Evolution Not Revolution: Rethinking Policy at the IMF

  • Important for IMF to continually re-evaluate its thinking
  • Fiscal policy should support long-term growth and equity; policy advice varies by country and situation
  • Capital flows, trade on future research agenda
  • IMF Survey : The Fund has made clear in recent years its willingness to examine its macroeconomic thinking and policy approaches. Some have called this revolutionary—is this the case?

    Obstfeld: I would describe the process as evolution, not revolution. The Fund has long tried to build on its experiences in the field and on new research to improve its effectiveness in economic surveillance, technical assistance, and crisis response.

    It’s fair to say that the shock of the global financial crisis led to a broad rethink of macroeconomic and financial policy in the global academic and policy community. The Fund has been part of that, but, given the impacts of our decisions on member countries and the global economic system, we view it as especially important for us constantly to re-evaluate our thinking in light of new evidence.

    That process has not fundamentally changed the core of our approach, which is based on open and competitive markets, robust macro policy frameworks, financial stability, and strong institutions. But it has added important insights about how best to achieve those results in a sustainable way.

    IMF Survey : Do you agree with some who have argued that a recent article in F&D (“Neoliberalism: Oversold?”) signifies a major change in Fund thinking? For example, is the IMF now saying that austerity does not work and, indeed, that it exacerbates inequality?

    Obstfeld: That article has been widely misinterpreted—it does not signify a major change in the Fund's approach.

    I think it is misleading to frame the question as the Fund being for or against austerity. Nobody wants needless austerity. We are in favor of fiscal policies that support growth and equity over the long term. What those policies will be can differ from country to country and from situation to situation.

    Governments simply have to live within their means on a long-term basis, or face some form of debt default, which normally is quite costly for citizens, and especially the poorest. This is a fact, not an ideological position.

    Our job is to advise how governments can best manage their fiscal policies so as to avoid bad outcomes. Sometimes, this requires us to recognize situations in which excessive budget cutting can be counterproductive to growth...

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