The IMF Should Move to Europe

The headline news from the G20 summit in Pittsburgh is that progress has been made on “IMF reform,” meaning increased voting power for emerging markets relative to rich countries – remember that West Europeans are greatly overrepresented at the IMF for historical reasons. But further change in a sensible direction is being blocked by the UK and France – because they have figured out that this logic implies they would lose their individual seats on the IMF’s executive board.

The way to break this impasse is (1) for the European Union to consolidate into a single seat or membership, and (2) for the Union to assert its right to be the headquarters of the IMF (under the Articles of Agreement: “The principal office of the Fund shall be located in the territory of the member having the largest quota…”).

The US will push back hard – arguing that only countries can be members of the IMF. But what’s a country for these purposes? The UK, for example, has elected assemblies in constituent parts of its union (and different soccer teams), but can still belong to the IMF:

“Membership shall be open to other countries at such times and in accordance with such terms as may be prescribed by the Board of Governors. These terms, including the terms for subscriptions, shall be based on principles consistent with those applied to other countries that are already members.”

Ultimately, this kind of decision is more about high politics than international law. The only part of the world where the IMF currently has the legitimacy to make a difference is in Eastern Europe, and most of the additional resources for helping that region should come from Western Europe – after all, Brussels had the not-so-good idea that “convergence” through EU accession meant that running massive current account deficits was somehow a good idea.

Europe still insists on the right to nominate one of its own to be managing director of the IMF, which is an awful anachronism at this point. The New IMF could be based in London with a French boss, or in Paris with a British boss. The EU would have a powerful voice and the US would keep its veto. The emerging markets, outside of Eastern Europe, would still be annoyed and with good reason – but they should really stop complaining and just set up their own fund (building on the Asian Chiang Mai initiative); China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia have more than enough financial firepower to make this happen.

About Simon Johnson 101 Articles

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., a co-founder of BaselineScenario.com, a widely cited website on the global economy, and is a member of the Congressional Budget Office's Panel of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Johnson appears regularly on NPR's Planet Money podcast in the Economist House Calls feature, is a weekly contributor to NYT.com's Economix, and has a video blog feature on The New Republic's website. He is co-director of the NBER project on Africa and President of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies (term of office 2008-2009).

From March 2007 through the end of August 2008, Professor Johnson was the International Monetary Fund's Economic Counsellor (chief economist) and Director of its Research Department. At the IMF, Professor Johnson led the global economic outlook team, helped formulate innovative responses to worldwide financial turmoil, and was among the earliest to propose new forms of engagement for sovereign wealth funds. He was also the first IMF chief economist to have a blog.

His PhD is in economics from MIT, while his MA is from the University of Manchester and his BA is from the University of Oxford.

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