After the “Battle of the Century”

What next for debt crisis management?

Bodo Ellmers

Bodo Ellmers is Policy and Advocacy Manager at the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad).

In late April, the ‘battle of the century’ between the government of Argentina and a group of vulture funds reached an inglorious end. The government of Argentina finally surrendered and paid the vulture funds in full, at a price tag of more than US $10 billion. The consequences are severe: Argentina started a new cycle of indebtedness; the vulture funds’ predatory business model has been further strengthened and threatens to affect more and more nations; and future debt crisis management in general is in a mess. Now this battle has been lost, the question remains: what next for debt crisis management?

Argentina: back to markets or back to debt crisis?

Argentina had to borrow the money it needed to pay the vultures, thus it returned to financial markets after more than a decade of absence. To the surprise of many financial market observers, the bond issue of the former pariah state was hugely oversubscribed. In the largest emerging market issuance ever, Argentina managed to raise US $16.5 billion in three different bond series that yielded on average 7.2%. This successful return has the caveat that it starts a new cycle of indebtedness. While the government of Argentina hopes that the ‘normalisation’ of financial relations will attract foreign investment, none of these borrowed dollars will be invested productively. The lion’s share of more than US $10 billion went to pay the vulture funds; the smaller share replenished Argentina’s depleted currency reserves, i.e. mainly to refinance capital flight.

The issuance was a perfect deal for investors. It soon turned out that Argentina had sold the bonds too cheaply. Prices surged in the first few days, allowing the banks that were the bookrunners to make quick profits. JP Morgan celebrated: “These yields don’t exist anywhere else in the world in countries with such low levels of debt.”

Argentina’s citizens are paying the price for their government’s strategy of pleasing foreign investors. The recent removal of exchange restrictions has resulted in a 40% currency devaluation and a spike in inflation. Subsidies on essential services have been removed and, by March 2016, 32,000 public service workers had been laid off.

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From BBB-razil to BB+razil or the meaning of investment grade

Matias Vernengo

So Brazil (or here about Petrobras, the State oil company) lost its investment grade status with Standard & Poor’s. You would think this is huge given the media attention in Brazil. If you read S&P’s actual rationale for the downgrading (here) it is essentially about the fiscal situation. They say: “We now expect the general government deficit to rise to an average of 8% of GDP in 2015 and 2016 before declining to 5.9% in 2017, versus 6.1% in 2014. We do not expect a primary fiscal surplus in 2015 or 2016.” They do discuss the political problems too, the corruption investigations,* and the political instability that has plagued the government. There is a discussion of the external vulnerability, but here they are quite sensible and know there is no problem. The report says that: “despite the wider current account deficit, Brazil has low external financing needs compared with its current account receipts and its high level of international reserves compared with some of its peers.” So this is a fiscal problem in their view.

And therein lies the problem. They had years ago also revised the outlook of US debt negatively (my comments here), also on the basis of fiscal, and political, factors. As much as the US then, Brazil now has no risk of not paying its internal debt in domestic currency. And yes, the fiscal outlook has worsened, and the reasons are no secret. It’s austerity. If you cut spending, output falls, and the recession leads to lower revenue and higher deficits. It’s part of the problems caused by policies that S&P’s analysts actually favor. Austerity also is the cause of the recession, and the worsening of the growth outlook in the next couple of years, which are also discussed in S&P’s rationale for the downgrade. So the fiscal problems that are the main cause for the downgrade are self-inflicted wounds (see Serrano and Summa), and the cause of the lack of growth and the worsening of the future fiscal balances.

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New Food for the Vultures?

Lack of state insolvency regime undermines Ukraine debt deal

By Bodo Ellmers, Guest Blogger

Bodo Ellmers is Policy and Advocacy Manager at Eurodad, the European Network on Debt and Development.

Ukraine has reached a debt restructuring agreement with a creditor committee representing 50% of outstanding government bonds. Substantial debt reduction is essential to bring Ukraine’s debt down to sustainable levels. But the agreed deal falls short of what is needed. And the participation of the other 50% of bondholders is not secured, and cannot be secured in absence of a multilateral debt restructuring framework that can make binding and enforceable decisions. The Western powers’ reluctance to help build such a framework might have fed their ally to the vulture funds and their aggressive litigation strategies.

The Ukraine debt deal

According to information obtained by the Financial Times, Ukraine has reached a deal with a creditor committee led by the investment fund Franklin Templeton. The deal agrees a 20% haircut to Ukrainian government bonds worth US$18bn. It will also extend the repayment period by four years to ease Ukraine’s liquidity needs. As a sweetener, participating creditors receive a higher interest rate of 7.75% instead of 7.2%. In addition, reports the FT, “a GDP ­linked warrant will be provided from 2021 to 2040 that will pay out up to 40 per cent of the value of annual economic growth above 4 per cent.”

Too little, too late

The deal comes after Ukraine’s economy fell into a deep recession following the outbreak of the civil war and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by neighboring Russia. Last year, Western powers used their influence in the IMF to unleash bailout loans of €9.6bn under the Extended Fund Facility. The programme came with brutal austerity and structural adjustment conditionality attached.

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The Failed Project of Europe

Jayati Ghosh

There is a stereotypical image of an abusive husband, who batters his wife and then beats her even more mercilessly if she dares to protest. It is self-evident that such violent behaviour reflects a failed relationship, one that is unlikely to be resolved through superficial bandaging of wounds. And it is usually stomach-churningly hard to watch such bullies in action, or even read about them.

Much of the world has been watching the negotiations in Europe over the fate of Greece in the eurozone with the same sickening sense of horror and disbelief, as leaders of Germany and some other countries behave in similar fashion.

