By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009; A01
Inside a cavernous assembly hall in downtown Washington, dignitaries gather twice a year for routine meetings of the International Monetary Fund. Before long, though, the room could take center stage in the IMF's transformation into a veritable United Nations for the global economy.
Surrounded by blond wood paneling and a digital screen the size of a cinema's, central bankers and finance ministers would meet to convene a financial security council of sorts. Serving almost as ambassadors to the IMF, they would debate ways to put out the world's economic fires and stifle reckless policies before they ignite new ones.
Bowing to a new economic world order, the IMF would grant fresh powers to the likes of China, India and Brazil. It would have vastly expanded authority to act as a global banker to governments rich and poor. And with more flexibility to effectively print its own money, it would have the ability to inject liquidity into global markets in a way once limited to major central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve.
That image of a radically transformed IMF -- whose role in the global economy had turned largely advisory in recent years -- is now coming together through internal IMF documents, interviews and think-tank reports. Finance ministers from major nations will begin grappling with the formidable details of the IMF's makeover this weekend when they converge in Washington for the fund's biannual assembly.
The changes, broadly outlined by President Obama and other leaders of the Group of 20 nations in London earlier this month, could take months, even years to take shape. But the IMF is all but certain to take a central role in managing the world economy. As a result, Washington is poised to become the power center for global financial policy, much as the United Nations has long made New York the world center for diplomacy.
The IMF's mission is expanding so broadly that its managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, said in an interview that the organization -- which underwent deep cuts last year before the financial crisis swept the globe -- may boost staffing in coming months, potentially creating dozens of high-paying jobs in the District.
"The IMF is changing, and with it, there will be a sea change in the way the world economy is run," said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "Their role will dramatically shift. You're talking about monitoring fiscal stimulus, moving toward tighter regulations for financial institutions. You're talking about global economic management in a way we have never seen."
Already, the economic crisis is triggering a profound cultural shift, with the IMF moving away from its long-held mission to spread the gospel of capitalism around the globe.
Founded at the end of World War II to maintain stability in global currency markets, it later became known as the lender of last resort for nations in crisis, particularly as financial fires raced across Asia and Latin America in the 1990s. Its bailouts, however, were the bane of many poor countries; they often came with demands for fiscal austerity and free-market reform as the cures for developing nations -- even if that meant nations had to cut back on programs for health care and schools.
The IMF, Strauss-Kahn suggested, will become less ideological. Critics maintain the fund is still attaching too many restrictions to its longer-term bailouts for poor countries. But the IMF has signed off in recent weeks on no-strings-attached credit lines for countries with solid economic track records, offering $47 billion to Mexico and $20.5 billion to Poland.
"If the fund is considering a country and is technically convinced that privatization of any enterprise is needed to fix the country today, let's privatize. But if it's a general idea of privatization that has nothing to do with the problem, let's forget it," Strauss-Kahn said. "At the same time, if nationalization will help, let's do it."
Developing nations -- including some that were once down-and-out clients of the fund -- are now coming to the IMF's rescue as part of the pledge made by leaders in London to beef up the organization's war chest to $1 trillion. In exchange for better representation on the governing board, China, which has fewer voting rights than Belgium, is set to give more than $40 billion. Brazil, which received a massive IMF bailout in the late 1990s, is pledging $4.5 billion.
There is even talk that the next managing director -- traditionally a European, while an American ran its sister organization, the World Bank -- may come from the developing world. "Why not?" Strauss-Kahn said.
For an organization long demonized by the developing world, such changes were once unthinkable. "I spent 20 years of my life carrying posters that said 'IMF out,' " Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former union leader, said last week in Rio de Janeiro. "Now the minister of finance says we are going to lend money to the IMF."
The IMF is also moving toward taking the lead role as the global economic watchdog. An intense debate, however, remains over the scope of the edicts it may issue as well as the power it will be granted to enforce them.
Along with the Switzerland-based Financial Stability Board, the IMF is set to develop benchmarks for financial governance, from guidelines on executive pay to methods to prevent the spread of toxic assets through global banks. But no one is talking seriously about allowing the IMF to impose sanctions to force compliance as the United Nations does. There is even a strong reluctance to grant the IMF powers such as those held by the World Trade Organization in Geneva, which issues binding rulings on violations of global trade law.
Instead, the IMF is likely to wield what Strauss-Kahn called "the strength of truth telling." Put another way, the organization's public pronouncements would carry the force of the nations seated at its table, including the world's most powerful industrialized and developing economies.
Some critics, however, say that may not be enough. A case in point: An internal IMF document recently called for Eastern European nations to adopt the euro as their currency to stabilize their economies, even without the approval of euro-zone nations. But stiff opposition from Western Europe has thus far prevented that document from being made public.
Additionally, some smaller European and low-income nations remain skeptical about the creation of a financial security council, arguing they would not be well represented. Even within the IMF, there is a debate over the council's purview and makeup. Some see the council turning into a venue to hash out major economic disputes, such as U.S. and European charges that China is keeping its currency artificially weak.
Others say it should steer away from country-specific rulings. Another camp argues the fund should not exist at all. Even Strauss-Kahn has sought to dispel the notion of too grand a role for the IMF, saying its primary mission should remain monitoring and surveillance rather than enforcement.
"The fund is supposed to take on a more regulatory role, holding accountable even wealthy countries," said Moshin Khan, the IMF's former Middle East and Central Asia director. "But I will have to see that happen to believe it. Whenever I've seen them going after the bigger countries, if the countries don't like what the fund has to say, the fund doesn't say it."