- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — World Bank President Robert Zoellick said Wednesday he is stepping down, raising the possibility that a non-American might be chosen for the first time to head the 187-nation lending organization.

Mr. Zoellick, 58, informed the board he will leave June 30 at the end of a five-year term, during which he led the bank’s response to the global financial crisis.

The board now begins looking for a new president under guidelines that directors adopted in 2011 calling for an “open, merit-based and transparent selection” process.

That suggests a break from the informal agreement that dates to the bank’s founding almost 68 years ago, under which the bank’s president is an American and the head of its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, is a European.

There is no guarantee that a non-American will be chosen to head the bank, even though China is now the world’s second-largest economy and other countries with growing economic clout have been exerting pressure for a change in the U.S.-European arrangement.

The IMF was supposed to follow the same open-selection guidelines when it searched for a new managing director last year, but it wound up again choosing a European, former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

As Mr. Zoellick’s term draws to a close, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers have been mentioned as possible successors, though Mrs. Clinton has said she is not interested in the job.

Mr. Zoellick, a Republican appointed by former President George W. Bush, has a good relationship with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other members of the Obama administration. But analysts who follow the bank and some senior members of its staff said they were not surprised he decided to leave.

His plans after leaving were unclear. Mr. Zoellick could return to the private sector, where he was once a senior adviser at Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs investment firm. He likely could count on a high-ranking post if Republicans win the November elections, having served as deputy secretary of state and U.S. trade representative in the George W. Bush administration.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said he did not know if President Obama had spoken with Mr. Zoellick and had no information on possible successors.

“There has been much speculation, but I’m not going to confirm any of it,” Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Zoellick said he will stay focused on being bank president until June 30 and will continue to drive policies and programs at a heightened tempo. For example, later this month, the bank said, he will unveil a groundbreaking study on the future structure of China’s economic growth model.

Under Mr. Zoellick‘s leadership, the bank has provided more than $247 billion to help developing countries boost growth and overcome poverty.

Mr. Zoellick said he was “pleased that when the world needed the bank to step up, our shareholders responded with expanded resources and support for key reforms that made us quicker, more effective and more open.”

He said the bank was now in a strong position and ready for new challenges, “so it is a natural time for me to move on and support new leadership.”

Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

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