Geithner defends IMF euro-loans

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner defended efforts to bail out Greece and other indebted European countries on Tuesday against Republican charges that International Monetary Fund programs have put U.S. taxpayers at risk.

In an election year when Republican candidates have maligned Europe’s economic policies and drawn unflattering comparisons to the Obama administration, Geithner said U.S. contributions to the fund were secure — and that IMF inaction in Europe was a greater risk than its loans to ailing countries.

“We have had 60-plus years of experience with the IMF and we have never lost a penny of taxpayers’ money. I cannot envision a circumstance in which we would,” Geithner told the House Financial Services Committee during a hearing focused on the fund’s extensive lending in Europe. Given the fragile state of Europe’s finances, with three countries under IMF programs and a regional recession underway, “it would be much riskier for us to try to pull the IMF back” because of the importance of Europe’s economic health to the U.S. companies and banks that trade there, Geithner said.

Along with $64 billion in permanent capital that the United States has paid as the fund’s largest shareholder, the United States in 2009 established a $100 billion credit line for the IMF to borrow from to provide emergency help to other countries.

The United States would be paid interest on any money the IMF borrows.

Still, some Republican members of Congress have begun focusing on the IMF’s programs as a source of risk to U.S. taxpayers and to a national budget that has its own share of red ink.

“We don’t want to end up with their debt in our lap,” Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Calif.) said.

Geithner said those concerns are misplaced. IMF loans inevitably get repaid — it is rare for countries to even fall behind in their payments to the fund. In addition, many analysts say the worst of Europe’s crisis may have passed.

Governments in several European countries are bringing their annual budget deficits under control, treaty changes are meant to give regional oversight to national spending, and European leaders later this month are expected to boost a crisis-fighting fund along the lines called for by Geithner, the IMF and others. In addition, long-term loans from the European Central Bank have put a trillion-dollar prop underneath European financial institutions and lowered the risk that one or more might fail as a result of the region’s crisis.

“Those efforts have helped calm financial market tension. . . . They are making some progress,” Geithner said.

GOP concerns about the IMF have a practical ramification. The IMF hopes by this fall to double the permanent contributions paid by its members. Because of the United States’ dominant role at the fund, that won’t happen unless Congress signs off.

Although approved in theory by the fund’s board 15 months ago, the process of getting enough countries on board has been slow. The Obama administration has not said when it will bring the issue to Capitol Hill.

“We will come to the Congress at the appropriate moment,” Geithner said at Tuesday’s hearing.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde wants to raise a separate $500 billion through new loans from member countries.

Geithner has said that the United States will not contribute to that fund, and he told members of Congress he is not convinced the IMF needs it. China and other nations have said they would approve loans to the IMF to ensure it has enough cash at its disposal in case the European crisis worsens and other nations need help. But U.S. skepticism has slowed that process.

“We don’t see the case,” said Geithner, arguing that the fund can raise money quickly from its members if the need arises.

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