Friday, August 01, 2014
Understanding Argentina's Pseudo-Debt Crisis
For those who are interested in Argentina's recent troubles with the debt vultures, here is Chapter VII from my book The Blood Bankers. (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
This chapter provides the essential historical background that you need to understand where Argentina's current crisis came from, and its "debt problem" is so deep-rooted.
Here are a few of my recent TV and newspaper interviews on the subject: (1), (2), and (3). And here is the 2012 US Court of Appeals decision that upheld US Federal District Court Judge Thomas P. Griesa's 2011 rulings in favor of the vulture funds.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
THE GOLDMAN SACHS CASE Part I: "Clowns to the Left of Me" James S. Henry
Well, we no longer have to worry only about corrupt bankers in Kyrgystan. Ever since the Goldman Sachs case erupted last week, there's been plenty of fresh banker blood in the water right here at home, with scores of financial pundits, professors-cum-prosecutors, and political piranha swirling around the wounded giants in the banking industry as if they were a herd of cattle crossing a tributary on the upper Rio Negro.
This feeding frenzy was precipitated by last Friday's surprising SEC announcement of civil fraud charges against Goldman Sachs -- heretofore by far the most profitable, highly-respected, and, indeed, public-spirited US investment bank.
Despite -- or more likely because of -- Goldman Sach's relatively clean track record and illustrious credentials, many commentators have assumed a certain Madame Defarge pose, reigning down censure and derision from the penultimate rungs of
their mobile moral pedestals.
Over the weekend, for example, Huffington featured a
half dozen vituperative columns on the subject, including a Vanity Fair contributing editor's feverish claim that the whole affair was somehow
deeply connected to one high-level
Wall Street marriage, and
host's denunciation of Goldman for refusing to appear on his show --
his show ! There was also a plea from Madame Ariana for criminal
In fact, this is a case where, as we'll see in Part III, the SEC's civil charges against Goldman Sachs are not only highly debatable, but largely beside the point.
Meanwhile, Bob Kuttner, another Huffy perennial, and one of our most prolific popularizers of conventional liberal dogma, asserted that Goldman demonstrates conclusively that Wall Street en tout is nothing but an on-going criminal enterprise, up to its eyeballs in outright fraud.
In a lurch toward financial Ludditism, Bob figuratively placed his hands on his hips, stomped his feet, and demanded nothing less than a "radical simplification of the
financial system" -- leaving it to the reader's imagination to determine just what the hell that means.
Will we still be permitted to use ATMs, checking accounts and paper currency, or will we all soon have to return to wampum beads and n-party barter?
Elsewhere, the Daily Beast published a de facto job application from Harvard Law's Prof. Alan Dershowitz -- otherwise well known in the legal profession as "He whose key clients are either fabulously wealthy or innocent."
Prof. Dershowitz argues -- quite rightly -- that Goldman' behavior, while no doubt
morally reprehensible, was also by no means clearly illegal. On the other hand, he also says the law is so vague that hedge fund investor Paulson might even be charged with conspiracy to commit fraud.
Well, ok -- except for the article's faint suggestion that for a modest fee, our country's finest criminal lawyer may just be available to help explain all this to a judge -- and also to argue that "only a tiny fraction of investment bankers who abuse their clients actually commit murder."
Finally, there is the omni-present, virtually unavoidable Simon Johnson, a Peterson Institute Fellow, MIT B-school prof, book author, "public intellectual," and "contributing business editor" at Huffington.
This week has been Prof. Johnson's heure de gloire, and he is living it to the fullest.
All week long he could be found at all hours on nearly every cable news channel and web site, pitching his own increasingly Puritanical, if not neo-Manichean views of the banking crisis and Goldman's role in it.
At first, Prof. Johnson merely expressed
delight that the US had finally reached its "Pecora moment" --
referring to the 1933-34 US
Senate investigation of Wall Street that, indeed, makes the modest
$8 million Angelides
like a California '68 love-in.
But by mid-week he'd had moved on to a much harsher assessment.
Not only is Goldman guilty as sin, but hedge fund investor John Paulson, one of the key parties to the Goldman transaction, deserves to be "banned for life" from the securities industry. If necessary, Johnson says, the US Congress should even pass an ex post facto bill of attainder!
He may therefore not be aware that the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 9) has explicitly prohibited both ex post facto laws and bills of attainder (legislative decrees that punish a single individual or group without trial) ever since 1788.
Just this month, a US federal district court in New York struck down Congressional sanctions that singled out ACORN, the community organizing group on precisely these grounds. The case is now on appeal.
Indeed, even in the UK, there have been no bills of attainder since 1798.
Despite Prof. Johnson's limited grasp of US or even UK law, and his Draconian appetites, I've actually grown rather fond of him lately -- or at least more understanding.
This is partly because since he left
the IMF in September 2008, he's apparently had a kind of road-to-Damacus epiphany.
He now realizes, as if for the first time, the enormous carnage that has been inflicted by a comparative handful of giant global banks, as well as the huge potential rewards of decrying these outrages from the roof tops.
But that 1+ year was more than enough time for him to leave a lasting impression at the IMF.
He is still fondly remembered at the IMF not
only for having entirely
missed the 2007-08 mortgage crisis even as it was unfolding, but also for deciding in
July 2008, less than 3 months before the entire global financial system nearly collapsed, to sharply increase
the IMF's growth forecast for both 2008 and 2009.
That was just one month before the otherwise-feckless Bush SEC initiated the 18-month investigation of Goldman Sachs that ultimately led to last week's charges.
If and when the Goldman Sachs case ever comes to trial, therefore, it may be interesting for Goldman's attorneys -- perhaps Prof. Dershowitz -- to consider calling Prof. Johnson as a witness for the defense.
After all, he probably qualifies as an expert on the heart-rending experience of just how difficult it was even for highly-trained experts to have clear peripheral vision, much less perfect foresight, back in the heady days of the real estate boom.
In Prof. Johnson's case, these included IMF senior management, executive directors, and a myriad of country officials who were all pressuring the IMF to inflate its forecasts back in 2008, just as housing markets and financial markets were beginning to crumble.
In July 2008, on Prof. Johnson's watch, they temporarily prevailed.
From this angle, the IMF Chief Economist's role might even be compared to that of a certain young Goldman Sachs VP.
Even in the dark days ahead, therefore, Goldman Sachs execs have at least a few consolations.
First, they can remind themselves that there were very damn few heroes in this sordid tale -- journalists, politicians, public intellectuals, and economists included.
Indeed, Brooklyn-born investor John Paulson may turn out to have been, if not quite a "hero," at least one of the few relatively straightforward and consistent players in the lot.
At least in his own investing, he consistently opposed the systematic distortions about the housing miracle and the exaggerate forecasts -- dare one say frauds? -- that institutions the US Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and Prof. Johnson's own IMF employed in the final stage of the real estate bubble, in a failed attempt to achieve a 'soft landing.'
Second, while it may be hard for us to imagine, things might actually have turned out a whole lot worse.
Goldman Sachs might well have relied on Prof.
Johnson's sophisticated, bullish forecasts rather than on John Paulson's intuitive short-side skepticism.
How much money would Goldman's clients, investors, and the rest of us have lost then?
© JSH, SubmergingMarkets, 2010.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
True Unemployment: 20% and Still Rising Send Geithner Home to Wall Street! His Legacy: 30+ MM Underemployed, Failed Stimulus, No Bank Reform, Soaring Deficits, Sinking $$ James S. Henry
With official US unemployment now at 10.2 percent, the third highest among the 29 OECD countries, and unofficial unemployment at least two times higher, more than 30 million American workers and their families are now being forcefully reminded every day that "the reserve army of the unemployed" is not just pure Marxist rhetoric.
While China and most developing countries are already recovering nicely from this First World-made debt crisis, all indications are that US unemployment is still rising, and that we will soon see a new postwar record -- -- two years after the "Great Recession," the longest and deepest since the 1930s, began in December 2007.
UNEMPLOYMENT: GET REAL
To get the real unemployment picture, we need to adjust the official statistics upwards. First, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' own data shows, the "official" rate leaves out many workers who are (a) underemployed, working only part time when they'd prefer full time jobs (9.3 million now); (b) fully unemployed, and desirous of jobs, but not counted in the official statistics because they've given up look (2.3 to 5.6 million). Allowing for these two adjustments already boosts "underemployment" to the 17.5% figure cited in some recent press reports.
But even that figure is too low. First, it omits the country's 20 million "self-employed" (incorporated and unincorporated), a growing share of the labor force. All are counted as "employed" in the official statistics, no matter how underutilized they are. Yet other surveys report that this group is also experiencing serious underemployment.
Furthermore, the official statistics also leave out about 1.6 million who are now serving in the military, plus the record 2.33 million US prison inmate population. Both populations are heavily young, male, and undereducated, and would therefore experience relatively high unemployment. This is especially important for the sake of historical comparability -- say, for comparisons with the 1930s, when the US military and the prison populations were both tiny.
In addition, of course, when the Great Recession started there were at least 8 to 10 million undocumented workers in the US, none of whom appear in the official statistics. Whatever we think of illegal immigration, the fact is that most of these workers have not been able to return to their homelands, and are still here, quietly suffering through this recession. Indeed, to the extent that they are unable to draw on unemployment benefits and other social programs to cushion the blow, they are being forced to compete with the rest of us more fiercely than ever.
All told, therefore, as shown in the adjacent chart (click to pop up), this makes the "real" US unemployment in October 2009 at least 20 percent or more -- twice the official rate.
TO WHOM DO WE TURN?
One might have expected this historic jobs crisis to have provoked a quick, decisive response from Washington Unfortunately, American workers have also recently been reminded that, disturbingly, the Democratic Party can simply no longer be counted on to put labor's interests ahead of capital's.
This was evident to some of us when Obama's first stimulus package was being designed -- given that it was loaded up with so many Christmas goodies for special interests and so many regressive tax cuts.
But by now it should be clear to anyone but the most bullet-headed diehard party ideologues.
Whatever else Obama's February 2009 stimulus package has accomplished, it simply hasn't created nearly enough new jobs, fast enough.
Nor has it provided nearly enough aid to debt-ridden homeowners -- as the continued record-setting pace of home foreclosures and bankruptcies testifies.
These basic policy shortcomings are not due to some Herbert Hoover or Ronald Reagan. While Obama obviously inherited a mess, by now enough time has passed that his administration has become responsible for its continuation.
How high does unemployment have to go for the Obama Administration to actually want to do something more about it?
When FDR took office in March 1933, unemployment stood at nearly 25 percent of the labor force, and he immediately took decisive action to make sure that unemployment was reduced, by establishing targeted federal job creation programs, attacking anti-competitive practices by large banks and corporations, and making sure debt relief got through to small businesses, farmers, and homeowners.
What is it about the character of the Obama Administration that has made its response so different?
THE FIFTH COLUMN
As we've argued for some time (See "The Pseudo Stimulus," The Nation, February 3, 2009, and "Too Big Not to Fail," The Nation, February 23, 2009), one basic problem seems to be that Obama's Administration, unlike FDR's, has been overly dependent from the get-go on pro-Wall Street insider/ fifth columnists, captained by the Supreme "Jimmy Do-little"/ Andrew Mellon of the period, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Not only has Geithner been far too slow to recognize that the first stimulus was woefully inadequate.
- ☛Opposed serious restrictions on executive compensation and perks for senior bank staff that are unrelated to performance;
- ☛Opposed clawbacks or windfall profits taxes on the hundreds of millions in stock options granted by bailed-out banks last spring;
☛Opposed the establishment of a new independent consumer protection agency for financial products;
☛Opposed forcing banks that have accepted US aid to accelerate lending to small business and homeowners;
☛Opposed proposals for a "Tobin tax" on financial transactions, as suggested by the UK and France, as a way of financing climate change aid;
☛Opposed G20 proposals to clean up a wide variety of tax haven abuses by major bank and companies around the globe;
☛Failed to achieve any serious reforms whatsoever of financial regulation, more than a year after the crisis;
☛Failed to get anywhere with the vaunted "toxic asset buyback" program;
☛Insisted that any reforms leave the ultimate regulatory authority in the hands of the US Federal Reserve -- an anti-democratic, pro-Wall Street institution if ever there was one, whose policy errors have contributed significantly to this costly crisis.
Of course at this stage, with US budget deficits at a postwar high, and controversial measures like health care reform, climate change, Afghanistan, and immigration still in stuck in traffic, plus a mid-term Congressional election fast approaching, it may well be too late for the Obama Administration to propose a second stimulus. If this were going to happen, it would have needed Treasury and White House leadership already.
Secretary Geithner, I'm told, already has multiple job offers from at least a half a dozen leading banks and hedge funds, so he will only profit from this exit -- which he probably anticipated all along.
By clearing the decks and bringing in a fresh team with some new, more progressive ideas, more daring-do, and independence, this could help prevent Obama from repeating Jimmy Carter's sad, rapid one-term involution.
In any case, when the history of the Obama Administration is written, it is worth remembering that at least a few progressives warned about all this very early -- the risks of adopting a "pseudo-stimulus," failing to aid small debtors and businesses, and failing to exert strong control over the banks.
Ultimately, that may be one of the biggest costs of this crisis -- the lost opportunity to show that Democrats really are still capable of providing the country with outstanding, disinterested economic leadership in times of crisis.
(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2009
Saturday, February 28, 2009
TOO BIG NOT TO FAIL? James S. Henry
(A version of the following story appeared in the Nation on February 23, 2009, here )
Or has the administration just been fighting the last war,paying far too much attention to ancient history, special interests, political correctness, and its own pre-recession agenda, in its programs to stimulate the economy, fix the banks and providing debt relief to homeowners?.
