Aug 012016
 
 August 1, 2016  Posted by at 5:38 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »


Dorothea Lange Migratory agricultural worker family fixing tire along California highway US 99 1937

The IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) issued a report a few days ago entitled ‘The IMF and the Crises in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal’. It is so damning for managing director Christine Lagarde and her closest associates, that it’s hard to see, certainly at first blush, how they could all keep their jobs. But don’t be surprised if that is exactly what will happen.

Because organizations like the IMF don’t care much, if at all, about accountability. Their leaders think they are close to untouchable, at least as long as they have the ‘blessing’ of those whose interests they serve. Which in case of the IMF means the world’s major banks and the governments of the richest nations (who also serve the same banks’ interests). And if these don’t like the course set out, a scandal with a chambermaid is easily staged.

But the IEO doesn’t answer to Lagarde, it answers to the IMF’s board of executive directors. Still, despite multiple reports over the past few years out of the ‘inner layers’ of the Fund that were critical of, and showed far more comprehension of events than, Lagarde et al, the board never criticizes the former France finance minister in public. And maybe that should change; if the IMF is to hold on to the last shreds of its credibility, that is. But that brings us back to “Organizations like the IMF don’t care much, if at all, about accountability.”

What the IEO report makes very clear is that the IMF should never have agreed, as part of the Troika, to assist the EU in forcing austerity upon Greece without insisting on significant debt relief, in the shape of a haircut, or (a) debt writedown(s). The IMF’s long established policy is that both MUST happen together. But its Troika companion, the EU, is bound by the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates: “The Union shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments”. Also, the ECB can not “finance member states”.

If Lagarde and her minions had stayed true to their own ‘principles’, they should have refused to impose austerity on Greece if and when the EU refused debt relief (note: this has been playing out since at least 2010). They did not, however.

 

 

The IMF caved in (how willingly is hard to gauge), and the entire Troika agreed to waterboard Greece. The official excuse for bending the IMF’s own rules was the risk of ‘contagion’. But in a surefire sign that Lagarde et al were not acting with, let’s say, a “clear conscience”, they hid this decision from their own executive board.

Moreover, the IEO now says it was unable to obtain key records or assess the activities of secretive “ad-hoc task forces”. “Many documents were prepared outside the regular established channels; written documentation on some sensitive matters could not be located; [the IEO] has not been able to determine who made certain decisions or what information was available, nor has it been able to assess the relative roles of management and staff..”

One must wonder why the IMF has an executive board at all. Is it only to provide a facade of credibility and international coherence? When it becomes so clear, and -no less- through a report issued by one of its own offices, that its ‘boots on the ground’ care neither for its established policies nor for its board, isn’t it time for the board to interfere lest the Fund loses even more credibility?

The IMF’s main problem, which many insiders may ironically see as its main asset, is the lack of transparency, combined with the overwhelming power exerted by the US and Europe. And Europe’s grip on the IMF is exactly what the report is about, in that it accuses Lagarde et al of bowing to EU pressure, to the extent that it abandons its own guiding ‘laws’. It acted like it was the European Monetary Fund, not the international one.

So there’s no transparency, no accountability, and in the end that will lead to no credibility and no relevance. Well, that’s exactly how the EU lost Britain. And that shows where accountability and credibility are important even for non-democratic supra-national institutions, something these institutions are prone to neglect.

No, there will not be a vote put to the people, no referendum on the IMF. Though that would sure be interesting. What can happen, though, is that countries, even large ones like China and Russia, threaten to leave, perhaps start their own alternative fund. These things have already been widely discussed.

What is sure is that the US/Europe-centered character of the Fund will have to change. If Washington and Brussels try to appoint another European as managing director (an unwritten law thus far) they will face a rebellion.

 

 

That next appointment may come sooner than we think. Because Christine Lagarde is in trouble. It’s even a bit strange, and that’s putting it gently, that she’s still in her job. What’s hanging over her head is a 2008 case, in which she approved a payment of €403 million to businessman Bernard Tapie, for ‘losses’ he was to have suffered in 1993 when French bank Crédit Lyonnais supposedly undervalued his stake in Adidas.

