The one-minute expert

Your essential companion to this week's big event; The IMF

What is it?

Internal Memo Format, not to be confused with the International Monetary Fund, is a method of inter-office communication using diplomatically coded symbols like ":)" for "yes, I'd be happy to loan you money until pay day."

Are you short of cash?

Sometimes it seems everyone is, especially countries in Latin America and Africa. Even Britain had to use it in the late 1970s. With the IMF, it is possible to lend money to the desperate while teaching them to be more frugal but without getting their backs up.

So the Third World loves it?

Certainly not. In fact, most of the developing world loathes it for making them be fiscally responsible.

But being responsible is good.

Not if it means cutting subsidies to the voters it isn't. And under IMF, every memo has to start with the sentence: Thou shalt not underwrite the cost of food. Hungry voters have been known to take to the streets if that's put too bluntly.

So why is it in the news?

The people in charge of the IMF, plus a gaggle of hangers-on and media types, are meeting in Washington this week for their annual pow wow over what to do with it.

If it's about money, why not London or New York?

Money is power, and power means Washington. Besides, many of the people responsible for the Format come from the banking sector - in London or New York - and wanted to get away to somewhere else. Preferably somewhere with good restaurants.

So what will they be discussing?

The latest proposal is for a new "syntax" under which gold from rich countries would be used to pay down the debt of poor countries.

Who do they owe the money to?

The rich countries.

So they'll end up paying themselves.

Exactly. That's the beauty of it. It's a closed loop, perfectly symmetrical, with no loose ends. Lexicographers love things that work that way. They call them "circular definitions". The poor countries would be happy because they wouldn't owe so much, and the rich countries would be happy because they will have been paid.

And everyone's happy.

Except for the Paris Club.

I thought they were in Washington.

Yes. So is the Paris Club. They go to the same places as the IMF. It's a bit of a clique in the top circles of international formatting.

So what's their beef?

The Paris Club represents rich countries. It feels that it's being asked to do too much to help poor ones and wants the IMF to do more.

So no one really likes it?

On the other hand, no one has come up with a better way of helping the world's most desperate countries without insulting them too much.

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