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ECONOMY | 02-07-2019 16:37

EU leaders nominate IMF chief Lagarde to be the new ECB president

Lagarde has resigned from her duties as Managing Director of the IMF during the nomination period. At the IMF, Lagarde helped negotiate the fund’s biggest ever bailout when it handed more aid last year to Argentina.

Christine Lagarde is set to swap the helm of the International Monetary Fund for that of the European Central Bank, becoming the first woman to run euro-area monetary policy just as the bloc’s economy looks in need of fresh stimulus.

At the IMF, Lagarde helped negotiate the fund’s biggest ever bailout when it handed more aid last year to Argentina. Lagarde has been an ally of president Mauricio Macrio in the international arena and has supported his financial reforms. 

“We are confident that we will form the same relationship with her successor,” Minister of the Treasury Nicolás Dujovne said, according to La Nacion. 

Lagarde was nominated to succeed Mario Draghi as president of the ECB when his eight-year term ends on Oct. 31. European leaders turned to the 63-year old onetime lawyer and former French finance minister on Tuesday after hours of negotiations in Brussels over a package of top EU jobs.

In a statement, Lagarde said that she was “honored to have been nominated” and would temporarily relinquish her responsibilities at the IMF while EU lawmakers look to ratify her appointment.

“She was chosen because she took on an indisputable leadership role at the IMF and I think whoever can do that can also lead the ECB,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. French President Emmanuel Macron said “she has the qualities and competence for the ECB. She has credibility with the markets.”

In moving from Washington to Frankfurt, Lagarde will be tasked with driving monetary policy in a 19-nation economy which Draghi has already signalled will need more help, likely in the form of lower interest rates and possibly with the resumption of quantitative easing. Inflation is running at barely half the ECB’s goal of just under 2% despite years of negative rates and 2.6 trillion euros ($3 trillion) of bond purchases.

Investors will likely bet that as a seasoned crisis-fighter, Lagarde will share Draghi’s taste for aggressive and innovative monetary policy, especially as her appointment means the more hawkish Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann misses out.

Financial markets are already pricing an ECB rate cut by September, in line with predictions by ECB watchers at Bloomberg Economics and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Morgan Stanley said the choice of Lagarde increases their “conviction” that the ECB will eventually resume buying bonds.

Moliere’s trees

Lagarde last week described the world economy as hitting a “rough patch” and advised central banks to continue to adjust their policies in response. In June 2014, she said she would “certainly hope” the ECB would conduct QE if inflation stayed sluggish -- months before it announced it would do so.

She also praised Draghi’s 2012 commitment to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro and recently echoed his call for governments to do more to battle future downturns. In March, she linked the need to fortify the euro area to the words of playwright Moliere: “The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”

What Bloomberg’s economists say

Just last September, Lagarde dismissed speculation she could take over the ECB, telling the Financial Times she was a “ bit annoyed and fed up” with the suggestion. Only one economist surveyed last month predicted she would get the job, with Weidmann seen as the most likely winner in a race dominated by men.

France has now twice secured the presidency of the two-decade-old ECB. Draghi, an Italian, was preceded by Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet, who replaced Dutchman Wim Duisenberg.

In common with Trichet, whose appointment was held up by a trial involving the bailout of Credit Lyonnais, Lagarde brings a history of legal wrangles. They culminated in a conviction of negligence in 2016 over her handling of a multi-million euro dispute linked to the same bank.

Lagarde’s appointment also means the ECB and the U.S. Federal Reserve will be headed by former lawyers, a shift from the era when central banks were run by academic economists such as Ben Bernanke. That opens her up to criticism that she lacks the knowledge to set monetary policy and could boost the influence of Philip Lane, the ECB’s new chief economist.

“It is a little puzzling because she’s not known as one of the leading economic minds out there,” said Alicia Levine, chief strategist at BNY Mellon Investment.

She does though boast political nous, which will be needed to unite fellow ECB officials when setting policy -- especially if they run low on monetary ammunition and need to nudge governments to step up support of the economy.

“She has the political skills needed to build consensus on the Governing Council, is a good communicator and has the standing and backbone to defend the ECB’s decisions on the larger European stage,” said Krishna Guha, head of central bank strategy at Evercore ISI. “She would be forceful in calling on member states to make use of the fiscal space.”

EU Council President Donald Tusk dismissed concerns about Lagarde’s lack of formal economic training. She will make a “perfect” ECB president, he said in Brussels.

Alongside Sabine Lautenschlaeger, Lagarde will be one of two women on the six-member Executive Board. They are likely to be the only two female participants in the 25-member Governing Council, which includes the governors of euro-region national central banks and has long been dominated by men.

Broader view

Lagarde was also the first woman to serve as managing director of the IMF, being first appointed in 2011 and then handed another five year term in 2016. Her exit will likely spark a fight between capitals over whether a European should always run the lender or if it’s time for an emerging-market candidate to do so.

At the IMF, Lagarde sought to give emerging economies such as China more of a voice in its management, while putting greater emphasis on issues including climate change and income and gender inequality. That helped broaden the fund’s image beyond its reputation as an advocate of budget cuts.

She sometimes clashed with countries whose monetary policy she will now help set. As the leader of one of Greece’s major creditors, she found herself both pressuring the country to accept austerity to keep it in the euro-zone while at the same time persuading its European partners to allow debt relief. In 2018, she and Weidmann disagreed publicly after she called upon Germany’s government to spend more and close its current account surplus.

Lagarde was educated in France and the U.S., working as an intern in the U.S. Congress for a time. On graduating from the University of Paris, Nanterre, she joined the Paris office of Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie LLP. She focussed on employment law and mergers and acquisitions, rising through its ranks to become a partner in 1987 and then its chairman in 1999.

Then-French President Jacques Chirac launched her political career in 2005 by appointing her minister for trade. She went on to serve as minister for agriculture before becoming the first woman to become finance minister in a Group of Seven economy in June 2007.

She held that role as the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. set off a global recession and paved the way for the euro-area debt crisis. During the all-night talks of policy makers that followed she often sought to boost morale by passing M&M’s chocolates around fellow finance chiefs.

“If it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today,” she once said.

A past member of France’s synchronised swimming team, Lagarde said her experience in the pool had taught her how to “grit your teeth and smile.”

- TIMES/BLOOMBERG/AP

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