Latin American Debt Crisis, 1980s

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 364-367:

The mounting problems caused by the economic distortions of import-substituting industrialization [= ISI] and the associated weakening of the state came to a head in the 1980s. The crisis had been deferred in the 1960s by strong world growth, and in the 1970s, when international demand was slack, by foreign loans. But a sudden change in the world financial system effectively cut off the flow of capital to Latin America.

In August of 1982 the Mexican government announced that it was unable to pay the interest on its debt to foreign banks. Mexico was followed shortly by virtually all the Latin American countries, including Cuba. (Suspension of debt payments occurred also in African and Asian countries, but the sheer size of the Latin American debt focused international attention on the continent.) The total outstanding Latin American debt in 1982 was estimated at $315.3 billion, although over $270 billion was owed by just five countries – precisely those which had undergone the fastest ISI growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Brazil was the largest debtor, owing $87.5 billion; Mexico owed $85.5 billion, Argentina $43.6 billion, Venezuela $31 billion and Chile $17 billion.

What had caused the crash? The immediate factor was the steep rise in US interest rates in 1979–82. This was a response to the high rates of inflation and the consequent weakness of the dollar caused by the producers’ cartel, OPEC, sharply raising the price of oil in 1973 and again in 1979. A world recession followed, which had a disastrous effect on the economies of Latin America: commodity prices started to fall on world markets just when higher export earnings were needed to cope with sharply rising interest rates on the foreign debt.

The bonanza of lending and borrowing that Latin American governments and Western banks had indulged in throughout the 1970s had its origins in the very phenomenon that would cause it to come to an abrupt end a decade later: the OPEC cartel’s oil-price rises of 1973 and 1979. High oil prices allowed producer countries, especially the Middle Eastern Arab states, to build up huge surpluses on their balance of payments. Profits from oil exports were too large to be fully absorbed by investment in their domestic economies, and so these OPEC countries deposited vast sums of money in European and North American banks. Western bankers then set about looking for ways of getting a good return on these windfall deposits, and their most willing clients were the developing countries of the Third World, who were hungry as always for development capital.

Latin America was especially susceptible to the blandishments of the Western banks, for in the early 1970s, as we have seen, the most advanced of the industrializing countries in the region had come to the limit of the ‘hard’ phase of import-substitution; the process of state-subsidized inward-looking development could be kept going only by borrowing abroad to cover the yawning deficits between national income and expenditure. There followed a mad spiral of irresponsible, profit-driven lending and unwise borrowing, in which Western bankers as much as Latin American officials appeared to overlook the implications of taking out huge loans on ‘floating’ instead of fixed interest rates. However, after the shock of the second oil-price rise in 1979, conservative administrations in the USA and other industrial countries like Britain decided to bring their domestic inflation under control by restricting the supply of money and credit; this economic policy choked off demand in the West and produced a worldwide recession. International interest rates on foreign debt suddenly started to ‘float’ ever upwards until by the middle of 1982 most Third World countries found it impossible to meet their interest payments.

Indebtedness and high inflation were not, therefore, peculiar to Latin America. In fact, most governments in the industrial countries had been running up debts during the 1970s. The US budget deficit in 1982 was actually larger than that of the worst Latin American debtors, and throughout the 1980s the Reagan administration, for fear of electoral unpopularity, was unwilling to cut it by raising taxes or reducing imports. Yet it was the Latin American debt and not the US deficit which caused international alarm, because a country’s economic health was judged according to its perceived ability to overcome its financial difficulties, a factor expressed in terms of the ratio of interest payments to export earnings. Latin American countries scored badly here, given their relative neglect of the export sector in the pursuit of import-substitution. In 1982 most had ratios in excess of 20 per cent of interest payments to exports; Brazil and Argentina came off worst with ratios of 57.1 per cent and 54.6 per cent respectively, while Mexico, despite being a major oil exporter, had a ratio of 39.9 per cent. In other words, the economies that had grown fastest in the 1970s were the most deeply indebted in the 1980s.

What had gone wrong with ISI development? In essence, it had failed to cure the underlying malaise which had begun to show itself as early as the 1920s – lack of productivity. With the aim of achieving self-sufficiency, economic planners had concentrated on substituting industrial imports by setting up national industries and protecting them behind high tariff walls to the general detriment of agriculture and the export sector. (Brazil was a partial exception since from the mid-1970s it had begun to subsidize industrial exports – an expensive exercise that did not tackle the underlying problem of productive efficiency.) National industry had been overprotected for too long and had failed to become efficient and competitive: the price of its manufactures was often up to three times the world price. Latin American economies therefore ended up with not only an unproductive export sector, dominated still by low-value primary commodities, but also an unproductive industrial sector, which nevertheless consumed expensive imports of technology. The chronic shortfall between exports and imports resulted in high inflation and mounting debts.

To make matters worse, the debt problem had been badly aggravated by the financial instability caused by hyperinflation in the 1970s. As confidence in the economy evaporated in the late 1970s, there occurred massive capital flight. Instead of investing their money at home – where the currency was virtually worthless and industries regularly made losses – rich Latin Americans put it into real estate abroad or deposited it in the very banks that were issuing loans to their own governments and companies. Huge sums were taken out of these countries: the World Bank estimated that between 1979 and 1982, $27 billion left Mexico, nearly a third of its foreign debt in 1982, and $19 billion left Argentina, whose debt in 1982 was $43.6 billion. (Brazil and Colombia were relatively unaffected because of their sustained growth and high domestic interest rates.) US and European bankers colluded fully in this crazy financial cycle, pressing high-yield loans on Latin American governments while turning a blind eye to the lucrative deposits coming in from private Latin American sources (which were more often than not the indirect recipients of those very loans).

When the crash finally came, the wage-earners and the poor felt it most: inflation soared even higher in the 1980s than in the 1970s, real wages fell, and government spending on food subsidies, transport, health and education was slashed. In 1980–84 overall growth in Latin America fell by nearly 9 per cent. Consumption per capita dropped by 17 per cent in Argentina and Chile, by 14 per cent in Peru, by 8 per cent in Mexico and Brazil. Urban unemployment doubled in Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela between 1979 and 1984, reaching unprecedented proportions everywhere else.

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Filed under economics, energy, industry, Latin America, Middle East, U.S.

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