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Highly preliminary draft, June 21, 2000

IMF Programs as Incentive Mechanisms 

Avinash Dixit 

      IMF programs provide resources to member countries in need, and require them to implement policies to meet specified structural benchmarks (SBs) and performance criteria (PCs).  The outcomes are eventually beneficial, for example lower inflation and better access to international financial markets, but taking the required actions can have some economic costs to a country, for example higher unemployment in the short run, and political costs to its government, for example a reduction in subsidies to its favored groups. Theoretically, continuation of a program is contingent on the country’s fulfillment of the conditions. In practice, failure to meet them can result in further negotiation and modification of the conditions. However, this carries a cost to the country, either in the form of stiffer conditions later, or a deterioration of its track record, which matters if it needs assistance at a later date. 

      Thus a country gets rewards or suffers penalties depending on its actions and the outcomes. In other words, IMF programs are incentive schemes or mechanisms. The purpose of this note is to argue that various debates concerning IMF programs can usefully be informed by, and the design and implementation of the programs can benefit from, viewing them explicitly in this way. First, this perspective is a unified framework for posing questions concerning the programs, and a unified language for communicating the ideas. Secondly, it automatically prompts us to explore parallels with other situations of mechanism design and to benefit from available theoretical results and practical experience. Finally, it sharpens the analysis by remining us of the essential common elements of such problems, for example asymmetries of information and observation, credibility of commitment, interactions among tasks, and interactions over time, Of course the special context of IMF programs will often raise new issues that need to be analyzed, but even then, the general ideas and techniques of this branch of economics will facilitate such analysis.  

      Three points should be made at the outset. First, the theory of mechanism design is usually cast in the framework of the relationship between a principal who lays down the contract or the scheme, and the agent whose behavior it is intended to influence. In the present context the IMF would be the principal and a borrowing country the agent. This may create a “political” problem – countries will resent being viewed as the IMF’s agents, and public critics and the NGOs may latch on to this as confirming their worst fears about the IMF’s role and power. This will require careful thinking and presentation. It may help to recognize the parallel with the Internal Revenue Service or many other government agencies in a country. A country’s citizens collectively “own” these bureaus: they are the principals and the bureaus are their agents. But it has been found socially productive to delegate considerable powers to the bureaus, and to allow them to act as principals in their dealings with individual citizens in their domain of policy implementation. The safeguard is that the bureaus remain accountable to the citizens through the elected legislature and executive. In the same way, the sovereign countries “own” the IMF, but delegate its operations officers the powers to impose conditions when providing resources to individual countries; the officers remain accountable to the countries as a collective through the Executive Board and ultimately the Board of Governors. 

      Secondly, the elementary theory of incentives that is taught in microeconomics courses seems too simplistic to be applicable, and that is indeed so. But the research literature in this area has gone far beyond what is found in elementary expositions; it now encompasses many of the complications of reality such as the vast multidimensionality of actions and outcomes, dynamic aspects including reputational incentives and ratchet effects of incentives, interaction among agents, multiple principals trying to pull a common agent in different directions, and so on. It is this richer, second and third generation, theory of mechanism design that I am talking about, not the earliest and simplest models. (See recent surveys by Gibbons (1997), Prendergast (1999) and Dixit (2000).)  

      Thirdly, the incentives in this context are not necessarily or even primarily monetary; often they are not even economic. A country’s government will be concerned about its aggregate economic performance directly, but also because its political future may depend on this. It will also be concerned about the distribution of economic gains and losses, both for normative reasons and for political reasons. Different governments may weigh these tradeoffs in different ways. To be effective, the Fund’s program for a country will have to be based on some understanding of what motivates the country’s government and the way its economic and political systems function. Such knowledge should be gained during the Fund’s normal surveillance activities, and sharpened during the process of negotiation that leads to program agreements. 

      I will offer a couple of examples, drawn from recent working papers and documents, that show how the incentive mechanism approach can inform various conceptual issues that arise in the design of IMF programs.


Conditionality vs. Ownership (Incentives Based on Actions and Outcomes)


      The term “conditionality” has traditionally encompassed two categories: [1] the policies a member country needs to carry out  prior to approval of the arrangement by the IMF, and to the policy undertakings that must be met for continuation of the arrangement, and [2] the economic outcomes  which the country is required to achieve (Mussa and Savastano, 1999, p.3). The distinction between structural benchmarks and performance criteria has some of the same features. SBs are quite detailed specifications of policy actions the country must undertake, while the PCs pertain to outcomes (Mercer-Blackman and Unigovskaya, 2000). However, the recent concept of  “ownership” suggests drawing a distinction whereby conditionality would specify policy actions, whereas ownership would leave the country considerable freedom to devise its own details of actions, but ultimately judge it by outcomes, either directly because continuation of the arrangement depends on the country’s meeting the performance criteria specified in the arrangement, or because outcomes of this arrangement will establish or undermine the country’s track record which will affect its eligibility for future arrangements (Khan, 2000).