For lifelong students of the Great Depression like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers, it probably seems that Obama's economics team is on track.
In less than a month, Obama has pushed his record $787 billion stimulus bill through a highly partisan Congress. The resulting projected federal deficits will be even larger as a share of of national income than those incurred under FDR, until World War II. At a time when unemployment is rising sharply, this should be good news for the economy--- if the plan is sufficiently stimulating.
On February 10, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced a bold, if somewhat imprecise, $2.5 trillion program to relieve US banks of dodgy assets once and for all. Combined with trillions in other loans and guarantees from the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve, this is designed to avoid another costly Great Depression-type error, in which scores of banks were allowed to fail and credit markets seized up. If the plan really is expected to work, that should also be good news for the economy.
Bernanke also concluded from his lengthy studies of the Great Depression that the Federal Reserve had blown it way back then by keeping monetary policy too tight. So ever since last summer he's made the US money supply as loose as loose can be, ballooning the Fed's balance sheet to nearly $1 trillion and driving real interest rates down to zero, while pressuring his counterparts in Europe and Japan to folllow suit.
Obama's team also has emphasized the importance of avoiding the beggar-thy-neighbor "protectionism" of the 1930s--aside from a little "Buy American" language in the stimulus bill and a few remarks from Geithner about China. If loose monetary policy and tighter lips are sufficient for recovery, it should be just around the corner.
Finally, in the course of Obama's drive to pass the stimulus, he traveled to troubled communities in Indiana, Florida and Arizona and heard first-hand that millions of American homeowners and small businesses could use a little financial aid of their own right now. So Obama has committed $275 billion of the remaining TARP/"Financial Stability" funds to this purpose. In principle, this should also be good news for the economy--if we really believe that the plan has what it takes to stem the galloping pace of foreclosures and bankruptcies.
Obama and his team may really believe that their first month in office compares favorably with FDR's in 1933. Historical pitfalls have been avoided, and there has been no shortage of good intentions, optimism and action. The new president has also assembled a team that includes, by its own admission, the nation's brightest economists and its most experienced veterans of the Fed and the Treasury.
But something seems to be missing. During FDR's first few months in office, and well into his second term, he received an overwhelmingly positive response not only from the public at large but also from the stock market, despite the fact that FDR and Wall Street generally detested each other.
In contrast, the reaction of global stock markets and market analysts to Obama's flurry of policy initiatives has been overwhelmingly negative. In the past week alone, since the passage of the stimulus, the announcement of the Geithner plan and the president's new plan for mortgage relief, the stock market has declined more than 10 percent. Indeed, the country's largest banks and auto companies, which were supposed to be the beneficiaries of much of these new programs, are on the brink of bankruptcy.
So what's the problem? Actually there are several problems. The first, as I noted in part one of this series, "The Pseudo Stimulus," there really is much less to Obama's stimulus than meets the eye and far less than will be needed to head off the dramatic increase in unemployment that is fast approaching.
For reasons of political convenience and a desire to move quickly, Obama and his advisors decided to appease a handful of key Republican senators, rather than seize the bully pulpit and rally support around a larger, more direct spending package with more debt relief for homeowners.
Ultimately Obama succeeded in getting just three "moderate" Republican senators and zero House Republicans to support the package. (Eleven House Democrats also voted against it.) These votes were costly. The final bill ended up slashing almost $40 billion from the package, while boosting the share of tax cuts to nearly 40 percent--including almost half of all relief provided in the critical first year when it is essential to get the downturn under control.
Most macroeconomists still believe that under conditions of excess capacity, tax cuts generate much less employment per dollar of lost revenue than almost any kind of spending, because upper-income types will save the proceeds or use them to pay down debts. Furthermore, many of the tax cuts in Obama's bill are regressive, even allowing for his favorites, "Make Work Pay," the earned income credit and child care credit. This means their impact on jobs will be even more limited.
For example, of $214 billion of individual tax cuts in the first two years, $100 billion will go to the top 20 percent, while the bottom 60 percent gets $81 billion. Indeed, for one of the largest single tax cuts in the bill, the $70 billion reduction in the "alternative minimum tax," 70 percent will go to the top 10 percent, while the bottom 60 percent--including most unemployed workers--get .5 percent. So Obama's vaunted plan relies on this premier-class AMT cut, plus another $100 billion of business tax breaks, for 27 percent of its first two years of "stimulus."
On top of this, Republicans like Arlen Specter also have shown that they give no ground to Democrats when it comes to sausage-making. I won't repeat part one's list of trinkets, except to note that almost all the worst projects survived, and indeed were only enhanced by the solons' scrutiny.
As a former Minnesotan I'm all in favor of free WiFi for each and every one of the nation's two million farmers; I've also recently written here in glowing terms about the merits of government- sponsored research and development and "green housing." But this kind of spending has little to do with putting millions of unemployed people--most of whom are in urban areas--back to work.
All told, at least $200 billion of this stimulus spending, on top of the $200 billion of wasteful tax cuts, is not remotely related to the urgent goal of creating as many jobs as possible in the next twelve to eighteen months. The cause of recovery was hijacked by a weird coalition of environmentalists, energy companies, venture capitalists, public-sector unions, state governors, tax-cut nuts and other special interests.
The stimulus program was supposed to realize Obama's declared goal of saving or creating at least 4 million new jobs by 2012--even then, at the average cost of $200,000 per job. According to the Congressional Budget Office, even that level of job creation would only reduce the US unemployment rate by an average of less than one percentage point a year by 2012, for a cumulative reduction of 2.5 to 3 percent relative to the CBO's projections of what unemployment will look like without the program.
By the time the Senate got through with it, Obama's stimulus became much weaker. So most economists now agree that it will be lucky to create or save even an extra 2.5 million jobs by 2012--about a 1.5 to 2 percentage-point cumulative reduction in the official unemployment rate by 2012, at an average cost to taxpayers of $315,000 per job.
The contrast with FDR's focus on spending programs that really did put people back to work, is striking.
THE REAL UNEMPLOYMENT RATE
All the standard measures of unemployment are woefully inadequate, but the shortcomings change with the times. In good times, with tight labor markets, conservative economists find it satisfying to remind us that the degree of "involuntary" unemployment is probably overstated, because workers can afford to game the welfare system--for example, by collecting unemployment insurance while refusing reasonable job offers.
In hard times like these, however, official unemployment rates seriously understate the degree of slack and hardship in labor markets. For example, in addition to the 13 million people now unemployed (that's 8.5 percent of the labor force) another 7.8 million workers report that they are underemployed; at least 2.1 million to 5.9 million more (none of whom are collecting unemployment) say they're not in the labor force because they've given up looking. By another measure, the peak labor force participation rate, established when labor markets were very tight in 1999 and 2000, shows the potential supply of labor not counted as unemployed is even larger--10.6 million right now.
All told, this means by now there are already at least 23 million to 33 million American adults who are already experiencing increased unemployment, up from 13 million to 17 million from a year ago. By the end of 2009, as the official unemployment rate passes 10 percent and the other indicators of slack labor markets grow as well, this figure will swell to 40 million American adults--at least 9 million to 18 million more under-utilized workers than we have now.
A majority of these people have families. Furthermore, the unemployed population constantly turns over, with a median duration of joblessness that now exceeds ten weeks. This means that during the next year, up to one-third of the entire US population will personally encounter someone facing the harsh realities of involuntary unemployment, and perhaps homelessness and poverty as well.
These figures omit several other kinds of "hidden" unemployment that are not recorded in conventional labor force and unemployment statistics: the 1.44 million people on active duty in the military and the unemployment they would face if and when they return to civilian life; the 2.3 million inmates in federal, state and local prisons, all of whom are omitted from labor force and unemployment statistics; and the estimated 8.1 million undocumented workers in the United States who are in the labor force.
In many ways undocumented workers are the most vulnerable victims of the crisis. Most support families either abroad or home. Many also have been working hard here for years and have now lost their jobs, without any unemployment insurance, healthcare, rights to Social Security or other benefits. And since Congress has not been able to agree on a decent immigration reform bill, they may not even be able to count on achieving US citizenship, after years of working and waiting. Now they face a hard choice between remaining here, unemployed, or returning to violent, corruption-ridden "Bantustans" in Mexico, Central America, the Philippines and elsewhere.
It's important to take these factors into account when we consider how this downturn compares with earlier financial crises. Unemployment statistics for the 1930s are difficult to compare with our current situation, given the different statistical procedures employed and the very different demographics in the two eras. But my analysis shows that it is possible that this crisis may turn out to be comparable to the situation in 1933, when unemployment peaked at roughly 25 percent of the US labor force.
This analysis provides a context for assessing Obama's original goal of creating/saving 3 million to 4 million jobs by 2012. The fact is, even that original goal simply wasn't anywhere close to being ambitious enough--and it certainly won't be met under the sadly compromised final "stimulus" plan. The negative reaction of global stock markets markets to Obama's plans so far appears to confirm this. We're going to have to stop the political games and get serious.
GEITHNER'S TARP II
Markets reacted negatively to the plan not because investors necessarily opposed his new toxic asset buyback scheme. Most analysts felt that his long-anticipated statement was long on rhetoric about "stress tests and transparency" but short on digestible content--like being invited to dinner and then served pictures of food.
Indeed, like his website, FinancialStability.gov, Geithner's plan remains under construction. But critics may have missed the point--this lack of detail actually may be a political necessity. If the American people understood just how high a price the Obama adminstration may be willing to pay simply to keep our country's largest failing private banks private, we might need a few more guards at the Winter Palace.
Tim Geithner is not a former Wall Street insider in the Paulson/Rubin mold, nor was he ever for a single day a community organizer. He's an ambitious and cautious policy technocrat, whose lucrative private-sector career and board seats are still in front of him. We'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who, at age 47.5, had already punched more establishment tickets. His grandfather was a Ford Motor executive and Eisenhower adviser; his father is a Ford Foundation officer who raised Tim on three continents. He graduated from Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins, became a consultant for Kissinger Associates, a protégé of Robert Rubin and Larry Summers at Treasury in the 1990s, an IMF policy director in 2001-2003, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and finally head of the Federal Reserve of New York. As of the end of 2008, he was still a member of the CFR, the Group of Thirty and the Economic Club of New York, organizations not routinely associated with sponsoring deep reforms in post-capitalist economies.
Geithner has seen his share of banking crises firsthand: Mexico in 1995, when the entire banking system had to be re-nationalized; Thailand, Indonesia and Russia in 1997-98; Argentina in 2001; and now the biggest one of all right here. All of the Third World crises just noted ended badly--costly, poorly-managed fiascos that did nothing to enhance the reputations of the US Treasury and the IMF. But perhaps Geithner was just an apparatchik. He worked closely last year with Hank Paulson and Bernanke on Bear Stearns bailout, the Lehman/Merrill decisions, the AIG takeover and TARP I. So he probably understands full well not only the gory details of program design but also two fundamental political realities.
The first is that while nationalizing top-tier global banks may be politically acceptable in places like Norway, Sweden, Chile, Iceland, Ireland and even Japan and the UK, it is still viscerally opposed by most members of the power elite in New York and Washington--including most of his former club members.
The second is that by now, most American taxpayers have simply had it with huge Wall Street bailouts, supine members of Congress, overpaid banker chutzpadiks and high-handed Treasury secretaries. If they were ever asked, there is no way in Naraka that taxpayers would ever approve yet another open-ended injection of public capital into banks--especially one costing three times the entire "stimulus" and three-and-a-half times TARP I.
So the trick is to not ask them. With bank stocks sinking every day, the credit crunch hampering recovery and high expectations about policy changes, Geithner had to say something. But not too much. The whole subtext of his vague announcement was to finesse the question of precisely where all the money would come from. The hope was that this would buy time to line up private capital, perhaps by negotiating some kind of insurance subsidy that would induce it to participate. The hope was that this would do enough to stem the decline in bank stock prices and redirect attention away from the new "N"-word--nationalization.
WELFARE FOR BIG BANKERS
Of this, more than half went to the top fifteen banks in the country. This includes $145 billion of capital injections awarded to Citigroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, the top four US commercial banks; another $10 billion each for Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two worthy investment banks that decided to become commercial banks to avail themselves of federal aid; and a grand total of $84 billion to the rest of the US banks. There was also $40 billion in capital injections and $113 billion in credit in AIG, the profligate insurance company that sold so many flaky credit derivative swaps to investment banks like Goldman that it pioneered a whole new new "too fraudulent to fail" rule. In addition, by now US banks have also received at least $1.82 trillion of federal loan guarantees and $872 billion in federal loans.
These sums need to be viewed in the context of the staggering amount of government assistance that has recently been provided to private financial institutions all over the world. By February 2008, by my reckoning, banks and insurance companies have already absorbed at least $817 billion of government capital injections, $251 billion of toxic asset purchases, $2.6 trillion of government loans and $5.9 trillion of government debt guarantees. If we added the guarantees for once quasi-private entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the loan guarantees double to $10.9 trillion.
To put all this in perspective, the 1980s savings and loan crisis cost taxpayers from $150 billion to $300 billlion in comparable 2007 dollars. The 1998-99 Asian banking crisis cost $400 billion. Japan's prolonged banking crisis in the 1990s cost $750 billion. And the total amount of debt relief received by all Third World countries on the $4 trillion of dodgy foreign debt that they incurred from 1970 to 2006 was just $310 billion.
Those crises are completely over, while this one is still unfolding, so its ultimate cost is still uncertain. Already it is clear that ordinary taxpayers around the world are on the hook for total losses that will easily dwarf all the costs of all these other recent banking crises combined--including $2 trillion to $4 trillion of further bank write-offs beyond the $1 trillion of losses already recognized. Since no government on earth has the surpluses on hand needed to fund such largesse, this means that we will be paying for this bailout one way or another for the rest of our lives, and probably for our children's lives as well, through increased inflation, taxation and reduced government services.
