Turkey was a world leader in going bankrupt. It was the first nation for which major world financial institutions launched an international rescue effort and the first to come back from the brink.
Its debt reorganization and economic overhaul in 1978-80 was so successful from the bankers' viewpoint that it became a text on how to rescue the increasing number of nations awash in huge loans.
Now each of hundreds of U.S. banks that handle international deals has a Turkish desk officer and one for every other borrower country. There is a friendly New York social network of such officers for any one country, making them pin-striped gods and devils to their targets.
They are in constant touch with Washington diplomats and know the experts for their areas at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the major European banks.
It is a formidable intelligence network, often telling foreign governments, and the U.S. government, more about borrowers than borrower governments know themselves.
"We get far more information from the banks than they ever get from us," said James Spain, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.
Debt reorganization, bankers said, is far less abstract than it sounds. One said the task often begins with teams of bankers hired by a desperate country and sweating in cramped little offices full of torn, dusty and forgotten manila file folders. They thumb through every crumpled piece of note paper looking for some scrawled mention of a loan.
"It's idiots' work, really," a banker said. What reorganizers produce may be the debt-crushed country's first coherent list of how much it owes to whom and on what terms. Then creditors can be dealt with as a group, and some agreement can be reached among them on how loans will be repaid. In Turkey, officials thought they owed about $2 billion; in fact, it was slightly less than $10 billion.
The book that described only the short-term part of this debt, ignoring medium- and long-term loans and trade creditors, comes in three red, leather-bound volumes, each four inches thick. The title:RESTRUCTURING $2,200,000,000 OF CLTD Convertible Turkish Lira Deposits & $429,258,427 OF BANKERS' CREDITS AND PROVIDING A $407,000,000 LETTER OF CREDIT FACILITY 1978-9
To inexperienced officials of many developing nations, such terms might as well be in Urdu. Lack of information, ancient equipment and traditions of doing business on a handshake result in the hopeless records found in most nations in financial trouble, the banker said, although occasionally it is corrupt officials who disdain paperwork or revolving-door governments that keep changing procedures.
Pride is another factor.
"The stronger and more powerful the country, the more outside help they know they need," a New York investment bank officer said. "The small ones try to do everything themselves."
Turkey went broke in part because it imports almost every drop of oil it uses and, when the price began soaring in the 1970s, the government tried to absorb the cost without passing on any of it to consumers.
The International Monetary Fund tried three times to help Turkey restructure its debt, but two efforts broke down "because opposition parties were always ready to charge a loss of sovereignty if any agreement was signed," said Nabi Sensoy, economic counselor at the Turkish Embassy. "Unstable governments couldn't risk that, and the IMF didn't trust us."
This is a common problem in dealing with debtor nations, bankers agreed. All sides know that the IMF usually wants import and credit cuts, tax reform and devaluation as conditions for bailouts. These usually mean unemployment and popular unrest.
In a sobering evaluation, one commercial banker deeply involved in the Turkish restructuring said what many developing nation politicians have often charged: "These kinds of hard requirements couldn't be implemented in a democratic milieu."
In Turkey, a democratically elected government finally signed an agreement in January, 1980, but the armed forces took over in September to quell rising social unrest over unemployment and inflation. The generals stuck to most of the civilians' bargain, and the Turkish economy is beginning to return to the bankers' good lists.
As in every deal, personalities had a lot to do with it. Turgut Ozal, a financial undersecretary when the pact was signed, "bullied and bluffed and ordered and pleaded and generally convinced everybody there was no other way out," another Turk said.
Ozal "had good personal relations with the New York bankers and kept his promises, so our credibility increased," Sensoy said. Ozal, 56, was considered so vital to Turkey's image that the new military regime not only kept him in the government but also made him deputy prime minister. He resigned last year, and is now among those maneuvering for political position as the country prepares for elections in November.
Banks have to be diplomatic, too. For example, London's S.G. Warburg & Co. advises Turkey on promoting foreign investment, but also underwrites bonds issued by the Greek government. The World Bank has refused to participate in Turkey's effort to build a $4 billion dam on the Euphrates River to irrigate its dry southeast because Syria and Iraq object that the dam will dry up the river in their countries.
Maps used by the investment banks for their presentations carefully draw no borders among the disputed Aegean Sea islands. Some of the maps at one bank also call towns by the name that is right for the occasion: one for the Turks says Antakya and Salonika; on the Greeks' version, the same towns are Antioch and Thessaloniki.
"There's no reason to raise an issue if you don't have to," the banker said.