Differences between 1982 and 2007-2008

In 1982, the external public debt crisis of the developing countries was triggered by the combined effects of the rise in interest rates imposed by the United States two years earlier, and the fall in prices of raw materials, particularly oil. The epicentre was in the South and the first casualties were the governments of the developing countries, who suddenly found
themselves owing enormous amounts in debt repayments.

The financial crises of the 1990s practically only affected developing countries – there was the Mexican crisis of 1994-1995, the Asian crisis of 1997-1998, the Russian crisis of 1998, the Brazilian in 1999, Turkish in 2000, Argentine in 2001-2002 and Brazilian again in 2002. Each crisis was triggered by sudden movements of capital and speculative attacks on the currencies of the countries concerned. Financial capital that had been directed towards these countries before the crisis was withdrawn, causing the crisis. It was a question of capital flight to safety, with capital being returned to the financial centres of the North, considered more secure.

In August 2007, a financial crisis exploded in the North in the world’s leading economy, which so far has mainly affected private finance companies in the industrialized countries, especially in North America and in Western and Central Europe. For the moment, Japan has been spared as its private finance sector, directly hit by a debt crisis over 15 years ago, has barely had time to get started again. The Japanese crisis perhaps led Japanese bankers to be rather more prudent than their North-American and European counterparts[1]. The crisis in the financial system of the North is such that capital flight to safety is operating in the opposite direction to that of the past. Capital is being directed away from the North towards the flourishing stock-exchanges of countries like India, China and Brazil[2], now perceived as safe havens. The phenomenon is so excessive that the Indian government, despite being neo-liberal, is considering ways of discouraging this inopportune capital inflow, which will force up the value of the Indian rupee and quite possibly flow out again shortly if more viable financial opportunities present themselves elsewhere in the world.[3]

The global situation has changed over the last 25 years in other ways, too:

  1. History shows that between 1982 and 2004 there was a tendency for the price of raw materials to fall and the terms of exchange between industrialized and developing countries deteriorated. Since 2005, there has been a renewed sharp rise in prices.
  2. Most developing countries register trade surpluses, especially China which is inundating the global markets with its manufactured goods.
  3. In 1982 and the years that followed, developing countries’ foreign exchange reserves were limited. Since 2002, slowly at first and gathering pace since 2005, they have continually increased.
  4. Interconnected markets have led to an increase in private debt in both the North and the South in the form of complex types of derivative products which, far from ensuring greater stability, make for more opacity and speculation. We have a vast financial system with a considerable sector based on the accumulation of debt paper that could collapse at any moment like a house of cards.
  5. Internal public debt has reached all-time highs in the developing countries, while the external public debt is falling. In the USA it has increased too, although more slowly, and in Japan it remains extremely high at 185% of the GDP, according to the IMF.
  6. There is an explosion of food prices worldwide.
  7. There has been a frenzied acceleration of the arms race led by the United States.
  8. South-South capital flows are on the increase.
  9. China is making itself felt as never before in international economic and financial relations.
  10. A group of Latin American countries has launched the foundations of new multilateral regional institutions, starting with a Bank of the South.

Accumulation of developing countries’ foreign exchange reserves

Since 2004, the economic situation has been characterized by the high price of raw materials and a number of agricultural products. This has allowed a large number of developing countries to increase their export revenues and accumulate significant foreign exchange reserves, especially countries which export oil, natural gas and minerals. Some agricultural exporters have also benefited from this favourable situation. China, by exporting manufactured goods, has accumulated impressive quantities of foreign exchange reserves, amounting to stock of over 1,400 billion dollars in December 2007. However, not all the developing countries are included in this scenario; some sub-Saharan African States have seen their situation take a turn for the worse.

In 2007, the developing countries together hold over 4,600 billion dollars[4] in foreign exchange reserves while the industrialized countries hold less than a third of this sum. How do the developing countries use their reserves?

