IMF chief denies altering World Bank report to appease China

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IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva on Thursday disputed an independent investigation which found that in her previous job at the World Bank, she pressed staff to alter a report to avoid angering China.

The World Bank announced Thursday that it was immediately discontinuing its Doing Business report after the investigation found irregularities in the 2018 and 2020 editions.

The flagship report ranks countries based on their business regulations and economic reforms, which has caused governments to jockey for a higher spot to attract investors.

According to the investigation, Beijing complained about its ranking of 78th on the list in 2017, and the next year's report would have shown Beijing dropping even further in the ease of doing business ranking.

The Washington-based development lender's staff was preparing the 2018 edition while leadership engaged in sensitive negotiations to increase its lending capital, which hinged on agreement with China and the United States.

In the final weeks before the report was released at the end of October 2017, the World Bank's then-president Jim Kim and Georgieva, at the time the bank's CEO, asked staff to look into updating the methodology in regard to China, according to the investigation by law firm WilmerHale.

Kim discussed the rankings with senior Chinese officials who were dismayed by the country's ranking, and his aides raised the issue of how to improve it, according to the summary of the probe, released by the World Bank.

Georgieva chastised a World Bank senior official for "mishandling the Bank's relationship with China and failing to appreciate the importance of the Doing Business report to the country," according to the investigation that analyzed 80,000 documents and interviewed more than three dozen current and former employees of the lender.

- Changing the data -

Amid the pressure from upper management, staff changed some of the input data, which boosted China's ranking in 2018 by seven places to 78 -- the same as it was the year prior.

The senior World Bank official said Georgieva thanked him for "doing his part for multilateralism," the investigation said.

Georgieva later visited the home of the manager in charge of the report to retrieve a copy, and thanked them for helping to "resolve the problem."

Georgieva, a Bulgarian national who took the helm of the IMF in October 2019, disputed the investigation.

"I disagree fundamentally with the findings and interpretations of the Investigation of Data Irregularities as it relates to my role in the World Bank's Doing Business report of 2018," she said in a statement.

"I have already had an initial briefing with the IMF's Executive Board on this matter."

Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize winner who served as the World Bank's chief economist at the time, resigned in January 2018 after telling a reporter that the methodology for the ranking had been changed in a way that could give the impression it weighted the results due to political considerations.

At the time, the World Bank strenuously denied any political influence over the rankings.

The investigation found that Kim and his aides applied "pressure -- direct and indirect" to staff to change China's ranking, and even delayed publishing the report.

It is considered one of Kim's signature achievements that he shepherded a deal for a historic $13 billion increase in World Bank resources, which required support from the US president Donald Trump who opposed concessional lending to China, and from Beijing which agreed to pay more for loans.

The investigation also found "improper changes" in the 2020 report affecting the rankings of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan.

Simeon Djankov, one official named in the investigation, had publicly lashed out at organizations that questioned other aspects of the report, including the implicit bias towards lower business taxes, even calling them "Marxists" at a 2019 conference.

One of the targets of those attacks, Justin Sandefur of the Center for Global Development, has written about the problems with constant changes in methodology which cause shifts in the rankings that do not accurately reflect a country's standing, including big gains for India and declines for Chile.

Nadia Daar, head of Oxfam International's Washington DC Office, applauded the decision to scrap the report saying the index "encouraged governments to adopt destructive policies that worsen inequality."

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