As the recriminations fly between Europe’s capitals, campaigners are warning that the global community has failed to learn the lessons of the Greek debt crisis – or even of Argentina’s default in 2001, the consequences of which are still being contested furiously in courts on both sides of the Atlantic.
As Janet Yellen’s Federal Reserve prepares to raise interest rates, boosting the value of the dollar, while the plunging price of crude puts intense pressure on the finances of oil-exporting countries, there are growing fears of a new debt crisis in the making.
Ann Pettifor of Prime Economics, who foreshadowed the credit crunch in her 2003 book The Coming First World Debt Crisis, says: “We’re going to have another financial crisis. Brazil’s already in great trouble with the strength of the dollar; I dread to think what’s happening in South Africa; then there’s Malaysia. We’re back to where we were, and that for me is really frightening.”
Since the aftershocks of the global financial crisis of 2008 died away, the world’s policymakers have spent countless hours rewriting the banking rulebook and rethinking monetary policy. But next to nothing has been done about the question of what to do about countries that can’t repay their debts, or how to stop them getting into trouble in the first place.
Developing countries are using the UN to demand a change in the way sovereign defaults are dealt with. Led by Bolivian ambassador to the UN Sacha Sergio Llorenti, they are calling for a bankruptcy process akin to the Chapter 11 procedure for companies to be applied to governments.
Unctad, the UN’s Geneva-based trade and investment arm, has been working for several years to draw up a “roadmap” for sovereign debt resolution. It recommends a series of principles, including a moratorium on repayments while a solution is negotiated; the imposition of currency controls to prevent capital fleeing the troubled country; and continued lending by the IMF to prevent the kind of existential financial threat that roils world markets and causes severe economic hardship.
If a new set of rules could be established, Unctad believes, “they should help prevent financial meltdown in countries facing difficulties servicing their external obligations, which often results in a loss of market confidence, currency collapse and drastic interest rates hikes, inflicting serious damage on public and private balance sheets and leading to large losses in output and employment and a sharp increase in poverty”.
It calls for a once-and-for-all write-off, instead of the piecemeal Greek-style approach involving harsh terms and conditions that knock the economy off course and can ultimately make the debt even harder to repay. The threat of a genuine default of this kind could also help to constrain reckless lending by the private sector in the first place.
However, when these proposals were put to the UN general assembly last September, a number of developed countries, including the UK and the US, voted against it, claiming the UN was the wrong forum to discuss the proposal, which is anathema to powerful financial institutions.
Pettifor shares some of the UK and US’s scepticism. “The problem for me is that the UN has no leverage here,” she says. “It can make these moralistic pronouncements but ultimately it’s the IMF and the governments that make the decisions.”
Nevertheless, Llorenti has been touring the world’s capitals making the case for change, and hopes to bring the issue back for fresh discussions next month.
And while the debate rages, developing countries have been taking advantage of rock-bottom interest rates and the cheap money created by quantitative easing to stack up billions in new debt.
Using recently released World Bank data, the Jubilee Debt Campaign calculates that in 2013 alone – the latest period for which figures are available – borrowing by developing countries was up 40% to $17.3bn.
Brazil’s economy is likely to be seriously tested as the greenback rises; Turkey, Malaysia and Chile have large dollar-denominated debts and sliding currencies; and a string of African countries face sharp rises in debt repayments. Ghana and Zambia have already had to turn to the IMF to ask for help. It’s as if, as Pettifor warns, “absolutely nothing has changed since the crisis”.