Business book review: Drab IMF, drab book
Money and Tough Love, Liaquat Ahamed
In the second book of a series called 'Writers in Residence', Pulitzer Prize-winning author Liaquat Ahamed, whose 2009 'Lords of Finance' charted central bank blunders during the Great Crash of 1929, pays a visit to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the wake of the European debt crisis.
The subject is a good one. The IMF was established in 1944. Its initial duty - to reshape the world's post-war economy - has morphed into a more wide-ranging role as a kind of financial headmistress, overseeing the world's economies, disciplining those who step out of line and helping the dunces improve their grades. It is a vast and powerful institution, not only in terms of the size of the fund it manages - more than $750bn (€558bn) - but also in its power to have an impact on the lives of ordinary people.
But the IMF is a drab world. This is one of the problems for Ahamed: the IMF is anonymous and dull, and it's hard for the book to come over as anything else.
The blurb promises the "human stories behind the headlines". In fact we get anything but. Ahamed is gifted at walking us through the facts and figures of financial crises; but what the book lacks is drama and stylish prose.
'Money and Tough Love' is structured first as a history of the IMF, followed by records of Ahamed's trips to Tokyo and then Dublin, where he was excluded from discussions surrounding the fund's role in restructuring Ireland's parlous balance sheet. For all the claims of the extraordinary access Ahamed was granted to the foot soldiers of the IMF, the author seems perpetually on the outside of events.
A final, much shorter, section charts a trip to Maputo, Mozambique, where, briefly, we have a vision of the book this might have been. Relaxing with IMF staff over a beer after work, Ahamed listens to stories of corrupt dictators and kleptocratic bankers in war-torn Africa. Even here, though, the IMF workers are anonymous, their stories cleansed of all but surface details. Again and again the book privileges the general over the specific.
Throughout 'Money and Tough Love', Christine Lagarde, below, the icy head of the IMF, hovers in the background, disapprovingly. Ahamed writes fawningly of her, saying: "I had little doubt based on her career that Mme Lagarde was an astute judge of character. And it did not take her long to gauge that I was unlikely to be a troublemaker." Alas for his readers, Ahamed is neither a trouble-maker nor a storyteller.