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Tuesday, March 21, 2023
NEW YORK, Oct 26 2022 (IPS) - Held in-person for the first time in three years, the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank last week in Washington, D.C. failed to offer solutions to the dozens of developing countries in debt distress or on the forewarned global recession instigated by monetary tightening.
Meanwhile, austerity measures are reinforced through a repeated emphasis on fiscal tightening, underpinned by a monetarism upheld by the IMF and rich country central banks.
The scenario of a dual tightening in both monetary and fiscal policy is only exacerbated by the absence of political will among creditors to cooperate in debt restructuring, bolstered by narratives of losing market access to financial flows.
New loan programs are created by the IMF to boost concessional financing for food price shocks, climate transitions and liquidity shortfalls. However, these very loans create new debt and reinscribe the very austerity measures that worsen the challenges of inflation and climate.
Within these asymmetries of power and access in the world economy, and the foreclosing of developmental policy tools for developing countries, what then is the fate of the vast majority of people and nations in the world?
The IMF’s World Economic Outlook warned of an imminent recession amidst a shift of financial regime from cheap and easy money to an aggressive synchronization of global monetary tightening.
“In short, the worst is yet to come, and for many people 2023 will feel like a recession,” said IMF Chief Economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas. Convening the world’s finance ministers, central bank governors, and financial market leaders, the IMF announced a slowdown in global growth by 2.7%, down from the 3.2% growth projected for this year.
On the heels of a global pandemic followed by the war in Ukraine, the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes, aimed toward domestic price stability, is creating a global push toward more expensive money.
A stronger dollar, higher international and domestic interest rates, coupled with depreciating currencies and sell-offs in many developing country assets, is generating protracted economic and social pain across the globe.
The spillover impacts are seen in soaring food and fuel prices, increases in dollar-denominated debt and imports costs, volatile commodity markets and debt distress intensifying into a 50-year record across the developing world.
The UN’s 2022 Trade and Development Report warns that the most vulnerable countries and communities are being hit the hardest. Warnings of another ‘lost decade’ abound, in that the current interest rate hikes resemble those of 1979-82, which triggered debt crises in over 40 developing countries where ‘structural adjustment programs’ through IMF loans contributed to a decade of lost growth and development across the Global South.
Inflation targeting consumes financial rule makers
The tightrope global central banks are walking is acknowledged by IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, who says, “Not tightening enough would cause inflation to become de-anchored and entrenched — which would require future interest rates to be much higher and more sustained, causing massive harm on growth and massive harm on people.
On the other hand, tightening monetary policy too much and too fast — and doing so in a synchronized manner across countries — could push many economies into prolonged recession.”
Meanwhile, the topline recommendation of the IMF’s Global Financial and Stability Report is that “central banks must act resolutely to bring inflation back to target.” Doing otherwise would risk credibility and market volatility, or in other words, create difficulties in market access to financial and investment flows and/or worsen borrowing terms.
One of the central tenets of neoclassical economic consensus among global central banks is that of maintaining price stability through a low inflation target of 2%. Financial rulemakers have for decades deemed inflation a threat to economic growth by way of the specter of hyperinflation. However, empirical evidence points to the contrary.
Collating data from 31 countries from 1961-94, World Bank chief economist Michael Bruno and William Easterly concluded that the inflation does not lead to lower growth, even when the significant oil price increase of 1974-75 is included.
The US Federal Reserve’s own historical archives demonstrate that the so-called ‘Great Inflation’ of 1965-82 did not harm growth either. In light of these studies by neoclassical economists and central bank institutions, economists Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram argue that “there is no empirical basis for setting a particular threshold, such as the now standard 2% inflation target – long acknowledged as ‘plucked from the air.’”
From press conferences to panel speeches, the IMF leadership repeats that the danger of “entrenched” inflation requires a global commitment to tackle it head on through global to domestic monetary tightening.
This stems in large part from a belief that once inflation begins, it has an inherent tendency to accelerate. Consequently, IMF loans and surveillance recommend central bank independence (from the executive) as a means to ensure unbiased financial policymaking, while critics contend that it has only enhanced the influence and power of big banks and financial actors, largely at the expense of the real economy.
However, history again demonstrates that inflation does not accelerate easily, even when workers have more bargaining power, or wages are indexed to consumer prices – as in some countries.
Lost decade redux?
The IMF’s Fiscal Monitor, published on October 12, called upon all policymakers to “maintain a tight fiscal stance, so that fiscal policy does not work at cross-purposes with monetary policy.” In essence, fiscal policy must serve monetary policy in its “fight against inflation,” by retrenching public spending for the singular objective of sending “a powerful signal that policymakers are aligned in the fight against inflation.”
The rationale is straightforward: “In a time of high inflation, policies to address high food and energy prices should not add to aggregate demand.” Increased demand is anathema, as it “forces central banks to raise interest rates even higher.”
The fiscal tightening is not new. In 2021, 131 governments started scaling back public spending. The geographic and population scale of austerity cuts is expected to intensify up to 2025.
Governments are implementing, or discussing, a range of fiscal adjustment policies, such as targeting social protection, regressive taxation, reducing public expenditure in social sectors, eliminating subsidies, privatizing public services or State-Owned Enterprises, pension reforms, labor flexibilization.
