(Bloomberg News) French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde emerged as the leading contender to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the International Monetary Fund as developing nations failed to unite behind a candidate.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner called for the quick appointment of a new managing director yesterday while the Obama administration avoided backing any one person.

"We want to see an open process that leads to a prompt succession," Geithner said in a statement. John Lipsky, the Washington-based IMF's acting managing director, "will provide able and experienced leadership to the fund at this critical time for the global economy," Geithner said.

European officials moved to maintain control over the institution that approved a record $91.7 billion in emergency loans last year and provides a third of the euro-area's bailout packages. Italy and Sweden backed Lagarde, while German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he holds her in high esteem, the first public hint of German support.

"I would argue that Christine Lagarde has outstanding credentials," Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg said in a Bloomberg Television interview yesterday. Her gender is an "advantage" since "half of the world has not been represented as managing director" of the IMF, Borg said.

'Excellent Choice'

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Lagarde would be "an excellent choice" as Europe's candidate, the Italian government said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Berlusconi said it's "fundamental" that Europe should reach a common position on whom the candidate should be as soon as possible, the statement said.

Lagarde is now the "odds-on" favorite for the IMF's top job after being a "20-1 outsider when betting began," London- based bookmaker William Hill Plc said in an e-mailed statement today. Trailing her were former Turkish Economy Minister Kemal Dervis and South Africa's ex-Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, at 3-1 and 5-1 odds, respectively.

Officials in emerging markets including Thailand, Russia and South Africa said the next IMF managing director should come from a developing nation even as they failed to unite behind one candidate the way Europe coalesced around Lagarde.

While Chinese officials haven't publicly endorsed any candidate, Thailand and the Philippines backed Singapore Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as a possible choice to succeed Strauss-Kahn at the IMF.