shareholders secured Board approval in mid-1998 for further financing of a program with Russia that promptly failed, damaging the Russian political and financial systems and confidence in the IMF. Attempts to influence the staff are another form of pressure. While they are difficult to track, there are sufficient indications that, in the charged atmosphere of the 1990s, contacts with staff by officials of member countries did not always respect the spirit of Article XII, Section 4 (c) on the importance of refraining from influencing staff in the discharge of their duties.

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