All have long histories of negative social impacts on economic and social rights, such as the right to food, water, health, housing, education, and livelihoods. The human impact will reach over 6 billion people, or 85% of humanity, in 2023.
In a time of poly-crisis, retrenching public spending and imposing regressive taxes that disproportionately hurt the poor, especially women, not only extinguishes the hope of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, but more fundamentally, regresses decades of fighting poverty.
Meanwhile, the IMF’s Board has approved the creation of two new loan facilities, the new Food Shock Window, available for a year to countries reeling from the global food price crisis, and the Resilience and Sustainability Trust (RST), through which many rich countries may re-channel their unused Special Drawing Rights if the funds are used to address “external shocks, including climate change and pandemics” by rules set out by the Fund.
While both loans address urgent threats, they also create new debt. The RST is also conditional upon an IMF loan program hinged on fiscal consolidation.
The severity of the food crisis warrants aid in the form of grants not loans. Based on prior research done by the World Bank and Center for Global Development on food price spikes, Oxfam estimates that another 65 million people could be pushed below the $1.90 extreme poverty line as a consequence of food price increases.
Debt crises nearing point of no return
Despite the imminent threat of a debt crises imploding across many developing countries, sovereign debt solutions, the Group of 20, IMF, World Bank as well as the Institute of International Finance, the consortium of private financial actors, have to date failed to create viable solutions.
The G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative, which suspended debt payments for 73 low-income countries, was terminated at the end of 2021. And two years after the Common Framework was established in 2020, it’s multiple flaws have led even the World Bank to call it a ‘slow-motion debt tragedy.’
One key dilemma is the lack of political will to enforce a comparability of treatment, where all creditors, including private, participate on equivalent terms or restructuring and in the principle of burden sharing. Another challenge is the glacial pace of restructuring is not only protracted but also riddled with uncertainty.
Middle-income countries, where the vast majority of the world’s poor reside and where serious debt defaults are taking place, are not included. Low-income countries fear that access to commercial financing will be cut off if they apply to the Common Framework, as evidenced by Fitch and S&P slashed Ethiopia’s sovereign rating when the nation applied to the Common Framework in 2021.
Out of the three countries that have so far asked for their debt to be treated – Chad, Ethiopia and Zambia – only Zambia has seen some forward movement.
The narratives coming from within the IMF reiterate a subservience to market access and creditor interests. Across panels and webinars, senior level IMF staff remarked that a large debt restructuring is a serious event, which may result in a decrease of future multilateral and private financing, in amounts that outweigh the financing gained in relief or restructuring.
Some warned that private creditors will not participate in debt restructuring where national fiscal instability reigns. To secure market access, countries have to tighten fiscal belts even more. The logic here is that financial stability imperative for accessing private credit requires fiscal consolidation that generates social devastation.
The lack of official creditor participation and the dilemma of transparency, referring in large part to China, was repeatedly stressed as a key problem. At the same time, an old and wholly condescending trope of the need to increase debtor discipline in light of its financial mismanagement and irresponsibility repeatedly emerged.
Meanwhile, there is no mention of the often-legalized corruption of private actors, such as tax evasion and avoidance, speculative and/or rigged trading. Amidst the talk, actual debt solutions are in omission. While political will is already in short supply, the lack of cooperation toward problem-solving is exacerbated by the finger-pointing between the creditor groups of bilateral, private, and multilateral.
History has repeatedly illustrated the way forward on debt, and the waves of austerity that it generates. For decades, advocates and policymakers alike have called for a transparent and binding debt workout mechanism within a multilateral framework for debt crisis resolution, in a process convening all creditors.
The UN General Assembly has adopted multiple resolutions calling for such a mechanism over the years. Debt justice movements from across the developing world have urged for the cancellation of all unsustainable and illegitimate debts in a manner that is ambitious, unconditional, and without repercussions for future market access.
Past cases show how reducing debt stock and payments allow for countries to increase their public financing for urgent domestic needs.
The principle of burden-sharing ensures genuine debt relief, as does the commitment to include all creditors in an automatic or orderly way. Recognizing that multilateral institutions account for around one-third of the outstanding debt of low- and lower-middle-income countries, the World Bank and IMF must participate in such efforts.
They should both cancel debt payments owed, and the IMF should eliminate surcharges. Protection needs to be provided to debtor states against holdouts and lawsuits by non-participating creditors, while laws and procedures for responsible borrowing and lending need to be ensured to protect citizens and communities against corrupt, predatory and odious debts.
Last but not least, an automatic mechanism for a debt standstill in the wake of an extreme exogenous shock should be created. As proposed by the G77 group of developing countries in the UN General Assembly in response to the global financial crisis of 2007-8, such a mechanism must “be established for a determined period in response to external catastrophe events, as climate and natural disasters, health pandemic, military conflict and inflation.” The prescience of the G77 group in 2009 offers a salient message.
While the developing world has little recourse but to ‘dance to the tune of the Federal Reserve,’ the devastating toll of the human, social and economic crisis must be addressed through tools and choices that can be generated.
The question is how to muster political will, be it from the moral pressure of global justice movement to analysis of the effects that soaring poverty and intensifying climate change will have on the very survival of our planet and species.
Bhumika Muchhala is development economist and senior advocate on economic governance at Third World Network. She works on research, analysis, advocacy and public education on the international political economy of development, feminist economics and decolonial theory and approaches.
IPS UN Bureau
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