Never has so much been given to so few by many. Yet despite all this public generosity, much of the US banks' recent behavior been execrable. For example, in December we learned that the US Treasury got preferred securities in exchange for the first $254 billion of TARP funds that, right off the bat, were worth $78 billion less than the funds they received.
We've also watched with amazement as they've continued to fund corporate jets and other perks, and as several of the largest recipients of TARP funds have paid extravagant bonuses to senior executives for "performance" in 2008--a year when the banking industry contributed mightily to the tanking of the entire global economy. Nor have most banks been forthcoming about what they've actually done with all the TARP money--except to to concede that they haven't done much new net lending. After all, they say, in this economic environment, with regulators suddenly breathing down their necks about leverage and toxic assets, they are not eager to take risks.
That's all well and good at the micro level, but at the level of the overall economy, we badly need banks to swallow hard and start churning out new loans--and not just to gold-plated borrowers who don't really need the money. Since TARP I funds were not dedicated to new lending, and, indeed, since policy makers like Paulson, Bernanke and (presumably) Geithner decided to leave TARP I's use entirely up to the banks' discretion, this period of extreme largesse and low interest rates has also coincided with tight credit markets--except for well-off corporations and elite borrowers and refinancers, who have actually been the main beneficiaries of Bernanke's low-interest rate policy.
So while both the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have been busy demonstrating that they have finally taken the lessons of the Great Depression to heart, and have been setting records for generosity and loose lending, at the end of the day they still allowed the private banking system to keep its elephant in the hallway, blocking the road to recovery.
Since October 2008, the net worth of the entire US banking system-- all 8,367 domestic-owned US banks--has declined by $420 billion, to just $540 billion. In other words, TARP was one of the worst investment decisions in corporate history--the banks' net worth has declined by more one dollar of equity value for each additional dollar of TARP funds injected.
Indeed, the net worth of two of the largest banks in the system, Citigroup and Bank of America, is now around $30 billion, less than half of the $70 billion in government capital that they have received from TARP I, on top of $424 billion of federal loan guarantees. Not only has their own "value added" during this period evidently been negative. For a fraction of the funds we've given these two banks, we could have stopped begging them to clean up their balance sheets, restructure their mortgages, stop wasting money, change their compensation plans and initiate sensible new lending programs. We could have bought a controlling share, hired new management from the droves of idle bankers now out on the street and re-privatized them at a profit for taxpayers in two to three years--just as successful "turnaround nationalization" programs have done again and again in these situations, from Norway to Chile.
No wonder that growing numbers of critics--not just hard-core lefties and Nobel laureates like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz but even pragmatic politicians like South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham--have started to break the taboo and talk explicitly about "nationalization."
But in an important sense the taboo had really already been shattered by TARP I, last year's expansion of FDIC deposit insurance and all the other new federal loan guarantees for the bank. In effect, these already "nationalized" the banks' debts. Now we're just talking about the other side of the balance sheet, where there might at least be some value, if only under new management.
Geithner is hardly unaware of this short-term nationalization approach to the credit crunch, or of the success it has in many other markets. But he has apparently rejected it in favor of a much more costly and uncertain route--establishing a public-private bailout fund that will somehow entice the banks to sell off their lousy assets and still have enough equity left to survive as private entities.
The limitations of this approach are best understood by taking another close look at Citigroup and Bank of America, two of the most troubled institutions in this story. On their most recent balance sheets reported to the FDIC, these two big banks alone accounted for $4.1 trillion of official on-balance-sheet "assets"--mostly loans and federal securities, but also a hefty amount of potentially dodgy mortgage-backed securities and other asset-based securities.
Right off the bat, therefore, at least by the accounting numbers, these two top banks alone now account for more than 30 percent of all the assets outstanding in the entire US banking industry. Indeed, the top fifteen banks account for over 60 percent. This represents an incredible increase in banking industry concentration since the early 1990s, when Citibank and Bank of America held just 7 percent of all US bank assets, and the top fifteen banks held 21 percent.
This increase in industry concentration was hardly an accident. It originated in the desires of bank executives to grow, boosting market share, short-term earnings, stock prices and the executive bonuses driven by those metrics. But it also reflected the gloves-off stance that Congress, regulators and antitrust enforcement took toward bank expansion during this period. And that, in turn, was probably related to the more than $1 billion contributed by the financial services industry, their lobbyists and law firms, to politicians of both major parties since 1990, which turned the Senate Banking Committee the House Financial Services Committee and other key Congressional committees, in effect, into wholly owned subsidiaries of the banking industry.
Now how much might all these assets on the banks' balance sheets actually be worth? There is no active exchange for most bank assets, especially those that are hardest to value in this environment, like mortgage-backed securities. And by law, the banks are permitted to value the assets on their books at "fair market value"--in essence, whatever their accountants tell them they are likely to be worth, given historical experience with loan losses. But the difference between these accounting numbers and today's market value for these assets may be huge--up to half or more of book value. And the banks have a strong incentive to hold on to the loans and hope that things get better, rather than sell them off right now at whatever the market will bear. After all, as soon as they start selling down one loan bundle, they may be required to "mark to market" all similar ones. And the resulting writedowns might well be enough to wipe out all stockholder equity, leading to insolvency.
This whole situation is reminescent of the 1980s Third World debt crisis, when banks like Citibank, Morgan and Chase resisted for years the demands of policy makers and developing countries to write down or sell off the billions of overvalued loans on their books--for no other reason than, as one former Chase banker put it, "a rolling loan gathers no loss." Similar behavior occurred during the prolonged Japanese debt crisis of the 1990s, when banks stubbornly resisted the efforts to get them to "mark to market" because several of them realized they would be bankrupt and no longer with us if they did so.
There's not really much moral culpability here. At ground level, from the standpoint of any individual bank, this behavior is understandable. After all, they have just gone through a period of careless underwriting, and are trying to reduce their loan losses and improve their capital ratios--just like most bank regulators want them to do. The larger banks have balance sheets that are best described as follows: "On the left side (assets), nothing is right; on the right side (deposits and other capital), nothing is left." And since the economy is still slipping at an unpredictable pace all around them, no loan officer is eager to take on more risks. So it is hardly surprising that in the last quarter of 2008, even as the TARP money started to flow, US bank lending suffered its sharpest decline since 1980. It also makes perfect sense for them to resist selling off its loans and securities at what may eventually turn out to have been fire-sale prices.
While all this may be well and good for bankers, however, for rest of us it means that even after all those trillions in federal bailouts and loan guarantees, the economy is still starved for credit. The fact that major banks as a group continue to sit on all these lousy loans at book value, rather than selling them off and writing them down, means that they don't have much room on their balance sheets and in their capital/asset ratios for new loans. So the credit crunch continues. And banks that we eventually may find out were really insolvent may walk around in a trance for months or even years, like a scene from Night of the Living Dead. We're not talking about restoring the loose lending of the 2005-2007 bubble; we're talking about the essential liquidity needed to keep the wheels from coming off, stimulate demand and stem the decline in housing prices.
But these potentially troubled categories of assets only add up to about $1.6 trillion; why is Geithner talking about a $2.5 trillion program? The FDIC's latest statistic a provides a clue. It reveals the dominant role that the country's top banks have also played in issuing derivatives, including not only interest rate and currency swaps, but also in more notorious debt-based over-the-counter derivatives. As of September 2008, JPMorganChase, Citigroup and Bank of America accounted for an incredible 90 percent of $7.9 trillion of these "off-balance sheet" credit derivatives that have been guaranteed by these banks themselves--including $2.6 trillion guaranteed by B of A and Citi. So when Secretary Geithner was talking about running "stress tests"--scenarios for future housing prices, default rates and interest rates--against the balance sheets of particular banks, he was not talking about First Federal of Tuscaloosa or Suffolk County National in Riverhead. They've probably never guaranteed a credit derivative in their lives, much less tucked anything away in some Cayman Island "special purpose vehicle." Clearly, Geithner had his friends on Wall Street in mind.
REALLY A POLITICAL PROBLEM
In short, we have a choice to make: we can spend perhaps $150 billion to $200 billion buying out the equity of a handful of leading banks that have gotten themselves in this mess and reform them. This would involve taking them over immediately, installing new managers, giving their creditors a haircut, writing down the toxic assets (which the government-owned bank could do without fear of market reactions) and then preparing them for privatization when the market recovers.
Or we can follow Secretary Geithner's lead, fiddle around for months, throwing trillions more of government capital, loan guarantees and portfolio insurance at the problem, without any guarantee that the resulting cockamamie approach to creating a "public-private" toxic bank will ever work--while the same old troubled institutions are left standing, no longer encumbered by their dodgy assets perhaps, but still encumbered by dodgy managements.
There are lots of technical issues to be weighed in making this choice. But after reviewing all the objections to the kind of short-term, temporary, partial nationalization, I'm convinced that the most important issues are simply political, a choice between our commitment to a failed, hands-off model of bailouts and banking regulation and decisive, FDR-like action.
It is precisely because it is so hard to value these dodgy assets at all that we are even having this discussion. Given the absence of competitive markets for the assets, the uncertain environment and their dependence on taxpayer subsidies and insurance, the prices established are intrinsically political. Either they will be set so low that banks will have to take such massive writedowns that their shareholder equity will disappear entirely anyway, or--more likely--the prices or insurance arrangements will be set so that even more taxpayer wealth is transferred to these very same top-tier banks.
Meanwhile, the whole economy is hostage to this decision. We have no time to waste. We should get on with it, making use of one of the clearest market signals available in this situation--the current value of Citibank and Bank of America shares.
This argument is not at all anti-market, or necessarily even anti-bank. At their best, private markets, entrepreneurship and innovation are absolutely essential. My real objection is to a very specific kind of bank-dominated political economy. To call this "capitalism" is to have Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek turning somersaults in the crypt. Time and again, this pathological form of pro-bank development has jeopardized the prosperity, stability and innovation of the small businesses, inventors and would-be savers who are the backbone of market economies. Bank-dominated political economies don't really deserve to be called "capitalism," since big bankers have never really been entrepreneurs who are content to stick to the capitalist rules of the game. Instead, they periodically demand the divine right to take unlimited risks, privatize the resulting gains and stick the rest of us with any resulting losses.
It is time for accountability, we are told by our new president. If so, we should start by holding the world's largest banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, mortgage brokers and private equity firms, together with their many friends in accounting, law, public relations, credit rating, central banking and higher office accountable for this crisis--if in no other way than by refusing to award them this even more massive TARP II bailout, permitting them to rob us, once again, with both hands.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
SOCIALISM FOR BANKERS, SAVAGE CAPITALISM FOR EVERYONE ELSE? Bailout Jeopardizes the Entire Progressive Agenda James S. Henry
Ladies and gentlemen: pardon my intemperance, but it is high time for some moral outrage -- and a little good old-fashioned class warfare as well, in the sense of a return to seriously-progressive taxation and equity returns for public financing.
After all, as this week's proposed record-setting Wall Street bailout with taxpayer money demonstrates once again, those in charge of running this country have no problem whatsoever waging "class warfare" against the rest of us -- the middle classes, workers and the poor -- whenever it suits their interests.
At a time when millions of Americans are facing bankruptcy and the risk of losing their homes without any help whatsoever from Washington DC, the CEOs and speculators who created this mess, and the top 1 percent of households that owns at least 34 percent of financial stocks, and the top 10 percent that owns 85 percent of them, have teamed up with their "bipartisan" cronies in Congress, the US Treasury and the White House to stick us with the bill, plus all of the risk, plus none of the upside.
Upon close inspection, the Treasury's proposal is nothing more than a bum's rush for unlimited power over hundreds of $billions, to be distributed at Secretary Paulson's discretion behind closed doors and without adequate Congressional oversight.
This time they have gone too far.
As discussed below, the cost of this bailout could easily jeopardize our ability to pay for the entire economic reform program that millions of ordinary citizens across both major parties have been demanding.
Some kind of bailout may indeed be needed from the standpoint of managing the so-called "systemic risk" to our financial system.
However, as discussed below, the Paulson plan does not really tackle the real problem head on. Thsi is the fact that many financial institutions, including hundreds of banks, are undercapitalized, and need more equity per dollar of debt, not just fewer bad assets.
To provide that, we may well want to mandate debt restructurings and debt swaps, or provide more equity capital .
If private markets can't deliver and we need to inject public capital into financial services companies on a temporary basis, so be it. But it should only be in return for equity returns that compensate the pubilc for the huge risks that it is taking.
Call that "socialism" if you wish -- I think we are already well beyond that point -- sort of like Chilean economists became in 1983, when the entire private banking sector collapsed and was nationalized -- successfully -- by the heretofore "Los Chicago Boys."
To me, public equity investment, in combination with increased progressive taxation, should be viewed as just one possible way to get these companies the equity they need, while providing fair compensation to the suppliers of capital and participation in any "upside," if there is one.
Absent such measures, progressives certainly have much less reason to support this plan. After all, the increased public debt burdens that it would impose are so large that they could easily jeopardize our ability to pay for the entire economic reform program that millions of ordinary citizens (across both major parties) have been demanding.
From this angle, the Paulson program, in effect, is a cleverly-designed program to "nationalize" hundreds of billions of risky, lousy assets of private financial institutions, without acquiring any public stake in the private institutions themselves, and without raising any tax revenue from the class of people who not only created this mess, but would now like to be bailed out.
Any mega-bailout should come at a high price for those who made it necessary.
