A quick fix

The IMF’s new scheme to help emerging economies weather financial trumoil

“EXCEPTIONAL times call for an exceptional response” said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s boss, of a new short-term lending facility for emerging economies facing temporary liquidity problems in capital markets. Under the “short-term liquidity facility” (SLF), approved on Wednesday October 29th, qualifying countries will be eligible for a loan at short notice of up to 500% of their IMF quota, the maximum amount a country is obliged to provide to the IMF. The three-month loans will come with a minimum of conditions relating to economic policy; they are also intended to be made available with a rapidity not usually associated with the organisation.

All this is music to the ears of those, including many within the IMF, who have been arguing that the Fund needs to match its lending to changing global circumstances. The new facility goes some way towards adressing an obvious shortcoming in the IMF’s arsenal of lending instruments. Until now, the Fund had nothing it could deploy aimed at countries facing a temporary shortage of liquidity in spite of sound macroeconomic fundamentals. Yet this situation had become much more likely, even without a paralysing credit crisis, because of increasing global financial interdependence.

A country lacking short-term liquidity would be loth to approach the IMF for a loan under the “stand-by arrangement” (SBA), the mainstay of the IMF’s crisis lending. The SBA carries a stigma, because requesting such a loan is assumed to reflect badly on the recipient’s economic management. But the new loan facility will only be available those countries that the IMF deem to be in sound macroeconomic health. If anything, qualification should serve to reassure outsiders that the country’s policies are essentially sound, and that the difficulties it faces are temporary and a result of factors beyond its control. By this method, the IMF has also precluded the need for the type of onerous conditions which usually accompany loans under the SBA.

The second feature of the SBA that makes it less well suited to dealing with temporary liquidity crises is that funding is usually released in phased tranches. In a liquidity crisis brought on by a collapse in confidence a large loan, quickly administered, is the best method for restoring confidence in a short period of time—exactly how the new loans should work.

Most will cheer the IMF for introducing flexible loanmaking without onerous conditionality but concerns remain. Some economists fear that the funds available for the IMF to dole out, which in September stood at $255 billion, may not be enough if several emerging markets come under stress at the same time. Deutsche Bank estimates that a single large emerging market may face a financing gap of up to $90 billion, depending on roll-over rates for credit lines, liquidation of foreign positions in bond and equity markets, and domestic capital flight.

Under these circumstances, the IMF’s pockets, which seemed enviously deep just a short while ago, might not be deep enough. Simon Johnson, a former IMF chief economist, reckons that it may need upto $1 trillion. The IMF acknowledges the problem and says it is prepared to “work with others to generate additional resources to make sure that countries have the money they need to restore confidence and maintain stability”.

Just as important, it remains to be seen how difficult it will be to qualify for a loan under the SLF. It is unclear how strictly the IMF will set the criteria for certifying that a country’s economic management is sound. As a result there may be a number of vulnerable countries that do not qualify for the scheme. As with any programme of this kind, the devil is in the details. The question, then is whether the IMF’s new facility is as good in practice as it seems to be in theory.

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