Why Should We Join Another Development Bank?

Over the weekend Australia announced it will be part of the initial negotiations on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The AIIB is a global financial institution intended to rival the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The idea is that the AIIB will fund large scale infrastructure development in the region.

But if the AIIB is anything like the World Bank or IMF, then the new body is certain to be heavily politicised, bureaucratic, and imperialistic.

The AIIB is a China-led initiative, so unsurprisingly the bulk of discussion about Australia’s participation in the AIIB has been filtered through a geopolitical prism.

The United States doesn’t want us to join. But then our closest, fondest ally doesn’t have much diplomatic high ground to stand on here.

In Brisbane last year the US gave the Australian government a swipe when Barack Obama tried to make climate change a centrepiece of the Australian-led G20 meeting. Obama did this against the advice of his embassy. So after that very deliberate diplomatic jab, it’s hard to see why their sensitivities about China should be our concern.

And anyway, the US is hardly working to make existing international institutions any better. For instance, the IMF badly needs reform. But the US Congress has a veto over any IMF reform. That intransigence is in part why Britain signed up to the AIIB earlier in March.

Still, it’s easy to understand why the United States is upset.

The establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 represented a formal shift in economic power from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Britain had a leading role under the gold standard but Word War II ended that. After Bretton Woods, American leadership of the international economy was reflected in the role of the dollar and the country’s influence over the IMF and World Bank.

Seventy years on, the United States is resisting any sense that it might have its historical role usurped by China.

But the geopolitical symbolism of the AIIB is one thing. Whether the AIIB is a good idea is quite another.

As a general rule, we ought be very sceptical of an economic institution explicitly intended to pursue political, rather than economic, purposes.

The AIIB is part of China’s Economic Belt and Silk Road program to build a regional network of infrastructure that would counterbalance the United States.

So already the AIIB is starting with political goals in mind. Ignore whatever governance structures are imposed on the AIIB by Australia and Britain and other western participants. The AIIB’s investment decisions are almost certainly going to be made on the basis of strategic and political factors, rather than what investments are most economically viable or effective.

How do we know this? Well, because we’ve had 70 years’ experience with the equivalent institutions of the World Bank and IMF.

The IMF and the World Bank are inefficient and interfering and deeply politicised. Often they create the problems they are intended to resolve.

The World Bank has the modest goal of ending extreme poverty. To do so it finances projects in the developing world. This 2006 US News and World Report investigation uncovered a bevy of inefficiencies, wasteful programs, accounting problems, bureaucratic featherbedding, and quasi-corrupt practices in the World Bank. No wonder, as the economist Adam Lerrick points out, “After half a century and more than US$500 billion, there is little to show for World Bank efforts.” Unsurprisingly the World Bank wants more money.

The IMF offers financial assistance to countries in economic strife. But that assistance comes with bureaucratic interference, as the IMF tries to reshape the country they are assisting. Sometimes IMF reforms are worthy, sometimes they are not. But they are always imposed as a condition of assistance, often against the democratic wishes of the people.

The anti-democratic nature of IMF intervention is made worse when it combines with the “moral hazard” created by IMF bailouts. Domestic policymakers feel they can act recklessly because the IMF will save them if they get into trouble.

Development banks are supposed to fund projects that the private sector deem too risky. But a project which is too risky for the private sector remains risky even once funded by a development bank. The projects these banks fund too often fall prey to corruption and poor management. That’s why private investors don’t want to get involved in the first place.

Last week the Wall Street Journal rhetorically asked, “Why does the world need another development bank?”

For China, the answer is to enhance its geopolitical influence. The question Australia needs to ask is: why are we getting involved?