FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Ecuador’s Conscientious Default

by NEIL WATKINS And SARAH ANDERSON

When the government of Ecuador failed to make a scheduled interest payment on private bonds this month, it was hardly the first time a country had defaulted in the middle of a financial crisis. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time for Ecuador. The small South American country did so just 10 years ago, at a time when the economy was reeling from natural disasters and a drop in oil prices.

But this default is different. For the first time in history, the government’s defense isn’t based on an inability to pay. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa explained rather that he was unwilling to continue to pay debts that are “obviously immoral and illegitimate.”

Like many of the victims of the U.S. subprime mortgage mess, the Ecuadorian people were the targets of predatory lending. In the 1970s, unscrupulous international lenders facilitated some $3 billion in borrowing by Ecuadorian dictators who blew most of the money on the military. After the transition to democracy, the Ecuadorian people got stuck holding the bag.

Over the years, the country has made debt payments that exceed the value of the principal it borrowed, plus significant interest and penalties. But after multiple reschedulings, conversions, and some further borrowing, Ecuador’s debt has risen to more than $10 billion today.

Human Costs

The human costs are staggering. Every dollar sent to international creditors means one dollar less is available for fighting poverty. And in 2007, the Ecuadorian government paid $1.75 billion in debt service, more than it spent on health care, social services, the environment, and housing and urban development combined.

Correa campaigned on a commitment to prioritize the payment of the “social debt” over financial debt. After taking office in 2007, he responded to demands from Ecuadorian civil society and the international Jubilee Network to form an independent commission to investigate the origins, nature, and impacts of the nation’s external debt. While citizens’ groups in other countries have carried out their own debt audits, this was the first time a government had supported such an effort.

The debt audit commission documented hundreds of allegations of irregularity, illegality, and illegitimacy in the contraction of Ecuador’s debt. In the case of the bonds Ecuador has now defaulted on, the commission alleged that they were issued and restructured illegally, violating Ecuador’s domestic laws, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, and general principles of international law. The agreement that gave rise to the Global bonds themselves may not be legal under Ecuador’s constitution, which prohibits an individual from incurring debt on behalf of the country.

Commercial debt is the most expensive component of Ecuador’s portfolio, making up only 30% of its total obligations but comprising 44% of the country’s interest payments in 2007.

Correa says he hopes to cut a deal with creditors, much in the way that many U.S. homeowners are seeking to restructure their subprime mortgages. Ecuador’s global bonds are currently valued at $3.8 billion. If negotiations aren’t fruitful, however, the economic repercussions could be severe.

One avenue for the bondholders would be to sue under the U.S.-Ecuador bilateral investment treaty, which went into force in 1997 (long before Correa took office). Arbitration tribunals, such as the World Bank-affiliated International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), handle such cases. Under this system, there is no public accountability, no standard judicial ethics rules, and no appeals process. A group of Italian investors has a pending ICSID claim over about $5.5 billion in bonds that Argentina defaulted on in 2002.

Investors could also sue in New York courts, as the bonds were issued under the laws of that state. Holders of Argentine bonds have also used that tactic.

Financial analysts have also predicted that Ecuador’s default will cut off the country’s access to capital markets and could dim its chances of obtaining a long-term extension of U.S. trade preferences, which will expire in 2008.

While the risks of default are high, Ecuador had only two options: keep paying a dubious and possibly illegal debt at the risk of social unrest, or default and face the wrath of the international markets.

Independent Mechanism

This exposes a gaping hole in the international financial system: the lack of an international, independent mechanism for countries to resolve disputes over potentially illegitimate and/or illegal debt or in the case of bankruptcy. Ecuador may be the first developing country to default during the current crisis, but it’s unlikely to be the last.

As world leaders seek to build a new international financial architecture to respond to the current meltdown and prevent future crises, they should consider a new debt workout mechanism as one key pillar.

