Thursday, October 30, 2008

From the finance section...

Emerging markets

Unfunded mandate
Oct 30th 2008 | RIGA
From The Economist print edition

The IMF adopts a more flexible approach

TIME was when a bail-out by the International Monetary Fund was a uniformly horrid experience. Cold-eyed, sharp-suited men pored over your country’s books, demanding painful structural reforms and bone-chilling fiscal stringency. Faced with the current turmoil in emerging markets, the fund now seems more like a generous uncle.

Well-run countries now have fewer hoops to jump through to gain IMF money. On October 29th the fund announced the creation of a new short-term liquidity facility for the soundest emerging markets. The facility will disburse three-month loans to countries with good policies and manageable debts without attaching any of its usual conditions. The Federal Reserve added its considerable firepower to the rescue effort, announcing the establishment of $30 billion swap lines with each of the central banks of Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Singapore.

The fund’s traditional lending also comes with fewer strings attached. The IMF-led $25.1 billion bail-out of Hungary on October 28th was “fast, light and big”, in the words of one person involved. The rescue came just days after the fund agreed on a $16.5 billion package to shore up Ukraine’s collapsing economy, a prospect which seems to be unblocking the country’s wretchedly deadlocked politics. It is also standing by to help Pakistan.

The huge international support package for Hungary is a shocking turn of fortune for eastern Europe, a region that has enjoyed growth and stability for a decade. But a toxic combination of external debt and collapsing confidence left the economy floundering. Even spending cuts, tax increases, a €5 billion ($6.7 billion) loan from the European Central Bank and a sharp rise in interest rates, from 8.5% to 11.5%, had failed to calm the markets.

The fund had tried to get the governments of Germany, Italy and Austria on board for the rescue. Their banks are most exposed to Hungarian borrowers (thanks to eager lending in euros and Swiss francs). Austria was willing to take part; Germany was not. So the IMF has put up $15.7 billion (to be agreed on at an IMF board meeting shortly), the European Union has added $8.1 billion, and the World Bank a further $1.3 billion. In return, all Hungary has to do is pass a law on fiscal responsibility that is already before parliament.

The fund may be calculating that it is better to be lavish before a crisis than stringent after one. Iceland, which is negotiating a $2 billion bail-out from the IMF, is being forced to take some bitter medicine after the failure of its banks. The central bank raised interest rates by a full six percentage points to 18% on October 28th, as trading resumed in the Icelandic krona after a suspension of nearly a week.

The big uncertainty now is how many more fires the fund and other lenders must fight—and whether they can afford to do so. The IMF may well need more than the $250 billion it now has. Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, wants countries with big surpluses, such as China and the oil-rich Gulf states, to contribute more. The fund’s backers, it seems, need to be as flexible as its new lending criteria.

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