Thursday, July 2, 2015

Debt, Aid, Govs

Bruce. B. de Mesquita, The Dictator's Handbook

[W]e saw the paradoxical result that as Nigeria’s oil revenues grew so did its debt. It wasn’t that the oil itself encouraged borrowing—autocrats always want to borrow more. Rather revenues from oil meant that Nigeria could service a larger debt and so people were more willing to lend. [..]

Although the large coalition size in a democracy places some restrictions on the level of borrowing, democratic leaders are still inclined to be financially irresponsible. Remember, while the debt is paid by all, the benefits disproportionately flow to coalition members. Over the last ten years the economies of many Western nations boomed. This would have been a perfect time to reduce debt. Yet in many cases this did not happen. [..]

From a Keynesian perspective, many governments are taking the perverse steps of trying to cut spending during a recession instead of stimulating demand. This does not reflect a desire by politicians to borrow less. Rather debt crises in Iceland, Greece, and Ireland have led many investors to doubt the ability of nations to repay. This has pushed up the cost of borrowing and made it much harder to secure new loans. It is supply, not demand, that has shrunk.

Markets limit how much a nation can borrow. If individuals borrow too much and either cannot or will not repay it, then banks and other creditors can seize assets to recover the debt. With sovereign lending to countries, however, creditors cannot repossess property. [..] In practice, the only leverage lenders have over nations is to cut them off from future credit. Nevertheless, this has a profound effect, as the ability to engage in borrowing in financial markets is valuable. For this reason nations generally pay their debt.

However, once the value of access to credit is worth less than the cost of servicing the debt then leaders should default. If they don’t then surely a challenger will come along who will offer to do so. [..]

As debt approaches the balance point where the value of access to credit equals the cost of debt service, lenders refuse to increase the overall size of debt. At this point, if leaders want to borrow more, then they need to increase revenues such that they could service this additional debt. As in the Nigerian case, the discovery of exploitable natural resources provides one means to increase debt service and hence more borrowing. However, without such discoveries, the only way to increase borrowing is to increase tax revenue. For autocratic leaders this means liberalizing their policies to encourage people to work harder because they already tax at a high (implicit) rate. Only when facing financial problems are leaders willing to even consider undertaking such politically risky liberalization. They don’t do it frequently or happily. They liberalize, opening the door to a more democratic, representative and accountable government only when they have no other path to save themselves from being deposed today [..]

Debt forgiveness is a popular policy, but one that is generally misguided. Those in favor of forgiving the debt of highly indebted poor countries argue that the debt burden falls on the poor people of the nation who did not benefit in a consequential way from the borrowed funds. This is certainly true. As we have explained, the benefits go to the leader and the coalition while the debt obligation falls on everyone. But people who argue for debt forgiveness construct their arguments in terms of how they think the world should operate, rather than how it actually works.

[I]t is useful to look back at some of the largest debt-relief efforts prior to 2000. It is particularly illustrative to observe how important the nature of governance is. Even though creditors carefully chose those nations that they thought would behave sensibly, in the wake of debt relief many nations started increasing debt again.

As a percentage of debt, the largest debt reliefs prior to 2000 were given to Ethiopia in 1999 (42 percent of debt), Yemen in 1997 (34 percent), Belarus in 1996 (33 percent), Angola in 1996 (33 percent), Nicaragua in 1996 (30 percent) and Mozambique in 1990 (27 percent). With the exceptions of Angola and Nicaragua, each of these nations promptly started reaccumulating debt. For instance, after a series of small debt reductions, in 1999, with the forgiveness of $4.4 billion, Ethiopia had its debt reduced to $5.7 billion. But by 2003 this debt had risen to $6.9 billion. Despite the forgiveness of $589 million of debt in 1996, Belarus’s debt has steadily risen from $1.8 billion in 1995 to over $4.1 billion in 2005. Even though debt-reduction programs vet candidates, these examples suggest that in many cases for-giveness without institutional reform simply allows leaders to start borrowing again.