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Capital Markets

A financial system at breaking point

Iraq and Argentina's debt problems will dominate this month's IMF/World Bank meetings, with the size of their liabilities casting doubt on the international financial system's ability to cope.

Seeking Forgiveness of Saddam-era debt

SO THAT'S HOW it is with hundred-billion-dollar debt restructurings: you wait decades for one to arrive, and then two come along at the same time.

Dealing with Iraq's and Argentina's defaulted debt is surely the greatest test yet for the international financial system. It is already creaking under the strain.

Both countries are special cases, we're told, so large they can't be considered precedent-setting. But Argentina and Iraq are both middle-income countries seeking unprecedented levels of debt relief: the only thing that sets them apart from other countries in similar positions is the sheer size of their debt loads. It's a new source of moral hazard. If you owe your creditors $10 billion, you are in a lot of trouble. If you owe $100 billion, you get exceptional treatment.

Can the world financial system survive the restructurings? Already a large part looks as if it is unravelling.

It used to be that a country wanting to do any debt deal needed to have a rigorously worked-out IMF programme first. Now, the IMF is rubber-stamping whatever Iraq wants to do, with no conditions, and putting out ambiguous debt sustainability analyses that arrive at such a huge range of answers that they are of no use to anyone.

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