Every year, the IMF produces numerous publications. In 2013, it released 805 publications on its website. These include economic research and policy analyses, forecasts, country monitoring and internal policy and strategy papers. There is often confusion concerning the extent to which research, policy and surveillance papers are representative of the IMF’s institutional views.
The IMF assigns different categories to its published documents. Each category reflects different publication processes and varying involvement of other IMF staff in the document’s development. Approval for publication may be by IMF staff or by the IMF’s board of executive directors and managers, with implications for whether the document is intended to represent the IMF. Disclaimers are included to indicate when a paper cannot be regarded as representing the views of the IMF.
The multiple types of publications reflect the IMF’s differing roles. Policy documents are sent to the board for consideration, and are intended to inform IMF policy. Surveillance papers may represent the IMF’s institutional view, and are intended to fulfill the IMF’s obligation to monitor risks to nations and the international economy. Research papers are intended for a wide audience and do not represent the institution’s views.
Surveillance is one of the IMF’s three key pillars of activity. Under Article IV, “the IMF is charged with (i) overseeing the international monetary system to ensure its effective operation, and (ii) monitoring each of its 188 members’ compliance with its policy obligations.” Surveillance acts as a means through which the IMF seeks to highlight potential risks to economic stability and forecasts future economic activity, including growth. Article IV reports, mandatory annual monitoring reports written by Fund staff about each member country, and financial sector sustainability analyses are the only surveillance papers intended to represent the views of the board and which therefore require prior board approval. Conversely, other surveillance outputs including the World Economic Outlook and Spillover reports represent views of the staff only. They are published with disclaimers indicating they do not reflect the views of executive directors nor of their respective countries, and do not constitute official IMF policy.
Policy papers intended for board discussion and for policy-making may be discussed in informal session by the IMF board, in which case this is stated clearly, or formally whereby a decision is taken and the board releases an accompanying press release and usually a summing up of the board’s views. Informal discussion by the board of a policy paper occurred recently for the policy paper on the relationship of fiscal policy and income inequality (see Observer Spring 2014). This caused confusion as to what the IMF position on this question was despite a disclaimer indicating that it was discussed by the board only in “informal session and no decisions were taken at this meeting”. It went on to state “The policy considerations in this paper should be attributed to IMF staff and not to the IMF or its executive board.” As such, papers with findings that appear to have far-reaching consequences for IMF policy making may, in reality, have none.
Research papers are not intended to be discussed by the board. However, there is a hierarchy of effort and staff involvement in different types of papers. Working papers, though subject to internal review and approval by more senior staff before publication, are always indicated as being the views of the author. Departmental and occasional papers, as well as staff discussion notes (SDNs), receive considerably more input from staff though these are also not representing the institution’s views. As such, the extent to which there is tacit endorsement or input from management is far greater for SDNs, occasional and departmental papers than for working papers.