In particular, we must make sure that the butcher's bill is paid by the tiny elite that was responsible for creating this mess in the first place.
This is not about retribution. It is about insuring taxpayers are truly rewarded for the risks that they are taking -- isn't that the capitalist way? And it is also about making sure that this kind of thing never happens again.
After all, the real tragedy of this bailout is its opportunity cost. Consider a well-managed $1 trillion "matching" investment in strategic growth sectors like energy and health....If we really wanted to insure our competitive health, we would not be investing $1 trillion in lousy bank portolios generated by the chicanery-prone financial services sector.
CAPITALISTS AT THE TROUGH
This estimate is consistent with the $700 billion ("at any point in time") that President Bush and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson are requesting from Congress this week to fund their virtually-unfettered ("unreviewable by any court") new "Troubled Asset Relief Program." (TARP)
The sheer scale of Paulson's proposal implies that federal authorities plan to acquire at least $3 trillion of mortgage-backed securities, derivatives, and other distressed assets from private firms -- on top of Fannie/ Freddie Mac's $5.3 trillion mortgage securities portfolio. How the Fed and the Treasury actually propose to determine the fair market value of all these untrade-able assets is anyone's guess. But since 40 percent derive from the exuberant, fraud-prone days of 2006-7, they will probably all be subject to steep (60-90 percent) discounts from book value.
That's consistent with the 78 percent "haircut" that Merrill Lynch took on the value of its entire mortgage-backed securities portfolio earlier this month -- actually, more like a 94.6% haircut, the portion that it received in cash.
This implies, by the way, that if the Federal Government were required to "mark to market" their $29 billion March 2008 investment in Bear Stearns' securities, it would now have a cash value of just $1.6 billion. Not a very hopeful sign from a taxpayer's standpoint.
Paulson's latest proposal dictates another sharp increase in the federal debt limit, to $11.313 trillion. This limit stood at just $5.8 trillion when Bush took office in 2001. By October 2007 it stood at $9.8 trillion. Then it jumped again to $10.6 trillion in July 2008, during in the Fannie/Freddie meltdown. As of March 2008, the actual amount of Federal debt outstanding was $9.82, just six months behind the limit and gaining.
All this new TARP debt will be on top of $200 billion of new debt that was issued to buy Fannie/Freddie's preferred stock, plus the assumed risk for their $1.7 trillion of debt and $3.1 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities.
It is also in addition to the $85 billion 2-year credit line that Federal Reserve just extended to AIG, the $29 billion "non-recourse" loan provided for the Bear Stearns deal noted above; $63 billion of similar Federal Reserve lending to banks this year; $180 billion of newly-available Federal Reserve "reciprocal currency swap lines:" $5 billion of other emergency Treasury buybacks of mortgage-backed securities; $12 billion of Treasury-funded FDIC losses on commercial bank failures this year (including IndyMac's record failure in July); perhaps another $455 billion of Federal Reserve loans already collateralized by very risky bank assets; and the FDIC's request for up to $400 billion of Treasury-backed borrowings to handle the many new bank failures yet to come.
There is also the record $486+ billion budget deficit (net of $180 billion borrowed this year from Social Security trust fund) that the Bush Administration has compiled for 2008/09, drivem in part by the continued $12-$15 billion per month cost of the Iraq and Afghan Wars and the impact of the deepening recession on tax revenues. Longer term, there is also the projected $1.7 trillion to $2.7 trillion "long run" cost of those wars (through 2017).
All told, then, we're talking about borrowing at least another $1-1.4 trillion of federal debt to finance a record level of lousy banking.
COMPARED TO WHAT?
By comparison, Detroit's latest request for a mere $25 billion bailout looks miserly. And if we were in Vienna, we would say, "We wish we could play it on the piano!"
Compared to other bailouts, this is by far the largest ever.
For example, the total amount of debt relief provided to all Third World countries by the World Bank/IMF, export credit agencies, and foreign governments from 1970 to 2006 totaled just $334 billion ($2008), about 8 percent of all the loans. (Henry, 2007).
The savings and loan bailout in the late 1980s cost just $170 billion ($2008).
And the FDIC's 1984 bailout of Continental Illiinois, the largest bank failure up to this year, was (in $2008) just $8 billion (eventually reduced to $1.6 billion by asset recoveries).
Meanwhile, compared with other countries that are well on their way to building forward-looking "sovereign wealth funds" to make strategic investments all over the world, the US seems to be on a drive to create this introverted "sovereign toxic debt dump."
No one has a very precise idea of how much all this will cost, not only because many of the securities are complex and thinly traded, but also because their value depends to a great extent on the future of the US housing market. Housing prices have already fallen by 20-32 percent in the top 20 markets since mid-2006, and they continue to fall in 11 out of 20 major markets, especially Florida, southern California, and Arizona, where the roller-coaster has been the most steep.
At current T-bond rates (2-4 percent for 2-10 year bonds, the most likely maturities), near-term cash cost of this year's bailu is likely to be an extra $40 to $60 billion a year in interest payments alone.
Furthermore, since the borrowed funds will be invested in high-risk assets, the most important potential costs involve capital risk. There's a good chance that, as in the case of Bear Stearns, we'll ultimately get much less than $.50 for each $1 borrowed and invested. For example, Fannie and Freddie alone could easily be sitting on $500 billion of losses (=$2 trillion/$5.3 trillion* 50% default*50% asset recovery).
This could easily make the long-run cost of this bailout to taxpayers at least $150 billion a year.
No wonder traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange reportedly broke out singing "the Internationale" when they heard about the bailout.
But the direct financial costs of the bailout are only the beginning....
HIJACKING THE FUTURE
Last week's events produced terabytes of erudite discussion by an army of Wall Street journalists, prophets and pundits about short-selling rules, "covered bonds," and the structure of the financial services.
This is absolutely par for the course, as modern financial crisis journalism is concerned -- the "story" is always told mainly from the standpoint of what's in it for the industry, the banks, the regulators, and the investors.
For the 90 percent of Americans who own no money-market funds, and less than 15 percent of all stocks and bonds, however, this bailout means just one thing.
All of the money has just been spent. And it has not been spent on you.
For example, unless we demand an increase in taxes on the rich, big banks, and big corporations, as well as some public equity in exchange for the use of all this money, we can expect that the long-term costs of this bailout will "crowd out" almost all of the $140 to $160 billion of new federal programs that Barack Obama proposed. It will certainly make it impossible for Obama to finance his programs without either borrowing even more heavily, or going well beyond the tax increases (on oil companies and the upper middle classes) that he has proposed.
There will be no additional funding for pre-school education, child care, or college tuition.
There will be no additional funding for investments in energy conservation, wind, or solar power.
There will be no additional investments in national infrastructure (e.g., the reconstruction of our aging roads, highways, and bridges to "somewhere.")
Highway privatization and toll roads, here we come.
There will be no money to bail out the millions of Americans who are on the brink of losing their homes.
The supply of housing loans and other credit will remain tight, despite the bailout.
Indeed, if the economic elite has its way, the long-sought dream of "a home for every middle-class American family" may be abandoned as a goal of government policy.
Meanwhile, the government-sponsored consolidation of the financial services industry will make financial services more profitable than ever.
This is good news for the "owners of the means of finance." For the rest of us, it means steeper fees and rates. And if we fail to keep up with the new charges, we'll face the rough justice delivered by the latest bankruptcy "reform," which was rammed through the Congress in 2005 with support from many top Democrats.
Indeed, ironically enough, this latest bank bailout may even increase the financial pressure to privatize these comparatively successful government programs.
There will be no extra money to house our thousands of new homeless people, relieve poverty, rebuild New Orleans, or support immigration reform.
There will be no additional funds for national parks.
Indeed, we might as well start by privatizing our national and state parks, and drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and right off the Santa Barbara coast. We're going to need those federal lease royalties. (Perhaps the oil barons will lend us an advance.)
There will be no funds available for increased homeland security.
There will certainly be no "middle-class" tax cut. Absent a progressive tax reform, the only "cut" the middle class is going to receive is another sharp reduction in living standards.
All told, the Bush/Paulson "permissive banking/ massive bailout" model beats even the old 1980s vintage Reagan formula, which tried to force government down-sizing with huge tax cuts.
Contrary to the sales pitch, those cuts never produced any incremental tax revenues, let alone any significant down-sizing. It has simply proved too easy for the federal government to borrow. And "conservatives" can always find wars, farm subsidies, defense contractors, and "bridges to nowhere" to spend the money on, just as fast as liberals.
Lately, however, it appears that US debt levels may indeed be reaching the point where they could impose a limit on increased spending. Given the sheer size of the new federal debt obligations, foreign creditors,who have recently been supplying more than half of new Federal borrowing, have been muttering about taking their lending elsewhere. And outside the financial services industry, Main Street companies are concerned being "crowded out" by record federal borrowing.
THE ALTERNATIVE -- THE "GET REAL" NEW DEAL
To make sure that real economic reform is still feasible, we need to demand a "Get Real/ New Deal" from Congress right now.
At a minimum, this Get Real/New Deal package should consider measures like:
(1) The restoration of stiff progressive income and estate taxes on the top 1 percent of the population (with net incomes over $500,000 a year and estates over $5 million) -- especially on excessive CEO and hedge fund manager compensation;
(2) Much more aggressive enforcement and tougher penalties against big-ticket corporate and individual tax dodgers;
(3) Tougher regulation of financial institutions -- possibly by a new agency that, unlike the US Federal Reserve, the SEC, and the US Treasury, is not "captive" to the industry;
(4) A crackdown on the offshore havens that have been used by leading banks, corporations, and hedge funds to circumvent our securities and tax laws;
(5) The immediate revision of the punitive bankruptcy law that Congress enacted in 2005 at the behest of this now-bankrupt elite; and
(6) While we are at it, stiff "pro-green" luxury taxes on mega-mansions, private jets, Land Rovers, yachts, and all other energy-inefficient upscale toys.
We also need (7) a National Commission to investigate the root causes of this financial crisis from top to bottom, and actually (unlike the hapless, ineffectual 9/11 Commission) hold people accountable.
Finaily, if the pubilc is going to provide so much of the risk capital for this restructuring, we should demand (8) public equity in the private financial institutions that receive so much of our help.
This will permit taxpayers to share in the upside of this restructuring, rather than just the downside risks.
Along the way, this will require that we explain to Secretary Paulson that this country is not Goldman Sachs. Even after 8 years of President Bush, this is still a democracy.
Secretary Paulson is not going to be given unfettered discretion to hand out closet "liquidity injections" to his buddies on the street -- no matter how worthy they are.
This will be essential, if the Federal Government is to be able to afford key reforms like health insurance, clean energy, and investments in education.
These may not matter very much to Wall Street executives, financial analysts, Treasury and Federal Reserve executives, or the more than 120-130 Members of Congress and 40-45 US Senators who earn more than $1 million a year -- and are already covered by a generous "national health care" package of their own design.
But these are the key "systemic risks" that ordinary Americans face.
These reforms may sound ambitious. So is the bailout. And the reforms that we are discussing are only fair.
After all, we the American people have recently been the very model of forgiveness and understanding.
We have tolerated and footed the bill for stolen elections, highly-preventable terrorist attacks, gross mismanagement of "natural" disasters, prolonged, poorly conceived, costly wars, rampant high-level corruption, pervasive violations of the US Constitution, and the systematic looting of the Treasury by politically-connected defense contractors, oil companies, oligopolistic cable TV and telecommunications firms, hedge fund operators, big-ticket tax evaders, and our top classes in general.
Does "class" still matter in America? You betcha -- perhaps more than ever. But enough is enough. Call your Congressperson now. Demand a"Get Real/ New Deal" qualifier to the bailout package before it is too late. We deserve to get much more for our money. So do our kids.
(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2008
Saturday, July 26, 2008
"MAKE FREDDIE AND FANNIE GO GREEN!" Attach Green Strings to Those $Billions of Bailout Greenbacks! Brent Blackwelder and James S. Henry
With Congress about to "lend" at least $300 billion to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation's two giant mortgage lenders, shouldn't we at least insist in getting some lending policies that help promote energy-efficient new housing for all this money?
For the full article, go here.
(Note: Brent Blackwelder is President of Friends of the Earth. He is not only a committed environmentalist but a straight arrow. Unlike the others on this page, he has never pocketed $millions from a $9 billion corporate earnings overstatement or mismanaged a gigantic corporation, let alone defended white-collar criminals, barred FBI agents from sharing intellligence with the CIA and DOD, or helped to shield former senior CIA and NSA officials from responsibility for 9/11.)
Saturday, August 19, 2006
BEYOND DEBT RELIEF The Next Stage In the Fight for Global Social Justice James S. Henry
“Third World debt relief” has become a little like Boston’s “Big Dig,” the Middle East “peace process,” and the “ultimate cure for cancer” -- long anticipated, endlessly discussed, and perpetually, it seems, just around the corner.
At the end of the day, after decades of effort, the fact is that very little Third World debt relief has actually been achieved.
There is also mounting evidence that even the paltry amount of debt relief that has been achieved has not done very much good.
This is partly because debt relief tends to reinforce questionable policies and bad habits that get developing countries into hock in the first place. It is also because debt relief has reinforced the prerogatives of IMF/World Bank econo-crats, whose policies have often been incredibly detrimental.
Finally, debt relief is also often a very poor substitute for other forms of aid and development finance.
Furthermore, most of the costs of debt relief have been born by ordinary First and Third World taxpayers, while the global banks and Third World elites that have profited enormously from all the lousy projects, capital flight, and corruption that were financed by the debt have escaped scot-free.
This is not to suggest that the debt relief campaign has been utterly pointless.
