The Debt Crisis: Further Reforms and Recovery

The Debt Crisis: Further Reforms and Recovery

The international debt crisis unleashed in 1982 hit the Chilean economy with particular severity, as foreign loans dried up and the international terms of trade turned drastically against Chile. The policies implemented initially to face the 1982 crisis can best be described as hesitant. In early 1983, the financial sector was nationalized as a way to avoid a major banking crisis, and a number of subsidy schemes favoring debtors were enacted. The decision to subsidize debtors who had borrowed in foreign currency during the period of fixed exchange rates, and to bail out the troubled banks, resulted in heavy Central Bank losses, which contributed to the creation of a huge deficit in publicsector finance. This deficit, in turn, would become one of the underlying causes of the inflation of the early 1990s. Different exchange-rate systems were tried, including a floating rate, only to be abandoned rapidly and replaced by new plans. Policies aimed at restructuring the manufacturing sector, which had entered a deep crisis as a consequence of the collapse of some of the major conglomerates, the so-called groups (grupos), were implemented. In spite of this array of measures, the economy did not show a significant response; unemployment remained extraordinarily high, and the external crisis, which some had expected to represent only a temporary setback, dragged on.

In early 1985, increasingly disappointed by the economy's performance, Pinochet turned toward a group of pragmatic economists who favored free markets and macroeconomic stability. Led by newly appointed finance minister Hernán Büchi Buc, an economist who had studied business administration at Columbia University, the new economic team devised a major adjustment program aimed at reestablishing growth, reducing the burden of the foreign debt, and rebuilding the strength of the financial and manufacturing sectors. Three policy areas became critical in the implementation of the program: active macroeconomic policies, consolidation of the market-oriented structural reforms initiated in the 1970s, and debt-management policies geared toward rescheduling debt payments and making an aggressive use of the secondary market. With the help of the International Monetary Fund ( IMF), the World Bank, and improved terms of trade, these policies succeeded in achieving their objectives.

The macroeconomic program of a group of Chilean economists known as the "Chicago boys", who had guided Pinochet's early economic policies, had relied on a hands-off "automatic adjustment" strategy. By mid-1982 this approach had generated a severe overvaluation of the real exchange rate. By contrast, the new macroeconomic program relied on active and carefully monitored macroeconomic management. An active exchangerate policy, based on large initial exchange-rate adjustments followed by periodic small devaluations, became one of the most important policies of the post-1982 period. Between 1982 and 1988, the international competitiveness of Chilean exports was increased greatly by a real exchange-rate depreciation of approximately 90 percent. This policy not only helped generate a boom in nontraditional exports but also contributed to reasonable interest-rate levels and to the prevention of capital flight.

The adjustment program that started in 1985 also had a structural adjustment component that was aimed at consolidating the market-oriented reforms of the 1970s and early 1980s, including the privatization process, the opening of the economy, and the development of a dynamic capital market. There were several structural goals of the 1985 program: rebuild the financial sector, which had been nearly destroyed during the 1982 crisis; reduce import tariffs below the 35 percent level that they had reached during 1984 to a 15 percent uniform level; and promote exports through a set of fiscal incentives and a competitive real exchange rate.

Perhaps the most important aspects of these structural reform measures were the privatization and recapitalization of firms and banks that had failed during the 1982-83 crisis. As a first step in this process, the Central Bank bought private banks' nonperforming portfolios. In order to finance this operation, the Central Bank issued domestic credit. The banks, in turn, paid a rate of 5 percent on the nonperforming portfolios and promised to repurchase them out of retained profits. This recapitalization program had as its counterpart a privatization plan that returned the ownership of those banks and firms that had been nationalized in 1983 to the private sector. Economist Rolf J. Lüders estimates that about 550 enterprises under public-sector control, including most of Chile's largest corporations, were privatized between 1974 and 1990. By the end of 1991, fewer that fifty firms remained in the public sector. The overall privatization program undertaken after 1985 has been criticized by some Chileans and also by some international economists because banks and manufacturing firms were sold too rapidly and at "very low prices."

Chile's structural adjustment of the second half of the 1980s was unique from an international comparative perspective. The most difficult, controversial, and costly reforms--including the bulk of privatization, trade liberalization, financial deregulation, and labor market streamlining--were undertaken in Chile in the 1975-80 period; the measures taken after 1985 were minor, in comparison. The success of the post-1985 period was rooted in the early reforms. For example, the boom in nontraditional exports that took place in the second half of the 1980s was only possible because of investments begun almost ten years before. The markets' flexible and rapid response to incentives was also a direct consequence of the microeconomic reforms of the 1970s.

One of the most hotly debated issues of the Chilean recovery of the second half of the 1980s concerns the different foreign-debt conversion plans aimed at rapidly reducing foreign indebtedness. When the debt crisis erupted in 1982, Chile's foreign debt was US$17.2 billion, one of the highest debts per capita in the world. Through the aggressive use of a variety of debt-conversion plans, between 1985 and 1991 Chile retired an estimated US$10.5 billion of its debt, most of which was converted into equity in Chilean companies.

Chile's net international reserves totaled US$9 billion in 1992, enough to cover a year of imports and equivalent to roughly half of its foreign debt. The stock of foreign direct investment in Chile was estimated to be between US$10 billion and US$13 billion, roughly 30 percent of GDP. About US$4 billion of this was acquired through debt-equity conversions. The debt-swap program was ended when the growth of direct investment and the strength of the economy had done away with the need for special incentives to attract foreign capital.

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