Debate Looms Over I.M.F.: Should It Do More Than Put Out Fires?

Lopsided access to vaccinations, extreme economic inequality, rising food prices and staggering debt are on the agenda when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank gather for their annual meetings in Washington next week.

A pressing issue not in the official program is the controversy that has been swirling for weeks around the chief of the I.M.F., Kristalina Georgieva, threatening her leadership.

An investigation last month accused Ms. Georgieva of rigging data to paint China as more business friendly in a 2018 report when she was chief executive at the World Bank. Ms. Georgieva has denied any wrongdoing.

The scandal has focused on the bank’s credibility — billion-dollar decisions can be made on the basis of its information — as well as Ms. Georgieva’s culpability.

But lurking behind the debate over her future are foundational questions about the shifting role of the I.M.F., which has helped guide the planet’s economic and financial system since the end of World War II.

Once narrowly viewed as a financial watchdog and a first responder to countries in financial crises, the I.M.F. has more recently helped manage two of the biggest risks to the worldwide economy: the extreme inequality and climate change.

Some stakeholders, though, have chafed at the scope of the fund’s ambitions, and how much it should venture onto the World Bank’s turf of long-term development and social projects. And they object to what’s perceived as a progressive tilt.

“There is a modernizing streak here running through major financial institutions which is creating a kind of tension,” said Adam Tooze, a historian at Columbia University and the author of “Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy.”

Other pressures weigh on the agency as well. Washington is still home to the I.M.F.’s headquarters, and the United States is the only one of the 190 member countries with veto power, because it contributes more money than any other. But its dominance has been increasingly challenged by China — straining relations further tested by trade and other tensions — and emerging nations.

The willingness of the Federal Reserve and other central banks to flush trillions of dollars into the global economy to limit downturns also means that other lenders, aside from the I.M.F., have enough surplus cash on hand to lend money to strapped nations. China has also greatly expanded its lending to foreign governments for infrastructure projects under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

At the same time, long-held beliefs like the single-minded focus on how much an economy grows, without regard to problems like inequality and environmental damage, are widely considered outdated. And the preferred cocktail for helping debt-ridden nations that was popular in the 1990s and early 2000s — austerity, privatization of government services and deregulation — has lost favor in many circles as punitive and often counterproductive.

The debate about the role of the I.M.F. was bubbling before the appointment of Ms. Georgieva, who this month started the third year of her five-year term. But she has embraced an expanded role for the agency. A Bulgarian economist and the first from an emerging economy to head the fund, she stepped up her predecessors’ attention to the widening inequality and made climate change a priority, calling for an end to all fossil fuel subsidies, for a tax on carbon and for significant investment in green technology.

She has argued that however efficient and rational the market is, governments must step in to fix built-in flaws that could lead to environmental devastation and grossly inequitable opportunity. Sustainable debt replaced austerity as the catchword.

When the coronavirus pandemic brutally intensified the slate of problems — malnourishment, inadequate health care, rising poverty and an interconnected world vulnerable to environmental disaster — Ms. Georgieva urged action.

Here was “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said, “to support a transformation in the economy,” one that is greener and fairer.

The I.M.F. opposed the hard line taken by some Wall Street creditors in 2020 toward Argentina, emphasizing instead the need to protect “society’s most vulnerable” and to forgive debt that exceeds a country’s ability to repay.

I.M.F. headquarters in Washington, where Republicans have bristled at Ms. Georgieva’s agenda.Credit…Daniel Slim/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This year, Ms. Georgieva managed to create a special reserve fund of $650 billion to help struggling nations finance health care, buy vaccines and pay down debt during the pandemic.

That approach has not always sat well with conservatives in Washington and on Wall Street.

Former President Donald J. Trump immediately objected to the new reserve funds — known as special drawing rights — when they were proposed in 2020, and congressional Republicans have continued the criticism. They argue that the funds mostly help American adversaries like China, Russia, Syria and Iran while doing little for poor nations.

Ms. Georgieva’s activist climate agenda has also run afoul of Republicans in Congress, who have opposed carbon pricing and pushed to withdraw from multinational efforts like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris climate agreement.

So has her advocacy for a minimum global corporate tax like the one that more than 130 nations signed on Friday.

In July, Laurence D. Fink, who runs BlackRock, the world’s largest investment management company, and was at odds with the I.M.F.’s stance on Argentina, called the fund and the World Bank outdated and said they needed “to rethink their roles.”

The investigation into data rigging at the World Bank focused on what is known as the Doing Business Report, which contains an influential index of business-friendly countries. WilmerHale, the law firm that conducted the inquiry, said various top officials had exerted pressure to raise the rankings of China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Azerbaijan in the 2018 and 2020 editions.

The law firm reported that Ms. Georgieva was “directly involved” with efforts to improve China’s rating for the 2018 edition. She said WilmerHale’s report was inaccurate and rejected its accusations. The I.M.F. executive board is reviewing the findings.

The United States, which is the fund’s largest shareholder, has declined to express support for her after the allegations. Ahead of a meeting of the I.M.F. board on Friday, Ms. Georgieva maintained strong support from many of the fund’s shareholders, including France, which had lobbied hard for her to get the job in 2019. Late Friday, the I.M.F. released a statement saying the board would “request more clarifying details with a view to very soon concluding its consideration of the matter.”

In Congress, Republicans and Democrats called for the Treasury Department to undertake its own investigations. A letter from three Republicans said the WilmerHale inquiry “raises serious questions about Director Georgieva’s ability to lead the International Monetary Fund.”

Several people sprang to her defense, including Shanta Devarajan, an economist who helped oversee the 2018 Doing Business Report and a key witness in the investigation. He wrote on Twitter that the law firm’s conclusions did not reflect his full statements, and that the notion that Ms. Georgieva had “put her thumb on the scale to benefit one nation is beyond credulity.”

“It was her job to ensure the final report was accurate and credible — and that’s what she did,” Mr. Devarajan added.

In an interview, he said critics had used the investigation to discredit Ms. Georgieva. The problem, he said, is “how people may have chosen to read the findings of the report and use that to criticize Kristalina’s credibility and leadership.”

Mr. Devarajan was not the only one to make the case that the controversy was functioning in some ways as a proxy for the contest over the I.M.F.’s direction. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia, wrote in The Financial Times that Ms. Georgieva was receiving “McCarthyite treatment” by “anti-China forces” in Congress.

Whatever role one might prefer for the I.M.F. — traditional, expanded or something else entirely — the scandal is both a distraction and a threat.

Nicholas Stern, a British economist who formerly served as the chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank, said this controversy could not come at a worse moment.

“The coming few years are of vital importance to the future stability of the world economy and environment,” he wrote in a letter to the I.M.F. board in support of Ms. Georgieva. “This is as decisive a period as we have seen since the Second World War.”

Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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