Eastern Europe won’t pay what it can’t pay

By Michael Hudson, published by the Financial Times on April 7, 2010

Greece is just the first in a series of European debt bombs about to go off. Mortgage debts in the post-communist economies and Iceland are more explosive. Although most of these countries are not in the eurozone, their debts are largely denominated in euros. Some 87 per cent of Latvia’s debts are in euros or other foreign currencies, and are owed mainly to Swedish banks, while Hungary and Romania owe euro-debts mainly to Austrian banks. These governments have been borrowing not to finance a budget deficit, as in Greece, but to support their exchange rates and thereby prevent a private-sector default to foreign banks.

All these debts are unpayably high because most of these countries are running deepening trade deficits and are sinking into depression. Now that property prices are plunging, trade deficits are no longer financed by an inflow of foreign-currency mortgage lending. For the past year, these countries have supported their exchange rates by borrowing from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The terms of this borrowing are politically unsustainable: sharp public sector budget cuts, higher tax rates on already over-taxed labour, and austerity plans that shrink economies and drive more workers to emigrate.

Bankers in Sweden and Austria, Germany and Britain are about to discover that extending credit to nations that cannot (or will not) pay may be their problem, not that of their debtors. No one wants to accept the fact that debts that cannot be paid, will not be. Someone must bear the cost as debts go into default or are written down, to be paid in sharply depreciated currencies, and many legal experts find debt agreements calling for repayment in euros unenforceable. Every sovereign nation has the right to legislate its own debt terms, and the coming currency re-alignments and debt write-downs will be much more than mere “haircuts”.

There is no point in devaluing, unless “to excess” – that is, by enough to actually change trade and production patterns. That is why Franklin Roosevelt devalued the US dollar by more than 40 per cent against gold in 1933, raising the metal’s official price from $20 to $35 an ounce. To avoid raising the US debt burden proportionally, he annulled the “gold clause” indexing payment of bank loans to the price of gold. This is where the political fight will occur today – over the payment of debt in currencies that are devalued.

Read more: FT.com