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Top vacancy looms in IMF

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

The International Monetary Fund will be looking for a new managing director sooner than anyone imagined, and in the most bizarrely depressing circumstances.

It is imperative that the shareholders of the IMF — its 187 member governments—act as responsibly as any good company to ensure that whoever succeeds Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the best person for the job chosen for her or his economic, financial and political credentials through a transparent, fair and competitive process in which candidates get a chance to speak and to be questioned.

Imperative though it may be, there seems to be a fat chance that shareholder governments will follow these simple rules of good corporate governance. Already a European bandwagon has begun to roll, claiming that only a European can understand the issues and that another French candidate, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, should take over.

How are the mighty fallen. At noon on Saturday, Strauss-Kahn was among the top 10 most powerful people in the world. He was head of the IMF as it embarked on key discussions to sort out European debt problems and keep the global economy on its growth track, and soaring in opinion polls to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy and succeed him as president of France next year. A few hours later he was in a prison cell and facing the rest of his life behind bars for alleged sex acts lasting about 10 minutes.

Haggard, disheveled, unshaven, tie-less, sullen and silent, wearing a nondescript raincoat (to hide the handcuffs) Strauss-Kahn in court looked more like convicted hobo than the sharp-suited, sharp-minded professor, politician, financial mastermind and kingpin of the global power elite.

Strauss-Kahn faces charges of attempted rape, sex abuse, criminal sex act, unlawful imprisonment and forcible touching, together adding up to 74 years in prison, including five to 25 years on the most serious. There was nevertheless something disturbing about the scene because Strauss-Kahn has not been convicted nor been able to make any case other than to plead not guilty, and yet the New York Police Department has been conducting trial by media.

Even before Strauss-Kahn was formally charged, Paul J. Browne, deputy commissioner of the NYPD, was playing the lead role in a television drama, giving specific and graphic accounts of what allegedly happened in room 2806 of the New York Sofitel at about 1 p.m. on Saturday. The policeman claimed that a maid, aged 32, sent to clean the supposedly empty room, encountered Strauss-Kahn who, said Browne, “came out of the bathroom, fully naked, and attempted to sexually assault her.” When the police arrived, Strauss-Kahn was not there. “It looked like he got out of there in a hurry,” added Browne.

In some countries that take seriously the essential of justice that a person is innocent until found guilty, Strauss-Kahn would be heading toward an acquittal simply because providing such information in blazing headlines all over the world makes it almost impossible for him to get a fair trial.

Friends and allies have admitted that Strauss-Kahn had a reputation as “the great seducer,” but say that his driving force was charm, the antithesis of force. But even if he is cleared and proved as white as the driven snow in this case, it will be hard for Strauss-Kahn to brush off the mud to be able to stay at the IMF, where he has a year left in his term, or to challenge Sarkozy.

An IMF spokesman said that the Fund was “fully functional and operational,” and Europeans tried to make light of Strauss-Kahn’s absence at critical meetings on the debt crisis. But there are always last-minute details in completing any deal, and the managing director’s wily political skills and his knowledge of Europe and the IMF, economics and legal matters will sorely be missed.

Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, said that Strauss-Kahn is “possibly the only policymaker who isn’t German whom the Germans take seriously”—important when an increasingly self-centered economically successful Germany is reluctant to support what it sees as other countries’ profligacy.

Give Strauss-Kahn credit. He quickly recognized the fund’s failings in the financial crisis and that ideological commitment to free markets and financial liberalization had been part of the problem. He promoted a reshuffling of the share-holdings to give China and emerging countries a bigger say.

With the help of Gordon Brown, Strauss-Kahn replenished IMF coffers and put the institution again at the center of global financial decision-making. Even so, the reform glass is best described as 60 percent empty rather than half-full.

The risk is that the IMF will be sorely wounded by Strauss-Kahn’s departure and then by infighting to succeed him. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso have already made their pitch that it is essential to have a European IMF chief. But Brazil, India and other developing countries want their man in the job. China wants a bigger say. This is a recipe for disaster—the IMF chief should represent the world, not any single country or region. Financial problems are global and demand global solutions.

The best-qualified conventional candidate might be Brown, longtime finance minister and prime minister of Britain, who chaired the key IMF committee for many years. But in spite of his passion for economic development, Brown is not easy to get on with. He would need the backing of an obviously reluctant David Cameron, his successor as prime minister.

If Cameron were prepared to sacrifice Brown and any other British candidate, he might have the leverage to demand a truly open competitive field and suggest to China, the United States, Japan and Germany that it should be no one’s “turn” but that a good candidate from outside Europe or the U.S. would be better for everyone than the sort of compromise that saw the still unknown Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton take top jobs in the European Union.

There are tens of good candidates from Africa, Asia and Latin America, who would be worth testing through a thorough, preferably public, interview. Two obvious favorites, Egyptian Mohamed El-Erian of the global investment management firm Pimco and Indian Montek Singh Ahluwalia, are over the normal 65 years age limit. Latin America can offer Eduardo Aninat or Arminio Fraga. Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister, and Ngozi Okonji-Iweala, former finance minister of Nigeria now Robert Zoellick’s deputy at the World Bank, have deceptively mild exteriors masking tough minds.

Asia has two finance ministers with deep understanding of financial markets: Tharman Shanmugaratnam gained his through being managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and British-born and Winchester and Oxford-educated Korn Chatikavanij of Thailand was previously head of J.P. Morgan in that country.

Whoever makes the short list should be asked, “What is your worldview?” and “What do you do if your country’s interests conflicts with those of the world and IMF?”

Kevin Rafferty was managing editor at the IMF’s sister organization, the World Bank.