  1. A considerable share (certainly over 700 billion dollars[5]) is loaned to the United States through the purchase of Treasury bonds[6].
    China lends the United States 400 billion dollars of its reserves, emanating from its trade surplus with them, so that the North-American economy can continue to buy Chinese products. Many Latin-American, Asian and African countries also lend part of their reserves to the USA. This conservative policy, which is absurd from the point of view of the interests of the populations concerned, is increasingly criticized.
  2. A significant number of governments have taken the opportunity to make early repayments of their debts to the IMF, the World Bank, the Paris Club and private bankers.
  3. Some have created development funds, into which they can place some of their foreign reserves, in view of financing social and infrastructure projects such as buying up companies in the industrialized countries[7]. These funds are known as Sovereign Wealth Funds. In order of importance, the biggest are those of the emirate of Abu Dhabi (the amount of fund is not published, but estimates place it between 250 and 875 billion dollars!!), then Kuwait, China, Singapore, Russia. Libya has just created a fund of 40 billion dollars. Venezuela created the « Fonden » (fund for national
    development) in early 2007. In all, the various public funds of the developing countries place about 2,000 billion dollars at their disposal. Some of these public funds, such as China’s National Council for Social Security Fund – NCSSF – aim to back up the financing of their social security system. The biggest funds buy up companies in the industrialized countries or their shares, which is a source of anxiety for those governments. Many of these funds have taken advantage of the crisis faced by a number of big Western private banks since August 2007 to buy their shares (UBS, Merrill Lynch,
    Citigroup,…) This is the case particularly of the fund of Singapore
    (Temasek) and a number of Chinese ones. The developing countries are now having recourse to different policies from those adopted in the years following the oil boom of 1973. In those days, the governments of the developing countries recycled petrodollars by lending them to the private banks of the North and then became indebted to those banks. Present policies are more solid, but in no way break away from the dominant logic of capitalism. Investments are not made in alternative non-capitalist projects, whereas they could serve as powerful levers to set up policies reinforcing the public sector by breaking private control over the major means of production, developing a solidarity-based economy, and radically redistributing wealth by applying principles of justice and equality.
  4. The creation of a Bank of the South. Since December 2007, the Bank of the South is on track, even though all the choices have yet to be concluded at the time of writing this text. Its founders (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela) want to finance their regional integration and social projects. The governments of Brazil and Argentina argue for a neo-developmentalist project of regional expansion of capitalist enterprises, based on the model of European integration where the interests of big capital dominate. The governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are inclined to provide themselves with an instrument to finance economic, social and cultural policies that break with the profit logic and which would apply the different conventions that guarantee civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The operation of the future Bank of the South has not been finalised, for example at the level of the voting rights of the member countries or on auditing mechanisms. The first trimester of 2008 should bring definitive answers. On the other hand, other countries are planning to create an ALBA bank (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela).

Massive increase in domestic public debt

A recent development which also has to be considered is that the domestic public debt is increasing rapidly. In 1998 the internal and external debts were equal; in 2006 the domestic public debt exceeded the external debt by a factor of three[8]! This phenomenon is very
important: from now on, it is no longer possible to measure the level of debt of developing countries solely on the basis of the external debt.

The weight of public debt repayments

The latest figures published by the World Bank indicate that servicing the external public and private debts by developing countries amounted to 540 billion dollars in 2006. If we only consider the servicing of the external public debt, since this falls under the responsibility of the state budget, it represented 280 billion dollars in 2006. Despite the fact that the external public debt/GDP ratio is decreasing, the total volume of the debt is continuing to rise and the amounts repaid increased once again in 2007 compared to the previous year. More ominously, if we include servicing the domestic public debt, which also falls under the state’s responsibility, it is the astronomical sum of more than 1000 billion dollars a year which the public authorities of developing countries have to repay for both external and domestic public debt[9].

