Thursday, April 22, 2004

Odious Credit

I recently wrote about odious foreign public debt, that debt about which there is a current debate in the world as to whether it can be legally repudiated if it is taken on by illegitimate governments or for illegitimate ends.

The other side of the coin is odious credit. Please don’t think I’m against banks—quite the opposite. But I respect the role of the financial middlemen too highly to keep quiet when they are not doing their job right. In 1981, the representative of a foreign bank in Venezuela showed me a letter in which his boss instructed him to “give credit to the INAVI, Venezuela’s National Housing Institute. It’s the worst public institution, which means that it pays us the highest rate and, as you know, in the end it’s just as public as the best of them and Venezuela will have to pay up just the same.” Odious credit, isn’t it?

The first thing a good banker should ask a client applying for a loan is what is it for and if the answer is not satisfactory he should reject the application, regardless of the guarantees offered. Simple plain-vanilla fraud of the Parmalat kind will always exist, but the asinine way all their creditors fell into the trap makes one suspect that this is only the first case of systemic risk in the banking system: tempted by the regulators in Basel, banks subordinate their own criteria to those dictated by auditors and credit raters. This development, bad in itself, is even more serious in the case of public credit, where the what it’s for is being replaced by how much can be carried, perversely derived by calculating the level of sustainable public debt.

When I call for the total elimination of foreign public debt (which is feasible and would not require huge sacrifices in an oil rich land like Venezuela) my colleagues often argue that a certain level of debt is good and necessary for the country. This does not convince me, since it makes debt sound like electricity that must be kept at a certain voltage. Because public debt must always be paid back, regardless of whether anybody ever knew what or whom it was for, I’m fighting for the day when the private sector in Venezuela can return to the markets, freely, without having to carry that huge monkey—foreign public debt—on its back.

In my opinion, the Benemérito (the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez (1864–1935) who ruled the country between 1908 and 1935) deserved great credit for ridding Venezuela of her foreign debts He certainly knew that to shake off that vice more than patches or pieces of chewing gum are needed.