WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Emerging powers won a battle on Saturday for heightened IMF scrutiny of rich countries’ economic policies as world financial leaders sought to defuse mounting tensions over currencies.
The International Monetary Fund’s 187 member countries gave voice to long-running frustrations of emerging economies, which say the Fund has traditionally not been tough enough on its biggest shareholders, led by the United States.
Now, with the United States and Europe in the doldrums, and emerging economies providing the major growth engine for the world, the tables appear to be turning.
“Stronger and even-handed surveillance to uncover vulnerabilities in large advanced economies is a priority,” the IMF’s steering committee said in a communique.
The statement reflected the arguments of developing countries that weak finances and sluggish growth in the United States are a fundamental cause of imbalances in the global economy, with U.S. policies fueling the dollar weakness that is causing strains for many emerging market currencies.
This view was driven home by Chinese Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan on Saturday and won broader support.
“The IMF is no longer the institution designed to look after the developing countries solely,” said Thailand’s finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij. “Its role needs to be more broad-based, and it needs to realize that mistakes in the larger economies have global impact.”
The United States, in contrast, has pointed its finger at China, saying its huge current account surplus and undervalued yuan currency are partly to blame for the imbalances that have caused the dollar to fall and raised concerns about a “currency war.”
The finance leaders struck no deal on currencies but their IMF communique sought to defuse these escalating tensions by acknowledging both sides’ points of view. Not only did it underline the need for scrutiny of rich countries, it added language sought by Washington for the IMF to speak with greater “candor” in advising countries on economic policy, potentially giving the Fund more clout when dealing with China’s yuan.
But it laid out no concrete actions for addressing the problems of unbalanced global growth that underlies the mounting stress in foreign exchange markets.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said there is a direct link between planned reforms at the IMF designed to give emerging powers a greater voice and foreign exchange rate policies, and said if emerging markets want more influence they must release their grip on tightly managed currencies.
IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn put it slightly differently: “You cannot be at the center and be a free rider.”
Strauss-Kahn said he hoped to get an agreement possibly within weeks on giving emerging countries more IMF voting power, which would be in time to meet a deadline of the Group of 20 summit next month in Seoul.
Exactly how the IMF would conduct strengthened surveillance remained far from clear.
The communique said: “Further action is urgently needed to reinforce the institution’s role and effectiveness as a global body for macro-financial surveillance and policy collaboration,”
Strauss-Kahn had circulated an idea for the IMF to review the world’s five largest economies — the United States, Japan, China, the 16-nation euro zone, and Britain — and assess the impact of their domestic policies on the global economy, or what he called the “spillover” effect.
That idea gained lukewarm support. Eswar Prasad, a former IMF official who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said it appeared to offer little change from the IMF’s current responsibilities.
“The IMF is trying to reinvent the wheel yet again,” he said. The proposals were “fancy new names for old surveillance mechanisms” and did not give the IMF any stronger authority to turn their policy advice into action.
The IMF only has explicit power when it extends loans and can set conditions. Otherwise, it can only try and prod nations into policy actions.
In one sign of how the Fund will seek to be more forceful, Strauss-Kahn said he would personally attend regular economic consultations with the largest players, including the United States, the euro zone, China and Japan.
But there was no prospect of any quick change to the role of the Fund — the communique called for a review in 2011 of its effectiveness.
The IMF already conducts annual economic reviews of most of its member countries and reports on a range of issues, including exchange rate moves and monetary and fiscal policy.
It has a mixed track record when it comes to identifying the seeds of crisis and getting countries to change their policies before it is too late.
Some critics argue that the IMF cannot be a respected voice in the global economy until all of its members feel their views are heard on world policy decisions.
“As long as the Fund is seen as an organization in which all decisions are taken by a relatively small number of rich countries, and then announced in the name of the international community, mistrust in the Fund will persist in many regions of the world,” Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said.
Reporting by Reuters IMF team; Writing by Stella Dawson and William Schomberg; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Leslie Adler