Franklin Serrano, an economist at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, recently lamented the large proportion of graduate students in economics who leave for the United States. "But there is something worse than them leaving. It's when they come back."
"Brain damage," he says, "is worse than brain drain."
Argentina is the latest Latin American economy to be mismanaged into a crisis by US-trained economists. Unemployment is above 17 percent, the economy is in its fourth year of recession and the country is now in the process of defaulting on its unpayable foreign debt. It's not easy being the poster child of neoliberalism.
Argentina's currency has been pegged to the US dollar since 1991. This worked for a while, but in the past few years the peso has become highly overvalued. Rather than devalue the currency, the country piled up mountains of debt to prop it up and watched its interest rates soar as investors demanded ever higher risk premiums. For comparison, imagine the United States borrowing $1.4 trillion (70 percent of our federal budget) in order to keep our own overvalued currency from falling.
This is not the first time in recent years that the IMF has burdened a country with billions of dollars of debt in order to prop up an overvalued currency. In 1998 it did the same thing in Brazil and Russia, with predictable results. In both cases the currency collapsed rather quickly in spite of the loans. And in both cases the economy responded positively to the devaluation, with Russia in 2000 registering its highest growth in two decades. The fund's argument in the case of Brazil and Russia was that if the currency was devalued, the result would be runaway inflation. But that never happened.
The IMF has also insisted on budget austerity for Argentina–which makes about as much sense during a recession as high interest rates. First in line for cuts have been state pensions, salaries, unemployment benefits and other social spending, insuring that the burden of "adjustment" will continue to fall, as it usually does, on those who can least afford it. And even the debt "restructuring"–i.e., default–now under way may not lead to economic recovery: If the currency remains fixed at a rate that investors still see as overvalued, the crisis will continue until it collapses.
Why does the IMF seem incapable of learning from repeated failures? The interest of foreign bondholders cannot be overlooked: The longer the fixed exchange rate holds, the smaller will be the losses of US lenders–even if the peso eventually collapses. But there has been a broader political concern as well: Argentina has done everything that Washington has told it to do, and the economy is a wreck. As a result the Bush Administration, despite its distaste for IMF "bailouts," was reluctant to be seen as abandoning the Argentine government. It kept pouring money in until it became clear that Argentina's debt could never be repaid.
The sacrifice of Argentina's economy for the sake of Washington's imperial interests and the interests of "emerging market" bondholders fits a pattern at the IMF, including some of the most high-profile interventions of recent years. In Russia and the transition economies, the first priority has been to execute a rapid, irreversible change to a market-driven society, regardless of the economic consequences. Russia lost half its national income in about five years of IMF-led transition, an economic decline never before seen in the absence of war or natural disaster. In Asia, the fund's desire to open these economies to US capital flows–in countries that because of their high savings rates had little need for foreign borrowing–caused a severe financial crisis in 1997-98. The fund then exploited the crisis to further open these economies, worsened it with exorbitantly high interest rates and fiscal austerity and convinced the governments of the region to guarantee the debt owed to foreign lenders.
The IMF is able to decide these major economic policies for dozens of countries because it sits atop a creditors' cartel, much like the OPEC oil cartel. Those who refuse to take the fund's "advice" find themselves ineligible for credit from the World Bank and other multilateral lenders–like the Inter-American Development Bank or G-7 governments–or even for private credit.
The fund's aid packages are generally reported approvingly in the press as "bailouts." But it is the bankers and bondholders, particularly foreign, who are being bailed out; the people, especially the poor, are tossed overboard. Over the longer term, the neoliberal program of the IMF and the World Bank–and their ability to enforce it–has contributed to a substantial decline in economic growth over the past twenty years throughout the vast majority of low- and middle-income countries. In Latin America, per capita GDP has grown a mere 6 percent over the past two decades, as compared with 75 percent in 1960-80.
As Latin America's economies grind to a halt, dragged down by the recession in the United States, the dismal reality of this long, failed economic experiment is sinking in. The reign of US-trained economists and their sponsors in Washington may be coming to an end.