Sunday, February 9, 2014

This Time is Different-The Prince of Poyais

I'm reading Reinhart and Rogoff's "This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." I love this passage from Chapter 6, External Default Through History. It's a long build up to the Prince of Poyais, but worth it.

The volatile and often chaotic European financial markets of the Napoleonic Wars had settled down by the early 1820s. Spain had, in quick succession, lost colony after colony in Central and South America, and the legendary silver and gold mines of the New World were up for grabs.
Forever engaged in an endless quest for higher yields, London bankers and investors were swept away by silver fever. The great demand in Europe for investment opportunities in Latin America, coupled with new leaders in Latin America desperate for funds to support the process of nation building (among other things), produced a surge in lending from (mostly) London to (mostly) Latin American sovereigns. 
According to Marichal, by mid-1825 twenty-six mining companies had been registered in the Royal Exchange. Any investment in Latin America became as coveted as South Sea shares (by 1825 already infamous) had been a century earlier. In this “irrationally exuberant” climate, Latin American states raised more than 20 million pounds during 1822-1825.
“General Sir” Gregor MacGregor, who had traveled to Latin America and fought as a mercenary in Simon Bolivar’s army, seized the opportunity to convince fellow Scots to invest their savings in the fictitious country of Poyais. Its capital city, Saint Joseph (according to the investment prospectus circulated at the time), boasted “broad boulevards, colonnaded buildings, and a splendid domed cathedral.” Those who were brave and savvy enough to cross the Atlantic and settle Poyais would be able to build sawmills to exploit the native forests and establish gold mines. London bankers were also impressed with such prospects of riches, and in 1822 MacGregor (the Prince of Poyais) issued a bond in London for £160,000 at a price of issue to the public of £80, well above the issue price for the first Chilean bond floated. The interest rate of 6 percent was the same as that available to Buenos Aires, Central America, Chile, Greater Columbia, and Peru during that episode. Perhaps it is just as well that Poyais faced the same borrowing terms as the real sovereigns, for the latter would all default on their external debts during 1826-1828, marking the first Latin American debt crisis.

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