Lagarde is accused of negligence in the case, in particular because she ignored advice from her own ministry (yeah, that does smack like the IMF thing) and let the Tapie case go to a special arbitration committee instead of the courts. That Tapie was a supporter of the Sarkozy government Lagarde served as finance minister at the time makes it juicier.

So does this: In 1993 Crédit Lyonnais was a private bank. But in 2008, it had been wound up and was run by a state-operated consortium. Therefore, the €403 million ‘awarded’ to Tapie out-of-court was all taxpayers money. Even juicier: in December 2015, a French appeal court overruled the compensation and ordered Tapie to repay the money, with interest.

What’s peculiar about Lagarde staying on at the IMF is that she is not merely under investigation or even ‘only’ accused of committing a crime. Instead, she has been ordered to stand trial, something she’s spent 8 years trying to avoid. Still, apparently nobody sees any problem in her continuing to act as Managing Director of the IMF.

That is quite something. And it directly affects the Fund’s credibility. If a president or prime minister of a country, any country, had been ordered to stand trial, the likely procedure would be to temporarily stand down and let someone else take care of government business pending the trial.

As it stands, however, Lagarde is allowed to sit pretty. And then? Borrowing from the Guardian: “A charge of negligence in the use of public money carries a one-year jail sentence and a €15,000 fine. The CJR is made up of six members of the French Assemblée Nationale, six members of the upper house, the Senate and three magistrates. No date has been set for the hearing.”

Ironically, negligence turns out to be a very light charge. Someone in Lagarde’s position could have given away or squandered trillions of euros and then be fined €15,000. But then, class justice is alive and well in France. What are the odds that she will be convicted? She’d have to be found with a chambermaid in Manhattan for that to happen…

 

 

That’s perhaps what the IMF board are thinking too. Whether that’s wise remains to be seen. Hubris rules all these institutions, sheltered as they are from the real world. But the real world is changing.

Ironically, many people think these changes will reinforce the IMF. Since the Fund can issue a sort of ‘super money’ in the shape/guise of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), and especially China would seem to like SDRs becoming the world’s reserve currency instead of the US dollar, the IMF in some people’s eyes holds a trump card.

There may well be an effort to hide private and public debt throughout the planet even more than it is hidden now, through SDRs. We’ll likely see governments and perhaps large corporations issue bonds denominated in SDRs. China seems to think that this could potentially halt much of its capital flight.

My trouble with this is that it’s either too unclear or too clear who would profit most from such schemes. Even if the next managing director of the IMF is not European, but Asian or African, the puppet masters of the Fund will still be the same western financial ‘cabal’. And I don’t see China or Russia signing up to that kind of control, and willingly expand it by making SDRs far more important.

Then again, there’s a sh*tload of debt that needs to be hidden, and the whole world is running out of carpet to sweep it under. Then again, Russia is not that indebted. It’ll be hard to get a consensus.

 

 

But all that won’t help Greece. Let’s get back to that. We left off where Lagarde conspired with the EU, under the guise of preventing contagion, to abandon the IMF’s own rules in order to waterboard the country. Of course, we know, though nobody writing on the IEO report mentions it, that the contagion they were trying to prevent was not so much between nations but between banks.

The bailout-related policies and actions that Lagarde hid from her own board (!) were designed to make French and German banks ‘whole’ at the cost of the Greek people. It became austerity, so severe as to make no sense whatsoever -certainly inside an alleged ‘Union’-, even if the IMF -not the world most charitable institution- has always banned this without being accompanied by strong debt relief.

Schäuble and Dijsselbloem saved Germany and Holland at the expense of Greece. This will end up being the undoing of the EU, even if nobody’s willing to acknowledge it despite the glaring evidence of the Brexit.

It will probably be the undoing of the IMF as well. And there I get back to what I’ve said 1000 times: centralization can only work in times of growth. There is no conceivable reason, other than dictatorship, why people would want to be part of a centralizing movement unless they get richer from it.

