Hinrichsen on Iraq’s Debt Restructuring


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Iraq’s debt restructuring a decade and a half ago was one of the few things that went right with the US incursion into that country in 2003.  Thanks to a combination of an expensive war with Iran, mismanagement and corruption on the part of Saddam and his henchmen, and the debilitating effect of international sanctions on the economy, Iraq in 2003 found itself with one of the largest sovereign defaulted debt stocks in history.  Worse, thanks to the sanctions regime, much of the unpaid debt had, by the time of Saddam’s removal, matured into judgements and attachment orders.  That makes a debt restructurers job much more difficult than in a normal sovereign restructuring.  And unlike other defaulting sovereigns in the past, who had precious few assets available for creditors in foreign jurisdictions to seize, the new Iraq had oil revenues that it desperately needed to use in order to try and get back to some semblance of normalcy and growth.

The fascinating story of how the debt was accumulated and then restructured has been told in bits and pieces.  But economic historian Simon Hinrichsen is the first, to my knowledge, to attempt to tell the full story. His draft article, “Tracing Iraqi Debt Through Defaults and Restructurings”, hot off the presses, is available on the LSE Econ History website here.  Among the most interesting aspects of the story are the use of UN Security Council Resolutions and US Executive Orders to immunize Iraqi oil assets (hence, neutralizing the risk of attacks by holdout creditors) and the attempted resuscitation of the ancient doctrine of Odious Debts. The former succeeded and the latter failed.  Many of these same issues are going to come up again when Venezuela embarks on its post-Maduro restructuring (see here and here).  I wonder how they will play out.

Simon's abstract is as follows:

In 1979 Iraq was a net creditor to the world, due to its large oil reserves and lack of external debt. Fifteen years later, its government debt-to-GDP was over 1,000%. At the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq was saddled with around $130 billion in external debt that needed to be restructured. How does a country incur so much debt, so fast, and how does it get out of it? In answering this question, the paper makes two key contributions. First, I reconstruct the build-up of Iraqi debt through the 1980s and 1990s using mainly secondary sources. This paper is the first to create a debt series going back to 1979. The rise in Iraqi indebtedness was a consequence of global geopolitical trends in the 1980s where political lending trumped solvency concerns. Second, through primary sources and interviews with key actors involved, I use oral history to tell the story the Iraqi restructuring. It was one of the largest in history, yet no clear and detailed historical account exists. The restructuring was permeated by politics to inflict harsh terms on creditors at the Paris Club, at a time when creditor-friendly restructurings were the norm. In going for a politically expedient deal, however, the restructuring missed an opportunity to enshrine a doctrine of odious debt in international law