Increase in the indebtedness of private firms

We must not lose sight of the increasing indebtedness of private firms of developing countries. The external debt of developing countries’
private companies increased from 664 billion dollars in 2004 to 911 billion in 2006, which represents a hike of 37%[10]. Since the raw material exporting countries are witnessing an upturn in their fortunes, the private banks of the most industrialized countries have multiplied their loans to these private companies. The two private sectors which are indebting themselves most in developing countries are the banks and the firms dealing with hydrocarbons and raw materials. We must pay particular attention to this development: the private banks of the developing countries borrow from the North on low interest rates, mostly on a short-term basis, to lend this money to the internal market at a higher rate and on a long-term basis. If the economic situation suffers a downturn (which is likely in the coming years), we might witness a number of bankruptcies of the private banks of developing countries, just like the financial crises which hit Mexico in 1994-1995, the countries of South-East Asia and South Korea in 1997-1998, Ecuador in 1998-1999 and Argentina in 2001. Today’s private debt of banks might, if we are not careful, become tomorrow’s public debts. The same applies to the sector of hydrocarbons and minerals. Private petroleum, gas and mineral companies, take out loans in order to increase their production capacity and profit from the current high prices of raw materials. If the prices drop, the investments made through borrowing might not be profitable and the debt would become impossible to repay. It is imperative to limit and control this indebtedness.

Vulture funds descend upon weaker countries

Vulture funds are private investment funds that buy up large portions of the debt of a poor country on the secondary market, at a very low rate, in order to sue the country and obtain the face value of the debt they hold, plus late penalties. These vulture funds have already received close to one billion USD on court decisions. Just last April the London High Court ruled that Zambia was to pay 17 million USD to Donegal International for a debt they had bought for only 3 million in 1999. No less than 40 lawsuits have currently been filed against twenty countries of the South, most of them in Africa though some in Latin America. Eight lawsuits have been filed against the Democratic Republic of Congo, and courts have already ruled against the Congolese State in five of them. Here is another illustration: the U.S. Kensington Funds has filed a case against Congo-Brazzaville for 400 million USD as payment of a debt they bought for USD 10 million. In the current legal context it is most likely that U.S. judges will again decide in favour of the vulture funds.

Unstable LIBOR

The Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) is the interest rate at which London banks lend money to each other. Almost all variable rate loans granted to developing countries are based on it. Loan contracts specify that the interest owed is equal to the LIBOR interest rate plus a given percentage, for instance, Libor + 3%. If the Libor rate is at 4.5 %, the interest owed will be 7.5 %. Since the crisis that started in August 2007, the Libor rate has been extremely unstable.
When banks lose their confidence in each other the Libor rate increases. This is what happened in September when the Libor rate soared before decreasing again. If the crisis that started in August
2007 drags on, which is not at all impossible, the Libor rate may reach a much higher level than the present rate. In which case the following paradoxical situation could arise: the U.S. interest rate falls while interest rates paid by developing countries actually increase because of an increase in the Libor rate. Developing countries would then have to dig into their reserves in order to pay a higher bill. Of course this is one possibility which should not be excluded and that developing countries must consider when making their choices.

Increase in South-South lending
and the growing role of China

Private and public Banks in some developing countries (China, Brazil, India, Malaysia, South Africa) grant more and more loans to governments or companies in other developing countries. Loans by Chinese public banks to Africa have soared. In 2004-2006 Chinese banks lent two billion USD to developing countries for oil and gas development and production.[11] India, South Africa and Brazil as well as China are on the lookout for raw materials, which accounts for their banks granting more loans in order to back up supplies. These countries also try to sell their goods and services to other developing countries. The more vulnerable countries may thus fall into a new kind of dependence that will not necessarily be any better than the current one towards industrialized countries. In order to avoid this happening, South-South loans must be part of a more general process aiming at mutual empowerment.

The Bank of the South: the first step towards
a new international financial architecture

It is all the more essential to develop a new international institutional architecture which would include the WB and IMF being replaced by democratic institutions. The IMF and the WB will eventually overcome their ongoing crisis if developing countries do not rapidly develop new alternative financial instruments. Indeed were there to be a new financial crisis in developing countries, we can be sure that the IMF would be straight back in the lead as last resort creditors. Even though they have been weakened, these two institutions are still implementing their neo-liberal agenda.