It has provided a bully pulpit for scores of entertainers, politicians, economists, religious leaders, and NGOs. It has occasionally reminded us of the persistent problems of global poverty and inequality.
From the standpoint of actually providing enough increased aid to improve living conditions in debt-ridden countries, however, debt relief has been a disappointment. In the immortal words of Bono himself, "We still haven't found what we're looking for."
Fortunately, there is an alternative strategy that would have much greater impact. But this strategy would require a more combative stance on the part of anti-debt activists, and it would almost certainly not generate nearly as many convivial press conferences or photo opportunities.
“Fact Check, Please”
Surprisingly, there have been few efforts to take stock of debt relief efforts, to see whether this game has really been worth the candle.
It is high time that we took a closer look. After all, it is now more than 30 years since Zaire’s bilateral debts were rescheduled by the Paris Club in 1976, 27 years since UNCTAD’s $6 billion write-off for 45 developing countries in 1977-79, 23 years since the climax of the so-called “Third World debt crisis” in 1983, and more than a decade since the inauguration of the IMF/World Bank’s debt relief program for “Heavily-Indebted Poor Countries” (“HIPCs”) in 1996.
On the debt relief campaign side, it is two decades since the formation of the UK Debt Crisis Network, eight years since the 70,000-strong “Drop the Debt” demos at G-8’s May 1998 meetings in Birmingham, and over a year since the “Live-8/End Poverty Now” fiesta at Gleneagles.
Along the way, there have been Bradley Plans, Mitterand Plans, Lawson Plans, Mizakawa Plans, Sachs Plans, Evian Plans, and more than 200 debt rescheduling by the Paris Club on increasingly generous terms -- Toronto terms (’88-‘91), London (‘91-‘94) terms, Naples terms (’95-96), Lyon terms (’96-99), and Cologne terms (’99-).
Most recently, in the wake of “Live 8,” the G-8, the World Bank, and the IMF launched their “Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative” (“MDRI”) with a great deal of fanfare, declaring that it will be worth at least “$40 to $50 billion” to the two score countries that are eligible.
Despite all this activity, the fact is that developing country debt is now greater than ever before, and is still increasing in real terms. For most countries, the debt burden – as measured by the ratio of debt service to national income – is even higher than in the early 1980s, at the peak of the so-called “Third World debt crisis.”
By our estimates, as of 2006, the nominal stock of all developing country foreign debt outstanding was $3.24 trillion. This debt generated about $550 billion of debt service payment each year for First World banks, bondholders, and multilateral institutions.
That includes $41 billion a year that was paid by the world’s 60 poorest countries, whose per capita incomes are all below $825 a year. Even after twenty-five years of “debt relief,” this annual bill for debt service still almost entirely offsets the $40-$45 billion of foreign aid that these countries receive each year. Their debt burden also remains higher, relative to national income, than it was the early 1980s.
As discussed below, most heavy debtors also have very little to show for all this debt. So these payments are, in effect, a “shark fee” paid to First World creditors for funds that have long since vanished into the ether – and a not a few offshore private bank accounts.
Since most existing Third World debt was contracted at higher interest rates than now prevail, the “present value” of the debt -- a better measure of its true economic cost -- is actually even higher: nearly $3.7 trillion.
China and India alone now account for about $.5 trillion of this developing country “PV debt.” Both countries were relatively careful about foreign borrowing, and they also largely ignored IMF/World Bank policy advice, so their debt burdens are small, relative to national income. But in absolute terms, their debts are large, simply because they are so huge. They can easily afford it -- thanks in part to their non-neoliberal economic strategies, both countries now have high-growth economies and large stockpiles of reserves.
Of the other $3.2 trillion of “PV debt,” however, $2.6 trillion is owed by 26 low-income and 49 middle-income countries that pursued “high debt” growth strategies.
These heavily-indebted countries have about 1.6 billion residents – over a quarter of the world’s population, a share that has been steadily increasing.
After decades of debt relief, their “PV debt/ national income ratios” are all in the relatively-high 60-90 percent range. Debt service consumes 4 to 9 percent of national income each year, more than they spend on education or health, and far more than they receive in foreign aid.
III. Where’s the “Relief”?
These numbers beg a question -- what have all the professional debt relievers at the World Bank, the IMF, and the Paris Club, not to mention debt relief activists, been up to all these years? How much debt relief have they actually secured, who received it, and how helpful has it been?
To begin with, it is not easy to measure “debt relief.” The definitions of debt relief employed by debtor countries, commercial creditors, bilateral creditors, and multilateral organizations like the IMF/World Bank, the OECD, the Paris Club, and the Bank for International Settlements vary significantly, and the reported data is subject to huge discrepancies. This helps to account for the fact that only a handful of systematic attempts to measure debt relief have ever been attempted.
As usual, however, some things can be said. This article provides the most comprehensive estimate of debt relief to date, based on a careful review of these data sources and our own independent analysis.
Our first key finding is that the actual amount of debt relief provided to all developing countries to date has been pretty modest.
From 1982 through 2005, in comparable $2006 NPV terms, the total value of all low- and middle-income developing country debt that was “relieved” -- rescheduled, written down, or cancelled –- was only $310 billion -- just 7.8 percent of all the pre-relief debt outstanding.
The relief ratio for the world’s 60 poorest countries has been higher – about 28 percent of their pre-relief debt levels. All told, in PV terms, these countries have received about $161 billion of debt relief – more than half of all the debt relief to date. This is now saving the recipient countries about $15.3 billion per year of debt service.
This is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But it is a far cry from the extra $50 billion to $100 billion per year of cash aid that most leading development experts believe will be needed if developing countries are to attain the (rather modest) “Millennium Development Goals” that were set back in 2000 by the UN, with a target date of 2015.
It is also important to remember that most low-income countries have been waiting a very long time for even this modicum of debt relief, most of did not start arriving until the late 1990s. By then, several countries that had not been “highly-indebted” to begin with had become so, just by dint of the delay.
Debt Relief Sources – Low-Income Countries
Our analysis shows that 30 percent of this low-income debt relief has come from the World Bank/ IMF’s HIPC and MDRI programs. Another 30 percent has come from Russia alone, which forgave a substantial load of bilateral debt that were owed to it by Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Yemen, when Russia joined the Paris Club in 1997. In February 2006, Russia also wrote off another $5+ billion debt that was owed by Afghanistan.
Finally, another $65 billion of debt relief for low-income countries was provided by the Paris Club, an association of First World export credit agencies (EGCs) like the US EXIM Bank and the UK’s EGCD. These agencies have a strong “client base” among the ranks of First World exporters, contractors, and engineering firms. All these private entities received significant business from the first round of Third World lending, in the form of orders for large projects. They are now eager to have the EGCs forgive still more loans, at taxpayer expense, in order to clear the way for another round of project finance.
On the other hand, leading global banks like Citigroup, UBS, JPMorganChase, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, BNP, and ABN-Amro, and Barclays, have provided a grand total of just $1.5 billion of low-income debt relief, mostly by way of the HIPC program.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, of course, these giant international banks led the way in syndicating loans for developing countries. At the same time, many of them also became pioneers in “private banking,” the dubious business of helping Third (and First) World elites park their capital offshore and onshore, as free of taxes and regulations as humanly possible.
Since the early 1990s, apart from China and India, these private banks have largely handed over the task of providing new loans to low-income countries to multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the IDB, as well as to the EGCs. Ironically, this has permitted them to focus on more lucrative Third World markets, including low-debt/ high-growth markets like China and India.
For middle-income countries, while the foreign loan business was booming in the 1970s and early 1980s, these banks became deeply involved in stashing abroad the proceeds of the banks’ own country loan syndicates. For low-income countries, private bankers were more often called upon to recycle the proceeds of loans from the development banks, the IMF, and the EGCs, as well as the proceeds of various government-owned asset rip-offs.
Overall, therefore, from the standpoint of debt relief, these First World financial giants have provided very little debt relief. This is despite the fact that they have not only reaped enormous profits from Third World lending, but also continue to reap enormous profits from Third World private banking. In the wake of the debt crisis, they have also been able to scoop up undervalued financial assets – banks, pension funds, and insurance companies – in countries like Mexico, the Philippines, and Brazil. In good times and in bad, in other words, these private institutions have always found ways to prosper, help their clients launder money, evade taxes, and conceal ill-gotten gains, and they have never been reluctant to profit from social catastrophe.
We will return to these financial giants below, because the history of their involvement in this story suggests one possible antidote for our “debt relief” blues.
B. Middle-Income Relief
So-called “middle-income” countries like Brazil and Mexico have received $149 billion of debt relief –- just 4.3 percent of their $3.4 trillion of pre-relief debt outstanding. As discussed below, most of this was obtained by the early 1990s, by way of Paris Club restructuring and the Brady Plan.
This reflected the high priority given to these large, lucrative, highly-indebted markets in the 1980s by First World banks and governments, mainly because such a large share of their loan portfolios was tied up in them.
That, indeed, was the true meaning of the “Third World debt crisis,” so far as First World bankers, central bankers, officials and, indeed, most First World journalists was concerned. It was viewed primarily as a ‘crisis’ for the banks and their shareholders. Over time, as they managed to reduce their exposure, the “crisis” disappeared from the headlines – except for the countries involved.
Debt Relief Sources – Middle-Income Countries
Overall, private banks provided $75 billion of debt relief to middle-income countries, about half the total. Most of this was achieved through debt swaps and buy-backs. The Paris Club added another $28 billion, mainly by way of traditional bilateral debt rescheduling.
The US Treasury added $47 billion, by way of the Baker Plan (1985-89) and the Brady Plan (1989-95.) On its own, the Baker Plan actually increased middle-income country debt by $77 billion, consuming $45 billion of US taxpayer subsidies in the process.
From 1995 to 2002, the US Treasury, the World Bank, and the IMF also provided short-term financial relief to several large middle-income countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Indonesia. In theory, these were pure reschedulings, with all loans paid back with interest, and no net impact on “PV debt” levels.
In practice, several of these bailouts were completely mismanaged. Indonesia, Mexico, and Argentina were all permitted to use their emergency dollar loans to bail out dozens of domestic banks and companies -- which just happened to be connected to influential members of the local elite, who were also “not unknown” to leading private bankers and US Treasury Secretaries.
So a large share of these bailout loans was wasted on outright graft. On the other hand, countries were still expected to service the bailout loans, often at very high interest rates. Given their reluctance to raise taxes, especially on capital, most countries repaid the bailout loans by boosting domestic debt – in effect, by printing money. For example, Mexico’s bailout in the mid-1990s ended up costing the country’s taxpayers more than $70 billion, while Indonesia’s bailouts ended up costing the country at least $50 billion. In effect, the bailouts actually ended up increasing overall country debt levels, just as the Baker Plan had done. Our estimates of debt relief have generously omitted the impact of these bailouts, which would make the total amount of debt relief even smaller.
Overall, during the 1970s and 1980s, middle-income countries like Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Iraq, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela became the world’s largest debtors. Combined with the fact that they have also received so little debt relief since the early 1990s, this helps us to understand why their debt service costs soared to all-time highs since 2000, in real terms, and relative to national income. Recent debt relief programs have focused almost entirely on low-income countries, ignoring the situation of heavily-indebted middle-income countries. This is another strategic choice that debt relievers may want to reconsider.
The Political Economy of “Debt Relief”
So what’s gone wrong with debt relief? Why has so little been achieved after all these years? Whose interests have been served, and whose have been ignored or gored? Is there a different strategy that could have been more effective?
A. The Roots of the “Debt” Crisis
To understand this disappointing debt relief track record, it will be helpful to review the origins of the so-called “Third World debt crisis.” This continuing crisis had its roots in the fact that from the early 1970s to 2003, developing countries absorbed more than $6.8 trillion of foreign loans, aid, and investment, much more foreign capital than they had ever before received.
A handful of developing countries managed this enormous capital influx more or less successfully -- for example, Asian countries like Korea, China, India, Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam. For a variety of historical reasons, they were able to resist the influence of First World development banks and private banks. Today they are the real winners in the globalization sweepstakes, ranking among the world’s fastest growing economies and the First World’s most important suppliers, customers, and potential competitors.
Our concern here is not with this handful of winners, but with the great majority of the world’s 150 developing countries. In general, compared with the winners, they have been much more open to unrestricted foreign capital and trade since the 1970s, as well as policy advice from the “BWIs” (the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and the IMF). For many countries this close encounter with global capitalism has proved to be troublesome – indeed, for many, disastrous.
In effect, these countries have conducted a very risky policy experiment for several decades. By now the results are clear. Across country income levels, these countries have paid a very heavy price for unfettered access and dependence on foreign banks. Indeed, we are hard-pressed to find a single exception to the miserable track record of this “wide open, debt-heavy, bank-promoted” growth strategy.
Lousy Regimes and Unproductive Debts
Overall, we estimate that more than a trillion dollars – at least 25 to 35 percent -- of the $3.7 trillion foreign debt that compiled by low- and middle-income countries from 1970 to 2004 either disappeared into poorly-planned, corruption-ridden "development" projects, or was simply stolen outright.
For several of the largest debtors, like the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Nigeria, the share of the debt that was wasted was even higher. Indeed, one of the most important patterns underlying the “debt crisis” was that borrowing, wasteful projects, capital flight, and corruption were all concentrated in a comparative handful of countries. As we’ll argue, this is crucial fact for those who seek to revitalize the debt relief movement to understand, because it implies that the interests at stake are far greater than those that have come to the surface in the struggle for “low income” debt relief.
