Analysis: Asia's reticence costs it a shot at IMF power

SINGAPORE Tue May 24, 2011 6:02am EDT

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The world's power brokers lined up candidates to head the IMF while Asia held back, and its silence means it will probably have to wait five more years to break Europe's grip on the top spot.

Emerging market powerhouses including China and India have long clamored for more clout within the International Monetary Fund, commensurate with their growing economic strength.

Last year, they won a hard-fought battle for a bigger share of IMF voting rights and convinced the fund to reconsider its long-standing opposition to capital controls.

So why the reticence when presented with a golden opportunity to claim the managing director post following Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sudden resignation?

Forging quick consensus is never going to be an easy proposition in a region of such extremes, encompassing impoverished Bangladesh and wealthy Japan; Communist China and the world's largest democracy, India.

It's even tougher when the task at hand involves controversial questions of politics and economics.

It may be more convenient for Asia to sit idly by this time around with the understanding that it will make its preferences known next time. Even that seemingly anodyne point is so sensitive in Asia that no policymaker has made it publicly, although it was raised by at least one official on the condition neither his name nor his nationality was published.

Contrast that with Europe, which quickly rallied around French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to take the job that has traditionally gone to a European since the IMF was formed at the end of World War Two.

France's budget minister said that Lagarde had China's support as well, all but assuring she would have sufficient backing to win a five-year term.

China's foreign ministry declined to comment on whether Beijing had backed Lagarde. An emerging market official said there was considerable discussion between Asia, Latin America and Africa, and another candidate could still emerge.

But the chances for success look slim.

There has been no shortage of other names floated, including several from emerging Asian countries, yet none received the same degree of swift and public support as Lagarde has both inside and outside Europe.

The biggest obstacle to Asia putting forward a rival seems to be finding common cause.

China and India share membership in the "BRICS" grouping of rapidly emerging economies but little else, and would have a hard time agreeing on one Asian candidate.

"To believe that everyone coming from the emerging markets will support similar policies is a mistake," said Sebastian Edwards, a former World Bank official who teaches international economics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

SILENCE IN JAPAN

For Japan, second only to the United States in IMF voting power, backing someone from elsewhere in Asia would serve as a painful reminder of the country's waning influence.

Koichi Haji, chief economist at NLI Research Institute in Tokyo, said Japan is not thrilled with the prospect of Europe retaining its hold on the top spot, but isn't in a position to propose a Japanese candidate and would not be comfortable with someone from an emerging market either.

"Nothing seems to be an attractive option, which might be why Tokyo remains so silent on this whole subject," he said.

Japanese Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda declined to comment when asked whether he would support Lagarde or another name put forward, Mexico's central bank governor, Agustin Carstens.

He said only that the process should be open, transparent and merit-based, a line heard repeatedly throughout the region.

As for smaller Asian economies, the next head of the IMF is far from the top of the to-do list.

Many in the region harbor bad memories of the financial turmoil of the late 1990s and felt the IMF was condescending and harsh in its dealings with countries in crisis.

Asian nations have built up large cash reserves, in part as a form of self-insurance so that they would never again be forced to go hat-in-hand to the IMF. The fund has little influence over countries that don't need its loans.

Still, an Asian IMF chief would be a powerful sign of respect, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Getting a southeast Asian candidate into the mix would raise the region's international profile, and the fund might benefit from the experience of someone from a country that has been on the receiving end of IMF advice. There would be no shame in putting forward a candidate who loses, he said.

"If you never try, you never succeed," he said.

An Asian IMF boss might serve as a symbol of IMF humility as well -- which might help heal some of those 1990s wounds.

Now that the world has endured a financial crisis wreaked by the policies of the rich, the IMF has begun to question its western economic orthodoxy.

Indeed, at an IMF conference in March, its chief economist said the latest crisis forced a "wholesale re-examination" of principles that had formed the basis of mainstream economics.

Those tenets, often referred to as the "Washington consensus," also formed the basis of many of the IMF policies and recommendations that so rankled Asian economies.

Now that they are no longer seen as gospel, it makes even more sense to choose an IMF leader who thinks differently, said UCLA's Edwards, who has long opposed the tradition of Europeans leading the IMF while Americans take the top World Bank spot.

He dismissed as "absurd" the idea that another European should get the job this time around because a European is best suited to manage the region's sovereign debt crisis, which is likely to take up a great deal of the next leader's time.

"The one reason why the crisis is not going away is that no one has been looking at it with a broad historical lens," he said in an emailed response to questions from Reuters.

"What we need is not an expert in the last crisis; what we need is someone that will understand the next crisis. Because we can be sure that there will be more."

(Additional reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo and Abhijit Neogy in New Delhi; Editing by Vidya Ranganathan and Neil Fullick)

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