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Last Updated: Monday, 28 August 2006, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
Reform on the cards for the IMF
By Malcolm Borthwick
BBC Asia Business Report

IMF head Rodrigo Rato
Rodrigo de Rato has big plans in store for the IMF
Belgium or India? Which has more clout when it comes to decision making on loans to developing countries and on global economic stability?

Despite India's economy being about twice the size of Belgium's and it having a population of over one billion compared to Belgium's ten million, the European country wields more influence at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

This is why many think the IMF is ripe for reform - including the IMF itself.

Democratic deficit

The world's top central bankers and finance ministers will be among the 10,000 people converging on Singapore next month for the IMF's annual meetings, and one of the big talking points will be how to make the Fund more relevant to Asia and developing countries.

When it comes to votes, South Korea, China, India and Japan have just 12% of the voting rights, the US has 17% and Europe has over a third.

This democratic deficit is something the IMF's managing director, Rodrigo de Rato, wants addressed to reflect the growing economic importance of countries like South Korea and China.

But Europe has been reluctant to change, according to Jean Pisani-Ferry who runs Bruegel, a European think-tank specialising in international economics.

"There is a tendency in Europe to stick to the existing arrangements," he told the Business Times, explaining that while European member countries had strong representation their views were fragmented.

"It's not a good strategy, it's a losing strategy," he says.

All change?

When Mr de Rato became head of the IMF in 2004, he launched a strategic review of its role with an aim of reforming governance of the organisation.

Woman and child in Niger
Poorer countries want more of a say in the operation of the IMF

IMF director Masood Ahmed hopes the Singapore meeting will "include an initial set of decisions on addressing the quota misalignments for some countries" - particularly emerging markets in Asia.

The last country to get an increase in its vote was China, and that was five years ago.

Now the question is whether the IMF can agree on more fundamental reform and a new formula for calculating voting rights.

Elsewhere a critical eye will be cast over the role of the IMF and whether it should reinvent itself.

Rather than being primarily known for lending, should it instead be policing world economics?

If the IMF succeeds (in reform) it will position itself again at the core of administrative discussions. If it fails, it's a significant failure
Jean Pisani-Ferry
Bruegel think-tank

The world economy has changed dramatically over the last decade since the Asian financial crisis, which dealt a severe blow to the IMF's reputation.

Firstly, it is in pretty good shape, so there's not much demand for borrowing from the IMF.

Credit outstanding to the IM1F is at a 25-year low and despite rising fuel costs and interest rates, US consumers are still spending which is helping fuel growth in Asia. Growth in Europe and Japan is picking up too.

Secondly, many Asian countries have built up strong foreign reserves to fortify themselves against any future crisis, making them less dependent on the IMF.

The IMF is no stranger to reinvention. It came through the oil shocks of the 1970's, the debt crises of the 1980's and the emerging market crises of the 1990's.

New focus

While the world economy is stable the IMF says it wants to turn its focus to surveillance.

A teller counts Chinese yuan notes
US critics claim China keeps the yuan low to boost exports

It says this would involve tackling "the difficulties of unprecedented global imbalances and the challenges facing individual countries", through more vigorous policy analysis and advice to its member countries.

One of the main imbalances, it says, is between the US and the rest of the world. This will be a big discussion point among finance ministers and central bankers in Singapore.

The US consumer is the lynchpin of the world economy.

Cheap imports, particularly from China and south east Asian countries, have helped keep down the cost of goods in the US, encouraging American shoppers to keep spending.

This is good for growth and employment in Asian countries, which are heavily dependent on exports.

But as the US has imported more goods, its trade deficit has surged. In 2005 it reached a record $717bn - equal to 6% of the US economy.

"American consumers cannot support demand in the rest of the world indefinitely," Mr de Rato said recently.

He warned an "abrupt depreciation of the US dollar" could have disastrous consequences, pushing up the cost of Asian exports to the US - bad news for Asian exporters and American consumers who are already juggling rising fuel and household bills.

Meanwhile, such a fall could also be exacerbated by countries switching out of the dollar and into other currencies or commodities like gold. It's this type of scenario the IMF wants to avoid.

'Be prepared'

Its big challenge will be building a consensus and gaining the legitimacy to tackle such meaty issues.

To that end it has created a discussion forum among a select group of members with either large current account surpluses or deficits - including China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the US and Europe.

Arjuna Mahendran, Chief Economist and Strategist at Credit Suisse Asia Pacific, supports the IMF's shift of focus to surveillance.

Shoppers in US Wal-Mart store
US consumers are still spending despite rising fuel bills

The world economy is cyclical and it's best to prepare for stormy waters when the world economy is calm, he says. But he also argues that the Fund needs to be more vociferous.

"US Congress is screaming for the Chinese to raise the value of its currency," he says.

"But the IMF gives absolutely no guidance on what the adjustment mechanism should be.

"It's ludicrous to expect the Chinese to appreciate [their currency], because there is no evidence that the strengthening of the Japanese currency against the US dollar over the last 20 years has done anything to reduce the Japanese trade surplus with the US," he adds.

"Exchange rates are not the whole picture. Nobody is saying that, but I think this is precisely what the IMF should be saying."

The IMF has reformed itself many times claims think-tank chief Jean Pisani-Ferry, but this time it will be a significant gamble for an institution which is "losing influence".

"If the IMF succeeds, it will position itself again at the core of administrative discussions which has not been the case over the last couple of decades because of the creation of G7," he says.

"If it fails, it's a significant failure."

Momentum gathers for IMF shake-up
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04 May 06 |  Country profiles

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