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Experts of the International Monetary Fund leave the Greek finance ministry in Athens last week. (ARIS MESSINIS)
Experts of the International Monetary Fund leave the Greek finance ministry in Athens last week. (ARIS MESSINIS)

Greek bailout plan signals new world disorder Add to ...

Jetting into obscure capitals is part of life at the International Monetary Fund, which serves as a last resort for countries facing financial implosion.

Only Monday, a team of IMF officials parachuted not into Tbilisi or Islamabad but Brussels, where they will discuss their role in rescuing Greece.

Their arrival at the heart of Europe - a move once deemed too humiliating to consider - underlines a major legacy of the global financial meltdown.

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The world's borrowing woes are shifting from developing economies to their advanced counterparts, many of which are exiting the crisis shouldering heavy debt burdens. Tackling those burdens is a war that a host of governments will fight for years to come, with or without the involvement of the IMF.

As part of the bailout plan announced on Sunday and led by members of the euro zone, the IMF is expected to extend a loan of €15-billion to Greece. That would mark only the second time the fund has pumped money into a developed economy in this crisis (the other was Iceland; before that you'd have to go all the way back to the U.K. in 1976).

Some fear its job isn't over. "This is the beginning, not the end," says Stephen Jen, a managing director at BlueGold Capital Management, a London hedge-fund firm.

Greece will be "the first of several countries" in the euro zone to require the IMF's help, he predicts.

Greece's predicament is an extreme version of the challenge facing the world's biggest industrialized economies. In 2014, their government debt as a percentage of GDP will hit 118 per cent, up from 78 per cent in 2007 prior to the financial crisis, according to the IMF. By contrast, for major developing economies, the same figure will be 36 per cent in 2014, slightly lower than it was before the meltdown.

Like every borrower knows, debts carry their own costs. Four years from now, the largest advanced economies will shell out more, as a percentage of economic output, in interest payments, than the biggest developing economies.

The emerging world already learned its lesson the hard way, when financial instability rocketed around the globe in the late 1990s and engulfed countries from South Korea to Brazil. Since then, many of those economies have studiously avoided racking up high debts and have stockpiled foreign-currency reserves.

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Now countries including the U.S., the U.K. and Japan will struggle to claw their way out of a pit of borrowing.

Advanced economies are going to make significant progress repairing their financial systems, says Stijn Claessens, a senior economist at the IMF in Washington. But "the fiscal issues go much, much deeper because they're going to affect everybody," he says. "It's not going to be easy."

In other words, reducing deficits and the borrowing they entail means both cutting spending on popular programs and raising taxes across the board. As a report from Moody's Investors Service delicately put it last month, returning the U.S. and the U.K. to fiscal health will require "adjustments of a magnitude that, in some cases, will test social cohesion."

Such changes aren't without precedent. More than 20 advanced economies have slashed their deficits by at least 5 per cent of GDP in the last 40 years, according to a report from the IMF. But no country that remembers such an experience - Canada is on the list for its deficit reductions in the years leading up to 1999 - does so with any fondness.

What's more, this episode of cost-cutting will be more challenging than those that preceded it, says the IMF, because it will unfold in an "environment of adverse demographics and potentially sluggish" economic growth.

Wherever the IMF is involved - in Greece or elsewhere - it's likely to serve as a "whipping boy" for painful efforts to cut spending, says one former senior official at the fund. Unlike a sitting government, it can recommend "terrifically unpopular" measures, he says, like cutting salaries for civil servants.

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