27 April 2009

The IMF's gold gambit ~ Wall Street Journal

The Fund's Misuse of Bullion Reserves is Crucial to its Plan to Use the Financial Crisis to Expand its Power.

By Judy Shelton
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, April 27, 2009


The International Monetary Fund deserves credit, figuratively speaking, for cleverly manipulating the financial troubles of emerging and low-income nations to procure a fresh infusion of capital for itself. But its tactics at this month's G-20 summit in London -- where President Barack Obama signed off on tripling the IMF's lending resources -- should not hoodwink anyone, least of all American taxpayers who pay the largest share of IMF expenses.

Lost in the lofty talk about putting the IMF in the center of world economic recovery is the fact that the organization has been quietly attempting to ensure its own survival by seeking permission to engage in gold sales. While IMF officials insinuate that the receipts would be used to help poor countries, the real goal is to set up a permanent endowment fund for the IMF.

The U.S. should not replenish the coffers of a multilateral bureaucracy that quite literally lost its reason for being on Aug. 15, 1971 -- the day President Richard Nixon "closed the gold window" and brought an end to the Bretton Woods agreement, which allowed countries to convert their dollar holdings, via the IMF, into gold at a fixed price. Instead, Congress should call for the IMF's dismantlement and restitution of its assets.

The most solid asset owned by the IMF, purely as a legacy of its original incarnation, is gold. The IMF holds 3,217 metric tons (103.4 million ounces) of gold, which makes it the world's third largest official holder. Actually, it's a misnomer to say the IMF "owns" the gold since the bullion belongs, according to the IMF articles of agreement adopted at Bretton Woods in 1944, to its member nations.

Nevertheless, the IMF is now seeking to sell a considerable chunk of those gold holdings -- some 12.9 million ounces -- which it insists are exempt from restitution to members in the event of IMF liquidation.

Its reason? Between December 1999 and April 2000, to fund its Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, the IMF arranged to sell gold it held on its books at a price of roughly $50 to two member countries, Brazil and Mexico, at the market price of $355. It put the profits of close to $4 billion in a special HIPC account; simultaneously, the IMF accepted back the gold sold to Brazil and Mexico in settlement of their financial obligations of that amount.

Bottom line: The balance of IMF holdings of physical gold was left unchanged, although it raked in the substantial difference between the gold's market price and its book value. The IMF asserts a propriety claim over the 12.9 million ounces it "acquired" through these transactions.

Unfortunately, artful accounting -- from the deceptive practice of carrying gold at its former official price (about $52) rather than its current market value (about $914), to the arcane usage of an intangible monetary unit called a Special Drawing Right (SDR) -- has become the IMF's defining characteristic.

The IMF once served as administrator for the gold-anchored Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates among currencies. It now stands for laxity, for endless government fixes, for ineptitude, and political compromise. The IMF preaches budgetary discipline one moment, only to abandon it under pressure from the current crop of presidents, prime ministers, and potentates who authorize its spending.

Now the IMF is attempting an end run around Congress, as it quietly moves toward selling gold, most likely to China. Why does the IMF need the money? Just three years ago the bloated organization (half of its 2,600 staff are economists) was nearly defunct; headquartered in Washington, the IMF was desperate to create an endowment fund to provide for its continued existence.

But in 2007 a specially convened committee of "eminent persons" helpfully suggested that if the IMF could sell those 12.9 million ounces of gold and set up a trust fund with the windfall profits, the investment returns could plug the gap between its administrative expenditures and the amount it earns as an intermediary that channels funds from rich countries to poor countries.

Sound familiar? Only one problem: IMF gold sales must be approved by an 85 percent voting majority of its members. The U.S. has a 17 percent vote; thus the IMF cannot sell gold without the explicit consent of Congress. But Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, has indicated his openness to approving IMF gold sales -- conditional that some of the receipts be used to "help finance debt relief for poor countries."

Ah, yes, it is always about helping the poor. Which is why the IMF emphasized its willingness to assist "poor countries" in its carefully calibrated request for additional resources from G-20 nations. Not surprisingly, the London stratagem proved successful. It was readily embraced by G-20 leaders eager to demonstrate how much they care about the human consequences of economic meltdown. Ironically, the IMF has been widely blamed by recipient nations in Africa and Latin America for perpetuating poverty. Excessive transfers to less-developed countries have the perverse effect of suppressing the entrepreneurial reserves of citizens. It is only when nations manage to get off the global dole that they are taken seriously by global capital markets and can start to achieve bankable growth.

The IMF has shown an uncanny ability to transmogrify into whatever politically acceptable form necessary to ensure its survival. Throughout the intervening decades since the end of Bretton Woods, the IMF has scrambled to redefine itself as (in rough chronological order): a global debt-collection agency, an economic-research organization, a referee for financial disputes among the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, and a front to permit Western nations to avoid being blamed for problems arising in the transition to democratic capitalism for formerly communist nations.

In its latest manifestation as global financial surveillance monitor and G-20 sidekick, the IMF has taken to delivering somber pronouncements about the world economic outlook, concluding in mid-April: "The current recessions are likely to be unusually severe, and the forthcoming recoveries sluggish." And what does the IMF recommend? "Aggressive monetary and, particularly, fiscal policies could strengthen and bring forward recoveries."

This sage advice conveniently dovetails with the agenda of Mr. Obama, who, as mentioned earlier, agreed to tripling the IMF's lending resources at the London summit. And to remain au courant with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has also called for expanding "the regulatory perimeter to encompass all activities that pose economy-wide risks."

Zhou Xiaochuan, China's powerful central banker, has authored a proposal for international monetary reform that would replace the dollar with "a super-sovereign reserve currency managed by a global institution." Citing "the inherent deficiencies caused by using credit-based national currencies," he suggests the SDR could assume this role. In the view of Mr. Zhou, the way to enhance international monetary and financial stability is to have member countries gradually entrust their reserves "to the centralized management of the IMF."

Before anyone gives any credence to the notion of having the IMF take on the task of issuing a new global currency, however, we need to remember that the original Bretton Woods system worked precisely because the dollar was convertible into gold at a fixed price. And gold is real money.

Congress should just say no.


Ms. Shelton, an economist, is author of "Money Meltdown: Restoring Order to the Global Currency System" (Free Press, 1994).

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