In today’s shrinking global economy, we have passed a point of no return in this regard. Everyone will want out of these institutions, and get back to making their own decisions about their own lives, instead of having these decisions being taken by some far away board with no accountability.

Let’s end with a few quotes about the IEO report. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was in fine form:

IMF Admits Disastrous Love Affair With The Euro and Apologises For The Immolation Of Greece

The International Monetary Fund’s top staff misled their own board, made a series of calamitous misjudgments in Greece, became euphoric cheerleaders for the euro project, ignored warning signs of impending crisis, and collectively failed to grasp an elemental concept of currency theory.

[..] In Greece, the IMF violated its own cardinal rule by signing off on a bailout in 2010 even though it could offer no assurance that the package would bring the country’s debts under control or clear the way for recovery, and many suspected from the start that it was doomed. The organisation got around this by slipping through a radical change in IMF rescue policy, allowing an exemption (since abolished) if there was a risk of systemic contagion. “The board was not consulted or informed,” it said. The directors discovered the bombshell “tucked into the text” of the Greek package, but by then it was a fait accompli.

[..] The injustice is that the cost of the bailouts was switched to ordinary Greek citizens – the least able to support the burden – and it was never acknowledged that the true motive of EU-IMF Troika policy was to protect monetary union. Indeed, the Greeks were repeatedly blamed for failures that stemmed from the policy itself. This unfairness – the root of so much bitterness in Greece – is finally recognised in the report. “If preventing international contagion was an essential concern, the cost of its prevention should have been borne – at least in part – by the international community as the prime beneficiary,” it said.

 

 

That would seem to leave the IMF just one option: to apologize profoundly to Greece, to demand from the EU that all unjust measures be reversed and annulled, and to set up a very large fund (how about €1 trillion) specifically to support the Greek people, including retribution of lost funds, repair of the health care system, reinstatement of a pension system that can actually keep people alive and so on and so forth.

And to top it off of course: debt writedowns as far as the eye can see. You f**k up, you pay the price. This makes me think of a remark by Angela Merkel a few weeks ago, she said ‘we have found the right mix when it comes to Greece’. Well, Angela, that is so completely bonkers it’s insulting, and the IMF’s own evaluation office says so.

I like this one from Bill Black as well:

It was only after forcing the Greek people into a pointless purgatory of a decade of disaster that the troika would consider providing debt relief…The only ‘debt relief’ they offer to discuss is a ‘long rescheduling of debt payments at low interest rates.’ This, under their own dogmas, will lock Greece into a long-term debt trap that will materially lower Greece’s growth rate for decades and leave it constantly vulnerable to recurrent financial crises. That is a recipe for disaster for Greece, Italy, and Spain (collectively, 100 million citizens) and for the EU. It is financial madness – and that ignores the political instability it will cause to force an EU member nation to twist slowly in the wind for 50 years.”

Got that one off of Yanis Varoufakis’ site, and he must be feeling very vindicated, even if not nearly enough people express it, by the IMF report. Because he’s said all along what they themselves are now admitting. But it ain’t much good if nothing changes, is it? Or, as Varoufakis put it:

[..] to complete this week’s drubbing of the troika, the report by the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) saw the light of day. It is a brutal assessment, leaving no room for doubt about the vulgar economics and the gunboat diplomacy employed by the troika. It puts the IMF, the ECB and the Commission in a tight spot: Either restore a modicum of legitimacy by owning up and firing the officials most responsible or do nothing, thus turbocharging the discontent that European citizens feel toward the EU, accelerating the EU’s deconstruction.

[..] The question now is: What next? What good is it to receive a mea culpa if the policies imposed on the Greek government are the same ones that the mea culpa was issued for? What good is it to have a mea culpa if those officials who imposed such disastrous, inhuman policies remain on board and are, in fact, promoted for their gross incompetence?

In sum, an urgent apology is due to the Greek people, not just by the IMF but also by the ECB and the Commission whose officials were egging the IMF on with the fiscal waterboarding of Greece. But an apology and a collective mea culpa from the troika is woefully inadequate. It needs to be followed up by the immediate dismissal of at least three functionaries.

