Who pays when Greece defaults on the IMF?

Greece recently failed to pay $1.7 billion due to the IMF, thereby becoming the first developed country to default on an IMF loan. That missed payment represents only a portion of the approximately $23 billion in IMF credit outstanding to Greece, suggesting the ultimate losses to the Fund could be much bigger.

The good news is that the potential losses are small in comparison to the IMF’s $350 billion in pledged resources from its members. Barring massive contagion, there is no threat from Greece to the Fund’s solvency.

Nevertheless, the costs to the IMF are likely to be significant. And ultimately it is the taxpayers from the IMF’s 188 member countries that will bear them. The losses are distributed unevenly because membership shares across countries vary widely. The U.S. holds the largest stake, at 17.6 percent of the total. The next largest shares belong to Japan, Germany, France, the UK and China, at 6.6, 6.1, 4.5, 4.5 and 4.0 percent respectively.

The IMF’s opaque financial disclosures and the vagaries of member government accounting practices will allow those taxpayer losses to go largely unnoticed. Member exposures arise through their “quotas,” which are obligations to deposit funds with the IMF. The deposits are backed by the IMF’s substantial holdings of gold, its loans and other assets. The IMF offers a succinct description of its funding structure here.

Some contend that quota payments made to the IMF are investments and not a taxpayer expense. They argue that balances earn interest at the fund and can, at least in theory, be withdrawn if a participating country so chooses. However, when the price of an investment exceeds its value, the investors take an immediate loss. When the IMF offers financing at concessionary terms to distressed countries, it provides subsidies that are paid for by taxpayers. Those subsidies are much smaller than the total amounts paid in, but nevertheless significant.

Of course the benefits of the IMF’s support of the international monetary system and aid to troubled economies may greatly exceed the associated costs to member countries. The point here is that in the interest of transparency, it is worthwhile to quantify the costs (and benefits) more carefully than has typically been done. Work at the CFP has looked at the cost of related guarantees – such as our work to evaluate the cost of government credit support in the OECD context – but we have not yet studied the IMF deeply.

Apart from IMF loans feeling a bit like play money, another factor that may have muted the repercussions in financial markets of Greece’s default to the IMF is that the event didn’t trigger payments on Greek CDS contracts. This is a reminder that CDS contractual terms do not always align with one’s intuitive notion of what constitutes a default, and complicates the relation between CDS pricing and bond valuations.