Like Greece & Ireland, IMF Shouldn't Help Portugal

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 4/08/2011 09:16:00 PM
Now I'm hopping mad! I know that I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this, but in the interest of fairness, I will fight the good fight even if no one else will do so. Bravely I must soldier on in this bleak and unbearable world. Previously, I have argued that the IMF should not have bailed Greece out because its problems were primarily of the fiscal sort (accumulating a debt too large to service), not the balance-of-payments sort (having insufficient foreign exchange to pay for necessary imports like food and energy).

I've also said that bailing out Ireland was an indecent financial proposal since its woes stem primarily from the state guaranteeing its banks' solvency without fully realizing the magnitude of such commitments. Insofar as the IMF remains an institution dedicated to dealing with balance of payments problems, we have an identical main problem with IMF lending to Ireland and Portugal. While theirs are somewhat dissimilar woes, what they have in common with Greece is not having a BOP problem which would oblige the IMF to act according to its Articles of Agreement.

Even the IMF describes its activities in Ireland as support for recapitalizing nearly insolvent lenders which have, in turn, tested the solvency of the Irish state. Witness:
Ireland’s banks are at the heart of the current crisis. Massive lending during the boom years left banks heavily exposed to the Irish property market, which has yet to stabilize despite a steep fall in housing prices of 36 percent since the peak in 2008. At the height of the boom, the assets of domestic banks amounted to five times Ireland’s gross domestic product, with real estate loans making up close to 30 percent of all loans in 2006.

Such an oversized banking system is no longer sustainable, not least because of the ongoing weakness of the property market in Ireland. The problems have resulted in a loss of deposits and market funding, and have made Irish banks overly dependent on financing from the European Central Bank. The banking sector therefore needs to be restructured and recapitalized.
There isn't even an allusion to balance of payments woes, precisely because Ireland doesn't suffer from them.

And so it is the case once more with Portugal. Sharing a common currency with its main trading partners in the Eurozone, the euro is also a standard global reserve currency that is second only to the US dollar in terms of reserve holdings. But Portugal may have trouble obtaining euros, you say? As late as February, the ECB had a facility for purchasing sovereign issuances which it used to help out Portugal. So, Portugal could have just issued more IOUs and sold them to the ECB:
The European Central Bank has intervened in eurozone bond markets for the first time in weeks, buying Portuguese debt amid fears that the country could yet seek an international rescue. The ECB returned to the market on Thursday as Portugal’s cost of borrowing on 10-year debt jumped to a euro-era high of 7.63 per cent, traders said. The ECB temporarily suspended its bond-buying programme in mid-January.
The real triggers for Portugal asking for help from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF)/IMF are a nuber of things. First, the outgoing PM Jose Socrates failed to pass austerity measures, displeasing powers-that-be in Brussels who had hoped Portugal could avoid another massive bailout episode. Absent political leadership (Socrates resigned and there will be parliamentary elections come June 5) and a credible plan for getting its fiscal woes under control, the ECB inevitably tired of purchasing Portugese debt as a lifeline and asked Lisbon to formally ask for help. Financially, servicing EUR 10B of maturities due in June is virtually impossible. Hence the cry for mercy.

My argument in the Portugese case is similar to the Greek one: In the main, fiscal woes--overindebtedness--is to blame, not BOP problems. Although the IMF may be giving its support to Eurozone countries to help quell systemic disturbances in the international monetary system, that isn't what it was tasked for as I keep repeating.

It's also a matter of fairness to LDCs. Most likely, poor countries aren't contributing to the IMF so that their funds will be used to bail out rich countries suffering not from BOP problems but from fiscal ones. So, not only is it a misallocation of funds, but also a miscarriage of global governance. By all means, let the Europeans help out one of their own--but without IMF funds.

The world is an unfair place, but it was like that long before I got here.