H. Johannes Witteveen, 97, Dies; Steered I.M.F. Through Turbulent Era
H. Johannes Witteveen, a Dutch economist and politician who, as head of the International Monetary Fund from 1973 to 1978, helped steer the world economy through some of the worst turbulence since World War II, died on April 23. He was 97.
His death was confirmed on the website of a Sufi Muslim organization in the Netherlands. The announcement did not say where he died.
Dr. Witteveen had converted to Islam and was known among Sufis, adherents of a mystical branch of the religion, as Murshid Karimbakhsh Witteveen. He had been prominent in the Sufi movement in his country.
As the I.M.F’s fifth managing director, Dr. Witteveen took over a demoralized and sidelined institution. Only six months earlier, the justification for the fund’s very existence had been put into question when the world abandoned the system of fixed currency values the fund had been created to supervise, switching to a market-based regime of floating exchange rates. Worse was to come.
Within months of his arrival, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries quadrupled the price of oil, plunging the world into a nightmarish combination of recession and inflation, quickly labeled “stagflation.”
Dr. Witteveen used both these seemingly unfavorable developments to revive the institution’s fortunes, creating new functions for the I.M.F. and giving it renewed relevance and prestige.
Dr. Witteveen brought an unusual degree of political self-confidence to the job. An economics professor from Rotterdam University, he had spent 12 years in the Dutch Parliament, serving as both finance minister and deputy prime minister. Once in office, he began resolutely pushing his own ideas, often against the preferences of the United States.
His most significant accomplishment was the creation in 1974 and 1975 of two special programs under which the fund borrowed money from the newly enriched oil producing countries, known as OPEC, and then lent it to hard-pressed oil-importing countries, mostly in the developing world.
By thus “recycling” OPEC’s newfound oil wealth back to its customers, the I.M.F. mitigated the recessionary impact of the rise in oil prices on the world economy, ensuring that oil-consuming nations had the money to pay for imports and thus sustain world trade.
These programs were Dr. Witteveen’s idea, and he personally pushed then through despite the skepticism of some members of his staff and the doubts of the United States Treasury secretary, William E. Simon. Mr. Simon believed that private banks should be left to recycle OPEC’s financial surpluses without assistance from the fund.
Although the amount of “recycling” the I.M.F. carried out was comparatively small when measured against the size of OPEC’s wealth, Margaret Garritsen de Vries, the fund’s official historian for these years, argued that it set an important example of international cooperation at a time of great economic stress and encouraged private banks to complete the task of channeling OPEC funds back to oil-consuming nations.
“Mr. Witteveen’s initiative and his success in carrying them to fruition enormously increased the fund’s involvement in international affairs,” Ms. de Vries wrote in her 1985 book, “The International Monetary Fund: Cooperation on Trial 1972-1978.”
To help the poorest countries, Dr. Witteveen borrowed additional OPEC wealth to finance a subsidy account, which reduced the cost of loans taken out by the developing countries “most seriously affected” by the oil price explosion and the worldwide economic slowdown it brought.
Then, in 1977, while negotiations were underway on increasing the size of the I.M.F.’s lending resources, Dr. Witteveen arranged another temporary lending program, again financed by oil exporters and other rich nations to ensure that the institution had sufficient funds to meet members’ needs.
By involving the fund in the business of recycling OPEC’s surplus, Dr. Witteveen brought about a spectacular upsurge in member countries’ use of the fund’s resources. In 1973, when he took office, borrowing from the fund had reached its lowest level in 10 years, at less than $1 billion. But by 1977, the year before he stepped down, it had soared to over $7 billion (about $30 billion in today’s money), including major loans to Britain and Italy.
Almost from his first day on the job, Dr. Witteveen had been pressing for the fund to be given the task of supervising the new floating exchange rate regime, to ensure stability and to prevent countries from manipulating their exchange rates to win a competitive advantage against their trading partners.
And after long negotiations with France, which favored a return to fixed currency exchange rates, and the United States, which favored free-floating rates, Dr. Witteveen was able to announce an agreement in 1975 formally giving the I.M.F. the task of “exercising firm surveillance” over the world’s new and more flexible exchange rate system.
Hendrikus Johannes Witteveen was born on June 12, 1921, in Zeist, a Dutch town east of Utrecht. He served in the Dutch Planning Bureau before becoming a professor of economics at the University of Rotterdam and entering Dutch politics.
Dr. Witteveen surprised governments and the fund’s staff by announcing in September 1977, a year before his term expired, that he would not seek a second term. Apparently feeling that he had done all he could to help the world weather the big oil-price shocks of the early 1970s, he stuck to his decision despite being urged to stay on by President Jimmy Carter.
Back in the Netherlands, he held a number of business positions. He served on the international council of Morgan Guaranty Trust and the European advisory council of General Motors, and as an adviser to the Amro Bank.
From 1978 to 1985 he was the first chairman of the Group of Thirty, a Washington-based nonprofit economics research organization drawing from the private, public and academic sectors. He was also a longtime member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He married Liesbeth de Vries Feijens, who was a professor of oncology at the University of Groningen’s medical center in the Netherlands. She died in 2006. There was no immediate information on his survivors.
A son, Willem Witteveen, 62, a political scholar, author and Dutch senator, was one of almost 300 people who died in 2014 when the plane they were on, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, out of Amsterdam, was shot down by what the Dutch authorities said was a surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine.
Willem Witteveen’s wife, Lidwien Heerkens, and their daughter, Marit, a college student, also died in the crash. (A son was not on the plane.) Like his father, the younger Mr. Witteveen practiced Universal Sufism.