David Prosser: A golden opportunity to embrace proper IMF reform at last
Outlook: Where was the International Monetary Fund's advance warning of the most severe financial crisis in its history three years ago?
Tuesday 17 May 2011
The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case is a story of personal tragedies – for the International Monetary Fund chief, of course, but more so for his alleged victim. But at an institutional level there is a golden opportunity to grasp here. This is the moment to fully embrace reform of the IMF, to transform it into an institution that reflects the economic world order of the 21st century rather than the Second World War environment in which it was created.
The most powerful way to do that would be to acknowledge that almost 70 years after the IMF was set up, Europe no longer has an automatic right to select one of its own as its managing director. That right, given as a counterbalance to the American right to choose the head of the World Bank, is indefensible in a world where, on the IMF's own figures, Europe accounts for only a quarter of the global economy. Until now, Europe's leaders appeared to believe that having thrown some bones to the developing world on voting reform, they would be able to choose at least one more leader (David Cameron, who has publicly called for a non-European, is an honourable exception, though cynics may wonder whether he is motivated by Gordon Brown's candidacy for the job).
The circumstances in which Mr Strauss-Kahn's term of office is now coming to an end ought to fatally weaken the Europeans' ability to retain power. And once it has installed its first non-European leader, the IMF should also find it easier to go much further on voting-rights reform. China, India and other developing economies have not yet been given sufficient recognition – they have been granted more voting rights than in the past but the US and Europe retain the same tight control over the IMF's decisions that they have always enjoyed.
Reform is not simply a question of good governance. The IMF must become more representative because it will become ever-more dependent on China and the rest – for the funds they can provide, but also for global economic co-operation and collaboration.
Opponents of reform will be mustering their forces as we speak. But they should ask themselves whether the record of the Western-controlled IMF justifies maintaining the status quo. Never mind the resentment around the world of countries that have had the IMF's solutions imposed upon them – including some in Europe itself right now. Where was this august body's warning of the most severe financial crisis in its history three years ago?
The battle for the world's exchanges
There's a certain curiosity about the way in which the world's stock exchanges, which have so often been cradles of free-market capitalism, are currently playing host to some raging arguments about protectionism and competition.
On the one hand, you have the United States, where despite widespread dislike of a German takeover of the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, a potential American bidder, has been unable to put together a credible counter offer because of competition concerns. On the other, you have Canada, where opposition to the London Stock Exchange's takeover of TMX, which runs the Toronto and Montreal bourses, is running so high it looks as if regulators may waive the competition worries surrounding an emerging domestic bidder.
Neither approach is necessarily wrong. But those who describe the Canadian approach, including critics in the country itself, as parochial certainly have a point.
The US, for all its nationalistic fervour, has a good record on cross-border M&A. Foreign buyers have occasionally been blocked from making US acquisitions but only in very specific circumstances – on national-security grounds, say.
That makes sense in a country where businesses are so keen to make foreign acquisitions of their own. Kraft, for example, got a tough enough ride as it was when it bought Cadbury in Britain – imagine what opponents to that deal would have said if the US was in the business of routinely blocking foreign buyers of its companies.
With the greatest of respect to Canada, its companies are not global players in quite the same way. The Canadian authorities can thus afford to be more interventionist – if they put the very real questions over competition aside to favour the Maple Group's bid for TMX above that of the LSE, they will be following the example set when they vetoed BHP Billiton's bid for Potash.
What does this mean for world trade? Well, protectionism is not healthy, but Canadian reluctance to cede control of their companies to foreigners is not a new development. The LSE will be frustrated, no doubt, just as BHP was before it. But in the end, Canada's determined parochialism will do it more damage than anyone else.
Brickbats and a bouquet on Equitable
Just one cheer for the Treasury following yesterday's announcement that it will make the first compensation payments to the victims of the Equitable Life scandal next month. At least this Government is coughing up – the last administration spent the best part of a decade dragging its heels.
Still, the decision to pay people what they are owed in installments, rather than as an upfront lump sum, looks pretty shoddy. One of the worst things about this affair is that so many Equitable victims have died while waiting for a pay-out: making the survivors wait until 2016 to be paid in full will just add to the number of savers denied a complete settlement.
This is not, on any reading, a generous package. The terms of the scheme mean many Equitable savers will miss out altogether. And those who are getting redress will receive substantially less than they lost when the insurer came so close to collapse.
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