In the Asian crisis, Jakarta's IMF-prescribed currency float proved disastrous, highlighting the value for Moscow of a rouble-dollar link
The Russian rouble ended 2014 in bad shape. For most of last year, Russia faced ever-increasing economic sanctions which set the stage for what was to come late in the year: the collapse of oil prices and the announcement on November 10 that the rouble would be allowed to float. It then sank like a stone.
In addition to witnessing most of the rouble's purchasing power vanish, Russians saw the volatility of their currency explode. Not a pretty picture, but one that can be brought into some focus by reflecting on the Indonesian financial crisis of 1997-98.
On August 14, 1997, shortly after the Thai baht collapsed on July 2, Indonesia floated the rupiah. Stanley Fischer, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, proclaimed that: "The floating of the rupiah, in combination with Indonesia's strong fundamentals, supported by prudent fiscal and monetary policies, will allow its economy to continue its impressive economic performance of the last several years."
Contrary to the IMF's expectations, the rupiah did not float on a sea of tranquility. It plunged from 2,700 per US dollar to lows of nearly 16,000 in 1998.
By late January 1998, then-president Suharto realised that the IMF medicine was not working and sought a second opinion. In February, Suharto invited me to become his special counsellor.
The antidote I proposed was an orthodox currency board in which the rupiah would be fully convertible into US dollars at a fixed rate.
On the day that news hit the street, the rupiah soared 28 per cent against the dollar. It seemed to infuriate the US government and the IMF and ruthless attacks on the idea ensued.
Suharto was told that he would have to drop the idea or forego US$43 billion in foreign assistance. Economists jumped on the bandwagon, too. Every half-truth imaginable was trotted out against the currency board, which had nevertheless garnered full support from four Nobel laureates in economics: Gary Becker, Milton Friedman, Merton Miller and Robert Mundell.
Why all the fuss? Miller understood. He wrote to tell me that the US objection to the currency board was "not that it wouldn't work but that it would, and if it worked, they would be stuck with Suharto."
Former US secretary of state Lawrence Eagleberger offered a similar diagnosis: "We were fairly clever in that we supported the IMF as it overthrew [Suharto]. Whether that was a wise way to proceed is another question. I'm not saying Suharto should have stayed, but I kind of wish he had left on terms other than because the IMF pushed him out."
Even then IMF managing director Michel Camdessus on his retirement proudly proclaimed: "We created the conditions that obliged President Suharto to leave his job."
To depose Suharto, two deceptions were necessary.
The first involved forging an IMF public position of open hostility to currency boards. That required a swift about-face: a year before, Bulgaria (where I was president Petar Stoyanov's adviser) had installed a currency board with an enthusiastic IMF endorsement, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (where I had advised the government) had followed suit under the mandate of the Dayton Peace Agreement - again with IMF support - on August 11, 1997.
Shortly after Suharto departed, the deception became transparent. On August 28, 1998, Camdessus announced that the IMF would give Russia the green light if it adopted a currency board.
The second deception involved the widely circulated story which asserted that I had proposed to set the rupiah's exchange rate at an overvalued level so that Suharto and his cronies could loot the central bank's reserves.
This take-the-money-and-run scenario was the lynchpin of the campaign against Suharto.
This episode is not unique in the political world, but it should be a sobering lesson.
If Russia wants to avoid further currency turmoil, further impoverishment of its citizens, and potential political upheavals, it should tether the rouble tightly to the dollar. That's what the big oil producers in the Persian Gulf region do - and for good reasons.
Steve Hanke is Professor of Applied Economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
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