Low-Income Heavy Borrowers
In the case of the 48 low-income countries that eventually qualified for debt relief from the BWIs under the HIPC and MDRI programs, a similar pattern of concentration applies. In the early 1980s, the real value of these countries’ debts increased by 70 percent in just six years. By the time the World Bank got around to launching HIPC in 1996, their debts had increased another 7-10 percent. Just 11 of these low-income countries –- including Bolivia, Congo Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Zambia -- accounted for 68 percent of this group’s debt increase from 1980 to 1986.
All these top low-income borrowers were not only desperately poor to begin with, but they were also either “weak open states” run by kleptocratic dictators, or were caught up in bloody civil wars – in most cases, both at once. Sometimes the causality flowed in both directions -- excess debt could exacerbate political instability. But the primary relationship was the unsavory combination of weak states, corrupt leaders, wide open capital markets, and symbiotic relationships with “easy money” and seductive bankers.
Extending this analysis to the key middle-income debtors noted above, we find similar long-run patterns of mis-government, weak states, and wide-open banking.
All this suggests that the heaviest debtors got into troubles for reasons that only were only superficially related to the usual villains in the orthodox neoliberal account of debt crises -- “exogenous shocks,” “policy errors,“ “liquidity crises,” and – when pushed to acknowledge the existence of corruption and capital flight – a “lack of transparency in the management of natural resources.” Those countries that are deepest in debt and most in need of relief today include countries that have long been among the most consistently mis-governed, wide-open, and “mis-banked.” While natural resource wealth like minerals and oil have indeed often turned out to contribute to economic mismanagement, their presence is not a sufficient condition for such mismanagement – the decisive question is the relationship between foreign and domestic elites.
From the standpoint of debt relief, this pattern presents a dilemma –Without insisting on deep political reforms, simply providing countries with more relief alone might accomplish little – they are likely to dig themselves right back into a hole. After all, corrupt dictatorships like the Central African Republic have been more or less continuously in arrears on their foreign debts since at least 1971!
The Debt/Flight Cycle
Servicing these huge unproductive debts took a large bite out of these countries’ export earnings and government revenues, draining funds that were badly needed for health, education, and other forms of public investment, and helping to produce crisis after financial crisis. Growth, investment, and employment were throttled by the continuing need – enforced by First World creditors -- to generate enough foreign exchange to service the loans.
Meanwhile, even as all this foreign capital was rushing in, an unprecedented quantity of flight capital – including a substantial portion of the loan proceeds – headed for the exits.
Of course Third World capital flight is an old story, associated with long-standing factors like individual country political risk, unstable currencies, bank secrecy, the rise of “offshore havens,” and the absence of global income tax enforcement.
But the dramatic increase in poorly-managed financial inflows to the developing world in the 1970s and early 1980s – especially foreign loans and aid – boosted these capital outflows by an order of magnitude. They basically overwhelmed existing political institutions in many countries, producing the largest tidal wave of flight capital in history, and fundamentally revolutionizing offshore private banking markets.
We simply cannot account for this sharp increase in flight capital unless we take into accounts its close relationship to all this “lousy lending and loose aid.”
Poorly-controlled lending and foreign aid contributed to the rise of global flight capital in the first place. From one standpoint it did so in a purely mathematical sense, by providing the foreign exchange that was needed to finance capital flight. But that doesn’t explain why these new “loanable funds” didn’t become a net addition to investment in the borrowers’ economies. The loans also stimulated additional capital flight, for several reasons: (1) they destabilized the economies of many newly-indebted countries, providing more capital than they could productively absorb in a short period of time; (2) the inflows provided sources of government revenue that were not directly responsible to taxpayers. This generated enormous opportunities for corruption and waste, partly by way of poorly-planned projects with weak financial controls, and partly by providing Finance Ministers, central bankers, and other insiders with dollars they could use to speculate against their own currencies; (3) the debt flows laid the foundations for a new, highly-efficient global haven network, which made it possible to spirit funds offshore and stash them in anonymous, tax-evading investments. It is no coincidence that this network was dominated by the very same global banks that led the way in Third World syndicated lending.
All this combined to encourage Third World officials and wealthy elites to move a significant share of their private wealth offshore, even as their own governments were borrowing more heavily abroad than ever before.
Part of the resulting flight wave took the form of large stocks of strong-currency “mattress money” that was hoarded by residents of Third World countries -- especially $100 bills, Swiss francs, Deutschmarks, British pounds, and after 2002, €100, €200, and €500 notes. By 2006, for example, the total stock of US currency outstanding was $912 billion. At least two-thirds of it was held offshore, especially in developing countries with a history of devaluations.
An even larger amount of capital flight was accounted by private “elite” funds that were spirited to offshore banking havens – often, it turns out, with the clandestine assistance of the very same First World banks, law firms, and accounting firms.
The outflows that resulted from this “debt-flight” cycle were massive -- by my estimates, an average of $160 billion per year (in real $2000), each year, on average, from 1977 to 2003.
Furthermore, a great deal of this flight capital was permitted to accumulate offshore in tax-free investments, especially bank deposits and government bonds by nonresidents, which were specifically exempted from taxation by First World countries. By the early 1990s, he total stock of untaxed Third World private flight wealth soon came to exceed the stock of all Third World foreign debt.
Indeed, for the largest “debtors,” like Venezuela, Nigeria, Argentina, and Mexico – the same countries that dominated borrowing -- the value of all the foreign flight wealth owned by their elites is almost certainly now worth several times the value of their outstanding foreign debts.
For so-called “debtor” countries, therefore, the real problem was never simply a “debt” problem; it was an “asset” problem – a problem of collecting taxes, controlling corruption, managing state-owned resources, and recovering foreign loot. All this, in turn, was based on the fact that a huge share of private wealth had simply flown the coop, under the “watchful eyes” of the BWIs, other multilateral institutions, Wall Street, and the City of London.
Meanwhile, these countries’ public sectors – and ultimately ordinary taxpayers – were stuck with having to service all these unproductive debts, while their legal systems, banking systems, and capital markets also ended up riddled with corruption.
Conventional economists have not ignored these phenomena completely. But they have tended to compartmentalize them into “institutional” problems like “corruption” and “transparency,” and have treated them as “endogenous” to particular countries. In this approach, the individual country is the appropriate unit of analysis. In fact, however, such local problems were greatly exacerbated by a global problem – the structure of the transnational system for financing development, on the one hand, and for stashing vast quantities of untaxed private capital -- from whatever source derived -- on the other.
Human Capital Flight
This underground river of financial flight was also accompanied by an increased outflow of “human capital” as well, as large parts of the developing world became jobless and unlivable, and a significant share of its precious skilled labor decamped for growth poles like Silicon Valley and other booming First World labor markets. My own estimate for the net economic value of this displaced Third World “human flight” wealth, as of 2006, is $2.5 to $3.0 trillion.
This offshore human capital does send home a stream of remittance income that is now estimated at $100 billion- $200 billion a year. But much of this is wasted on high transfer costs and other misspending. Clearly, a country that chooses to depend heavily on labor exports – as the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, and Ecuador have done, is a poor substitute for generating jobs and incomes at home.
Summary – Roots of the Crisis
Overall, the impact of the patterns just described on Third World incomes and welfare has been devastating. Except for the handful of globalization winners that managed to avoid the “debt trap” and neoliberal nostrums, real incomes in the Third World basically stagnated or declined from 1980 to 2005. While growth has revived since then, especially among commodity exporters, large parts of the developing world are still struggling to regain their pre-1980 levels of consumption, social spending, and domestic tranquility.
In addition to prolonged stagnation, many countries have also experienced sharp increases in unemployment, poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, insecurity, crime, violence, and political instability, all of which were exacerbated by the debt-flight crisis.
Of course, instability was sometimes beneficial – in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa, financial crises helped to undermine autocratic regimes. But we should be able to democratize without so much hardship.
All these Third World troubles provided a striking contrast to the First World’s relative prosperity during this period. To be sure, there were brief hiccups at the hands of oil price spikes in 1973 and 1979, plus recessions of 1982-83, 1990-91, and 2001-03. Japan stagnated in the 1990s, and France and Germany also experienced prolonged doldrums. But these were the exceptions. Overall, a large share of the world’s poor basically treaded water, while most First World residents paddled by. (continued on page 27)
B. “Can’t Get No Relief!”
Whatever one thinks of neoliberal policies, therefore, it is very hard to make this track record look like an achievement. This perspective should help us to view “debt relief” in a different light.
Given this history, we might well have expected that at least by now, First World governments, the BWIs, and even the global private banking industry would have acknowledged their partial responsibility, pitched in, and offered to share a large portion of the bill.
Obviously this hasn’t happened. As the sidebar discusses, this is not because of any principled opposition to “debt relief” per se. Indeed, debt relief turns out to be a venerable capitalist institution, at least where the debtors in question have clout.
Nor was it possible for the countries themselves to agree on a unilateral moratorium on debt service. More generally, while a handful of individual countries -- Argentina in 2001-2, Russia after World War I, and Cuba in the early 1960s and 1980s –- have declared debt moratoria on their own, Third World debtors as a whole have never been able to marshal the collective will needed to take this step.
Given this, the only alternative has been to rely on voluntary actions by First World creditors, as accelerated by appeals to conscience. We’ve seen the rather modest results that this approach has achieved.
Several key factors are at work here:
• Sticks. Most developing countries believe they are too dependent on the trade finance and aid to risk outright defiance of international creditors.
• Carrots. Many members of the Third World elite have been “bought in.” One common reward is the opportunity to participate in international ventures and receive foreign loans and investments. Beyond that, there is a whole range of other incentives, including offshore accounts, insider profits, and outright bribes and kickbacks. There are also more subtle forms of influence -- Dow Jones board seats (Mexico’s Salinas), positions at prestigious universities, banks and BWIs (Mexico’s Zedillo at Yale, Argentina’s Cavallo at NYU, (Bolivia’s ex-Finance Minister Juan Cariaga) and any number of other former officials at the World Bank/ IFC) participation in other exclusive organizations (for example, the Council of the Americas, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Inter-American Dialogue), and even more subtle forms of ideological influence. These intra-developing world networks have been relatively weak.
• The Banking Cartel. Compared with the debtor countries, the global financial services industry is very well organized. Country specialists at leading banks and BWIs have dealt with the same debt problems over and over again, while on the country side, dozens of debt negotiators have come and gone. Specialists like Citigroup’s William Rhodes and Chase’s Francis Mason were adept at isolating more militant countries and exploiting inter-country rivalries. Boilerplate language in standard country loan and bond contracts – for example, jurisdiction and cross-default clauses – also helped to perpetuate the “creditor cartel.”
• Declining Political Competition. After 1990, the Soviet Empire ceased to be a serious competitor for Third World affections. Interestingly, from that point on, the real value of total First World aid and aid per capita to developing countries fell until late 1990s. Meanwhile, First World banks completed write-downs of Third World loans, and the BWIs and other official institutions displaced them as the principle source of new low-income loans. With credit risk effectively transferred to the public sector, and the largest debtors focused on the neoliberal reforms that the BWIs were demanding in exchange for debt relief, debtor country support for joint relief atrophied.
With country debtors so fragmented, “small-scale” debt relief became just another instrument of neoliberal reform, while the cause of “large-scale” debt relief was relegated to the NGO community, without much developing country involvement. The resulting “movement” was a loosely-run coalition of First World NGOs and well-meaning celebrities. Lacking a strong political base, the movement mounted a series of intermittent media campaigns. It also assumed the supplicant position of appealing to the “better selves” of politicians like Tony Blair and George Bush, central bankers, and BWI bureaucrats – a hard-nosed, flea-bitten bunch if ever there was one.
The Best-Laid Plans…
One factor that certainly has not played a role in the failure to achieve substantial debt relief is a shortage of clever proposals from the First World policy establishment.
Indeed, ever since Third World borrowing took off in the 1970s, there has been a plethora of schemes for “international credit commissions,” “debt facilities,” debt buybacks, debt-equity swaps, and “exit bonds.” In the last decade, as frustrations with HIPC grew, there have also been proposals for a new “sovereign debt restructuring agency,” global bankruptcy courts, and modifications in the boilerplate contracts noted above.
These proposals provided grist for a steady stream of journal articles and conferences, but very few made much practical difference. The overall pattern was one of cautious incrementalism -- a series of modest proposals, each one just slightly more ambitious than its predecessor, and all doomed to be ineffectual – but with the saving grace that at least no powerful financial interests would be offended.
A. The Baker Plan
The majority of today’s Third World population was not even born in October 1985 when Reagan’s second Treasury Secretary, James A. Baker III, announced his “Baker Plan” for debt relief. This acknowledged the fact that the market-based debt rescheduling approach to the debt crisis pursued by commercial banks since 1982 wasn’t working. Indeed, traditional rescheduling was aggravating the problem, because banks had ceased to provide new loans, while continuing to role over back-due interest at higher and higher interest rates.
The Baker Plan hoped to change this by offering a combination of new loans funded by US taxpayers and the MFIs, plus some private bank loans, in exchange for “market reforms” in the recipient countries. It was motivated by the conventional notion that the 1980s debt crisis was basically a short-term “liquidity” problem, not a reflection of deeper structural interests. Supposedly a fresh round of (government-subsidized) new loans, conditioned on reforms, would allow debtor countries to “grow their way” out of the “temporary” crisis.
By 1989, the Baker had produced a grand total of $32 billion of new loans, mainly to 15 middle-income countries like Mexico and Brazil. This was achieved at a cost of $45 billion to First World taxpayers, by way of the US Treasury. By comparison, the gross external debt of all developing countries at the time was about $1 trillion, so the amount of relief provided was relatively small. Indeed, to the extent that the Plan added $77 billion to Third World debt, it actually constituted negative debt relief.
