Imagine this set of transactions.
1. A bank in rich country A makes a loan of X to the government of poor country B. Let’s say for concreteness that A is the United States, B is Nigeria, and X is $1 billion. So now we have a liability of $1 billion of the Nigerian government to the US bank, and deposit of $1 billion at the US bank owned by the government of Nigeria.
(Nigeria might just as well be Egypt or Mexico or Argentina or Greece or Turkey or Indonesia. And the United States might just as well be Germany or the UK. )
2. The deposit at the bank is transferred from ownership of the government to ownership of some private individual. It’s easy to imagine ways this can be done.
3. The residents of Nigeria, via their government, still have a liability of $1 billion to the bank, obliging them to make annual payments equal to the interest rate times the principal. In this case, let’s say the interest rate is 5%, so debt service is $50 million.
4. The payments can be met by running an annual export surplus of $50 million. As long as this $50 million annual payment is maintained, interest payments can be made and the principal rolled over; the debt will remain forever.
5. The private individual from step 2 moves from Nigeria to the United States, eventually becoming a citizen there.
The result of this: a family in the United States has wealth of $1 billion (plus whatever they already had, of course). Meanwhile, the people of Nigeria make payments of $50 million each year to the United States forever, in the form of uncompensated exports. In their important book Africa’s Odious Debts and related work, Boyce and Ndikumana demonstrate that this story describes much of sub-Saharan Africa’s foreign debt. It applies elsewhere in the world as well.
I wonder how various people evaluate this scenario. Do we agree there is something wrong here? And if so, what, and what is the solution?
The orthodox view, as far as I can tell, is: what’s the problem? People should pay their debts. Nigeria (or Argentina etc.) is a person, it has borrowed, it must pay. The fact that some private individual chooses to hold their wealth in one country rather than another has nothing to do with it.
More generally, the dominant view today is that the ability to carry transactions like those describe above is an unmixed blessing; in fact it’s the whole point of the international system. The three pillars of the European union are free movement of people, free movement of goods, and free movement of finance. Argentina’s Macri is hailed as a hero — by Obama among others — for removing capital controls. If you are committed to capital mobility, then it’s hard to see where the objection would be. Third World governments and New York banks are consenting adults and can contract on any terms they choose. And of course the fact that a possessor of wealth happens to be located in one country cannot, in a liberal order, be an objection to them owning an asset somewhere else.
Maybe it’s the last step that is the issue? Outside of Europe, the free movement of people does not have the same place in the economic catechism as the free movement of money or goods. And even in Europe it’s a bit shaky. Still, most governments are happy enough to welcome rich immigrants. (A few months ago, my FT dislodged a glossy pamphlet, a racially ambiguous woman in a bikini on the cover, advertising citizenship by investment in various Caribbean countries.) This post was provoked by a Crooked Timber post by Chris Bertram; I’d be curious what he, or other open-borders advocates like my friend Suresh Naidu, would say about this scenario. Does an unrestricted right of human beings to cross borders imply an unrestricted right to transfer property claims across them also?
If the solution is not limits on movement of people, perhaps it is limits on cross-order transfers of financial claims, that is, capital controls. This used to be common sense. It’s not entirely straightforward where capital controls would operate in the sequence above; the metaphor of “capital” as a substance that moves across borders is unhelpful. But in some way or other capital controls would prevent the individual in country B from coming into possession of the bank deposit in country A.
There are two problems with this solution, one practical and the other more fundamental. The practical problem is that many routine transactions — payment for imports say — involve the creation of bank deposits in one country payable to some entity in another. It is hard to distinguish prohibited financial transactions from permitted payments for goods and services — and as Boyce and Ndikumana document, capital flight is usually disguised as current account transactions, for instance by over-invoicing for imports. Eric Helleiner  quotes Jacob Viner: “Because of the difficulty of distinguishing between capital account and current account transactions, capital controls could be made effective only by ‘censorship of communications and by crushing penalties for violation.'” 
