Tuesday, October 6, 1998

The Bad Habit Of External Public Debt

I am amongst those who believe that one of the most important reforms we can bequeath to future generations of Venezuelans would be that of forcing the country to begin a gradual but real amortization of its external public debt. When the latter reaches zero, we should then constitutionally prohibit new indebtedness.

I consider this perfectly justifiable due to a) the dreadful experience we have had in the past with our public debt; b) the fact that even the slightest improvement in the country’s economic climate incites the international financial sector to press more loans into our hands; and c) the fact that it must be very difficult for our leaders to resist the temptation of reaching out for those new resources.

The arguments are simple and unsophisticated. As such, they are of little help in the battle against the thesis, universally accepted, that foreign debt is absolutely necessary in order to maximize the development of a nation. This thesis is even considered applicable in countries like Venezuela, which receive resources from sources other than debt that amply surpass its capacity to digest them efficiently.

I obviously believe in access by the private sector to the international capital markets. If there were no public external debt, the market conditions in Venezuela would be very different from those we have today. Today’s conditions could be summarized as being 3% over a country risk factor of 20%. It is difficult to take on debt in BolĂ­vares at 70% interest even when there is the “hope” that inflation or devaluation will erode the real cost of the debt. It is virtually impossible to contemplate debt in Dollars at 23% interest when taking into account that inflation in the United States is somewhere around 2% per annum and the world threatens to hit us with recession.

Today, every politician agrees with the thesis that we should shrink the size of the public sector and reduce the number of public employees. The majority of them are in favor of the “bit-by-bit” method, arguing that these layoffs should be implemented only when the private sector creates the offsetting job opportunities. The classic case of the chicken or the egg!

The private sector will only be able to be the motor of development when the mortgage of the external private debt that indirectly taxes its activities is removed. We cannot expect the help of banks and the international financial entities with this task. For decades, we have heard their calls for the reduction of the public sector while, with the same breath, they request the Republic’s guarantees in order to lend resources to the private sector.

One of the main worries the common Venezuelan citizen harbors is that solutions to the mismanagement of our current public debt, such as the partial sale of PDVSA or Citgo, will only contribute to the continuation of the orgy of bad administration of the State. I am sure that if we managed to implement a credible constitutional prohibition that will assure the population that our national debt crisis will not be repeated, it would be possible to reach a consensus.

The key word, of course, is “credible”. If we have learned anything from our past experience with modern democracies, it is that they have an immense capacity of altering their course in order to satisfy short term aims. Today we may applaud the prohibition mentioned above. Tomorrow they would probably look for our applause to lift the same prohibition.

A proposal such as this one, evidently has many natural enemies. On top of our leaders that like to win votes by using easy money, we also find the bankers that wish to place their resources, easily, with high yields and with “safety”.

When we say “safety” we mean that in our unreal world, a banker that lends funds to a private sector company that then goes broke due to the government’s erroneous policies puts his job at risk while the banker that only lends to the government, thereby abetting those very same policies, normally does so without risking his personal hide.

There are other enemies, not necessarily natural ones. These maintain that is in unpatriotic to limit the State’s attributions. These enemies can be recognized by the ease with which they maintain in the same breath that the actual debt is bad but that future debt is good. We remind these people that to govern while recognizing human failings and thereby avoiding further damage cannot possibly be unpatriotic.

To continue to believe egoistically that the next government, or the one after that, will not repeat the same errors is surely treason. If there is one nation in the world that can attest to this fact, it is Venezuela. The immense resources from the country’s oil production has not contributed much to the country. Certainly, the debt it has contracted has not contributed at all.

Thursday, February 26, 1998

Speaking about trust and distrust

International financial risk rating entities are once again issuing their results for Venezuela. And once again, everyone begins to tremble. There is confidence! Ooops, there is no confidence! The debate is once again on the table and I take advantage of this to share some of my reflections on this issue with the readers.

It could be that I am not exact in my appreciation, but then again, when dealing with something as subjective as confidence, it shouldn’t really make much difference. In 1982, the then Minister of Finance decided that the country should be paying interest rates well below those being required by the international banking community in order to renegotiate part of Venezuela’s foreign debt. This decision blocked the restructuring of our foreign debt and together with the crisis in Mexico and other indebted nations combined to unleash the events which resulted in the devaluation of Black Friday of February 1983.

Obviously, the Minister was severely criticized. I considered this criticism to be unjust since, as far as I was concerned, the Minister was in reality a hero of the nation; almost enough so as to merit a statue in some important plaza. In my opinion, his actions, which generated international distrust, saved the country from billions of dollars in debt, which would have bloated the amounts actually accounted for after the disaster. Few heroes can be proven to have undertaken such important deeds for the good of the nation.

In reality, to inspire confidence in others should be of no concern for the country, while it has not been able to find or generate an economic and administrative model which inspires the confidence of its own people. Trying to do so simply confuses the search for in depth solutions. 

In addition, the persons for whom instruments of measurement are designed do not include those foreigners whose confidence we really seek. Rating agencies rank a country’s measure, principally the latter’s ability to service its debt. As such, their market is comprised of bankers and investors who simply wish to make a short-term financial investment. Nothing of special importance to the country.

Those foreigners who could really interest us are the ones who come to the country with resources, the ones with the intention of remaining here for the long-term, to put up factories, cultivate the land, generate employment and maybe even raise a Venezuelan family. That is to say, the one whose objectives are one and the same as those of the nation. The opinions and confidence of these people are not measured at all.

In addition, both the methods and measuring instruments as well as the professionals actually doing the measuring, probably continue to be the same. They are the same ones that not very long ago argued that it was impossible for a country to be bankrupt, thereby justifying stratospheric limits for indebtedness with such enthusiasm that both bankers (who by the way proved to be unprofessional in most cases) and the common Venezuelan, upon hearing this siren song, joined forces and created the mix-up of the century.

For those of you who may have any doubts about this, I suggest you look at the ranking of six months ago. In those listings, the majority of the Asian countries looked like nothing short of marvel of creation. Haven’t you recently heard all of the crying over the Asian financial crisis?

We must evidently listen to the opinions of the credit agencies. Their measurements reflect many variables of great importance for the well being of the country. Unfortunately they also are the principal source of information about the country for many foreigners. In other words, to lie awake at night worrying about ranking doesn’t make sense.

You may remember the story about the anguished debtor who could not sleep, but found a way of finally getting a night’s rest by transferring his insomnia to his banker with the simple words “I can’t pay you”. In this case, something similar occurs. I personally sleep better when Venezuela’s ranking goes down, since I am then sure that lenders will not be making additional resources available (in my name as well as in the name of my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and other future debtors) to governments that insist on misspending them.

The day the government, during electoral period, pays more attention to the opinions of its humble subjects that to those of the glamorous international agencies, we will finally stand a chance of making it out of our standard situation. The latter, according to all international norms I know of, can be objectively classified simply as “poor and moody”