Friday, June 5, 2009

The Economics of Bat S*#%

Given the current economic crisis, pundits often turn their attentions to the debts nations carry, the payments on which could be used elsewhere in their struggling economies. In an new article in the Journal of Economic History, former U of C prof Catalina Vizcarra discussed how the use of guano (a.k.a. bird and bat shit) was used to service Peru's debt in the late 1800's. The abstract:
Peru’s experience with sovereign debt during the guano boom is one of the most remarkable in the nineteenth century. Despite the country’s ongoing political instability and poor capital market reputation, the price of Peruvian bonds soared shortly after settlement in 1849, and the country enjoyed relatively low credit risk until the 1870s. This article discusses the incentives Peru and its creditors faced, and explains how Peru’s extraordinary performance in financial markets was founded on its credible commitment to service its debt with the guano proceeds.
Peru was able to service its debt given lucrative trade and its virtual monopoly in guano. As part of this servicing, new institutions and markets (e.g., banks, trade organizations, new financial institutions, investments in new industries) emerged from the trade in guano. In essence, this is a story of how international trade in one sector can transform (even in a relatively short time frame) and entire economy.

Some of the most interesting (to me) parts:

The Peruvian state’s guano monopoly was a revolution for government finance. As is shown in Table 4, guano exceeded customs revenue beginning in the early 1850s, from then until the late 1860s it accounted for two-thirds or more of total government revenue. In the mid-1850s, when guano income exceeded two million pounds sterling per year, Peru reduced import tariffs and abolished the Indian head tax. Tariff revenue still grew because imports were growing rapidly during the period. Government revenues nearly doubled between 1847 and 1852, and doubled again by the early 1860s. (p. 370-71)

At the onset of the guano boom in the early 1850s, Presidents Echenique and Castilla radically reformed the tax system. Some of the key changes included massive reduction in tariffs, commercial treaties with foreign countries, and the abolition of the tribute (Indian head tax). Tariffs and the head tax comprised close to 70 percent of government income in the pre-guano era. Reimposition of the head tax or raising tariffs would have entailed political negotiations that could have been time-consuming and perhaps have unintended political consequences. There is well-documented evidence of major resistance to any tax reforms (reimposition of these measures) in the period. Furthermore, a fall in guano exports would cut into imports, so that even with an increase in tariff rates, positive effects on revenue would be uncertain. This meant that, at least in the short term, there was no alternative to guano. The penalty for default—an interruption of the guano trade—therefore carried with it large financial costs. Historians have typically interpreted Peru’s tax reforms of the 1850s as motivated by domestic political considerations, but the credible commitment problem offers another possible explanation. By increasing dependence on guano, Peru made its commitment to the bondholders more credible because it could not risk interrupting the guano trade. No Peruvian government could take such a risk. Consequently, Peru’s notorious political instability did not weaken the credible commitment to repay its foreign debt. Because of the nature of the guano security, the identity of the government was of secondary concern.

From the conclusion:

The guano windfall ushered in an era of relative prosperity for many in Peru, particularly those among the elite. Those who point to the guano boom’s positive impacts note that access to foreign capital and the flow of guano revenues facilitated the creation of Peru’s first banks, and of investment in cotton, nitrates, and sugar. However, the perception among many Peruvian scholars and citizens alike is that the prosperity of the guano period was ephemeral, and that it did not leave a positive legacy insofar as the Peruvian economy or its political institutions.

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