A bill pending in the U.S. Congress would be a step forward. The Jubilee Act, which passed the House of Representatives in 2008, would require the Comptroller General to undertake audits of the debt portfolios of previous regimes where there is substantial evidence of odious, onerous, or illegal loans. The legislation also instructs the Secretary of the Treasury to “seek the international adoption of a binding legal framework on new lending that…provides for decisions on irresponsible lending to be made by an entity independent from the creditors; and enables fair opportunities for the people of the affected country to be heard.”

To ensure more responsible and productive lending and borrowing in the future, we need to learn from and redress the errors of the past. Only then can we build the architecture for an international financial system that works for people and the planet.

Neil Watkins, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the executive director of Jubilee USA Network, and Sarah Anderson, a Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst, is the director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

 

 

 

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
November 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jonathan Cook
From an Open Internet, Back to the Dark Ages
Linda Pentz Gunter
A Radioactive Plume That’s Clouded in Secrecy
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Fires This Time
Nick Alexandrov
Birth of a Nation
Vijay Prashad
Puerto Rico: Ruined Infrastructure and a Refugee Crisis
Peter Montague
Men in Power Abusing Women – What a Surprise!
Kristine Mattis
Slaves and Bulldozers, Plutocrats and Widgets
Pete Dolack
Climate Summit’s Solution to Global Warming: More Talking
Mike Whitney
ISIS Last Stand; End Times for the Caliphate
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Darkness, Part Two
James Munson
Does Censoring Undemocratic Voices Make For Better Democracy?
Brian Cloughley
The Influence of Israel on Britain
Jason Hickel
Averting the Apocalypse: Lessons From Costa Rica
Pepe Escobar
How Turkey, Iran, Russia and India are playing the New Silk Roads
Jan Oberg
Why is Google’s Eric Schmidt So Afraid?
Ezra Rosser
Pushing Back Against the Criminalization of Poverty
Kathy Kelly
The Quality of Mercy
Myles Hoenig
A Ray Moore Win Could be a Hidden Gift to Progressives
Gerry Brown
Myanmar Conflict: Geopolitical Food Chain
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: Robert Redford’s Big Game in Nairobi
Katrina Kozarek
Venezuela’s Communes: a Great Social Achievement
Zoltan Grossman
Olympia Train Blockade Again Hits the Achilles Heel of the Fracking Industry
Binoy Kampmark
History, Law and Ratko Mladić
Tommy Raskin
Why Must We Sanction Russia?
Bob Lord
Trump’s Tax Plan Will Cost a Lot More Than Advertised
Ralph Nader
National Democratic Party – Pole Vaulting Back into Place
Julian Vigo
If Sexual Harassment and Assault Were Treated Like Terrorism
Russell Mokhiber
Still Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco: John Boehner and College Ethics
Louis Proyect
The Witchfinders
Ted Rall
Sexual Harassment and the End of Team Politics
Anna Meyer
Your Tax Dollars are Funding GMO Propaganda
Barbara Nimri Aziz
An Alleged Communist and Prostitute in Nepal’s Grade Ten Schoolbooks!
Myles Hoenig
A Ray Moore Win Could be a Hidden Gift to Progressives
Graham Peebles
What Price Humanity? Systemic Injustice, Human Suffering
Kim C. Domenico
To Not Walk Away: the Challenge of Compassion in the Neoliberal World
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Giving Thanks for Our Occupation of America?
Christy Rodgers
The First Thanksgiving
Charles R. Larson
Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years in Power”
David Yearsley
On the Road to Rochester, By Bike
November 23, 2017
Kenneth Surin
Discussing Trump Abroad
Jay Moore
The Failure of Reconstruction and Its Consequences
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
Trout and Ethnic Cleansing
John W. Whitehead
Don’t Just Give Thanks, Pay It Forward One Act of Kindness at a Time
Chris Zinda
Zinke’s Reorganization of the BLM Will Continue Killing Babies
David Krieger
Progress Toward Nuclear Weapons Abolition
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail