The Ghost of Argentina: What Happens when Countries Go Bankrupt?

By SPIEGEL Staff

First it was mortgage lenders. Then large banks began to wobble. Now, entire countries, including Ukraine and Pakistan, are facing financial ruin. The International Monetary Fund is there to help, but its pockets are only so deep.

No, Alexander Lukyanchenko told reporters at a hastily convened press conference last Tuesday, there is "no reason whatsoever to spread panic." Anyone who was caught trying to throw people out into the street, he warned, would have the authorities to deal with.

Lukyanchenko is the mayor of Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine with a population of a little more than one million. For generations, the residents of Donetsk have earned a living in the surrounding coalmines and steel mills, a rather profitable industry in the recent past. Donetsksta, a local steel producer, earned €1.3 billion ($1.65 billion) in revenues last year.

But last Tuesday the mayor, returning from a meeting with business leaders, had bad news: two-thousand metalworkers would have to be furloughed. Lukyanchenko doesn't use the word furlough, instead noting that the workers will be doing "other, similar work." But every other blast furnace has already been shut down, and one of the city's largest holding companies is apparently gearing up for mass layoffs.

Under these conditions, how could panic not be rampant in Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine's industrial heartland? In Mariupol, a steelworking city, a third of the workers have already been let go. The chemical industry, Ukraine's second-largest source of export revenue, is also ailing. In the capital Kiev, booming until recently, construction cranes are at a standstill while crowds jostle in front of currency exchange offices, eager to convert their assets into US dollars.

Donetsk is in eastern Ukraine, 8,100 kilometers (5,030 miles) from New York's Wall Street and 2,700 kilometers (1,677 miles) from Canary Wharf, London's financial center. But such distances are now relative. The world financial crisis has reached a new level. No longer limited to banks and companies, it is now spreading like wildfire and engulfing entire economies. It has reached Asia and Latin America, Eastern Europe, Iceland the Seychelles, the Balkan nation of Serbia and Africa's southernmost country, South Africa.

It is a development that has investors and speculators alike holding their breath. Some are pulling their money out of troubled countries, while others are betting on a continued decline -- and in doing so are only accelerating the downturn. Central banks are desperately trying to halt the downward trend, but in many cases the plunge seems unstoppable.

At first, it seemed as if the crash could be limited to Iceland. But now countries like Ukraine, Pakistan and Argentina are proving to be almost as vulnerable as the small island nation in the North Atlantic. It seems as though another country is added to the growing list of nations on the verge of collapse almost daily.

A national bankruptcy isn't just some theoretical construct. Argentina experienced it in 2001 and Russia three years earlier. Germany has gone bankrupt twice in its more recent history, once in 1923 and the second time after 1945. A country has reached this final stage if, as a result of war or blatant mismanagement, it has gambled away all trust, can no longer service its debt or convince anyone to lend it any money, no matter how high an interest rate it promises to pay.

This is what is currently happening to Iceland. The central bank in the capital Reykjavik increased its prime rate by six points to 18 percent last week. Venezuela, where inflation is also high, is now offering 20 percent to stimulate interest in its government bonds. At the moment, however, investors are shying away from all risk.

In the end, the rating agencies will have no choice but to downgrade the problem countries to their lowest level of creditworthiness. When that happens, lenders will have no choice but to write off much of their money. For citizens, national bankruptcy would probably lead to massive inflation.

The threshold countries, described until recently as "emerging" economies, are in for an especially rough ride. "The dream that they would be spared seems to have come to an end," says Rolf Langhammer, vice-president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Countries like Russia and Brazil owe their recent success in large part to the boom in commodities the world has experienced in recent years. But now prices for oil, copper, wheat and corn have plunged and a giant spiral of debt has begun to turn. The companies and banks that borrowed vast amounts of money abroad for their investments can no longer service their debt, and investors are pulling out their capital. As foreign currency becomes scarce and imports unaffordable, the currencies of these countries are losing value, which only increases the mountain of debt.

According to Stephen Jen, a currency specialist with the US bank Morgan Stanley, the flow of capital to threshold countries could drop by more than half -- from the current level of €575 billion ($730 billion) to €230-270 billion ($292-343 billion) -- if world economic growth drops to only 1 percent in 2009. The demise of these countries, says Jen, represents the new "epicenter of the global crisis."

The looming crisis has the countries in most dire need lining up for emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But all they are doing is buying time -- a few weeks, or perhaps even months -- and hoping that the general situation will soon improve.

The Ghost of Buenos Aires

The signs of looming national bankruptcy are plentiful, and bankers in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo know them well. In late 2001, they were the first to see the coming crash in Argentina. Men traveled across the Rio de la Plata, from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, carrying suitcases filled with US dollars. They stood in long lines at the city's banks, depositing the contents of their suitcases into accounts and safe deposit boxes there. Uruguay is South America's Switzerland, a safe haven for money in times of crisis. No one asks about where the millions come from.

Argentina in crisis.
DER SPIEGEL

Argentina in crisis.

Once the Argentine businessmen had transferred their dollars abroad, the second phase of the collapse began. The Argentine government froze all bank accounts, capping the maximum amount an accountholder could withdraw at only $250 (€198) a week. Small investors, those who had left their money in the banks, were the hardest hit. Tens of thousands of desperate citizens stormed the banks, and many spent nights sleeping in front of the automated teller machines.

The last phase of the downturn began in the Buenos Aires suburbs. After consumption had dropped by 60 percent, young men began looting supermarkets. In December 2001, 40,000 people gathered on Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. There, they banged pots and pans together day and night, until an unnerved President Fernando de la Rúa fled by helicopter.

The image of the fleeing president has burned itself into the collective memory of Argentineans. It marks the worst financial crisis of the last 100 years. De la Rúa's successor allowed the peso to float free on the world currency-exchange markets after it had been pegged to the US dollar at a ratio of 1:1. Tens of thousands of small business owners, who had incurred debt when the peso was still pegged to the dollar, filed for bankruptcy. Unemployment quickly ballooned to 25 percent.

Five presidents passed through the Casa Rosada in the space of two weeks, until Nestor Kirchner, a provincial governor until then, assumed the presidency in 2003. Kirchner informed the country's international creditors that Argentina would not be able to repay its $145 billion (€115 billion) in foreign debt.

Is history repeating itself today?

Economic experts have been warning for months that Argentina is again heading toward national bankruptcy. Men are traveling to Uruguay once again with suitcases filled with cash. In the space of only three weeks, more than $700 million (€553 million) was withdrawn from Argentine bank accounts. Government bonds have lost more than half of their value. ATMs are no longer giving out more than 300 pesos, and inflation is running rampant.

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