Zgodovinske lekcije: London Debt Agreement on the German debt (1953)

If West Germany could redeem its debt and rebuild its economy so soon after WWII, it was thanks to the political will of its creditors, i.e. the United States and their main Western allies (United Kingdom and France). In October 1950 these three countries drafted a project in which the German federal government acknowledged debts incurred before and during the war. They joined a declaration to the effect that “the three countries agree that the plan include an appropriate satisfaction of demands towards Germany so that its implementation does not jeopardize the financial situation of the German economy through unwanted repercussions nor has an excessive effect on its potential currency reserves. The first three countries are convinced that the German federal government shares their view and that the restoration of German solvability includes an adequate solution for the German debt which takes Germany’s economic problems into account and makes sure that negotiations are fair to all participants.

Germany’s prewar debt amounted to 22.6 bn marks including interest. Its postwar debt was estimated at 16.2 bn. In the agreement signed in London on 27 February 1953 these sums were reduced to 7.5 bn and 7 bn respectively. This amounts to a 62.6 % reduction.

The agreement set up the possibility to suspend payments and renegotiate conditions in the event that a substantial change limiting the availability of resources should occur.

To make sure that the West German economy was effectively doing well and represented a stable key element in the Atlantic bloc against the Eastern bloc, allied creditors granted the indebted German authorities and companies major concessions that far exceeded debt relief. The starting point was that Germany had to be able to pay everything back while maintaining a high level of growth and improving the living standards of its population. They had to pay back without getting poorer. To achieve this creditors accepted first, that Germany pay its debt in its national currency, second, that Germany reduce importations (it could manufacture at home those goods that were formerly imported), |8| third, that it sell its manufactured goods abroad so as to achieve a positive trade balance. These various concessions were set down in the above-mentioned declaration. |9|

Another significant aspect was that the debt service depended on how much the German economy could afford to pay, taking the country’s reconstruction and the export revenues into account. The debt service/export revenue ratio was not to exceed 5%. This meant that West Germany was not to use more than one twentieth of its export revenues to pay its debt. In fact it never used more than 4.2% (except once in 1959).

Another exceptional measure was that interest rates were substantially reduced (between 0 and 5%).

Finally we have to consider the dollars the United States gave to West Germany: USD 1,173.7 million as part of the Marshall Plan from 3 April 1948 to 30 June 1952 with at least 200 million added from 1954 to 1961, mainly via USAID.

Thanks to such exceptional conditions Germany had redeemed its debt by 1960. In record time. It even anticipated on maturity dates.

Some elements towards a comparison

It is enlightening to compare the way post-war West Germany was treated with the treatment of developing countries today. Although bruised by war, Germany was economically stronger than most developing countries. Yet it received in 1953 what is currently denied to developing countries.

Proportion of export revenues devoted to paying back the debt

Germany was allowed not to spend more than 5% of its export revenues to pay back its debt.

In 2004 developing countries had to spend an average of 12.5% of their export revenues to pay back their debts (8.7% for subsaharian African countries and 20% for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean). The proportion was even higher than 20% by the end of the 1990s.

Interest rate on external debt

As stipulated in the 1953 agreement about Germany’s debt the interest rate was between 0 and 5%.

By contrast, the interest rates to be paid by developing countries was much higher. A large majority of agreement had rates that could be increased.

From 1980 to 2000 the average interest rate for developing countries fluctuated between 4.8 and 9.1% (between 5.7 and 11.4% for Latin America and the Caribbean, and even between 6.6 and 11.9% for Brazil from 1980 to 2004).

Currency in which the external debt had to be paid

Germany was allowed to use its national currency.

No third world country can do the same except in exceptional cases for ludicrously small sums. All major indebted countries must use strong currencies (dollars, euros, yens, Swiss francs, pounds sterling).

Vir: Eric Toussaint, The Marshall Plan and the Debt Agreement on German debt

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