Economics and politics - comment and analysis

The coming dollar weakness – or how to lie to yourself

What a lot is once again being written about the coming demise of the US dollar. The German Handelsblatt, for example, publishes an immense smorgasbord of arguments under the title “World currency on call: Why the US dollar is more endangered than ever before”. Every few years, the topic comes up big and then – nothing happens.

But this time, everyone says, the developing countries must be serious about trying to break away from the dollar. But that’s where the problem begins. Anyone who describes what is actually at stake as “breaking away from the dollar” is already on the wrong track. It is not the dollar as such that is the problem, but a dysfunctional world monetary system is created around the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is  dominated by speculation and whose only fire brigade is the IMF led by the US government.

There have been many top-level meetings of the so-called BRICS states (i.e. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which announced that they would fond solutions for far-reaching changes on internal cooperation and their external relations, but the results are very thin.

Several times they have decided to establish a new development bank (a bank that finances infrastructure projects in developing countries). But there are already many national and international development banks. Financing big prestige projects (if you can agree on that!) is not really a development bottleneck. Again and again, the idea comes up to create a pool of own reserves in order not to be dependent on the IMF, which is dominated by the USA and Europe, in case of new international tensions.

The latter is correct. It must be about creating a real counterpart to the IMF. But so far, no one has been able to seriously bring themselves to do this. In Asia, since the Asian crisis (within the framework of the so-called Chiang Mai Initiative), people have been tinkering around with an independent Asian monetary fund without having really made any progress. In Latin America, one can no longer count the initiatives in the framework of which monetary cooperation has been “decided” by the political leadership in recent years. But paper is patient and almost nothing has happened (an UNCTAD study on this, for which I was responsible, can be found here). Russia, too, has not made much progress with its attempts to organise stronger cooperation in the Central Asian states. There is no need to talk about Africa in this context; there are some small regional cooperations and currency alliances, but no really big approach to monetary cooperation.

What is not understood in these countries (and when I say understood, I am talking from experience) is the fact that the intellectual dominance of the IMF and its biggest donors is a thousand times more important than the importance of the dollar for international trade or the concrete weighting of votes of all member countries in the IMF (where there has been microscopic progress). The global regime of flexible exchange rates and the way in which the IMF appears in countries in need of help to force them into this system again and again is the crux of the matter. So the point is that the IMF staff members in the countries that ask for help suspend democracy for years and dictate to the politicians what to do and what not to do in order to eventually prepare the field for the international capital markets again.

The IMF’s actions have rightly been perceived as late colonialist behaviour and are politically driving the attempts to become more independent from the North and West, but the intellectual alternative is missing. This also has only partly to do with discrimination against developing countries. Since the euro crisis, we know that it is not only about the abuse of power. The Troika (the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission) also summarily suspended democracy in the member states of the European Union. Industrialised countries themselves have had to submit to the dictates of other industrialised countries and the auxiliary forces they have set up in international organisations. That this has failed miserably is clear. But it failed miserably not because it was undemocratic, but because the scientific basis of the aid actions was untenable from the start.

A developing country initiative that wants to lift this intellectual diktat should talk less about billions and more about new theoretical approaches to be applied. One would have to insist that neoliberal concepts are wrong because they use primitive means to try to force countries that are down on their luck onto the “right” course, even though they only need help in dealing with currency speculation. It should be said that the world needs a new monetary system, one in which all countries, deficit and surplus alike, have a duty to correct existing imbalances in international trade and prevent future ones. It should have been argued at all levels that international trade cannot function unless serious undervaluations and overvaluations of currencies are prevented from the outset and speculation with currencies is completely stopped.

But none of this is in the declarations of the developing countries. There, one finds almost everything from corruption to climate change that is somehow discussed internationally, but the decisive intellectual turn in international monetary cooperation is missing. There are adventurous speculations in many variations, especially on the political left, which all boil down to the assumption that the IMF is the spearhead of global capital or the American conspiracy trying to dominate the world.

But that is not what matters. Of course it is true that the IMF has done a lot of damage and will continue to do so. But it is damage that we in Europe should blame first and foremost on ourselves, on our own democratic institutions, and not on global capital or the US Treasury.

I have travelled many times over the last decades to the IMF’s annual meetings and attended the crucial sessions. I have also seen the IMF at work directly in developing and transition countries, discussing with staff on the ground and talking to the governments concerned. I have also spoken to the staff in Washington countless times at the highest level and at the working level, and I have usually been at loggerheads with them because I think they are applying completely wrong economic concepts.

But what they apply is the mainstream of economic thinking. Can you construct an accusation from that? All governments that are members have the possibility to express their position there, so including fundamental criticism of the IMF’s work. But that is precisely where the problem begins. The mundane problem is that hardly any finance minister in the world is in a position to objectively and convincingly criticise what the IMF does. He doesn’t know it and he wouldn’t dare say it if someone wrote it down for him, because he would know that he would never be able to answer critical questions. Consequently, the European side in particular resorts to speech bubbles, all of which amount to fully confirming the IMF in its work. Even in the G24 (the developing countries that are organised in the IMF), it has almost never been possible to bring a critical position to the political level.

In many meetings at the IMF, I have not even seen Germany, one of the most important member countries, make a serious substantive contribution, not to mention criticism of the IMF’s work. In order to push through other concepts, the Europeans would only have had to act together. If there had been some critical and knowledgeable politicians on the European side, American domination could well have been shaken in many cases.

The IMF is very much influenced in its daily work by the central banks of the member countries. Here, Germany in particular, with the German Bundesbank, has been the pioneer in neoclassical economics and monetarism for decades. Compared to this, the American Fed is a haven of progressive thinking. So if you are looking for opponents, you can find almost any number of them at home, you don’t have to wander far.

In its work in the crisis countries, the IMF stubbornly applies heil monetarism coupled with basic neoclassical ideas. If there are no economists in the affected countries who can assess and critically evaluate these prescriptions, he will get away with it. This was the case in most cases in Eastern Europe, but also in Asia and Latin America. The fact that these recipes are wrong and usually aggravate the crisis was only realised afterwards and the IMF was usually thrown out immediately when it was no longer needed.

In the wake of the crises, left-wing governments came to power in many countries that no longer wanted anything to do with Washington. This does not suggest that a US-led global conspiracy would have been successful with the help of the IMF.

So in the end it is quite simple. It is not anonymous distant institutions that cause us problems and rule the world, but it is our own inability to develop alternatives to the economic mainstream that stands in the way of improving the situation. Indeed, those who do not see the importance of the dominant economic theories behind politics can easily fall into the belief that it is one big conspiracy, in which the “little people” or the poor countries are always taken for a ride using the same methods. But as long as Germany is not able to develop an alternative to this policy and even stands in the way of a better policy more than anyone else, it is idle to philosophise about (and despair of) global collusion and the global power structures. Those who want to do something should get politically involved here and now and very concretely in Germany, so that other concepts are discussed and so that the political structures that stand in the way of such new concepts are softened.