by John Rubino
Seems like every few days a new developing country discovers that it can’t pay back the dollars and/or euros it borrowed back when “external foreign currency debt” seemed like a good thing. Next up: Tunisia, apparently. From today’s Wall Street Journal:
AL ATAYA, Tunisia—More than seven years after Tunisians overthrew their country’s dictatorship in a revolution that spawned the Arab Spring, the country’s economy is in crisis and thousands of people are sneaking into Europe, as part of a new wave of clandestine migration from what had been a North African success story.
The recent Tunisian exodus began in 2017 as economic pressures mounted on the country’s working and middle classes. Tunisians have enjoyed greater political freedoms since the Arab Spring uprising and Mr. Ben Ali’s fall, but a series of post-revolutionary governments have failed to revive the economy and create jobs. Today, more than 35% of Tunisian young people are unemployed, and many don’t see a future in their own country.
“The state isn’t giving us anything,” a 24-year-old mechanic in Al Ataya said, adding he had considered leaving on a smuggler’s boat until a shipwreck killed more than 100 people offshore in June.
In recent years, Tunisia’s government has tried to correct course. The government chose to cut budgets at the urging of the International Monetary Fund, which extended Tunisia a $2.9 billion loan in 2016.
But the IMF-led overhaul has failed to trigger a turnaround. The economy is currently growing at 2.8%, a slower rate than in 2010 before the uprising. Tunisia’s currency, the dinar, shed 21% of its value against the euro in 2017. When the cuts the IMF had urged took effect in January, a wave of protests shook the country, raising questions about the future of its democratic transition.
A series of terrorist attacks in 2015 also devastated Tunisia’s tourism industry. The country is also still righting itself after the economic shock of the 2010-2011 uprising.
The lack of new jobs has driven a powerful undercurrent of pessimism among young Tunisians. Young people on this island who fail to make a living in fishing often while away their days in cafes. Others join the smugglers.
Sounds pretty grim, especially the part about IMF-imposed austerity. Let’s see if the numbers paint the same picture. First, government debt should be souring — and it is:
And external debt — that is, debt denominated in other currencies that becomes harder to manage as the dinar falls against those other currencies — should be rising. And it is. Since 2008 it’s risen from less than 50% of GDP to more than 80%.
80% of GDP is high enough to be potentially destabilizing if the dinar keeps falling. European banks who lent money to the former French colony now wish they hadn’t and will soon be lining up for an ECB bail-out that, when combined with those of all the other emerging market creditor banks, might break the trillion-euro mark.
Meanwhile, the ease with which Tunisians cross over into Europe will add to the social crisis of mass immigration, with all the attendant costs and political disruptions. Italy’s new populist government, for instance, will absolutely not take a million Tunisians, which will will put it at odds with the EU, which might spark a euro crisis, and so on.
Is this systemically threatening? Maybe. In any event it certainly deserves to be on the list of straws waiting to break the camel’s back.