Inquiry puts ex-World Bank officials under scrutiny on China

Sep 17, 2021, 3:34 AM | Updated: Sep 20, 2021, 3:12 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former officials of the World Bank are under pressure after an investigation found that they pressured staff members of the bank to alter data on global business conditions in order to favor China and some other governments.

The World Bank said it would discontinue its “Doing Business” report in the wake of the investigation, which was conducted by the law firm WilmerHale after internal questions involving “data irregularities” in the 2018 and 2020 editions of the report and possible “ethical matters” involving bank staff.

WilmerHale’s report concluded that Kristalina Georgieva, then the chief executive of the World Bank, and the office of Jim Yong Kim, then the bank’s president, pressured staff members to change data on China to support Beijing’s ranking in the “Doing Business” report. These rankings are important to China and other developing nations because they can affect their ability to attract investment from overseas.

In a statement, Georgieva, who now leads the International Monetary Fund, disputed the report’s conclusion that she was involved in pressuring World Bank staff members to appease China.

“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,” her statement said.

The World Bank, based in Washington, is among the world’s largest sources of development funding. “Doing Business,” which evaluates a country’s tax burdens, bureaucratic obstacles, regulatory system and other business conditions, is used by some governments to try to attract investment. The report ranks countries on such factors as how straightforward or burdensome it is to register a business, legally enforce a contract, resolve a bankruptcy, obtain an electrical connection or acquire construction permits.

Timothy Ash, a strategist at the fixed income manager BlueBay Asset Management, said he “cannot overestimate” the importance of the Doing Business report for banks and businesses trying to assess risk in a particular country.

“Any quantitative model of country risk has built this in to ratings,” Ash said. “Money and investments are allocated on the back of this series.”

He added that if an analyst at a bank or rating agency had done what is alleged, “I wager they would be fired and would be subject to regulatory investigation.”

China has tried over the past two decades to increase its influence over international institutions, including the IMF and the World Health Organization, and their policies.

The changes made to the 2018 “Doing Business” report followed lobbying by Beijing for a better ranking and came ahead of a campaign by the World Bank to raise capital in which Beijing was expected to play a “key role,” the report said. China is the bank’s third-largest shareholder after the United States and Japan.

Changes made by analysts who prepared the 2018 report raised China’s ranking by seven places to No. 78, according to the report. Other changes affected rankings of Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

According to WilmerHale’s investigative report, a World Bank senior director acknowledged that the “Doing Business” leadership made changes to “push the data in a certain direction to accommodate geopolitical considerations.” It said Georgieva thanked the senior director for doing his “bit for multilateralism.”

The senior director interpreted that to mean “not angering China” during the capital increase negotiations, the report said.

The World Bank researchers knew that the changes “were inappropriate,” but they “expressed a fear of retaliation” by Georgieva’s aide, Simeon Djankov, according to the report.

The Chinese foreign ministry expressed hope the World Bank would “conduct a comprehensive investigation” to “better maintain the professionalism and credibility” of “Doing Business.”

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to optimizing the business environment,” said a ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian.

___

World Bank investigation: thedocs.worldbank.org/en/doc/84a922cc9273b7b120d49ad3b9e9d3f9-0090012021/original/DB-Investigation-Findings-and-Report-to-the-Board-of-Executive-Directors-September-15-2021.pdf

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Inquiry puts ex-World Bank officials under scrutiny on China