Global Fiscal Crisis Brings Renewed Role for IMF

By Annys Shin and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 4, 2009

A year ago, the International Monetary Fund was in a funk. Its handling of past financial crises had made it deeply unpopular. Its finances were shaky. A fifth of the staff was looking to leave. Without new crises to address, doubts about its relevance grew even among insiders.

As one veteran staffer put it, "It was a period of introspection."

The second-guessing ended in September as the global economic crisis took hold and countries again turned to the fund for advice and financial support. Its comeback became official this week when world leaders meeting in London pledged to quadruple its resources and strengthen its mandate.

"The IMF has suffered a slow deterioration in morale," said Simon Johnson, a former IMF chief economist. "The Asian crisis was traumatic . . . they lost a lot of confidence."

Staff reductions last year added to the humiliation and embarrassment, he said. "Now it's night and day."

The mood in the hallways "is one of invigoration," said a senior-level IMF official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak. "People are pretty busy and they are happy to be helping . . . so they feel validated."

The Fund, which has 2,370 employees, most based in Washington, has repositioned itself periodically since its creation after World War II. Its initial focus was to oversee the exchange rate system established under the Bretton Woods agreements. That role ended in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it emerged as the manager of the Latin American debt crisis. In the 1990s, it stepped in to deal with the Mexican and East Asian financial crises.

During this crisis, the IMF regained its stature partly by default. In the months leading up to this week's meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing nations in London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown talked of creating new international institutions. But in the end, the G-20 chose not to go through the trouble and chose to work with existing organizations.

Former and current IMF officials say the fund's leadership also deserves credit for actively seeking a more central role and for making changes that helped overcome some of the potential objections.

Last month, the IMF revamped its lending practices to make it easier for countries with strong economic policies to borrow more, faster and with fewer strings attached. The centerpiece is a new flexible line of credit designed to be used as a preventive measure.

IMF officials said the fund was trying to respond to long-standing criticism that the organization imposes conditions on developing nations that are too harsh and even harmful to their economies. The flexible credit line replaces a credit line created last fall that had no takers because countries said it offered too little money and too rigid terms.

In a small sign of success, Mexico recently said it would use the new credit line. But South Korea and Singapore still refuse to do so.

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