“Hay gente que rectifica lo que dice, hay mucha gente que se contradice.” —René Pérez
Well, it appears that Ecuador just went and defaulted on its foreign debt. I think that this is a bad idea. The problem, of course, is that I am on record as supporting the U.S. decision to allow its financial protectorates in Latin America to default in 1931. The only reason that I think Britain’s subsequent decision to default was bad is that is prevented the union of Trinidad and the United States. I have also argued that Argentina’s much later default was a good idea. In fact, I have even implied that I think there might be good arguments in favor of an Argentine default right now. (Really. Read the linked post closely. I more than imply that.)
So why do I think that this move is stupid? After all, Ecuador is suffering from a collapse in oil prices. What’s the problem?
First, Ecuador does not have to default. Debt is around 21% of GDP, and debt service is only around 1%. A balance-of-payments crisis this is not, even with the crash in oil prices.
Second, Ecuador is vulnerable. I don’t know how vulnerable. Why don’t I know? Well, I haven’t been able to find Petroecuador’s balance sheets, so I don’t know how many American assets it holds. Nor do I know how many commercial assets the Ecuadorean government may hold. And I certainly don’t know how many payments to the Ecuadorean government pass through vulnerable payments centers. But the fact that I don’t know these things make me think that the country is very vulnerable. Call it a hunch, but a lack of transparency often means that there is something to hide.
I should point out that I have met the fellows from Greylock and Elliott who will be going after the country. They are very very good at what they do, and they are very motivated.
Third, Ecuador could use access to the World Bank. It will probably lose that. It has already lost access to Brazilian development funds.
It could still be a bluff. This is just a default; many stand to profit from such a thing. The Ecuadorean government may just be engaging in a complicated political redistribution, and it will restart payments once the relevant parties have taken their profits. Alternatively, should a second Great Depression really emerge, then early default will seem like a brilliant move.
But short of those two possibilities — a short-term move or a prediction of disaster — it just seems unwise to me.