European finance officials emerged from high-level meetings last week saying they would “rapidly explore” how to use the IMF as a way to channel money from European countries that can afford it, such as Germany, to ones such as Italy or Spain that might need extensive amounts of support.
Routing the money through the IMF would solve a number of political problems for Europe — chiefly allowing Germany and other wealthier nations to avoid the appearance of directly underwriting spendthrift nations such as Italy.
“There is a certain subterfuge” involved in the plan that is taking shape, said Edwin M. Truman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and a former adviser to the U.S. Treasury.
But the proposal would also spread the risks of bailing out struggling European countries throughout the IMF’s membership. Any loans made to the IMF would become obligations of the agency’s 187 members – including the United States, the fund’s largest single shareholder. If the money is used to pay for bailouts of major nations, such as Italy, and those efforts go sour, the fund’s members would have to ensure that the IMF repaid the nations that provided the funds.
U.S. officials are exploring a number of ways to allow the IMF to get more involved in Europe’s problems at no cost to U.S. taxpayers, including an increase in an IMF-administered loan pool that lets countries borrow major currencies, such as dollars and euros.
Treasury officials say that the IMF has never lost money bailing out a country and that any additional loans made by the agency would be subject to strict oversight.
Bilateral loans — with one country lending money directly to the IMF — have been used before as a way to boost the IMF’s financial power without forcing the full membership to pay for a general increase in the agency’s capital base.
IMF officials note that there has never been a complete default by a country on loans provided as part of an IMF rescue.
Countries do, however, occasionally fall behind on payments due the IMF. Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe, for example, are in “protracted arrears” for debts going back as far as the 1980s and now totaling around $2 billion.
While the prospect of a developed European country defaulting on a loan to the IMF may have long seemed slim, the agency has been navigating new terrain since the onset of the financial crisis in 2007 — with a dramatic increase in its funds, lending and the associated risks. Instead of its traditional role in helping individual countries that are facing difficulty, the agency has been supersized into a “systemic” backstop for the entire world economy. The IMF has expanded the types of loans and financing programs it offers and, with the start of the European debt problems, was plunged into a crisis in the industrialized world as never before.
Of the fund’s roughly $950 billion in financing, less than $400 billion remains available — not enough to comfortably shoulder major programs in Spain or Italy if they are needed.
“The IMF will need more resources should the crisis deepen further,” fund spokesman Gerry Rice said Friday.
But there is opposition, including from the U.S. government, to boosting IMF funding solely to help the euro zone, a region with $12 trillion in annual economic output and immense household and corporate wealth.
The bilateral loan arrangement would skirt that and other touchy issues.
Countries that don’t want to participate in the program wouldn’t have to. Increases in the agency’s general financing are paid for by member countries based roughly on their size and the importance of their economy. But no IMF member would be obligated to provide a bilateral loan. European officials say they hope the program may draw contributions from countries such as China, but they expect that much of any new funding would come from Europe itself.
Using the IMF also prevents the euro region’s deep-pocket countries, primarily Germany, from being pressured to make direct loans to any other countries.
Direct loans were provided by Germany and other countries to Greece for its current bailout. That provoked strong opposition from German citizens, who were resentful of helping a country seen as lacking financial discipline. Help for Italy, if it is needed, would be far more expensive — and the political controversy that much more intense.
Loaning money to the IMF, instead of directly to a failing euro neighbor, could defuse the difficult politics. The agency can use the money for rescue programs as needed, attaching economic and budget conditions to any bailout.