WONDER WOMAN: IMF managing director says Asia’s voice matters and notes its increasing leadership role
CHRISTINE Lagarde is a strategist. Her meticulous care in the choice of outfit at the global economic lecture in Kuala Lumpur last week spoke volumes about the kind of strategist she has been since she took over the most powerful job at the International Monetary Fund.
She flaunted an exquisite churidar kameez ala-typical French chic fashion for the festival of lights that Malaysia celebrated the night before.
At the Prime Minister's office in Putrajaya earlier in the day, it was one of her power suits complete with her famous scarf.
With her bronze tan and silver coiffure, she makes headlines on both the finance as well as the fashion pages, endearing her as one of the most powerful women in international finance (ranked No. 8 by Forbes).
Lagarde took on the job as the managing director of the Fund after her predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn stepped down on allegations of sexual assault.
Her confidence stemmed from her previous stints as French finance minister and head of US law firm Baker & McKenzie, while she often reminds her audience that it is no ordinary feat to be the first woman to be at the helm.
She was also quick to lavish compliments on another woman, Bank Negara Malaysia governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, recognising her as one of the most respected senior central bankers in the world.
Lagarde's message to Asia continued to chime loud - Asia's voice matters and, as in the case of the eurozone funds, also do, too.
Malaysia and the Philippines are but two Asian economies that have helped boost the IMF's firepower, bringing its total lending power to more than US$1 trillion (RM3.07 trillion).
Building the firewall for the IMF was akin to a vote of confidence in the fund. So, has Asian now relented and given its support to the partnership of 188 countries?
The fund has mended fences with Asia and Lagarde has unfailingly noted Asia's increasing leadership role both in the globe and the IMF, too.
It will not be business as usual, in Asia at least, for the organisation after it was pushed off the radar by Asian economies that were hurt by the financial contagion in the late 1990s.
Kuala Lumpur was the first strategic stop for the IMF team and her first in her capacity as IMF chief.
After all, was it not Malaysia that was most vociferous in its criticism towards the IMF at the height of the regional financial crisis and was it not Malaysia who decided on its own prescription of capital controls.
Fourteen years on, the Malaysian economy continues to thrive and she was also impressed with Malaysia's growth plan, steering the economy from being over-dependent on trade to include domestic demand.
Domestic demand contributes much of Malaysia's growth in 2012, which is now expected to exceed the four to five per cent forecast.
The warmth obviously pleased her as it marked a promising start to her Southeast Asian tour, which was originally scheduled to cover Manila and Phnom Penh.
Phnom Penh and the Asean summit was shelved as she rushed back to Brussels for an eurogroup meeting to find a permanent solution to Greece's debt woes.
Lagarde has said that since she came on board in July last year, she has been bogged down by the global crisis and eurozone debt issue, giving her little time to look at other areas such as an alternative currency to the greenback in the SDR, its global currency basket.
Asian economies may not have a European Union-type partnership to boast of, but it enjoys close trade ties and the central banks also enjoy close cooperation to ensure the region under its constant surveillance.
Lagarde, however, saw that financial integration lagged although more than 90 per cent of Asean cross-border portfolio investment flows are with the advanced economies outside Asia. Asia needs to invest in itself.
Senior banker Datuk Seri Nazir Razak responded by saying that Asia will need its own rating agency in order to do so.
Likewise, the Basel III needs to be revisited as certain details are designed for Western banks and will erode Asian banks' competitiveness.
Another call by Malaysian bankers was for more representation in the IMF especially from the robust Asean region.