      The choice between basing incentives on actions and outcomes is not an all-or-nothing matter; the optimal choice can be a mixture depending on the degrees of accuracy with which the different actions and outcomes can be monitored. Also, in reality the distinction between policy actions and outcomes gets blurred:  

      [a] Actions specified in IMF agreements are insufficiently detailed. For example, a given improvement in the government budget balance can be achieved by reducing transfers or subsidies or government consumption, or reducing public investment, or by raising taxes, or by asset sales, or by accounting tricks. The IMF will not be able to monitor all these actions in sufficient detail, although it is concerned about them because important aspects of the country’s medium and long term economic performance depend on the composition of policies that achieve a given improvement in the budget balance. (See the “third factor” discussed by Drazen and Fischer, 1997, p. 9.)  

      [b] Conversely, the performance criteria that can be specified in an arrangement with ownership are rarely a comprehensive list of the final outcomes that concern the IMF. The final goals are often not revealed for many years, and continuation decisions for the arrangement must be made long before that can happen. Mussa and Savastano (1999) discuss the process of monitoring (pp. 13-15) and the resulting inevitable disjunction between the ultimate goals and the performance criteria (pp.23-24). 

      [c] An outcome is anything that the person or organization that lays down the incentive scheme cares about. Sometimes it is directly concerned about the means as well as the ends; then the means (actions) logically fall into the category that we have here called outcomes.  

      Whether action-based, outcome-based, or mixed, all incentive schemes are imperfect in the sense that they cannot achieve an ideal or first-best, because [1] governments’ actions are imperfectly observable, [2] outcomes are not fully determined by actions but are also affected by luck, and [3] governments’ competence cannot be readily distinguished ex ante (Drazen and Fischer, 1997, p. 9). 

      To make the optimally least imperfect choice, we need some general principles and illustrative cases. These come from the excellent book by Wilson (1989, pp. 165-170). He considers the choice of incentive schemes and therefore of appropriate organizational form for government bureaucracies, and offers a classification. (In practice observability is with an error and the variance of this error term can differ in different situations, so there is a spectrum spanning his polar categories of “Observable” and “Unobservable”. But the dichotomy serves a useful purpose of focusing on logically pure cases.) 

    Observable Not observable
Actions Observable Production agencies Procedural agencies
Not observable Craft agencies Coping agencies

      Craft agencies are the logical home of conventional performance-based incentive schemes; they can be left to devise their own actions. In the IMF context, this will be the place for “ownership”.  

      However, procedural agencies cannot be judged by outcomes since these are not observable (or observable only with large errors). They have to be monitored for their actions.  In such situations the IMF will have to retain conventional conditionality. There could be a similar classification for countries and/or situations in IMF arrangements. 

      In reality, many agencies have poor observability of both actions and outcomes. These “coping agencies” are the most difficult to organize effectively. Wilson has insightful discussions of some examples; these can be very instructive to the IMF program designers.


Conditionality vs. Selectivity (Linear and Quota Schemes)


      Incentive schemes used in practice fall into two broad categories – [1] linear schemes that offer a reward or bonus per incremental unit of performance (or equivalently, impose a penalty per unit of lack of performance), and [2] quota schemes that offer a reward if a specified threshold of performance is met or exceeded, or equivalently, impose a penalty for failure to meet the threshold. Drazen and Fischer’s (1997, p. 11) distinction between “conditionality” and “selectivity” can be seen in this way. Conditionality makes the aid given to the country a function of its track record; selectivity means giving zero aid to a country whose track record falls below a specified level.  The literature on mechanism design gives some general principles for choosing between the two. Quota-type schemes work well if the probability of falling below the threshold is especially sensitive to the action at the level of the action the principal wishes the agent to take.1 But such schemes are more easily manipulable, especially when they cover a fixed period. For example a salesperson who has the good luck to meet his quota early in the year will relax for the rest of the year unless there is a further reward for achievements beyond the quota; this argues for a linear component in the scheme.  

      IMF programs look like quota schemes; they stipulate thresholds of actions and outcomes, with the threat of suspension of the agreement if the country fails to meet these targets. But in practice there is more gradualism: failure triggers a process of renegotiation and revision, and small failures or ones for which there are plausible exogenous causes can be waived (Mussa and Savastano, 1999, pp. 15-17). Thus the programs may actually be closer to linear schemes. In any case, it would help to think of the issue explicitly in these terms, and ask if the degree of flexibility shown in the actual process is the right one. For example, just as there is in practice a gradual penalty for falling short of the thresholds, should there be gradual rewards for overfulfillment of the requirements?  

