Reading: The International Monetary Fund (IMF)

Commemorative postage stamp showing the logo of the International Monetary Fund

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an international organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., comprised of 189 member countries. The IMF works to foster global growth and economic stability by providing policy, advice, and financing to its members. It also works with developing nations to help them reduce poverty and achieve macroeconomic stability. Formed in 1944 at the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire, it came into formal existence in 1945 with twenty-nine member countries and the goal of reconstructing the international payment system. It now plays a central role in the management of balance-of-payments difficulties and international financial crises.

IMF member countries contribute funds to a pool, from which they can borrow if they are experiencing balance-of-payments problems. The rationale for this arrangement is that private international capital markets function imperfectly, and many countries have limited access to financial markets. Without access to IMF financing, many countries can only correct large external payment imbalances through drastic measures that can have adverse effects on their own economies and the world’s. The IMF provides alternate sources of financing to countries in need that would not otherwise be available to them.

When the IMF was founded, its primary functions were to provide short-term capital to aid the balance of payments and to oversee fixed-exchange-rate arrangements between countries, thus helping national governments manage their exchange rates and prioritize economic growth. This assistance was meant to prevent the spread of international economic crises. The IMF was also formed to help put the pieces of the international economy back together after the Great Depression and World War II. In addition, it also sought to provide capital investments for economic growth and infrastructure projects.

The IMF’s role was fundamentally altered by floating exchange rates post-1971. At that point the organization began examining the economic policies of its loan recipients to determine whether a shortage of capital was due to economic fluctuations or economic policy. The IMF also researched what types of government policy would ensure economic recovery. The current challenge is to help countries implement economic policies that reduce the frequency of crises among the emerging-market countries, especially the middle-income countries that are vulnerable to massive capital outflows. In order to meet this challenge, the IMF’s activities have expanded beyond the oversight of exchange rates to surveillance of the overall macroeconomic performance of its member countries. Today it plays an active role in shaping and managing economic policy around the world.

The following video gives a good overview of the IMF and its role in promoting global trade.