Finally, of course, both Plans omitted almost all low-income countries completely, partly because First World exposure to them was limited, and partly because at that point, the notion of writing down “development loans” was still anathema to the World Bank and the IMF.
B. “Market-Based” Debt Relief
While observers were waiting for the Baker Plan to work in the late 1980s, private banks were also busy retiring to manage some $26 billion of debt on their own, by way of so-called “market-based” methods, including buy-backs and debt swaps. Some of these techniques had harmful consequences for the countries involved. They also tended to reinforce the de facto “takeover” of the Third World debt problem by the BWIs and other official lenders. With our support, however, they succeeded in offsetting part of the Baker Plans’ harmful effect on debt levels, however.
C. The Brady Plan
When these two approaches failed to make much of a dent in the problem, James Baker’s successor, former Wall Street investment banker Nick Brady came up with a more aggressive debt swap plan in March 1989. The key motivator was not just generosity. Brazil’s February 1987 attempted moratorium on interest payments had set a dangerous precedent, and Mexico’s rigged July 1988 Presidential transition, combined with its huge debt overhang and declining oil prices, suggested that a more widespread default might occur unless more debt relief were forthcoming.
Under Brady’s plan, first implemented by Mexico in July 1989, private banks agreed to swap their country loans at 30-35 percent discounts for a menu of new country bonds, whose interest and principle were securitized by bonds issued by US Treasury, the World Bank, the IMF, and Japan’s Export-Import Bank – backed up, in turn, by reserves from the debtor countries.
By the end of the Brady Plan in 1993, this “semi-voluntary” incentives scheme had provided another relatively small dose of relief, mainly to about 16 Latin American, middle-income countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, plus US favorites like Poland, the Philippines, and Jordan. With the help of taxpayer subsidies, it also succeeded in virtually wiping out the debts owed by several small developing countries – Guyana, Mozambique, Niger, and Uganda – to private banks. By 1994, just prior to Mexico’s “Tequila Crisis,” the Brady Plan had yielded about $124 billion (in $2006 NPV terms) of debt reduction – at a cost of $66 billion in taxpayer subsidies. To date, it remains the largest – and most costly -- initiative in the entire debt relief arena.
Some have argued that Brady Plan also had a beneficial indirect effect on the total amount of new loans and investments received by debtor countries in 1989-93, by way of its impact on equity markets and direct investment. However, these gains were more than offset by increased capital flight, leaving a net benefit to developing countries that was almost certainly lower than the initial First World tax subsidies.
Furthermore, any such gains were largely wiped out by the subsequent financial crises in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, Peru, and the Philippines in 1995-99. These were partly due to the brief surge of undisciplined borrowing, facilitated by the Brady Plan Indeed, while the early 1990s produced a reduction in debt service relative to exports and national income for the 16 countries, by the end of 1990s, most of the “Brady Bunch” had seen their debt burdens return to pre-Plan levels.
Overall, therefore, this provides a graphic illustration of the point noted earlier: without basic institutional reform – not just “market” reforms within one country, but more general reforms of the global financial system – debt relief in one period may just lead to increased borrowing and another crisis in the next.
D. “Traditional” Bilateral Relief – Low Income Countries
As noted, these early debt relief initiatives were focused mainly on the world’s largest debtors, although a handful of low-income countries took advantage of them. By the late 1980s, there was a growing recognition of the trend described earlier – that the debts of low-income countries were exploding.
These countries were also paying astronomical debt service bills, despite the fact that they had all qualified for “concessional” finance. By 1986, 19 out of the (future) 38 HIPC low-income countries were devoting at least 5 percent of national income to servicing their foreign debts, and many countries were paying much more. On average, debt service consumed over a third of their export revenues, compared with less than 10 percent a decade earlier. And the “present value” of their low-income country debt had continued to rise throughout the Baker/Brady Plan period. By 1992, the debt was three times the l980 level, and well above the 1986 level. Finally, from 1985 on, private bank lending to low-countries had only been exceeded by lending by development banks and export credit agencies.
One of the first to recognize the need for a closer focus on low-income debt was another UK Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. In 1987 he proposed that the Paris Club refocus its negotiations with debtor countries on trying to reduce their “debt overhang” – the present value of their expected future debt service payments. This was a striking contrast to conventional debt relief, where the goal of rescheduling had always been to avoid write-downs and preserve the loans’ present value by stretching out repayment. Once again, that had assumed that the key debt problem was one of “illiquidity” and that the nasty random shocks would soon reverse themselves. As Lawson and other observers had come to recognize, in the absence of serious intervention, the resulting “debt overhang” might just become permanent.
Lawson’s proposal launched the Paris Club on a prolonged series of debt restructurings. In the next decade, it conducted 90 bilateral restructurings with 73 individual countries, on increasingly-generous term sheets. By 1998, this effort – supplemented by assistance for debt swaps from the World Bank/IDA’s Debt Facility -- had produced another $95 billion of debt relief.
In September 1996, the BWIs established the “HIPC Initiative,” their first comprehensive debt relief program ever, targeted at “heavily-indebted developing countries.” They didn’t take this initiative unilaterally – they were responding to numerous complaints from NGOs and the debtor countries, who said that existing relief programs were not doing enough for the world’s poorest, most insolvent countries, and that it was also high time for multilateral lenders like the IMF and the World Bank to finally share the costs.
Initially the program was supposed to include the 41 low-income countries that had been included on the World Bank’s first list of “HIPCs” in 1994. That list was supposed to have been determined by objective criteria, including real income levels and the “sustainability” of projected debt service levels, relative to projected exports. But such criteria are of course anything but objective, especially where acute foreign policy interests are concerned. The original list of countries would have included all those with per capita incomes less than $695 in 1993, plus (a) PV debt to income ratios of at least 80 percent, or (b) debt service to export ratios of at least 220 percent. Those criteria would have admitted such major debtors as Angola, Nigeria, Kenya, Vietnam and Yemen. On the other hand, it would have also omitted future HIPCs like Malawi, Guyana, and Gambia. As of 1996, the countries on this original HIPC list accounted for $244 billion of debt and 672 million people – about 63 percent of all low-income country debt and more than a third of all low-income country residents.
For a variety of reasons – including shifting admissions criteria, the desire of the BWIs to contain costs, and sheer geopolitics – this initial list was soon altered. Seven countries, including several large low-income debtors like Kenya, Nigeria, and Angola, were eliminated, while nine much smaller countries suddenly qualified for relief. When the dust settled, there were still precisely 41 countries on the HIPC debt relief list. However, compared with the original list, as of 1996, they now only accounted for 39 percent of all low-income country debt –- indeed, only 6 percent of all developing country debt -- and just 23 percent of all low-income country residents.
This downsizing was partly just due to BWI self-interest. The World Bank is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, funded by its own long-term bond sales, as well as by First World contributions. It is always very concerned about securing its own cash flow and debt rating.
In principle, contributions from the BWI’s First World members could always make up any shortfalls. In practice, however, the World Bank liked to avoid having to solicit contributions from the US Congress – it always meant difficult hearings where the Bank had to explain where Togo or the Comoros was, and why it deserved assistance.
Initially the BWIs had proposed to fund HIPC debt relief by liquidating part of the IMF’s huge 3.22 metric tons of gold reserves, whose market value had increased to several times book value. Indeed, in 1999-2000, the IMF had conducted a round-trip sale and buyback of 12.9 million ounces with Brazil and Mexico, booking the profit to fund HIPC’s initial costs. Here, however, another powerful set of interests intruded. The BWIs’ proposal for a much larger gold sale were successfully scuttled by the World Gold Council’s lobby, whose membership includes 23 leading global gold mining companies, including the US’ Newmont Mining, South Africa’s AngloGold, and Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp.
So debt relief turned out to be something that the BWIs had to fund on a “pay as you go” basis, through bond sales and periodic contributions from its First World members. The larger the amount of debt relief, the smaller the World Bank’s own loan portfolio, and the more it feared that its own bond rating and financial independence might be jeopardized. So it had an innate bias in favor of providing less debt relief.
As for the precise list of qualifying countries, there were many anomalies. For example, as of the mid-1990s, Angola, Kenya, Nigeria, and Yemen all had higher debt burdens and lower per capita incomes than many of the countries on the final HIPC list, but they were excluded.
On the other hand, at the behest of France, HIPC analysts also designed specific rules so that the Ivory Coast would be included, despite the fact that it had a higher per capita income and lower debt burdens than many other countries on the list. Guyana, a bauxite-rich former British colony in northeast South America with a population of just 750,000 and a real per capita income of $3600 – clearly a “middle income” country, if anyone cared to object – was also admitted.
Meanwhile, HIPC excluded 29 other mainly middle-income countries that had been classified by the World Bank itself as “severely indebted,” including “dirty debt” leaders like Argentina, Ecuador, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines. In many cases their debt burdens were much heavier than those that were admitted to the HIPC club. (continued below)
All these exclusions were important, because it turned out that while the “HIPC 38” did reduce their debt service payments by about $2 billion a year from 1996 to 2003, debt service payments by non-HIPC low income countries actually increased by several times this figure.
Overall, the BWI’s filters with respect to “sustainable debt” and income were inconsistently applied. They were intended to contain the size of debt relief and focus it on tiny, more malleable countries.
The Long March
Debt critics were naturally a little disappointed at HIPC’s modest scope, relative to the size of all outstanding Third World debt. But at least they thought they could count on the BWIs to provide speedy debt relief to those countries on the HIPC list.
Unfortunately, even for those countries, the journey usually proved to be a very long march. The World Bank and the IMF decided to impose a long, drawn-out, tortuous process before countries actually got any relief, conditioning it on a menu of all the BWIs favorite neoliberal reforms, including privatization, tariff cuts, and balanced budgets.
This was especially hard to account, in light of the fact that the HIPCs on the final list were hardly prime prospects for First World banks, contractors, or equipment suppliers. Fully half had populations smaller than New Jersey’s, with per capita incomes averaging less than $1100, and average life expectancies of just 49 years. So offering this crowd debt relief was unlikely to set a dangerous “moral hazard” precedent.
Nevertheless, under the original 1996 “HIPC I” scheme, countries were supposed to spend three years implementing such reforms under the WB/IMF’s watchful eye before they reached a “decision point.” Then a debt relief package would be assembled and a modest amount of debt service relief would be approved.
Countries were then supposed to continue their good behavior for another 3 years before reaching the “completion point,” at which point they’d finally see a serious reduction in debt service.
Even then, they wouldn’t receive a total debt write-off, but only a partial subsidy, reducing debt service to a level that the WB/IMF considered “sustainable,” relative to projected exports.
Along the way, countries were also expected to draw up an IMF/World Bank-approved “Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper,” negotiate a “Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility,” and engage the IMF and the World Bank in regular, rather intrusive “Staff Monitoring Programs.”
To some extent, all this policy paternalism was justified by the fact that, as we’ve seen, many of these countries were unstable, poorly-governed, war-torn places. This is the old “more sand, same rat-holes” aid dilemma noted earlier – those countries most in need of assistance are also often precisely the ones with the most limited ability to use it wisely. Furthermore, under the influence of neoliberal policies, state institutions in many of these countries have become even weaker.
However, from the standpoint of delivering debt relief in a timely fashion, the BWI’s strictures clearly went beyond the pal. Many BWI technocrats adopted a kind of righteous, almost creditor-like stance toward the countries – perhaps because, after all, the BWIs are substantial creditors. They may also prefer gradual debt relief because this preserves their control. In any case, all of this is a poor substitute for the more constructive neutral role that, say, a “trustee in bankruptcy” would typically play in bankruptcy proceedings.
Combined with country backwardness, this creditor-cum-neoliberal-reformer mentality had predictable results. Indeed, if HIPC’s true goal was to avoid giving meaningful debt relief, it almost succeeded! By 2000, just six countries – Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Guyana, Mali, Mozambique, and Uganda - had managed to reach “completion,” and zero debt relief had been dispensed. Eventually, HIPC I afforded a grand total of $3.7 billion of debt relief to these six countries. Even this amount was not distributed immediately in most cases, but was spread out over decades. For example, Uganda’s debt service relief from the World Bank was stretched out over 23 years, Mozambique’s over 31 years, and Guyana will still be collecting $1 million per year of debt relief in 2050!
Would that First World creditors and the BWIs had been anywhere near as circumspect about making loans to developing countries as they have been about administering debt relief!
In June 1999, following the massive “Drop the Debt” rallies at the May 1998 G-8 meeting in Birmingham, the WB/IMF launched “HIPC II,” supposedly a faster, more generous version of HIPC I. But even this version soon proved to be embarrassingly slow. By 2006, of the 38 countries on the initial HIPC list way back in 1996, just 18 had reached the “completion point.” Eleven others had reached their “decision points,” after a median wait of 49 months, but five of these were reporting “slow progress.” Of the other original nine, just one was both ready to qualify and interested in participating.
To fill out the ranks, in 2006 the WB/IMF identified six more low-income countries that might still be able to qualify for HIPC relief before the curtains finally descend in December 2006. However, only two of these were both ready and willing to try for this deadline.
All told, compared with the original target group, at the end, HIPC was down to providing debt relief to countries that accounted for just 18 percent of outstanding low-income debt and 13 percent of the world’s low income population.
The HIPC Sweepstakes
Those countries that managed to navigate all the HIPC hurdles did finally receive some debt relief – all told, for HIPC I and HIPC II, a grand total reduction in debt service of $832 million per year for 2001-2006, compared with debt payments in 1998-99. This sum was divided among for all 27 countries that had reached their completion or decision points.
