The International Monetary Fund, seeking a method to cover the cost of debt relief for poor countries without dumping some of its vast gold holdings on the market, has concocted a complicated accounting mechanism to revalue the gold and create more than $2 billion in profit.
The plan was posted for unexplained reasons yesterday on the World Wide Web site of the Dutch Finance Ministry, causing a stir at the traditionally secretive IMF, which wasn't planning to disclose the details until its annual meeting later this month.
At issue is how to fund an initiative to ease the debt burdens encumbering some of the world's most desperately poor lands such as Mozambique, Vietnam and Nicaragua. The initiative, unveiled amid much fanfare this spring by President Clinton and other leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations, offers considerably deeper debt reduction than is available under current IMF guidelines to poor countries that show some promise of putting their economic houses in order.
But the initiative ran into a buzz saw of opposition because of its initial financing mechanism, which included the sale by the IMF of about 10 percent of the 103 million ounces of gold it holds. Because the IMF is prohibited under its charter from forgiving loans outright, the gold sales were aimed at creating a kitty that would be used to effectively pay off the debts of the poor countries participating in the initiative.
Gold-mining companies and countries that export gold, including several poor African nations, complained that the proposed gold sale was helping to drive down the already-depressed price of the metal. Their pleas won over leading members of Congress, throwing the plan's prospects into serious doubt because congressional approval is required for any sale of the IMF's gold hoard. The new plan also would be subject to congressional approval.
IMF officials said the new plan hasn't been formally approved by the fund's board. But the plan, or something very similar to it, is virtually certain to be adopted at the annual meeting, according to sources familiar with it. The plan has been worked out in cooperation with the U.S. Treasury, and the United States is the most influential of the IMF's 182 member nations.
The new plan, which is designed to avoid any disruption to the gold markets, involves even more financial acrobatics than its predecessor, and it takes advantage of the differential between the market price of gold--about $255 an ounce--and the $46-an-ounce price at which gold is valued on the IMF's books. Essentially, the IMF would revalue the gold at the higher price to generate the profit needed to fund the kitty for paying off poor-country debts. But it would use a complex series of transactions to do so.
According to Reuters, which translated from Dutch the document posted on the Web site of the Dutch Finance Ministry, the plan works as follows: A country that is not having trouble making its debt payments would buy gold from the IMF at the lower price the day before a loan payment is due and then make its payment the next day with the same gold.
The IMF would then have gold it could value at about $209 an ounce more than the gold it started with (based on current market prices). The IMF would set aside the "profit" in a special trust fund for poor-country debt relief, as well as another low-interest loan program for low-income nations.
Also posted on the Dutch Web site was the disclosure that the IMF staff has raised its growth forecast for the world economy, to 2.8 percent this year. In April, the fund had projected growth of 2.3 percent. Global growth was 2.5 percent in 1998.
The new projections were prepared for the IMF's semiannual World Economic Outlook report, due for release on Sept. 22. IMF spokesman William Murray said yesterday that the report was still being completed.
The IMF forecast growth of 3.7 percent in the United States this year, slowing comfortably to 2.6 percent next year. But the fund, whose staff has long fretted about a crash of the highflying U.S. stock market, warned that the nation's economy could be at risk of a "hard landing," or sharp, painful drop in its growth rate.
The document posted on the Web site was a draft agenda for the IMF's policy-setting Interim Committee.