Developing a new architecture will require the creation and reinforcement of South-South regional integration processes: setting up one or several Banks of the South that will have to coordinate their efforts, devising counter-trade mechanisms among developing countries that are based on solidarity.[12] Such mechanisms are already producing interesting results in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example a marked improvement in the field of health care, energy security (Petrocaribe), education and information (Telesur).

We must also continue to demand the cancellation of illegitimate public debts, whether internal or external, so as to free up new resources to meet human development, which forcibly requires that human rights be respected. This is why initiatives concerning debt auditing are essential.

We are witnessing a new phase of history. While nefarious practices continue, at the same time alternatives are beginning to emerge which empower the oppressed. These embryonic alternatives need all the support they can get. The time is ripe to reinforce and radicalize them, since the developing countries are in a position of strength compared to the industrial countries. Local ruling classes want to use the situation to buttress their own capitalist projects which can take the form of regional trade integration (the Chiang Mai agreement in East Asia or Mercosur in South America) but in a context that favours the pursuit of maximum private profits. Peoples and governments who want real change cannot be content with such projects; they can go further by taking advantage of this historic opportunity – an opportunity for emancipation not to be missed.

—— Notes ——

That said, the economic situation of Japan is particularly depressed. In the second quarter of 2007,
the GDP had fallen by 1.2% when annualized. At the same time, investment spending fell back by 4.9%,
while household consumption only progressed by 0.3%; yet these two items are the principal motors of
growth. The Nikkei index on the stock-exchange has nose-dived. Salaries are stagnating and unemployment
is up. Projected growth for the whole of 2007 was 1.7% but this will depend on the success of the exports
which are pulling the economy this year.

See the extended report on this subject in the Financial Times, 18 October 2007.

The Thai government had already taken steps to control capital movement in 2006 for the same reasons.

The value of foreign exchange reserves is calculated in dollars, the main international currency of
foreign exchange reserves, although in fact, the reserves are also made up of other currencies: euros,
yens, sterling, Swiss francs… Worldwide reserves for 2007 are 2/3 in dollars. ¼ in euros and the rest
in other strong currencies. (See Bank for International Settlements, Annual Report 2007, Bale, p.97)

Estimation of the author. It is not unlikely that the amount is much higher but it is very difficult
to obtain a precise number since the majority of central banks do not disclose how their reserves are divided.

See the critical analysis of this policy in
Bank of the South, International Context and Alternatives” Sept 2006.

This is the case of Venezuela, Russia, China. The Norwegian government has done the same thing to maximize the returns on petroleum. (See Bank for International Settlements, ibid, p. 104.)

World Bank, Global Development Finance 2007, Washington DC, p. 46.

According to the calculations of the author. Neither the World Bank nor the other IFI provide reliable data on the reimbursement of the domestic public debt. The basis of the calculations is the following: according to the World Bank, in 2006, the internal public debt was three times higher than the external public debt. In 2006, the interest rate for the internal public debt of developing countries was generally higher than the interest rate for the external public debt.
Since the repayment of the external public debt of developing countries amounted to about 280
billion dollars in 2006, we can estimate that the total repayment on the external and internal
public debts exceeded the sum of 1000 billion dollars in 2006. In 2007, the amounts repaid were greater than those of 2006.

World Bank, Global Development Finance 2007, Washington DC, Tables, All Developing Countries

World Bank, Global Development Finance 2007, Washington DC, p. 44.

See the kind of trading developing between Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba in 2006-2007, for instance in the fields of hydrocarbons, technology transfer, health care and education.

Translated by Vicki Briault, Judith Harris, Christine Pagnoulle and Diren Valayden in collaboration with Elizabeth Anne.

Originally published on the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM) website.

Éric Toussaint is a historian and political scientist. He is the President of Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM) Belgium.