Commentary

Governments Lie and Go Unpunished

This column was first published in Forbes, April 2, 2001.
Public companies occasionally dissemble or even lie. When they do, the perpetrators risk trouble with the law. Just ask the former chairman and vice chairman of Cendant. Governments are held to a different, lower standard. Indeed, although dissembling and outright lying are frowned upon, these sins usually go unnoticed and unpunished.

Take NATO’s operations in Kosovo. After the 78-day aerial bombardment in 1999, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, displayed an array of colorful charts to show the public that NATO had taken out 120 tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers and 450 artillery and mortar pieces. But later, a suppressed U.S. Air Force report emerged with the following accurate count: 14 tanks, 18 armored personnel carriers and 20 artillery pieces.

The Kosovo hocus-pocus is nothing new and hardly confined to the military. Official economic data have long been rife with chicanery. The much-ballyhooed Marshall Plan, which delivered U.S. aid to Western Europe after World War II, is a case in point. One of the plan’s top European administrators is on record as having said: “We shall produce any statistic that we think will help us get as much money out of the U.S. as we possibly can.” You should be skeptical about whether the Marshall Plan’s success was all that it was advertised to be.

Central banks in particular have a long history of hiding information and, yes, lying. In the 1930s and 1940s Great Britain suppressed and Nazi Germany misstated their respective gold reserve holdings to mislead the world about their monetary strength.

In more recent times central banks of emerging-market nations have been the flimflam artists, making their positions look better than reality. The National Bank of Ukraine in 1996 and 1997 overstated its net foreign reserve position, thus allowing Ukraine to con the International Monetary Fund into sending it money. The Bank of Indonesia illegally lent billions of dollars to commercial banks, which put up no collateral. I uncovered the latter problem when I was advising Suharto, then the president of Indonesia, in 1998. An official audit later found that the practice had torn a huge hole in the Indonesian central bank’s balance sheet and left the bank insolvent.

The IMF, which keeps a lot of these nations afloat, demands current and accurate disclosure of the condition of their central banks. After all, they are the purveyors of money. And financial markets worldwide operate in real time. A months-old paperbound report is useless. So what better way is there for a central bank to open its books than on the web?

Alas, full and timely disclosure by way of the internet is beyond a lot of the banks. This I discovered after conducting an exhaustive search for the websites of the world’s 174 central banks. Only 123 even had a site. The other 51, ranging from the central bank of Afghanistan to that of Yugoslavia, tell us nothing. These countries may be poor, but poverty is no excuse for not setting up a minimal, inexpensive website.

The heart of central-bank disclosure is the balance sheet, vital for determining what course monetary policy is following. It shows monetary liabilities (the monetary base) on the right-hand side and their asset counterparts (domestic government bonds and foreign reserves) on the left.

While most sites do contain balance sheets, many are not current. And except for countries with currency boards (independent bodies that fix exchange rates), which have no monetary policies and thus nothing to hide, balance-sheet formats are literally all over the map. You need to be Sherlock Holmes to interpret the financials of a lot of these banks. Only 63 percent of the sites are in English, the language of the world’s major financial markets. Central banks clearly need the equivalent of the private sector’s International Accounting Standards Committee to set rules.

The obvious conclusion is that central banks with no websites or those that tell little have something to conceal. The IMF should decree that any country that does not have a current balance sheet displayed on a website in English and in orthodox fashion does not qualify for IMF support.

Taxpayer money is funding this international bail-out organization. Demand some accountability.

Steve H. Hanke is a professor of applied economics at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, vice chairman of the Friedberg Mercantile Group in New York, and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.