Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 April - 5 May 2010
Issue No. 996
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

IMF out of ideas

The Greek chorus of outraged disquiet cannot be silenced despite the tragedy the international financial institutions are staging, says Gamal Nkrumah

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US President Barack Obama tours the Siemens Energy facility in Fort Madison, Iowa. He promised to put the American economy back in the picture, but can he do the same with the global economy?

"Frontier" investing is fashionable these days. It is a term that has been coined to describe investing in "frontier markets", in turn, a term coined by economist Farida Khambata way back in 1992. Frontier markets supposedly have lower market capitalisation and liquidity than more developed "emerging markets".

The Bretton Woods, or international financial institutions, are tightening the noose around the necks of deeply indebted nations such as Greece -- countries under intense pressure to accelerate fiscal and structural economic reforms. Frontier markets, too, are running into difficulties. The political costs of being egged on to open up are escalating and people are rising up precisely against the so-called "help" by the Bretton Woods institutions.

The European Union and the international financial institutions are stepping up pressure on Greece to comply with conventional wisdom of capitalist canons but the Greek people are up in arms. The demonstrators in Athens and other Greek cities have underlined the fact that fiscal policies dictated by the Bretton Woods institutions are simply not sustainable.

The chances of a default by the Greek government are multiplying by the hour rather than by the day. How the Greek government will deal with the public outcry remains to be seen. Other vulnerable European economies are in danger of following suit. Portugal, once regarded as a promising frontier market, seems to be next.

People all over the world are growing increasingly weary of the notoriously dubious rescue packages and prescriptions for financial and economic malaise that fuel populist backlashes among the disgruntled underdogs in developing countries. The term "frontier market" is often indistinguishable from "emerging markets" -- and we all know what those are, I presume.

Politically volatile developing countries with relatively small equity markets have been in vogue as far as serious investors are concerned. Well, investors are supposed to be shrewd entrepreneurs -- risk takers. So it all makes sense in a quirky sort of way. The bottom line is that if you are an intrepid investor you might make a killing in some frenzied frontier. There is an unmistakable aura enveloping these emerging markets where social and business activities are supposedly in the process of rapid growth and industrialisation.

It is against this melodramatic backdrop that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank convened a meeting in Washington DC on 23-25 April ostensibly to enhance the credibility of the Greek austerity programme, which quite frankly is nothing but a Greek tragedy played out on the world stage of international finance. Simultaneously, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors met in Washington. Recovery was pronounced "fast" in Asia's frontier and emerging markets and "sluggish" in Europe.

At the Washington meetings, there was talk of a Greek bail- out and rumours of a global economic upturn, but the truth of the matter is that "Europe, China and the United States had two deeply distinct interests," explained former Wall Street economist Michael Hudson, author of Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of the American Empire (2002). "American diplomats wanted to lock foreign countries into further dependency on paper dollars," Hudson extrapolated.

Ominously, he pointed out that "government debt in Greece is just the first in a series of European debt bombs that are set to explode." And even more chilling, what about the outstanding $44 trillion debt of America to foreign central banks?

Curiously enough, US President Barack Obama hosted a summit on entrepreneurship in Washington DC 25-27 April. Participants came from some 40 nations. Topping the agenda at the twin Washington meetings was the "heavy burden of debt" as International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn pontificated.

Conferences such as the above are held with monotonous regularity, costs billions when they're added -- at the expense of taxpayers. The spendthrift are supposedly being educated in the school of hard knocks to reform. "When billionaires pledge a billion dollars to educate people to the evils of something, it is always good to peer closely at what they are up to," discerningly notes leftist American economist Ellen Brown.

Let us consider for a moment the vexing question of national debt. President Obama launched a bipartisan commission charged with finding ways of slashing the federal deficit. "It keeps me awake at night, looking at all that red ink," Obama confessed in his state of the Union address. "What the president seems to have missed is that all of our money except coins now comes into the world as 'red ink' or debt," Brown again shrewdly observes. She couldn't have been more articulate, more concise and to the point.

After contracting by 0.6 per cent in 2009, global output is expected to expand by 4.2 per cent in 2010. "Emerging Asia, of course, is leading the way in the global turnaround," stressed Shinora Naoyuki, IMF deputy managing director at a meeting in the Vietnamese resort of Nha Trang this week. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China Free Trade Area, launched in January 2010, is the world's largest regional emerging market. India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey are among the promising others. Yet most of these countries, to varying degrees, are currently experiencing unsettling political, economic and social ills and upheavals. The tenor of the world leaders, however, remains overly optimistic.

Faith in the world economic order, the market system, continues to grow strong in spite of the proliferation of Greek tragedies. "This system was to be controlled in a feudal fashion by the central banks of the world acting in concert, by secret agreements arrived at in frequent private meetings and conferences," surmised Carroll Quigley author of the classic Tragedy and Hope (1966) and former US president Bill Clinton's mentor at Georgetown University.

The IMF Financial Committee (IMFC), the executive board of the IMF, attempted to make sense of the situation. "We see a strengthening of economic recovery, but we also see an unevenness in this recovery, unevenness within countries and unevenness between countries," judiciously berated IMFC chairman Youssef Boutros Ghali.

"In emerging market economies, recovery is strong, beginning to retrench on various fiscal stimuli," he explained. Other top-ranking officials of the IMF and the World Bank corroborated Ghali's views. "Emerging market economies are rebounding strongly from the crisis, and domestic demand seems poised to carry growth forward," the IMF deputy managing director added. He highlighted the impressive resumption of capital flows to emerging market economies, the large capital inflows to the so-called "frontier markets".

What, of course, was conveniently overlooked was that in spite of the impressive economic recovery and the rejuvenating "frontier investing", some 65 million people will drop below the poverty line in 2010 -- most in Asia and an estimated 18 million in Africa alone. Headlines like "G20 hopes for the future don't add up" inevitably spring to mind. "Anything that bolsters IMF authority cannot be good for countries forced to submit to its austerity plans," warns Hudson. "They are designed to squeeze out more money to pay the world's most predatory creditors," he succinctly sums up.

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