First on the list is Mr Poul Thomsen – the original IMF Greek Mission Chief whose great failure (according to the IMF’s own reports never before had a mission chief presided over a greater macroeconomic disaster) led to his promotion to the IMF’s European Chief status. A close second spot in this list is Mr Thomas Wieser, the chair of the EuroWorkingGroup who has been part of every policy and every coup that resulted in Greece’s immolation and Europe’s ignominy, hopefully to be joined into retirement by Mr Declan Costello, whose fingerprints are all over the instruments of fiscal waterboarding. And, lastly, a gentleman that my Irish friends know only too well, Mr Klaus Masuch of the ECB.

You probably guessed by now that I would certainly and urgently add Christine Lagarde to that list of people to be fired. And not appoint another French citizen as managing director. Too risky. They do crazy things. The IMF must be reorganized, and thoroughly, or it no longer has a ‘raison d’être’.

I see no reason to doubt that those who call the shots are too blinded by hubris to execute such measures, so I’ll list these things one more time: transparency, accountability, credibility and if you don’t have those you will lose your relevance.

But it’s probably a bad idea to begin with to let an economy, if not a world, in decline, be governed by the same people who owe their positions to its rise. It would seem to take another kind of mindframe.

Jun 112015
 
 June 11, 2015  Posted by at 2:06 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  1 Response »


G.G. Bain Auto polo, somewhere in New York 1912

There’s a Reuters article by Paul Taylor today that’s thought provoking, but not along the same line of thought that the writer follows (or the twist he gives to it). Taylor concludes that the IMF would love to wash its hands off Greece, but can’t because it’s subservient to German and Brussels interests (a junior partner). However, he also describes, without realizing it, why and how the Fund can rectify that.

Not that we’re not under the illusion the IMF is prone to latch on to the following, but that it would nevertheless be an extremely wise move for the Fund, and especially for its reputation. Which, no matter how you see it, is under threat from its Asian ‘competitor’, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), not in the least because the non-western world has long found that the west has far too much power in the IMF, which after all is a global organization.

In that vein, let’s start off with an article the FT published in April 2013, by Ousmène Mandeng, who also features in Taylor’s piece. This former IMF deputy division chief pointed out what unease the IMF role in Greece caused, and how that role undermined its role as an international institution. Today, nothing has changed.

The IMF Must Quit The Troika To Survive

There are many victims of the eurozone crisis but one loser is seldom mentioned: the IMF has suffered considerable collateral damage. It has been dragged along in an unprecedented set-up as a junior partner within Europe, used as a cover for the continent’s policy makers and its independence lost. The monetary fund was set up as a technocratic institution. That, indeed, is why it was brought into Europe: it was felt that a neutral broker was needed to fix the eurozone’s problems.

It is an outsider that would seem less biased in its assessments of peripheral eurozone countries than, say, the chancellor of Germany or the president of the European Commission. While the distribution of voting power within the IMF has been controversial for some time, it is a consensus-driven body. Its independence from any one region or power has provided the basis for efficient decision-making – and is essential to it.

That last sentence sounds more like wishful dreaming than an assessment of reality.

So the fact that decisions about IMF-supported adjustment programmes are seemingly being taken in Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels should horrify its members.

The commission and the ECB are not even members of the IMF yet they seem to be running the show.

Together with the IMF, they are the troika running the continent’s rescues. Being part of this approach means political meddling has been institutionalised. The approach to the eurozone crisis also undermines the long-running efforts to reform the governance of the IMF, which were, after all, intended to reduce the disproportionate influence of western European governments.

The interests of other eurozone countries or institutions dominate proceedings unduly, so it is often unclear whether the interests of the IMF, the global economy, the eurozone or individual countries are being protected by its work.

For the neutral observer, it seems very clear whose interests the IMF ‘protects’.

