Spain’s 1575 Default

If all goes according to plan, the hoopla over the debt limit will soon recede. Policymakers and analysts will move on to the next new thing. And, sadly, some fascinating questions will forever go unanswered. For example, which president would appear on the trillion-dollar coin?

 But if you are up for one last article about default, yesterday’s piece by Christophe Chamley at Bloomberg is a good one (ht: Donald M.). Chamley recounts Spain’s intentional bond default way back in 1575:

Spain, at the time, was the world’s sole superpower. Contemporaries described it as an empire “over which the sun never sets.” Yet the king needed the cities’ consent to borrow at a reasonable rate. And he needed it for a reason: The cities collected the taxes.

Each of the 18 main cities of Castile levied a special tax earmarked for long-term debt service. The level of this tax was set every six years through negotiation with the king. Tax collections were used first to pay off local long-term bondholders, with the rest sent to the central government. The local long-term bondholders were, in large part, the elderly living in the area. So local taxpayers realized that if they didn’t pay, their parents would be hurt. Thus, this precursor to Social Security had an effective enforcement mechanism — the ire of the elders.

But the king could only exploit this confluence of interests so far. The Cortes set the earmarked tax rate by majority rule, and that limited the king’s issuance of what were, in effect, his AAA securities. The king also issued other bonds secured by other, non-earmarked revenue. These securities were of a lower grade and sold at lower price.

Thanks to Philip’s expensive military adventures in the Netherlands and the Mediterranean, Spain’s debt had reached half of gross domestic product by 1573. At that point, the cities balked at paying higher taxes. For the next two years, they refused to budge in their confrontation with the king.

Finally, in September 1575, Philip took a circuitous route to outmaneuver the Cortes. He suspended payments not on the long-term debt, but on the short-term debt, which was owed primarily to Genoese bankers. The people cheered. Resentment against bankers ran as high then as now — perhaps higher, because the bankers were foreigners. The upshot, however, was default and a full-blown credit crisis.

 And then what? Well, as Chamley recounts, it wasn’t pretty.

Speculating on the Greek Crisis, Internet Edition

At the recent Milken Conference, I attended a panel moderated by Mike “Zappy” Zapolin. His claim to fame? He struck internet gold by developing generic web domains like beer.com, music.com, and the all-too-timely debt.com.

It’s much harder to follow in Zappy’s footsteps today since the obvious names are all gone. Except when new developments create new opportunities.

So it was last Thursday when I had an epiphany: Given the turmoil in Europe, Greece may eventually drop out of the euro. And instead of resuscitating the drachma, maybe Greece will opt for a currency called the “new drachma”.

I had this little insight about 2:35pm on Thursday afternoon. And then I got distracted by the hoopla over Wall Street’s “flash crash.”

I finally found my way over to whois.net today to see if “newdrachma.com” was still available. And here’s what I found:

Domain Name: NEWDRACHMA.COM
Registrar: FABULOUS.COM PTY LTD.
Whois Server: whois.fabulous.com
Referral URL: http://www.fabulous.com
Name Server: NS1.SEDOPARKING.COM
Name Server: NS2.SEDOPARKING.COM
Status: clientDeleteProhibited
Status: clientTransferProhibited
Updated Date: 06-may-2010
Creation Date: 06-may-2010
Expiration Date: 06-may-2011

So close. Great minds think alike, he who hesitates is lost, and all that. I’m sure Zappy wouldn’t have let this opportunity slip by.

Of course, Greece isn’t the only country in trouble. So here’s a question: Would anyone like to register newpeseta.com?

As of 5:40pm DC time, it’s still available.

Greece, the Other PIIGS, and “The Chastening”

Several colleagues recently suggested that now is a propitious time to read (or re-read) Paul Blustein’s “The Chastening.” The book recounts how the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the G-7 nations struggled to combat the Asian, Russian, and Latin American economic crises of the late 1990s.

Having read the book while flying back and forth across the nation, I heartily agree. The Chastening is a great read if you want to get up to speed on many of the issues now posed by the “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain).

I particularly enjoyed (if that’s the right word) the number of characters, familiar from today’s Greece debacle, that appear in the book. For example:

* The government that used derivatives to hide its perilous financial situation (Thailand)

* The German leaders who denounced the moral hazard created by sovereign bailouts (most notably Hans Tietmeyer)

* The policymakers facing doubts (often well-founded) about whether assistance packages could really help or were just postponing the inevitable (and, in the meantime, bailing out some unsympathetic creditors).

With the benefit of ten years more hindsight, readers can also enjoy a certain “you ain’t seen nothing yet” thrill from passages about how scary the financial world looked during the crises of the late 1990s.

[Alan Greenspan the] Fed chief told the G-7 that in almost 50 years of watching the U.S. economy, he had never witnessed anything like the drying up of markets in the previous days and weeks. (p. 334)

Unfortunately, we were all in for even worse in less than a decade. And now Greece is following in many of the steps of Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, and Brazil.