It has been said that, "With great power comes great responsibility." That puts a lot of pressure on Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, or IMF.
Because she leads the organization that is both economic advisor and financial backstop to the world, Lagarde is, by default, one of the most powerful people in the world. In fact, Forbes currently ranks her as the 33rd most powerful person and sixth most powerful woman in the world, and she's only behind current U.S. Fed Chair Janet Yellen as the most powerful woman in finance. It's power that carries with it the weight of the world's financial problems, especially in light of the IMF's troubled involvement in Greece.
What is the IMF?
Since 2011, Lagarde has led the IMF, which is an international organization that's headquartered in Washington, DC. Founded in 1945, the IMF is an organization of 188 countries with a mission of, "Working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world." Its primary purpose is to ensure the stability of the global monetary system, including the system of exchange rates and international payments that foster transactions across the globe.
The IMF is funded by a quota system, as each member country is required to contribute to its financial resources. Those funds enable the organization to step in and provide loans to nations that need assistance.
Currently, the IMF has pledged or committed resources totaling $885 billion. Of that amount, only $163 billion has been committed under current lending agreements, with $137 billion of that amount still undrawn. Greece is the largest borrower at the moment, with about $20 billion in outstanding support. But Greece's seemingly never-ending financial crisis has been a big burden for the IMF.
Greece: The weight that threatens to sink Christine Lagarde
After a period of relative calm, Greece's financial troubles have once again captured the attention of the financial markets. One day it seems like it will agree to a last minute deal with creditors; the next day, it appears as if default is imminent.
Because of this, Greece has been a thorn in the side of Lagarde and the IMF. However, it's a situation she inherited, as the financial assistance was granted by her predecessor in a move that was just as controversial then as it is now. Not only was the aid package the largest ever implemented by the IMF as a percentage of a country's stake in the fund, but mistakes were made along the way that put that money at risk.
For example, the IMF's original expectations for Greece's GDP last year were revised down by 22% during the course of 18 months, which was simply an epic miss. Further, it expected Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio to be down to 120% by 2020, but now that ratio is poised to stay around 175% unless Greece is given a large debt writedown.
Given the continued troubles in Greece, the IMF is running a very real risk that its loans to Greece could simply be wiped out, as IMF loans can't be restructured. It's one reason why Lagarde has taken such a hard line with Greece, as she doesn't want to be the one to lose such a large amount of the IMF's money. It's money that was originally intended to benefit the poorer countries of the world, and not bail out a eurozone country that simply got in over its head with debt.
As the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde is one of the most powerful people on the planet. With that power comes a lot of responsibility, as she needs to prudently manage the organization's resources to not only meet its current mission, but ensure that it has the financial firepower to meet future needs.
It's a tough job, made tougher by its involvement in Greece. But Lagarde must see it through in order to keep the global monetary system stable, as it's still in a very weakened state as a result of the financial crisis. It needs a strong IMF as a backstop in case global markets start to wobble again.