[..] troika adjustment programmes have been guided often by the needs of neighbouring European governments rather than global economic considerations. It would surely already have walked away from Greece had it not been held back by political inconvenience. The eurozone has further undermined the IMF by setting up its own crisis resolution institution. The European Stability Mechanism is for all practical purposes a European monetary fund.

Proposals for an Asian monetary fund during the Asian crisis were attacked with good reason: there was real concern that a regional fund would reduce the effectiveness of multilateral co-operation. These concerns seem to have been forgotten.

Well, those concerns are back.

It is not hard to imagine a scenario where a country has suffered a considerable economic shock and requires significant financial resources to avoid a painful and disruptive adjustment – say a large debt restructuring. In such circumstances, the interests of that nation, the world and neighbouring countries might not be aligned.

The fund cannot be seen as neutral and at the same time serve the immediate interests of the eurozone. [..] the eurozone debacle risks destroying the credibility of the IMF – and therefore the foundations for multilateral economic co-operation.

The IMF’s potential effectiveness has suffered and countries may be less willing to seek assistance from the fund, possibly prolonging future economic pain. This will come to matter a great deal if a larger eurozone country should come to require its help. To save itself, the IMF needs to leave the troika.

The main take-away from this should perhaps be that the IMF has not even so much served the interests of the eurozone, but exclusively those of its richest members, Germany, Britain and France. That this can be damaging in the long term is obvious. But there may be a way it can redeem itself, as we will argue. First, though, let’s go to Taylor’s article today:

IMF’s ‘Never Again’ Experience In Greece May Get Worse

For the IMF, five years of playing junior partner in European bailouts for Greece has been a “never again” experience, and the worst may be yet to come. The global lender has lent far more to Athens than to any other borrower, contributing nearly one-third of the total €240 billion.

But it has sat uncomfortably in the side-car of the Greek rescue. Called in by EU paymaster Germany to try to keep the European institutions and the Greeks honest, the IMF has never had control of the program.

Critics say the IMF has damaged its credibility by going along with political fudges to keep Greece in the euro zone rather than insisting on write-offs, first by private creditors and now by European governments..

Keep that in mind: uncharacteristically, the IMF has not made restructuring debts a priority for Greece. Or, one could argue, debts were restructured, but too late and in the wrong way. That, too, may prove very damaging for the Fund.

“One of the most important lessons for the IMF from the Greek program should be that a multilateral institution should not institutionalize special interests of a subset of its membership,” said Ousmene Mandeng, a former IMF official.. “The interest of the IMF is not necessarily aligned with the EU/ECB,” he said.

In 2013, the IMF published a critical evaluation of its own role in the first Greek bailout in 2010, arguing that it should have insisted on a “haircut” on Greece’s debt to private creditors from the outset. Instead it went along with European governments frightened of a Lehman-style market meltdown and keen to shield their banks from losses.

A 2010 IMF staff position note described default on any debt in advanced economies as “unnecessary, undesirable and unlikely”, yet 18 months later the IMF advocated a 70% “haircut” on Greek government debt as a condition for continued involvement in lending to Athens.

Now IMF chief Christine Lagarde is hinting that European governments need to give Greece debt relief to make the numbers add up, but since this is politically unacceptable in Germany, she has had to talk in code in public. “Clearly, if there were to be slippages from those (fiscal) targets, for the whole program to add up, then financing has to be considered,” Lagarde told a news conference last week.

In other words, politically unacceptable in Germany trumps politically unacceptable in Greece by seven leagues and a boot and a half. That is not just damning for the IMF’s image, it damages that of the EU just as much. The leaders of neither seem to care much. But internally in the IMF, the discussions have always been there, and always provided the right approaches. It’s just that third-party considerations prevailed.

Behind closed doors, IMF officials are telling the Europeans that Greece will not survive without a third bailout program, which will require debt restructuring by European governments. The IMF insists on being repaid in full and is not expected to lend any more to Athens. But Berlin and its allies want the Fund to remain involved..

