Master or Servant? Common Agency and the Political Economy of IMF Lending

International Studies Quarterly, Forthcoming

49 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2008 Last revised: 19 Nov 2009

Date Written: November 15, 2009


What explains the substantial variation in the International Monetary Fund's lending policies over time and across cases? Some scholars argue that the IMF is the servant of the United States and other powerful member-states, while others contend that the Fund's professional staff acts independently in pursuit of its own bureaucratic interests. I argue that neither of these perspectives, on its own, fully and accurately explains IMF lending behavior. Rather, I propose a "common agency" theory of IMF policymaking, in which the Fund's largest shareholders - the G-5 countries that exercise de facto control over the Executive Board - act collectively as its political principal. Using this framework, I argue that preference heterogeneity among G-5 governments is a key determinant of variation in IMF loan size and conditionality. Under certain conditions, G-5 preference heterogeneity leads to conflict or "logrolling" within the Executive Board, while in others it creates scope for the IMF staff to exploit "agency slack" and increase its policymaking autonomy. Statistical analysis of an original dataset of 197 non-concessional IMF lending to 47 countries from 1984 to 2003 yields strong support for this framework and its empirical predictions. In clarifying the politics of IMF lending, the article sheds light on the merits of recent policy proposals to reform the Fund and its decision-making rules. More broadly, it furthers our understanding of delegation, agency, and the dynamics of policymaking within international organizations (IOs).

Keywords: IMF, international financial institutions, principal-agent theory, delegation, international organizations

JEL Classification: F33

Suggested Citation

Copelovitch, Mark, Master or Servant? Common Agency and the Political Economy of IMF Lending (November 15, 2009). International Studies Quarterly, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Mark Copelovitch (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin-Madison ( email )

401 North Hall, 1050 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States


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