Some countries did much better than others. For example, middle-income Guyana progressed quickly through the program, qualifying for debt relief to the tune of $937 per capita from both HIPCs – compared with the “HIPC 38’s” average of just $75 per capita. Indeed, Guyana became something of a pro at debt relief – by 2006, it had achieved a record total of $2971 for each of its citizens, from all debt relief programs to date.
Sao Tome, Nicaragua, Congo Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Zambia, Bolivia, DR Congo, Mozambique, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Burundi also did relatively well on a per capita basis, all realizing more than $100 of HIPC relief per citizen.
In terms of the share of all HIPC relief received, the clear winner was DR Congo, Mobutu’s old stomping ground, which commanded an astounding 18.2 percent of al HIPC relief, and, indeed, nearly 8 percent of all First World debt relief received by low-income countries.
In these terms, other winners included Nicaragua (9.5% of HIPC, 10.8% of all relief), Zambia (7.2%/4.9%), Ethiopia (5.7%/5.5%), Ghana (6.2%/2.6%), Tanzania (5.8%/4.8%), Bolivia (3.7%/4.2%) and Mozambique (5.8%/6.7%), which single-handedly captured 55 percent of HIPC I’s $3.7 billion benefit.
Compared with our original list of “war-torn debt-heavy dictatorships,” there is a huge overlap: The top ten low-income borrowers in 1980-86 accounted for more than half of both HIPC relief and all First World debt relief distributed from 1988 through 2006. On the other hand, many other indebted low-income countries received much less debt relief, both in per capita and absolute terms.
This per country/ per capita debt relief analysis, presented here for the first time, underscores several of the most serious problems with using debt relief as a substitute for development aid.
Of course it is difficult to insure that reductions in debt service (or the increased borrowing that occur in the aftermath of debt reductions) will be applied to worthy causes. (“The Control Problem.”)
Even apart from that, as noted in the accompanying tables, the amount of relief available varies wildly across countries, according to factors that may have very little to do with development needs. (“The Correlation Problem.”)
The BWIs in charge of the HIPC program tried to tackle the “Control Problem” by insisting on country “poverty reduction” programs and policy reforms, and by monitoring government spending, and so forth. Whether or not that has worked is a matter of dispute – there is a strong case to be made that most of this conditionality was counterproductive. Clearly it succeeded in slowing down the distribution of relief.
But there is nothing that HIPC could do about the “Correlation” problem – the lack of proportionality between debt relief and development needs. Relying on debt relief, in other words, inevitably means that some of the worst-governed, most profligate countries in the world may reap the greatest rewards.
Overall HIPC Results
As noted, HIPC does appear to have reduced foreign debt service burdens somewhat, especially for the 18 countries that managed to complete the program – although domestic debt service may be another story.
However, 11 of the original 38 HIPC countries still had higher debt service/income ratios in 2004 than in 1996. Indeed, to this day, poor Burundi is still laboring under a PV debt/income ratio of 91 percent!
Furthermore, debt service ratios had already declined for 25 out of the 38 countries from 1986 to 1996, prior to HIPC’s existence. Debt service burdens also declined for many other low-income countries that didn’t enroll in HIPC, as well as for the 9 “pre-decision point” countries that have so far received no relief from it. So it is not easy to call the HIPC program a “success,” even for those countries that have been able to reach the finish line.
What is also indisputable is that the total amount of debt relief achieved by HIPC to date has been very modest. While conventional press accounts often refer to HIPC as providing at least “$50 to $60 billion” of debt relief to developing countries, the more accurate estimate is at most $41.3 billion by 2006. This is less than 10 percent of all low-income country debt outstanding.
Of this, $7.6 billion was awarded to the original six countries in the HIPC I program, and another $33.7 billion is expected to be received by the other 23 countries that have at least reached the “decision point.” The potential cost of providing relief to the remaining 9 to 15 countries that might still qualify for HIPC is estimated at $21 billion, but very little of this will ever be forthcoming. Indeed, the timing and levels of relief are still highly uncertain for half of the 11 “decision point” countries.
Once again, all these figures refer to the present values of expected future debt service relief, not to current cash transfers. As of 2006, only a third of HIPC I’s relief and less than 20 percent of HIPC II’s had actually been “banked” – an average of less than $1 billion of cash savings per year, to be divided up among all these very poor countries.
The High Costs of HIPC Relief
Even these modest savings were not cost-free to the countries involved. To comply with the BWI’s demands for HIPC relief, developing countries were required to the usual panoply of neoliberal reforms, many of which had perverse political and economic side effects. There are many examples that illustrate this point.
Our final stop on the debt relief train is the “Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative” (“MDRI”), announced with so much fanfare at the July 2005 G-8 meetings. On closer inspection, this debt relief plan was even less impressive and generous than HIPC.
By 2004, many debtor countries and First World NGOs had finally had it with HIPC. However, MDRI only really came together because the UK Chancellor, Gordon Brown, saw a chance to earn some political capital, make up for the UK’s lagging foreign aid contributions, and heal some of the bad feelings that had been generated by the UK’s support for the Iraq War, all at very little cost.
With HIPC already set to expire, and with so much low-income debt still outstanding, Brown decided to work closely – and indeed help to fund -- the Live 8/”End Poverty Now” alliance’s “free” concerts. The collaboration with the NGOs was facilitated by the fact that one of Brown’s senior advisors, a former UBS banker, was an Oxfam board member, while Tony Blair’s senior advisor on debt policy was Oxfam’s former Policy Director.
These connections no doubt smoothed the reception for Brown’s proposals in the NGO world, but they ultimately failed to achieve very much incremental debt relief for poor countries.
To begin with, the actual cash value of the debt relief provided by MDRI is far less than the "$40 to $50 billion" that was widely touted in the press.
The face value of the IMF, World Bank, and African Development bank debts of the low-income countries that may be eligible for cancellation adds up to about $38.2 billion.
But MDRI’s debt relief, like HIPC’s will not distributed in one fell swoop. Given the concessional interest rates that already applied to most of the loans in question, and that fact that many of them were already in arrears, the actual debt service savings that these countries may realize from the program is just $.95 billion per year, on average, distributed over the next 37 years, to be divided among 42 countries.
This may appear to be a modest sum to First World residents who are used to seeing much larger sums spent on farm subsidies, submarines, highway programs, and invasions of distant countries. But it is undeniably a large share of the $2.9 billion that the top 19 likely qualifiers for the program spend each year on education, or the $2.4 billion they spend on public health.
Still, the G-8 debt cancellation gets us just 6 percent of the way home toward, say, the Blair/Brown Commission for Africa’s proposed $25-$30 billion per year of increased aid for low-income countries in Africa.
It also compares rather unfavorably with the $1.3 billion per week that the Iraq War was costing in 2005, and the $2 billion a week that it is costing now.
Furthermore, to qualify for this MDRI relief, countries will still have to go through many of the same hoops that HIPC put them through. At least 8 countries among the 42 – including large debtors like Somalia and the Sudan -- may never meet these qualifications.
Even for the top 19 countries that are likely to qualify, MDRI will still leaves them with $23.5 billion of higher-priced bilateral government debt and private debt that are outside the program, with an annual debt service bill of $800 million a year. And here again, of course, the point bears repeating – the countries have virtually nothing to show for all these debts.
Finally, even assuming - optimistically - that MDRI’s 42 potential beneficiaries would otherwise continue to pay the $.7 billion to $1.3 billion of debt service owed to the BWIs and the AfDB over the next 37 years without arrearages or defaults, the "net present value" of this debt cancellation is not $40 billion, but at most $15 billion. In fact, given the likelihood that some debtors may not qualify for the program, the PV of expected MDRI debt relief is really closer to $10 billion.
In fact, from the standpoint of World Bank and African Development Bank bondholders, they may well prefer to have their member countries to take them out of these "dog countries."
Indeed, that might even be a very profitable deal for the World Bank, since its cost of funds is not the 3-3.5 percent paid – if and when they pay -- by these low-income debtors, but at least 4.7 to 5 percent. Assuming that the members of the World Bank’s Executive Board will honor their pledges, exchanging a stream of highly-uncertain debt service payments from these benighted countries for $10 billion to $15 billion of cold hard cash may look like a pretty good deal for the Bank. Certainly it is better than having to play bill collector to all those nasty hell-holes.
And I bet you thought “debt relief” was all about generosity!
VI. Summary – A Modest Proposal
So what are the key lessons from this saga for would-be debt relievers? And where should debt campaigners focus their energies now?
1. Beyond the BWIs.
As we’ve argued, it is no accident that twenty-five years after the debt crisis, some of the poorest countries on the planet, as well as many middle-income countries, continue to be struggling with their foreign debts.
If we accept the basic premise of debt relief – that debtors who have become hopelessly in debt deserve a chance to wipe the slate clean, once and for all, then our conventional approach to debt relief, as administered by the IMF, World Bank, the US Treasury, and the Paris Club, is a failure. Not only has it failed to deliver the goods, but it has also had very high operating costs, in term of delays, administration, and excessive conditionality.
Evidently it was not enough that so much of loans that these countries borrowed was wasted, stolen and laundered right under the noses of our leading banks. Debtor countries were then expected to jump through elaborate BWI policy hoops, testing out all their favorite policy prescriptions in order to avoid having to continue paying for it for the rest of their lives.
In particular, the huge World Bank and IMF bureaucracies have proved to be far better at rationing debt relief than at making sure that impoverished countries don’t get up to their eyeballs in debt in the first place.
Indeed, Russia alone – which is itself still heavily-indebted -- has been far more generous and expeditious with developing countries than the BWIs.
If we are really serious about providing substantial amounts of debt relief, we will to find or design new institutions to administer debt relief.
2. Beyond Narrow Debt Relief.
It not really surprising that First World governments and the BWIs tend to side with international creditors -- as, indeed, governments have often sided with landlords, enclosers, gamekeepers, slave-owners, and other propertied interests.
What is surprising is that, despite the very high stakes for developing countries, and the availability of so much potential mass support for a fairer solution, the debt relief campaign has been so ineffective.
This is no doubt partly just because it is difficult to sustain a global not-for-profit campaign across multiple activists and NGOs. It is also because the campaign faces powerful entrenched interests.
But another difficulty may be of our own making. Compared with the dire needs of many countries and the sheer volume of “dubious debt” and capital flight, we believe that the debt relief movements’ demands have simply been far too meek.
To make a real difference, the debt relief movement needs to get much tougher on two closely-related but necessarily more contentious aspects of the “debt” problem:
(1) Dubious debt, contracted by non-democratic or dishonest governments and wasted on overpriced projects, shady bank bailouts, cut-rate privatizations, capital flight, and corruption. As noted earlier, my own rough estimate is that such debt may account for at least a third of the $3.7 trillion of developing country debt outstanding.
(2) The huge stock of anonymous, untaxed Third World flight wealth that now sits offshore – much of it originally financed by dubious loans, as well as by resource diversions, privatization rip-offs, and other financial chicanery.
Most of this wealth – estimated at $4 trillion to $5 trillion for the Third World alone – has been invested in First World assets, where it generates tax-free returns for its owners and handsome fees for the global private banking industry.
Obviously the sums at stake here are much larger the debt relief campaign has tacked so far. The issue also affects middle-income debtor countries as well as low-income ones. Finally, it also begs the question of the on-going responsibility of leading private global financial institutions, law firms, and accounting firms that built the pipelines for Third World flight capital, and continue to service it. Since the 1980s, several of these institutions have become many times larger and more influential than the World Bank or the IMF.
If the debt relief movement had the will to tackle such problems, there is much that could be done.
For example, we could imagine:
(1) Systematic debt audits, and a global asset recovery institution that helped developing countries recovery stolen assets;
(2) Revitalization of the “odious debt” doctrine, which specifies that debts contracted by dictatorships and/ or spent on non-public purposes or personal enrichment are unenforceable.
(3) Promotion of international tax cooperation and information exchange between First and Third World tax authorities – including as one early step the creation of a “Tax Department” at the World Bank, which doesn’t even have one!
(4) Codes of conduct for transnational banks, law firms, accounting firms, and corporations, prohibiting their active facilitation of dubious lending, money laundering, and tax evasion.
(5) The enactment of a uniform, minimum, multilateral withholding tax on offshore “anonymous” capital – the proceeds of could be used to fund development relief.
Many other ideas along these lines are conceivable. Obviously a great deal of organization and education across multiple NGOs would be needed to tackle even one of them. But the most important requirement is nerve – the willingness to move beyond the debt movement’s all-too-narrow focus, to tackle the real issues in this arena.
3. The Limits of Debt Relief
Earlier in this essay, we expressed serious doubts about the "more sand, same rat-holes" approach to wiping out debts, increasing aid and "ending poverty."
As we argued, most of the prime candidates for debt relief would also have great difficulty in managing it. This skeptical viewpoint has recently received even more support -- there are disturbing reports that the corrupt leaders of poorly-governed, resource-rich countries like DR Congo and Malawi are squandering the debt relief that they’ve recently received on fresh rounds of dubious borrowing and arms purchases.
The fundamental problem, glossed over by many debt movement campaigners, is that combating poverty is not just a question of malaria nets, vaccines, and drinking water. Ultimately it requires deep-rooted structural change, including popular mobilization, and the redistribution of social assets like political power, land, education, and technology. These are concepts that BWI technocrats, let alone film stars and rock stars, may never understand.
On the other hand, it remains the case that poor people in debt-ridden countries are in dire need of almost any short-term relief whatsoever. In that spirit, it would be wonderful to see the debt movement, the G-8, and the BWIs join hands just one more time and finally deliver on their long-standing rhetorical commitment to deliver substantial debt relief.
As we’ve just seen, the 1.6 billion people who reside in heavily-indebted developing countries are still waiting.
(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2006