[..]The Fund prefers to see its role as that of a truth-teller, making an objective assessment of a country’s ability to sustain its debt based on economic criteria such as interest rates and loan maturities, growth, productivity and the fiscal balance. Insiders say privately it would love to get out of the Greek program for good, but the Europeans may not let it.

Summarized: the IMF is a political tool. Nothing new there. But it’s being a tool that threatens for the Fund to become a bit-player in the global scene. China and Russia have seen enough, as, obviously, has Greece. Though Athens whould have been justified in venting a lot more anger about what happened to it than it has, even to this -Syriza- day.

In its various ‘critical evaluations’, the IMF will probably use a term like ‘mistake’. But there is a large difference between ‘mistake’ and fault’ or ‘blunder’ or even ‘criminal neglicence’. And the IMF needs to admit that it has been at fault, and seek to retroactively rectify that fault. If it wants to undo the damage to its reputation, that is.

The 2010 -first- Greek bailout, worth €110 billion, happened without any debt restructuring. Of course that should never have been accepted inside the IMF offices. It was a gross departure from established policy.

But the reason why is crystal clear: 90% of the money didn’t go to Greece, it went to save German, Dutch and French banks who had gambled and lost big-time, largely with loans to an Athens government serving the interests of the country’s existing oligarchic elite. The proper term is ‘collusion’.

After the troika had bailed out the European banks and thus further indebted the Greek people to the tune of another €100 billion, obviously a second bailout became necessary. After all, Greek debt had neither been relieved not restructured. It took just 18 months for that second bailout to enter the scene, stage left.

Meanwhile, those same European banks, handily helped along by the €100 billion they received courtesy of the Greek people, had reduced their exposure to Greek debt from €122 billion to €66 billion. Which put a further € 56 billion pressure on Athens.

In July 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had overseen the first bailout, was forced out of the IMF governor role through some ‘bizarre incidents’, and in came Wall Street darling Christine Lagarde. A second bailout package for € 100 billion was agreed, but Greek PM Papandreou didn’t feel secure enough politically to accept its terms without calling a referendum. The EU, though, doesn’t like referendums (it tends to lose out in those).

In short order, Berlin/Paris/London had Papandreou replaced by Yale and Federal Reserve clone Lucas Papademos as Greek PM on November 10 2011. Just 6 days later, they also toppled Silvio Berlusconi as Italian PM, and replaced him with another banking technocrat, Mario Monti. Europe and democracy, it’s a strange-bed-fellows relationship.

That second bailout, agreed to in October 2011, but ratified only in February 2012, included a 53.5% face value loss for bondholders. But since the big ‘foreign’ banks had pulled out, that loss was mainly forced upon Greek banks and funds. Dragging the country’s economy even further down. The pattern is deceptively simple and even almost elegant in its destructiveness.

And that is why we find ourselves where we are today.

The whole point of this long history lesson is that what the IMF can do today to restore its reputation, its independence and indeed its very relevance, is to go back to the first Greek bailout of 2010 – it can simply claim that any deals agreed to under Strauss-Kahn were illegal for, by lack of a better term, pimping reasons-, and to retroactively undo the damage done by any and all deals under the troika umbrella.

That is to say, since the IMF is on the hook for €80 billion, a third of the €240 billion Greece ‘owes’, it can go to the ‘systemic’ European banks that were the recipients of this unjustified largesse, and demand its money back from them, instead of from the Greek people.

That would instantly solve the whole Greek debt issue everyone’s been talking about for forever and a day, the Athens government could go to work on reforms aimed at alleviating the misery forced upon its people instead of having to focus on troika talks 24/7, and all the false narratives about lazy Greeks living above their means could be thrown out the window in one fell swoop.

And the IMF could, make that would, regain its reputation, its credibility and its -global- relevance. Just like that. Overnight.

Like stated at the beginning, we don’t expect it to happen. But the opportunity is there. And it makes a lot more sense than just about anyone in the west will be willing to admit. The IMF can’t just serve only the EU and US and their banking sectors, or its days are numbered. It can either try and restore its reputation by doing what’s right or it can become yet another ingredient in history’s long gone and forgotten alphabet pea soup.