ONE YEAR ago it seemed that, despite a suspicion of multilateral institutions in Congress, at least the International Monetary Fund could count on support. Congress, after all, had voted $18 billion to replenish the IMF's capital, even while refusing adamantly to pay America's debts to the United Nations. Now, however, a committee set up at the behest of Congress has begun a skeptical study of the IMF's role. Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer, two Republican presidential candidates, have called for the IMF's abolition.
From the left, critics contend that the IMF ought to take more account of the poverty created by the tough conditions on its lending. From the right, critics argue that any lending is too generous and only encourages imprudent behavior by governments and private banks. Voices in the center insist that the IMF's mission is valid but not implemented well.
Each perspective has some merit. Financial crises in Asia, Brazil and Russia gave ammunition to the centrist critics. In the case of Thailand, particularly, the fund recommended budget stringency in the face of a collapsing currency, believing that this would restore confidence in the baht. But budget tightening compounded the shock administered to the economy by devaluation, deepening the consequent recession and human suffering. Meanwhile in Brazil and Russia, the IMF argued against devaluations that, when they came, proved not to be disastrous. In Russia, the IMF was arguably too tolerant of the government's failure to implement its reform program, though without the benefit of hindsight this was an excruciatingly hard call -- and one pressed on the IMF by other governments.
The left is correct that the IMF's lending terms have been unrealistically stringent sometimes, though over the years it has tried to provide the poorest countries with lower-interest loans. And the risk of "moral hazard" cited by the right is also real. Here the claim is that the IMF's intervention in a crisis makes more crises likely. If investors get the idea that the IMF can be relied upon to bail out poor countries, that is, they will suppose that there is no risk in piling on the loans until repayment becomes impossible.
But the IMF is the first to acknowledge this risk. That is why it has made a point of not bailing out Ecuador, which recently defaulted on some international bonds. Only when a default threatens to trigger other crises does the IMF step in, believing that the risk of moral hazard is outweighed by the more immediate risk of widening chaos.
Moderate criticism of the IMF is fine. But immoderate attacks, including calls for abolition, are worrying. It's worth pointing out that South Korea and Thailand, having followed IMF prescriptions, are recovering faster than most critics predicted. The world needs an organization to deal with exchange-rate crises; if the IMF were abolished, a replacement would soon have to be set up. For America especially, the IMF is a great bargain: It implements policies that are by and large those of the U.S. Treasury, but then shares the cost with other governments.