The International Monetary Fund’s top staff misled their own board, made a series of calamitous misjudgments in Greece, became euphoric cheerleaders for the euro project, ignored warning signs of impending crisis, and collectively failed to grasp an elemental concept of currency theory.
This is the lacerating verdict of the IMF’s top watchdog on the Fund’s tangled political role in the eurozone debt crisis, the most damaging episode in the history of the Bretton Woods institutions.
It describes a “culture of complacency”, prone to “superficial and mechanistic” analysis, and traces a shocking break-down in the governance of the IMF, leaving it unclear who is ultimately in charge of this extremely powerful organisation.
The IMF’s chief Christine Lagarde is presiding over an organisation that is almost out of control
The report by the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) goes above the head of the managing director, Christine Lagarde. It answers solely to the board of executive directors, and those from Asia and Latin America are clearly incensed at the way EU insiders used the Fund to rescue their own rich currency union and banking system.
The three main bail-outs for Greece, Portugal, and Ireland were unprecedented in scale and character. The trio were each allowed to borrow over 2,000 percent of their allocated quota – more than three times the normal limit – and accounted for 80pc of all lending by the Fund between 2011 and 2014.
Greece, Ireland, and Portugal accounted for 80pc of IMF lending for three years CREDIT: IMF
In an astonishing admission, the report said its own investigators were unable to obtain key records or penetrate the activities of secretive “ad-hoc task forces”. Mrs Lagarde herself is not accused of obstruction.
“Many documents were prepared outside the regular established channels; written documentation on some sensitive matters could not be located. The IEO in some instances has not been able to determine who made certain decisions or what information was available, nor has it been able to assess the relative roles of management and staff,” it said.
The report said the whole approach to the eurozone was characterised by “groupthink” and intellectual capture. They had no fall-back plans on how to tackle a systemic crisis in the eurozone – or how to deal with the politics of a multinational currency union – because they had ruled out any possibility that it could happen.
“Before the launch of the euro, the IMF’s public statements tended to emphasize the advantages of the common currency, “ it said. Some staff members warned that the design of the euro was fundamentally flawed but they were overruled.
“After a heated internal debate, the view supportive of what was perceived to be Europe’s political project ultimately prevailed,” it said.
This pro-EMU bias continued to corrupt their thinking for years. “The IMF remained upbeat about the soundness of the European banking system and the quality of banking supervision in euro area countries until after the start of the global financial crisis in mid-2007. This lapse was largely due to the IMF’s readiness to take the reassurances of national and euro area authorities at face value,” it said.
The IMF persistently played down the risks posed by ballooning current account deficits and the flood of capital pouring into the eurozone periphery, and neglected the danger of a “sudden stop” in capital flows.
“The possibility of a balance of payments crisis in a monetary union was thought to be all but non-existent,” it said. As late as mid-2007, the IMF still thought that “in view of Greece’s EMU membership, the availability of external financing is not a concern”.
At root was a failure to grasp the elemental point that currency unions with no treasury or political union to back them up are inherently vulnerable to debt crises. States facing a shock no longer have sovereign tools to defend themselves. Devaluation risk is switched into bankruptcy risk.
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