The IMF’s Financial Catch 22: Global Banker or Lender of Last Resort?

August 2020

Stephen B. Kaplan (George Washington University), Sujeong Shim (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

IIEP working paper 2020-18

Abstract: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has dual institutional roles: a steward of international financial stability and a global banker safeguarding the resources of its sovereign shareholders. But, how does the IMF behave when its balance sheet becomes exposed to higher-than-usual credit risk, creating a financial catch-22? We expect the IMF varies its lending behavior, based on the nature of sovereign credit crises. When there is high contagion risk, the IMF aims to preserve global financial stability as a lender of last resort by extending large loans, notwithstanding its balance sheet strains. The IMF employs policy conditionality to hedge its lending risk, but prioritizes alleviating global market turmoil over program compliance. When market contagion is contained, however, the IMF is more likely to act as a traditional banker, suspending programs for non- compliance. Ironically, given its tendency to forgive non-compliance as a lender of last resort, our theoretical framework suggests that the Fund intensifies its moral hazard problem.

We test our theoretical priors by conducting a comparative case study analysis of IMF decision-making over time for two of its largest borrowers: Argentina and Greece. Leveraging volumes of hundred-paged minutes from IMF executive board
meeting archives and extensive field research interviews, we illustrate the lending stances of IMF directors evolve in response to changes in global contagion risk. By examining the IMF’s own institutional agency under high financial risk, this study offers new insights for the study of international political economy and international organizations.

JEL Codes

Key Words: IMF; lender of last resort; financial crises, institutional financial risk; contagion risk; Argentina; Greece

GW is committed to digital accessibility. If you experience a barrier that affects your ability to access content on this page, let us know via the Accessibility Feedback Form.