Master or Servant? Common Agency and the Political Economy of IMF Lending


  • Author’s notes: Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Conference on the Political Economy of International Organizations (PEIO), February 2008, Monte Verità, Switzerland, and the International Political Economy Society (IPES) Conference, Stanford University, November 2007. I thank Menzie Chinn, Jon Pevehouse, Tonya Putnam, Nadav Shelef, David Singer, Randall Stone, Jim Vreeland, the anonymous reviewers, and seminar participants at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for comments. I also thank the Graduate School and the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for research support.


What explains the substantial variation in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) lending policies over time and across cases? Some scholars argue that the IMF is the servant of the United States and other powerful member-states, while others contend that the Fund’s professional staff acts independently in pursuit of its own bureaucratic interests. I argue that neither of these perspectives, on its own, fully and accurately explains IMF lending behavior. Rather, I propose a “common agency” theory of IMF policymaking, in which the Fund’s largest shareholders—the G5 countries that exercise de facto control over the Executive Board (EB)—act collectively as its political principal. Using this framework, I argue that preference heterogeneity among G5 governments is a key determinant of variation in IMF loan size and conditionality. Under certain conditions, preference heterogeneity leads to either conflict or “logrolling” within the EB among the Fund’s largest shareholders, while in others it creates scope for the IMF staff to exploit “agency slack” and increase its autonomy. Statistical analysis of an original data set of 197 nonconcessional IMF loans to 47 countries from 1984 to 2003 yields strong support for this framework and its empirical predictions. In clarifying the politics of IMF lending, the article sheds light on the merits of recent policy proposals to reform the Fund and its decision-making rules. More broadly, it furthers our understanding of delegation, agency, and the dynamics of policymaking within international organizations.