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The Greeks Have Said No to Failed Policies, Not to Europe or the Euro

Matias Vernengo

Originally published by The Wire.

The referendum that just took place in Greece in which 61.3% of voters rejected the terms of an international ‘bailout’ package should not be read as a vote in favour of leaving the euro. The ‘No’ vote – όχι in Greek – is, as correctly pointed out by James K. Galbraith, the only hope for Europe. On the other hand, it may very well be used by the Troika – the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – as an instrument for expelling Greece from the monetary union. If that happens, we have a Grexpulsion and not a Grexit, the more common name for the abandonment of the euro. After all, it is very clear that SYRIZA knows that the costs of leaving the euro may very well outweigh the advantages, and that Greece is not Argentina, as noted by its Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis recently.

The relationship between West European powers and the Greek Left has been problematic for a long while. In the aftermath of World War II, the British and then the Americans, sided with collaborationists, rather than with the resistance, which had communist leanings, and was seen potentially allied to the Soviets. As Tony Judt says of Greece in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, “despite a significant level of wartime collaboration among the bureaucratic and business elites, post-war purges were directed not at the Right but the Left. This was a unique case but a revealing one.” The British and Americans preferred a conservative government, even if it meant dealing with businessmen who had collaborated with Fascists, rather deal with a communist or socialist threat.

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A Way Out for Greece and Europe

Keynes’ Advice from the 1940s

Marie Christine Duggan, Guest Blogger

Marie Christine Duggan is a professor of economics at Keene State College in New Hampshire. In this article, originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine, she argues that the kinds of system proposed by Keynes for adjustment to international imbalances in the 1940s would represent a way out of crisis for Greece and Europe today.

Is there a way for Greece to honor its debts without impoverishing its people? Most people see only two ways out of the current crisis: Either Greece services its debts, and the wealth gap between creditor and debtor nations in Europe rises; or Greece defaults, and the European banking system is forced to write-down its assets by the value of the Greek IOUs. However, there is a third way: creditors could promise to spend the money they receive from Greece (in the form of debt service payments) on Greek imports or on long-term for-profit investments in Greece. This third way involves re-aligning institutional incentives so that the creditors only gain when the debtors themselves grow.

Problems like those Greece faces are not new. And, in fact, the best solutions are not new either. During the Second World War, Britain faced a similar situation of trade deficits coupled with a cut-off of international credit. John Maynard Keynes devised a solution which did not impose all the burdens on the debtors by reducing wages. Instead, it would not be just debtor countries—but also creditor countries—that would have to “adjust.” The creditors would have to spend their surpluses (rather than building up reserves), allowing the debtors, in turn, to grow their economies and pay back their debts. Dependence on the fickle whim of the foreign investor is the story line that unites the post-war British context with that of Greece today. In another similarity, the subtext for Greece, since it joined the eurozone in 2001, has been the need to increase its productive capacity and infrastructure so that its products—priced in euros—are produced efficiently enough to compete with those from other eurozone countries. A solution like the one Keynes proposed for Britain towards the end of the war would offer Greece the best way out today.

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Solving the Greek Debt: An Attractive Compromise

Stephany Griffith-Jones and Inge Kaul

There is an urgent need to reach a solution of the Greek debt problem that is effective and beneficial for Greece, its Eurozone creditors, as well as for the whole European and global economy.

Fortunately, such a solution exists and is gaining support. It is the proposal that suggests transforming the debt that Greece owes to Eurozone governments into GDP-linked bonds. Such bonds would link servicing of interest payments to the growth of the Greek economy.

They would not reduce the total value of the debt for the creditors and, thus, satisfy the creditors’ key demand: no debt reduction for Greece. But what GDP-indexed bonds would do is reduce debt servicing in the short term for Greece, whilst its economy is on a recovery path and not yet growing sufficiently. Granting Greece such a breathing space would be good for its economy and for its creditors. Giving growth a chance to pick up again would strengthen Greece’s capacity to meet its debt obligations in the future and lower, if not altogether remove the risk that taxpayers in the Eurozone countries may ultimately have to pay for Greece’s debt burden.

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Battling to Curb “Vulture Funds”

Martin Khor

External debt is rearing its ugly head again. Many developing countries are facing reduced export earnings and foreign reserves.

No country would like to have to seek the help of the International Monetary Fund to avoid default.

That could lead to years of austerity and high unemployment, and at the end of it, the debt stock might even get worse.

Low growth, recession, social and political turmoil are probable. This has been experienced by many African and Latin American countries in the past, and by several European countries presently.

When no solution is found, some countries then restructure their debts. Since there is no international system for an orderly debt workout, the country would have to take its own initiative.

The results are usually messy, as it faces a loss of market reputation and the creditors’ anger. But the country swallows the pill, rather than have more turmoil at home.

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Battling to Curb "Vulture Funds"

Martin Khor

External debt is rearing its ugly head again. Many developing countries are facing reduced export earnings and foreign reserves.

No country would like to have to seek the help of the International Monetary Fund to avoid default.

That could lead to years of austerity and high unemployment, and at the end of it, the debt stock might even get worse.

Low growth, recession, social and political turmoil are probable. This has been experienced by many African and Latin American countries in the past, and by several European countries presently.

When no solution is found, some countries then restructure their debts. Since there is no international system for an orderly debt workout, the country would have to take its own initiative.

The results are usually messy, as it faces a loss of market reputation and the creditors’ anger. But the country swallows the pill, rather than have more turmoil at home.

Read the rest of this entry »