Why Lagarde will be the next IMF managing director

By Felix Salmon
May 16, 2011

It now seems more likely that Dominique Strauss-Kahn will end up in a prison cell than that he will be elected president of France. Either way, his career at the IMF is over, which means that the race to succeed him is on.

Gordon Brown would love the job, but he’s not going to get it, which is great. The front-runner is Christine Lagarde, who would be better than Brown. But France has held the top job at the IMF for 26 of the past 33 years. It’s time for a change, on that front.

Historically, the IMF managing director has always come from Europe; if Lagarde doesn’t get the nod and the tradition is continued, then the obvious name is Italy’s Mario Draghi. But there are very good reasons why the head of the IMF, at least this time round, should not be a European — not least that Strauss-Kahn himself, along with various European finance ministers, said when he was nominated in 2007 that this was the last time Europe would get to railroad its own candidate into the job.

The competition was tougher in 2004, when two serious heavyweights were nominated to contest the election of a European — Stanley Fischer and Mohamed El-Erian. I suspect that El-Erian’s far too happy at Pimco (and in California) to throw his hat in the ring this time round, but he’s been so vocal on public-policy issues of late that it’s just conceivable he could allow his arm to be twisted. Fischer is still a contender, but he’s 67 years old now — as is Montek Singh Ahluwalia, another potential nominee. The age limit on IMF managing directors is 65 for a reason, and although it can be changed by a vote of the Fund’s member countries, that extra hurdle is likely to be enough to prevent either of those two men from getting the job. And Fischer has other counts against him — he was vice chairman of Citigroup during the bubble years of 2002-2005, for starters.

What’s more, there would be something a bit weird about the first African managing director of the IMF being a white Jew — culturally, Fischer is closer to Strauss-Kahn than he is to, say Trevor Manuel, whose elevation to IMF managing director would be a very visible and welcome change in the way the international financial architecture is run. Manuel is pretty light-skinned, but he grew up on the wrong side of the color line in apartheid South Africa, and has the years in South African detention during the 1980s to prove it. The men who have run the IMF to date are the heirs to Europe’s colonizers; Manuel very much counts as one of the colonized.

If the IMF is looking for an international technocrat, rather than a politician, then Mexico’s Agustín Carstens is likely to be in contention — but I very much doubt that he’ll get the job, if only because the head of the World Bank is (as ever) an American, and the rest of the world would not stand for both institutions being run by North Americans.

South Americans, by contrast, would be fine: one dark-horse candidate might be Brazil’s Arminio Fraga.

The top name on Alan Beattie’s list, however, and the most likely non-EU head of the IMF, is Turkey’s Kemal Derviş. Richard Adams says that he “ticks all the boxes”, but the IMF has more power than ever these days, and is going to be called on to make incredibly important decisions with respect to troubled European sovereigns over the course of the next managing director’s tenure. Whether Derviş is up to such a task is very much open to question:

Dervis carries limited political weight. He was his country’s economic affairs minister for just two years and his career has been spent mostly with the World Bank (20 years) and five years as head of the UN Development Program — not an organization that inspires achievement.

Add it all up, and my guess is that the French are going to do it again: Christine Lagarde will become the first female managing director of the IMF. She has the political skills and the economic credentials to get the job, and Europe will feel much more comfortable with a European in the role over the next few turbulent years. The US won’t object, and the Asians will go along with the choice since they don’t really have a candidate of their own. As ever, there will be some pro-forma gnashing of teeth about how a non-European should really get the job next time. But I’m not holding my breath.

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