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Analysis: Trading in overeign promises-II

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent   |   April 23, 2003 at 10:57 AM
SKOPJE, Macedonia, April 22 (UPI) -- One sure sign of this niche's growing importance is the proliferation of conferences, consultancies, seminars, trade publications and books. Banks and law and accounting firms have set up dedicated departments to tackle the juridical and commercial intricacies of defaulted debt, both corporate and sovereign. International law is adapting itself through a growing body of legislation and precedents. Moody's Investors Service, Standard & Poor's and Fitch regularly rate emerging market issues.

RBC Investment Services (Asia), a business unit of the Royal Bank Financial Group, a Canadian investment bank, advises its clients in their investments in Bradys. Union des Banques Arabes et Francaises, 44 percent owned by Credit Lyonnais and the rest by Arab banks, including the Iraqi Rafidain, is an aggressive buyer of Iraqi and other Middle Eastern debt.

But the market is immature and inefficient. In an address to the Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism Conference this year, Kenneth Rogoff, Research Director of the International Monetary Fund surveyed the scorched landscape: "Private debt flows to emerging markets (produce) wild booms, spectacular crashes, over indebtedness, excessive reliance on short-term and foreign-currency denominated debt, and protracted stagnation following a debt crisis. Emerging economies' governments ... sometimes borrow more than is good for their citizens (and are) ... sometimes willing to take on excessive risk to save on interest costs. On the investor side, there is often a reluctance to hold instruments that would provide for more flexibility and risk sharing, such as GDP-indexed bonds, domestic equity, and local currency debt-in part, because of poor policy credibility and weak domestic institutions. The result is an excessive reliance on "dangerous" forms of debt, such as foreign-currency denominated debt and short-term debt, which aggravate the pain of crises when they occur."

Weak property rights, uncertain debt recovery mechanisms, political risks, excessive borrowing, collective action problems among creditors and moral hazard are often associated with credit-insatiable emerging economies, failed states, erstwhile empires, developing countries and polities in transition.

Signs of trouble abound from Turkey to Bolivia and from Paraguay to Africa. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said last July that paying civil servants was more important than avoiding default on the country's $30 billion debt. Its Supreme Court ruled in April 2002 that it is unconstitutional to pay down the external debt before all other government expenses. Nor would that be the first time Nigeria reneges. The Paris Club of creditor countries has been rescheduling its debts repeatedly.

This is not to mention Argentina. Its corporate sector missed $4.6 billion in payments in the last six months alone and the country defaulted on a whopping $95 billion in obligations. The conduct of debtors, transparency and accountability are not improving either. Russia all but withheld information regarding a French lawsuit in a plan to swap $3.1 billion in new Eurobonds for about $6 billion of defaulted Soviet-era debt.

The status of creditors is under further strains by the repeated floating of schemes to put in place some kind of sovereign bankruptcy mechanism. The Bush administration proposed to modify all sovereign debt contracts pertaining to all forms of debt to allow for majority decision making, the pro-rata sharing of disproportionate payments received by one creditor among all others and structured, compulsory discussions led by creditor committees.

IMF First Deputy Managing Director Anne Krueger countered, in November 2001, with the idea to allow countries to go bankrupt within a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism. Legal action by creditors will be "stayed" while the country gets its financial affairs in order and obtains supplemental funding. Such an approach makes eminent sense.

In opening remarks to the Council of the Americas in November 2001, Martin Schubert offered these observations: "Talk of adopting bankruptcy procedure protection for governments ... similar to that employed by private companies, could be the match that lights the fire, due to the conflicts such a standstill would create. Moreover, what government debtor would be willing or able to assign assets to a trustee or assignee in bankruptcy, for the benefit of creditors?"

But investors never learn. In a world devoid of attractive investment options, they keep plowing their money into the high-yield scenes of financial crimes committed against them. This self-defeating tendency is reinforced by the general stampede from equities to bonds and by the slow-motion implosion of the U.S. dollar, partly as a result. Until the next major default, that is.


(Part 1 of this analysis appeared Tuesday. DISCLAIMER: Sam Vaknin traded in sovereign debt throughout the 1980s. Send your comments to: svaknin@upi.com.)

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