Decoding Lagarde Means Learning Proverbs, Poets, the Magic Flute

(Bloomberg) -- In eight years as managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde made close to 200 speeches in dozens of countries. The first woman to run the world’s financial firehouse has urged some central banks to provide monetary stimulus and cautioned others to lean against asset bubbles. She exudes the European ideal of “shared prosperity” but carefully tailors her messages to her audiences.

Decoding Lagarde Means Learning Proverbs, Poets, the Magic Flute

As European Central Bank watchers try to divine how she might communicate as the next ECB president, one thing to understand is she’s a student of the arts, history, philosophy, literature and even nature. Great minds of the past, according to Lagarde, can guide policy makers in the present. Here’s a sampling:

  • Speaking in Geneva on June 14, she quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt in a speech about the IMF’s approach to social spending: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
  • A week earlier, she drew inspiration from a Japanese proverb in a speech in Fukuoka, Japan, about adapting to the advances in financial technology: “Walk across the stone bridge only after you have tested its strength.”
  • Speaking in Mexico City in late-May about economic challenges and financial inclusion, Lagarde recalled the words of artist Frida Kahlo, translated into English this way: “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
  • In Tbilisi just a week earlier that month, she quoted the poet and statesman Ilia Chavchavadze in remarks aimed at encouraging Georgia to transform its economy: “A man creates his own destiny, but destiny does not create a man.”
  • In March, Lagarde spoke at the Bank of France in Paris about strengthening the euro area, using the words of playwright Moliere for inspiration: “The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
  • Amid a tariff war between the U.S. and China in November 2018, she reinforced the virtues of global trade before a Shanghai crowd by quoting the 18th century French philosopher Montesquieu: “Wherever there is good citizenship, there is trade, and wherever there is trade, there is good citizenship.”
  • In April 2018, laying out three priorities for the global economy in a speech in Hong Kong, she challenged policy makers not to rely on the tools of the past, borrowing three words from artist Henri Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.”
  • Naturally, Mozart provided the motivation in Lagarde’s June 2016 speech in Vienna about unity in Europe: “On the face of it, the Magic Flute is a story of a handsome prince rescuing a damsel in distress,” she said. “At a deeper level, it shows how mankind is progressing from nature to culture, from superstition to enlightenment, from the darkness of chaos to the dawn of a new peaceful era.”
  • In January 2016, at a going-away event for Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer, she left the Paris crowd with a thought from Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis -- actual or perceived -- produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
  • The commencement address in May 2015 at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago had a personal significance for Lagarde -- her daughter was among the graduates. Mom’s advice was taken from Thomas Jefferson: “I am a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
  • Lagarde dug deep for a way to connect with the locals in her June 2012 address to dignitaries in Riga, where she cited Latvia poet Rainis in remarks about the economic difficulties facing Baltic nations: “The one who will endure is the one who is willing to change.”
  • In many of her speeches, Lagarde’s hope for Europe’s success is hard to miss, like the time she toasted Wolfgang Schaeuble, the former German finance minister, in Aachen, a German town between Brussels and Frankfurt. She quoted former French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, an architect of the continent’s integration: “We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for 10 centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe -- creating between them an organization putting an end to war, and guaranteeing an eternal peace.”

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