Gita Gopinath: Meet IMF’s first female chief economist

Becoming the first woman to occupy the top IMF post, Mysore-born Gita Gopinath joined International Monetary Fund as its chief economist last week.

Born in Kolkata and raised in Mysuru, Gita Gopinath was officially appointed on October 1, 2018, as Economic Counsellor and Director of the IMF’s Research Department. Announcing her appointment on October 1, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde described her as “one of the world’s outstanding economists with impeccable academic credentials, a proven track record of intellectual leadership and extensive international experience.”

Gopinath, who currently serves as the John Zwaanstra professor of International Studies and Economics at Harvard University, took over her new position at the IMF after the retirement of Maurice Obstfeld on December 31.

About Gopinath

The 47-year-old was also the co-editor of the American Economic Review and co-director of the International Finance and Macroeconomics Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2011, she was a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Gopinath is the 11th chief economist for the IMF and the first woman to occupy the position. She said she was inspired to pursue economics as a career during her Bachelors degree. “India experienced its first major external financing and currency crisis in 1990-91. This inspired me to pursue graduate work in economics and was the foundation for my interest in international finance,” she told The Economic Times in 2010.

After graduating from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi with a Bachelors in Economics, she completed her Masters in Economics from Delhi School of Economics. She later pursued her Doctorate in Economics from the University of Washington and Princeton University.

In 2016, she was appointed by the CPI(M)-led LDF government in Kerala as financial advisor to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Her father and mother, TV Gopinath and VC Vijayalakshmi, are both from Kerala and currently reside in Mysuru.

She was appointed as a permanent professor at Harvard University’s Economics Department in 2010.

‘Tremendous honour’

In a recent interview to The Harvard Gazette, Gopinath described her appointment at the IMF as a “tremendous honour” and said the appointment of the first ever woman for this position speaks highly of IMF’s Managing Director Lagarde.

“She is phenomenal, not just in her leadership of the IMF but as a role model for women around the world,” she said.

Identifying some of her top priorities at the IMF, Gopinath told The Harvard Gazette that she would like the IMF to continue to be a place that provides intellectual leadership on important policy questions.

“Among the research issues that I would like to push, one would be understanding the role of dominant currencies like the dollar in international trade and finance. We could do more on the empirical side to try to understand countries” dollar exposures and on the theoretical side in terms of the implications for international spillovers, consequences of dollar shortages, etc,” she said.

Most countries invoice their trade in dollars and borrow internationally in dollars. This is a central part of the international price system and the international financial system and it will be exciting to explore its consequences in greater depth with the IMF, she said.

IMF’s biggest challenge

Gopinath believes the world is experiencing a retreat from globalisation, posing challenges to multilateral institutions. She said this is one of the top challenges being faced by the IMF. “This has not happened in the past 50 or 60 years, when the world moved toward lower tariffs and increasing trade across countries,” she said.

“Over the past several months, we have the US-imposed tariffs and retaliation to them from China and other nations. There is in general growing uncertainty about trade policy, including the one arising out of Brexit [the British move to leave the European Union]. While the trade has reduced global poverty and raised livelihoods, its consequences for inequality, and on whether the rules of engagement are fair, are real concerns that need to be addressed,” she said.

Gopinath said there is also a concern about whether there is the right multilateral institutions and frameworks in place to make sure everybody feels that there is fairness in trade. “And the same goes for capital flows,” she added.

“Foreign direct investment [FDI] was always viewed very favourably by countries. But because most of the FDI is now in tech-heavy firms, there are growing concerns about national security and international property theft. So I believe this retreat from globalisation and this retreat from multilateralism is quite unique to the times we are living in,” Gopinath said.

Other concerns

Another important concern, she said, is the health of emerging markets as the US continues to normalize its interest rates.

The capital flows to several markets have reversed, putting pressure on their exchange rates and consequently on inflation, and on balance sheets, given that several emerging markets borrow heavily in dollars, said the IMF chief economist.

(With PTI inputs)