Would-be Miracle Worker

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The fate of the world economy is in one woman’s hands. Never before has so much been expected from an IMF managing director. Ladies and gentlemen, Christine Lagarde

When Christine Lagarde assumed her role as the International Monetary Fund’s new boss in 2011, the media fawned over her.

The resulting mythology portrayed the five-foot-ten-inch Lagarde as an uber-sophisticated cosmopolitan out to set the world straight while dressed in austere designer clothing.

A former lawyer who cut her teeth at a prestigious Chicago firm that catered to multinational corporations, Lagarde returned home when she became France’s Minister of Finance, appointed by then president Nicolas Sarkozy.

After the embarrassing downfall of Dominic Strauss-Khan, numerous candidates were mulled over by the IMF’s representatives in the EU and the US. [A hotel maid accused Strauss- Khan of sexual assault and attempted rape. The case was settled in December last year with a rumored payout of US$6 million—Ed.]

There was a very discernible commotion to get a managing director from a developing country. Lagarde got the job instead.

While often touted as another example of a strong woman blazing a trail in a male-dominated environment, Lagarde’s responsibilities are without a doubt herculean. Forsaking excessive detail, she must open new markets for the EU. This is why she toured Asia in November (which included a Manila visit), paralleling President Obama’s lightning jaunt across the region to bolster ties and inspire confidence.

More importantly, her travel schedule for the past year has included multiple trips to China in an obvious but very subtle effort to allay fears of its economic contraction and pave the way for the renminbi’s emergence as a powerful reserve currency.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Lagarde is very outspoken about the Eurozone’s perpetual truant child, Greece. The problem with Greece is its economy has collapsed. And if it can no longer pay off the generous loans given by Germany, the euro will be devalued threatening the union’s cohesion.

So re-balance in Asia and deliver Europe from the maw of dissolution. Few women have ever—perhaps no woman ever has—carried such a burden so stoically, and so chicly.

The most interesting detail in Christine Lagarde’s résumé is how she built a career outside the French political system. This is telling because it played a crucial role in her selection as IMF chief.

Lagarde spent much of her professional life in the US. It was at Baker & Mackenzie, a Chicago-based law firm that did troubleshooting for multinational clients, where Lagarde received her training as a broker. She still is a broker in her current role, visiting countries and to fix their economies for the benefit of the industrialized world.

What brought Lagarde to Baker & Mackenzie was her failing France’s rigorous civil service exams. Twice. Shortly after, she built her life in the US, married and divorced her first husband, raised a family, and climbed the ranks.

By 1999, she was president of Baker & Mackenzie, a shadow player in the exciting world of big business. Further promotion to the firm’s executive circle came in 2005 before she became finance minister.

An avid swimmer and strict vegetarian, the 56-year-old Lagarde now presides over a 70-year-old institution facing an existential crisis. Forged in the Bretton-Woods agreement during the closing days of World War II, the IMF was meant to become a steward for newly independent countries in Africa and Asia.

Working in conjunction with the World Bank and the United Nations, the IMF operates as an avid loan-giver and think tank, whose goals were to remove conflict as a factor in international relations.

It failed at this most of the time, earning a reputation for sabotaging developing economies instead. With the Eurozone now bankrupt, the IMF is in the awkward position of having to reverse its usual modus operandi—it is now out to save developed economies.

Since Lagarde is at the helm, it falls squarely on her well developed shoulders to save the Eurozone, save the IMF, and possibly the world as we know it.

In the meantime, she maintains a frantic globe-trotting itinerary that could rival Hillary Clinton’s.

Print ed: 02/13


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