The more fundamental problem is that these transactions — and capital flight in general – may be perfectly legal by the rules in force when they take place. Or if formally illegal, they are usually carried out by high government officials and/or members of the country’s elite. So the government of the poor country is unlikely to aggressively apply any restrictions that do exist. A subsequent government might well feel differently — but what claim do they have on a private bank account in a foreign country?
The problems with making capital controls effective were recognized clearly in the runup to Bretton Woods. In White’s 1942 draft for the agreements — again quoting Helleiner — “governments were required (a) not to accept or permit deposits or investments from any member country except with the permission of the government of that country, and (b) to make available to the government of any member country at its request all property in form of deposits, investments or securities of the nationals of the member country.” Even this wouldn’t be enough, of course, in the case where the wealthowner ceases to be a national. And it might not help in the case of a corrupt government that doesn’t want to repatriate private funds — though it might, if (as was also discussed) countries with balance of payments problems were required to draw on foreign exchange in private hands before being granted official assistance. In any case, it seems challenging to impose effective capital controls without granting the government control of all foreign assets — which will often require the cooperation of the country where those assets are held.
Needless to say nothing like this was included in the Bretton Woods agreements as signed. The US government would not even accept its allies’ pleas to assist in repatriating flight capital to help with the acute balance of payments difficulties following the war. Now it’s true, Second Circuit Judge Griesa recently claimed even more extensive authority that the government of Argentina would have had under White’s proposals, seizing the US assets of third parties who’d received payments from the Argentine government. But that was strictly to make payments to creditors. No such access to foreign assets is generally available.
This situation can arise even if governments themselves don’t even have to borrow abroad. As we recently saw in the case of Ireland, a government can strictly limit its debt and still find itself with unmanageable foreign liabilities. If private institutions — especially banks, but potentially nonfinancial corporations as well — borrow abroad, government that wishes to keep them operational in a crisis may have to assume their liabilities. Or at least, they will be strongly urged to do so by all the guardians of orthodoxy. What, are you going to just let the banks fail? Meanwhile, any foreign claims generated by the activities of the banks before they failed are out of reach.
Financial commitments create obligations; when circumstances change, sometimes they can’t be met. Someone isn’t going to get what they were promised. In modern economies, the state (often in the guise of the central bank) steps in to assume or redenominate claims, to impose an ex post consistency on the inconsistent contracts signed by private agents. But with foreign-currency commitments to foreigners the authorities’ usual tools aren’t available. And just as important, there are other authorities — the ECB in the case of Greece, the US federal court system in the case of Argentina — that are ready to use their privileged position in the larger payments system to enforce the claims of creditors. In effect, while domestic contracts are always subject to political renegotiation, foreign contracts are — or can be made to seem — objective fact.
What we’ve ended up with is a situation in which private parties have an absolute right to make whatever financial commitments they choose, and national governments have an absolute duty to honor the resulting balance sheet commitments. Wealth belongs to individuals, but debt belongs to the people. They are bound by past government commitments forever.
Or as Marx observed, “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possession of modern peoples is their national debt. …in England all public institutions are designated ‘royal’; as compensation for this, however, there is the ‘national’ debt. ”
 The Helleiner book, along with Fred Block’s Origins of International Economic Disorder, is still the best thing I know on the evolution of international monetary arrangements since World War II. Has anything better been written in the 20 years since it came out?
 This brings out two general points on financial regulation that I’d like to develop more. First, it is one thing to establish different rules for different kinds of activity, but the classification has to actually match up with the legal and accounting categories in which actual economic transactions are organized. The category of “banks” is a currently relevant example. This is part of the larger issue of what I call the money view, or economic nominalism — we need a perspective that regards money payments and the labels they bear as fundamental, rather than seeing them as reflections of some underlying structure. Second, and relatedly, it is hard for individual regulations to be effective in a setting in which anything that is not explicitly forbidden is permitted, since for any regulated transaction there will normally be unregulated ones that are economically equivalent.