      There is another way in which selectivity can be deployed with flexibility, namely over time. Drazen and Fischer (1997) model selectivity in a repeated game framework with an equilibrium in “trigger strategies,” where the country government’s “defection” from the agreement will lead to a cutoff of aid for ever after. Mechanism design theory suggests a possible way of doing better than that, namely a combination of a stick and a carrot, whereby aid is cut off but with a promise of gradual restoration in response to future policy reforms (Abreu, Pearce and Stachetti, 1990). This dynamic combination of a threat and a promise gives better incentives for continued good performance than a trigger strategy, and may in fact be more realistic than a permanent cutoff. Thus the theory can help the IMF to design such graduated penalty and reward schemes with more explicit attention to the effect they can have on the country’s policy choices.


Carrots vs. Sticks


      Incentive schemes are by their very nature a combination of rewards and penalties, but in some the prominent feature is a reward for “good” actions whereas in others it is the penalty for “bad” actions. Why schemes differ from one another in this way can be understood by recognizing exactly what is giving the agent the incentive to take the good action rather than the bad: this is the difference between what the agent expects to get if he does the former rather than the latter. The overall level of the payment schedule serves a distinct purpose, namely to make the whole scheme sufficiently attractive to induce the agent to participate in the relationship. In the theory of mechanism design this is called the agent’s participation constraint. (See Chwe, 1990  for a model and an example from history.) In the IMF-country context, the corresponding constraint should be interpreted as coming from considerations of international economics and politics, and stipulating how gently or toughly a country is treated; it might be called the inclusion constraint. The strength of the incentive must be measured from this starting point, that is, it governs whether the scheme will be more in the nature of a carrot or a stick. Again, explicit attention to this aspect will help the IMF devise better mechanisms.


Multiple dimensions


      IMF programs are multidimensional in many ways: [1] There are many dimensions of economic outcomes that concern the IMF and the countries, and there are multiple policy instruments that affect the outcomes. [2] Programs last for several years, and even when a program terminates, there is the possibility that the country may need assistance in the future. [3] The IMF interacts with other international agencies and the private capital markets. [4] A country is not a unified player in the game, but itself consists of a group of economic and political actors with partially aligned but partially conflicting interests. 

      Mechanism design theory has developed to cope with all such multidimensionalities. The theory of multi-task agencies shows how the power of incentives for one task is affected by the relative degree of observability of its primary outcome, and by whether it is a substitute or a complement in the agent’s reckoning. The theory of career concerns deals with the multiperiod relationship; of course in the IMF program context “career” must be interpreted as the economic future of the country and the political future of its government. And the interaction between the IMF and the World Bank can be analyzed using the theory of “multiprincipal” or common agency. Dixit (2000) summarizes the prominent findings of these theories.




    Abreu, Dilip, David Pearce and Ennio Stacchetti. 1990. “Toward a Theory of Discounted Repeated Games with Imperfect Monitoring.” Econometrica, 58(5), September, 1041-63.  

      Chwe, Michael. 1990. “Why Were Workers Whipped? Pain in a Principal-Agent Model.”  Economic Journal,  100(4), December, 1109- 21.  

        Dixit,  Avinash. 2000. “Incentives and Organizations in the Public Sector: An Interpretative Review.” Paper presented at the National Academy of Sciences conference on Devising Incentives to Promote Human Capital,” Irvine, CA. Available from the author’s web site, URL  http://www.princeton.edu/~dixitak/home/wrkps.html 

          Drazen, Allan and Stanley Fischer. 1997. “Conditionality and Selectivity in Lending by International Financial Institutions.” In Stabilization, Growth, and Transition: Symposium in Memory of Michael Bruno. Jerusalem. 

            Gibbons, Robert. 1997. “Incentives and Careers in Organizations.” In Advances in Economics and Econometrics, Vol. II, eds. David Kreps and Kenneth F. Wallis, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 

            Khan, Mohsin. 2000. “Conditionality vs. Ownership,” IMF memo. 

              Mercer-Blackman, Valerie and Anna Unigovskaya. 2000. “Compliance with IMF Program Indicators and Growth in Transition Economies.” IMF European II Department, Working Paper WP/00/47. 

                Mussa, Michael and Miguel Savastano. 1999. “The IMF Approach to Economic Stabilization,” IMF Research Department, WP/99/104. 

                  Prendergast, Canice. 1999. “The Provision of Incentives in Firms.” Journal of Economic Literature, 37(1), March, 7-63. 

                    Wilson, James Q. 1989. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books. 

                    1  Mathematically, if P(x,a) denotes the probability that the outcome is x or worse when the action is a, and the principal wishes the agent to take action a*, then a quota scheme with threshold x* will be very effective if P/a is large at (x*, a*).

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