Thirty years since Mexico’s default, Greece must break this sadistic debt spiral

We must retake control of our economies from the banks.

As Greece’s leaders pay down the latest multi-billion euro instalment on their debt, they would do well to take notice that tomorrow is the anniversary of an event of great resonance.

On 20 August 1982, Mexico declared a debt moratorium - effectively defaulting on its massive debts. Although debts in many Latin American countries had caused suffering for a number of years, this was the moment the leaders of the West were forced to confront what came to be called the ‘Third World Debt Crisis’.

Mexico owed over $50 billion, 90% to foreign private creditors - primarily US, Japanese and British banks. These banks had gone on a lending binge during the 1970s using the profits oil exporting countries had deposited with them from the oil spike. American overspending, notably on the Vietnam War, was recycled as debt to the rest of the world and, to help this, controls on international movements of money were dismantled.

Just as in our current financial crisis, bank loans to Third World countries had tended to be organised through syndicates: loans were packaged up together and then lent on in one go. This bundling meant many banks felt no need to conduct their own risk assessment. Four of the fifteen largest lenders to Latin America by 1982 were British banks: Lloyds, Midland, Barclays, and Natwest. American lenders included Citicorp, Bank of America, and Chase Manhattan.

At the end of the 1970s the US Federal Reserve sprung the trap, massively hiking interest rates in order to save their banks from inflation. The costs for this move were pushed onto Third World countries like Mexico. Two years later, the inevitable happened.

Now US and British banks faced a crisis. If loans from Mexico and other Latin American countries were not paid, they could go bankrupt. The banks stopped lending to Latin America, pushing more countries closer to default, and lobbied the US government to get them out of their mess. The US responded by getting the International Monetary Fund, and later the World Bank, to provide bailout loans to Latin American governments.

In 1982 the IMF lent Mexico $4 billion, which went straight back out of the country to pay western banks - a perfect mirror of what is happening with so-called bail-outs to Greece and other Eurozone countries today. At the same time, the IMF insisted Mexico introduce radical austerity and liberalisation. There were cuts in every area of government spending.

The economy collapsed and stagnated, many industries shut down, with the loss of at least 800,000 workers altogether. By 1989, the Mexican economy was still 11% smaller than 1981. Meanwhile, the debt doubled from 30% of GDP in 1982 to 60% by 1987.

The same story was repeated across Latin America. In 1990 Latin American economies were on average 8% smaller than they had been in 1980, and the number of people living in poverty increased from 144 million to 211 million. Former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo calls the bail-out responses "an excellent way to deal with the US banking crisis, and an awful way to deal with the Latin American debt crisis".

Meanwhile, government external debt more than doubled (from an average of 17% in 1982 to 44% by 1988). Just as in Greece today, the bailouts had nothing to do with long-term sustainable finances - they were bailing out reckless lenders who had over-stretched themselves.  

In fact, the banks gradually wrote-down the ‘book value’ of how much they regarded the debts to be worth, even while they were being repaid. They were allowed to set these theoretical losses off against profit for tax reasons, greatly reducing the tax bill of US and British banks. In 1987 alone, Barclays, Midland, Lloyds and Natwest received a tax relief subsidy of up to $1.75bn across the four banks. Then campaign organiser for War on Want John Denham accused the Thatcher government of "joining in the banks' attempts to have the burden of repayment pushed onto taxpayers."

The policies of bailout and austerity went on to be practiced across the world in the years that followed the Latin American catastrophe. That experience forced dozens of countries through two lost decades of development and enthroned the financiers as the new masters of the universe.

Today Greece, as well as other European countries, can share in the experience of Latin America from the 1980s. Then as now, bailout money was used to repay reckless banks, whilst austerity has served only to shrink economies and increase the relative size of the debt. Since 2010 the Greek government’s external debt has increased from 118% of GDP to 150% in 2012. The economy has shrunk by 15% since the start of 2010 and unemployment has reached 19%.

To repeat such failed policies is more than carelessness. The future of Europe’s economy, indeed the world economy, will be decided by a battle between the financial masters on the one side, and the peoples of the most indebted states in Europe on the other - Greece first. We either retake control of our economy from the banks, or we deepen an economic experiment which has had an incalculable cost in terms of the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. 

Nick Dearden is the director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Employees of Greece's ATEbank shout anti government slogans on August 3 in Athens. Photo: Getty
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation