The chasm of rich nation, poor nation

You could call it unfair, and in the long run, unwise. The institution charged with managing the world's international financial system is badly out of whack with economic reality.

Rich nations run this institution, the International Monetary Fund. Poor nations, which call on the IMF for help in a crisis, don't have much say.

That might have made sense in an earlier era, when European nations sometimes drew on the IMF as they emerged from the economic ruins of World War II. It makes less sense when today's users lie almost exclusively in the developing world.

One distortion is the gross overrepresentation of Europe on the IMF's Executive Board. So, while the 25-nation European Union merely matches the economic clout of the United States, it has twice the voting power.

Meanwhile, emerging powers, such as India, China, and Brazil, have little voice in the IMF relative to their growing economic might. By 2014, for example, China's gross domestic product, its output of goods and services, could exceed that of the US. Yet it has only 2.95 percent of the total IMF vote, compared with 17.14 percent for the US and Japan's 6.15 percent.

Creditor nations, the rich ones, must have more weight in a lending institution such as the IMF than do borrowing nations. A bank wouldn't last long if it were run by its debtors. But the balance of power is out of kilter.

There are other governance issues. The world's richest nations - the so-called Group of Seven - often make crucial decisions on loans to nations in financial trouble, notes Peter Kenen, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It serves the purpose of the United States wonderfully," says economist Jacques Polak, but it is not good for the IMF. It tends to undermine the powers of its executive board.

Mr. Polak was for 22 years head of research at the IMF. He was present at the creation of the IMF 60 years ago in Bretton Woods, N.H. He was a young economist in the Dutch delegation, as 44 Allied nations strove to devise a global financial system that would facilitate greater prosperity in a world then wracked by World War II and the aftermath of the Great Depression.

At that time, the US dollar was tied to gold and the other major currencies had prices fixed to the dollar. When an industrial nation faced a financial crisis because of a huge trade deficit, it would seek a loan from the IMF - as Britain, France, and Italy actually did - while it tried to fix the problem.

In 1971, though, the dollar's link to gold was broken and soon the values of other major currencies were set largely free to "float" in relation to the dollar - their price set on the foreign-exchange markets. These rich nations no longer need to borrow from the IMF, thus reducing the institution's importance in the world economy.

But poorer nations still need IMF help, as seen by financial crises in recent years in East Asia, Latin America, and Russia.

For the last 10 or 15 years, the role of developing nations in the world economy has grown rapidly. Now they are seeking recognition of this. At the fund's annual meeting in Washington early this month, their representative body, the Group of 24, expressed "strong disappointment and concern that, after two and a half years, no progress has been made" on increasing their influence in the IMF and its sister institution, the World Bank.

They also asked for a "transparent selection process" in the choice of the IMF's managing director, that is, its CEO. It always has gone to a European. Inaction on these issues, they warned, could damage the "legitimacy and best interests" of the two institutions.

For the first time in years, a US official, Treasury Secretary John Snow, addressed this issue. At the IMF annual meeting, he said the Fund's governance should evolve "so that countries' positions better reflect their global weights."

But experts anticipate no action soon. Changing voting power in the IMF is a zero-sum game. What one nation gains in clout, others lose. "It's not a matter of political feasibility," says L. Van Houtven, a former IMF Secretary. Yet he sees it as a necessity of "enlightened self-interest" for the rich nations.

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