Friday, September 27, 2002

The Riskiness of Country Risk

How horrible it must be to work as an air-traffic controller! Any slight error can provoke an unimaginable human tragedy. No wonder these professionals burn out so rapidly. I “suppose” the same must happen with the country-risk assessors, those people who carefully pass judgment as to what the country risk is for any given nation.

The all important mission of these risk evaluators is twofold. The first, that for which they are actually paid, consists of analyzing whether or not the debtor nation will ultimately be able to honor its obligations. This determines whether or not pension funds, banks, and insurance companies will be willing, or even allowed, to invest in that country’s sovereign debt instruments. The second, even more important than the first, is to send subtle signals to the governments of these nations in order to help them improve their performance.

What a difficult job this is! If they overdo it and underestimate the risk of a given country, the latter will most assuredly be inundated with fresh loans and will be leveraged to the hilt. The result will be a serious wave of adjustments sometime down the line. If on the contrary, they exaggerate the country’s risk level, it can only result in a reduction in the market value of the national debt, increasing interest expense and making access to international financial markets difficult. The initial mistake will unfortunately turn out to be true, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any which way, either extreme will cause hunger and human misery.

What a nightmare it must be to be risk evaluator! Imagine trying to get some shuteye while lying awake in bed thinking that any moment one of those judges, those with the global reach that have a say in anything and everything, determinates that a country has become essentially bankrupt due to your mistake, and then drags you kicking and screaming before an International Court, accused of violating human rights. If I were to be in the position of evaluating country risk, I would insure that the process is totally transparent, even though this takes away some of the shine of the profession and obligates me to sacrifice some of my personal market value.

How lucky we are that we are neither air-traffic controllers nor sovereign-risk evaluators! However, since we can easily become victims of their missteps, it behooves us, if only because of our survival instinct, to make sure that both do their jobs correctly.

We have seen in recent Country Reports how, after having introduced a myriad of information into the black box of methodology, as if by magic, a credit qualification is produced. Many of these reports seem to me like the pronouncements of film critics. It would seem that, more often than not, the individual evaluator is determining more how much he likes the ways or forms the Directors of a nation try to honor its obligations than on producing an honest and profound financial analysis of the country’s capacity for servicing its debt correctly.

In his book The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Random House, 2001), Lawrence Lessig maintains that an era is identified not so much by what is debated, but by what is actually accepted as true and so is not debated at all. In this sense, given the risk that the perceived country risk actually becomes the real country risk, it is best not to assign an AAA rating blithely to the risk qualifiers—perhaps not even a two-thumbs-up.

From The Daily Journal, Caracas, September 27, 2002