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The G-20 Faces the Global Econopocalypse, But It's Nothing But a Big Show

The show masks a deep fear among the global elite that it really doesn't know the direction in which the world economy is heading.

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In short, institutions that were part of the problem are now being asked to become the central part of the solution. Unwittingly, the G20 are following Marx's maxim that history first repeats itself as tragedy, then as farce.

Resurrecting the Fund

The most problematic component of the G20 solution is its proposals for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States and the European Union are seeking an increase in the capital of the IMF from $250 billion to $500 billion. The plan is for the IMF to lend these funds to developing countries to use to stimulate their economies, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner proposing that the Fund supervise this global exercise.

If ever there was a non-starter, this is it.

First of all, the representation question continues to exercise much of the global South. So far, only marginal changes have been made in the allocation of voting rights at the IMF. Despite the clamor for greater voting power for members from the global South, the rich countries are still overrepresented on the Fund's decision-making executive board and developing countries, especially those in Asia and Africa, are vastly underrepresented. Europe holds a third of the chairs in the executive board and claims the feudal right to have a European always occupy the role of managing director. The United States, for its part, has nearly 17% of voting power, giving it veto power.

Second, the IMF's performance during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, more than anything, torpedoed its credibility. The IMF helped bring about the crisis by pushing the Asian countries to eliminate capital controls and liberalize their financial sectors, promoting both the massive entry of speculative capital as well as its destabilizing exit at the slightest sign of crisis. The Fund then pushed governments to cut expenditures, on the theory that inflation was the problem, when it should have been pushing for greater government spending to counteract the collapse of the private sector. This pro-cyclical measure ended up accelerating the regional collapse into recession. Finally, the billions of dollars of IMF rescue funds went not to rescuing the collapsing economies but to compensate foreign financial institutions for their losses — a development that has become a textbook example of "moral hazard" or the encouragement of irresponsible lending behavior.

Thailand paid off the IMF in 2003 and declared its "financial independence." Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina followed suit, and Indonesia also declared its intention to repay its debts as quickly as possible. Other countries likewise decided to stay away, preferring to build up their foreign exchange reserves to defend themselves against external developments rather than contract new IMF loans. This led to the IMF's budget crisis, for most of its income was from debt payments made by the bigger developing countries.

Partisans of the Fund say that the IMF now sees the merit of massive deficit spending and that, like Richard Nixon, it can now say, "we are all Keynesians now." Many critics do not agree. Eurodad, a non-governmental organization that monitors IMF loans, says that the Fund still attaches onerous conditions to loans to developing countries. Very recent IMF loans also still encourage financial and banking liberalization. And despite the current focus on fiscal stimulus — with some countries, like the United States, pushing for governments to raise their stimulus spending to at least 2% of GDP — the IMF still requires low income borrowers to keep their deficit spending to no more than 1% of GDP.

Finally, there is the question of whether or not the Fund knows what it's doing. One of the key factors discrediting the IMF has been its almost total inability to anticipate the brewing financial crisis. In concluding the 2007 Article IV consultation with the United States, the IMF board stated that "[t]he financial system has shown impressive resilience, including to recent difficulties in the subprime mortgage market." In short, the Fund hasn't only failed miserably in its policy prescriptions, but despite its supposedly top-flight stable of economists, it has drastically fallen short in its surveillance responsibilities.

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