The policy conditions attached to the disbursement of an IMF loan have long been the subject of controversy. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the IMF introduced a new lending program—the Flexible Credit Line—that allowed its members to apply for a loan before a crisis took place. If approved, the member can elect to draw upon the arrangement in the event of a crisis without conditionality, and there is no cap to the amount of credit. However, only three countries—Colombia, Mexico and Poland—have signed up for the FCL, and the lack of response to an IMF program without conditions has been a bit of a mystery. A new paper, “The IMF and Precautionary Lending: An Empirical Evaluation of the Selectivity and Effectiveness of the Flexible Credit Line“ by Dennis Essers and Stefaan Ide of the National Bank of Belgium, provides evidence that helps to explain the muted response.
Essers and Ide deal with two aspects of the FCL: first, the factors that explain the decision to participate in the program, and second, the effectiveness of the program in boosting market confidence in its users. This paper is very well-done, both from the perspective of dealing with an important issue as well using appropriate econometric tools for the analysis, and it received a prize for best paper at the INFINITI conference in Valencia. The authors point out that the views expressed in the paper are theirs, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bank of Belgium or any other institution to which they are affiliated.
The results in the first half of the paper can explain why so few countries have adopted the FCL. On the “demand side,” Colombia, Mexico, and Poland applied for the FCL because they were vulnerable to currency volatility as manifested by exchange market pressure. On the “supply side,” the IMF was willing to accept them into the program because 1—the economies were not showing signs of financial or economic instability, as manifested by lower bond interest rate spreads and inflation rates, and 2—they met the “political” criteria of high shares in U.S. exports and acceptable United Nations voting patterns.
If this line of reasoning is correct, then the adoption of the FCL will always be limited. The authors point out that the “…the influence of the first two variables (EMBI spread, inflation) is in line with supply-side arguments…” The qualifying criteria on the IMF web page that explains the program include:
- “A track record of steady sovereign access to international capital markets at favorable terms”
- “Low and stable inflation, in the context of a sound monetary and exchange rate policy framework”
However, lower bond spreads and inflation (and macroeconomic stability) can also be viewed as factors that lower the demand for IMF programs, as would most of the other criteria, i.e., a “sustainable external position,” “a capital position dominated by private flows,” “a reserve position which…remains relatively comfortable,” “a sustainable public debt position,” and “the absence of solvency problems.” My first paper on the economic characteristics of IMF program countriesfound that countries that entered IMF programs in the early 1980s had higher rates of domestic credit growth, larger shares of government expenditure, more severe current account deficits, and smaller reserve holdings. Therefore, the applicants for the FCL have been countries that do not have the features of those that apply for the standard IMF program, the Stand-By Arrangement, and yet decided to apply for the FCL because of some form of exchange market pressure.
Such a confluence of factors may be relatively rare. If the country is experiencing exchange market pressure, ordinarily we would expect to see increased bond spreads. Moreover, exchange market pressure could be a reaction to domestic macroeconomic instability, which could be linked to rising inflation rates. The three countries were experiencing some combination of exchange rate depreciation and/or a drain on their international reserves, but their bond rate spreads were not rising and domestic inflation was not a concern. In addition, the governments also met the IMF’s (hidden) political criteria.
If such a combination is unusual, then to enhance participation in the FCL, the IMF would have to be willing to relax its official criteria for selection. It would also need to deal with countries that have not always accommodated U.S. foreign policy. This may require some “bargaining” among the major shareholder countries at a time when international agreements and organizations are being looked on with suspicion. The time to promote the program, however, is now, while international financial markets are relatively calm. Unfortunately, there is always a tendency to project current conditions into the future, and to delay adopting precautionary measures. When circumstances force governments to turn to the Fund, they will not qualify for the no-conditions FCL, but for programs with much more stringent criteria.