By Harold James/Princeton
Balzac’s great novel Lost Illusions ends with an exposition of the difference between “official history”, which is “all lies”, and “secret history” – that is, the real story. It used to be possible to obscure history’s scandalous truths for a long time – even forever. Not anymore.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in accounts of the global financial crisis. The official history portrayed the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and other major central banks as embracing co-ordinated action to rescue the global financial system from disaster. But recently published transcripts of 2008 meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s main decision-making body, reveal that the Fed has effectively emerged from the crisis as the world’s central bank, while continuing to serve primarily American interests.
The most significant meetings took place on September 16 and October 28 – in the aftermath of the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers – and focused on the creation of bilateral currency-swap agreements aimed at ensuring adequate liquidity.
The Fed would extend dollar credits to a foreign bank in exchange for its currency, which the foreign bank agreed to buy back after a specified period at the same exchange rate, plus interest. This gave central banks – especially those in Europe, which faced a dollar shortage as US investors fled – the dollars they needed to lend to struggling domestic financial institutions.
Indeed, the ECB was among the first banks to reach an agreement with the Fed, followed by other major advanced-country central banks, including the Swiss National Bank, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of Canada. At the October meeting, four “diplomatically and economically” important emerging economies – Mexico, Brazil, Singapore and South Korea – got in on the action, with the Fed agreeing to establish $30bn swap lines with each of their central banks.
Though the Fed acted as a kind of global central bank, its decisions were shaped, first and foremost, by US interests. For starters, the Fed rejected applications from some countries – whose names are redacted in the published transcript – to join the currency-swap scheme.
More important, limits were placed on the swaps. The essence of a central bank’s lender-of-last-resort function has traditionally been the provision of unlimited funds. Because there is no limit on the amount of dollars that the Fed can create, no market participant can take a speculative position against it. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has finite resources provided by member countries.
The Fed’s growing international role since 2008 reflects a fundamental shift in global monetary governance. The IMF emerged at a time when countries were routinely victimised by New York bankers’ casual assumptions, such as J P Morgan’s assessment in the 1920’s that Germans were “fundamentally a second-rate people”.
The IMF was a critical feature of the post-WWII international order, intended to serve as a universal insurance mechanism – not one that could be harnessed to advance contemporary diplomatic interests.
Today, as the Fed documents clearly demonstrate, the IMF has become marginalised – not least because of its ineffective policy process. Indeed, at the outset of the crisis, the IMF, assuming that demand for its resources would remain low permanently, had already begun to downsize.
In 2010, the IMF made a play for resurrection, presenting itself as central to solving the euro crisis – beginning with its role in financing the Greek bailout. But here, too, a secret history has been revealed – one that highlights just how skewed global monetary governance has become.
The fact is that only the US and the massively over-represented countries of the European Union supported the Greek bailout. Indeed, the major emerging economies all strongly opposed it, with the Brazilian representative calling it “a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions.” Even the Swiss representative condemned the measure.
As fears of a sudden collapse of the eurozone have given way to a prolonged debate about how the costs will be met through bail-ins and write-offs, the IMF’s position will become increasingly convoluted.
Though the IMF is supposed to have seniority over other creditors, there will be demands to write down a share of the loans that it has issued. Poorer emerging-market countries would resist such a move, arguing that their citizens should not have to foot the bill for fiscal profligacy in much wealthier countries.
Even the original advocates of IMF involvement are turning against the Fund. EU officials are outraged by the IMF’s apparent effort to gain support in Europe’s debtor countries by urging write-offs of all debt that it did not issue. And the US Congress has refused to endorse the expansion of IMF resources – part of an international agreement brokered at the 2010 G-20 summit.
While the outrage that followed the appointment of another European as IMF managing director in 2011 is likely to ensure that the Fund’s next head will not hail from Europe, the IMF’s fast-diminishing role means that it will not matter much. As 2008’s secret history shows, what matters is who has access to the Fed. - Project Syndicate
- Harold James is professor of history at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.