This time it's different: how those delusive words must haunt all those who took Greece's promises to pay at their face value. Greek bonds are now priced for restructuring or default and stand at a modest premium over tram tickets. Where is the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders when, once again, we need it?
At another time — that is, in the Victorian City of London — the merchant banks raised money and shipped it all over the world. They found ready takers for bonds that were backed by the full credit of a state or government, for what, short of Her Majesty's Government's own credit, could be safer? Even so, as time went on the lenders found that some borrowers could not keep up and others would not. Even the State of Mississippi, with $7 million outstanding, found an excuse to stop payment, and did not resume.
What were the bondholders to do? They could not exactly foreclose on Mississippi or send a gunboat up-river. When Egypt defaulted, Gladstone bombarded Alexandria, but that was an exception. On their own, the bondholders knew that they were helpless, but together they would have leverage, so in 1868 they formed a corporation to look after their interests and act for them. It went on to gain its own Act of Parliament, partly to stop the banks cutting out the best deals for themselves. The Corporation of Foreign Bondholders became a City institution.
Its strongest card was the realisation that, sooner or later, the non-paying countries would need to come back to the market and borrow some more. Before they could do that, they would have to repair their credit, and that would mean coming to terms with the Corporation. Negotiations like these could be a labour of Sisyphus, but more effective. In its time, the Corporation found itself in charge of bonds with a total face value of £1,000 million, most of it borrowed in solid golden Victorian pounds.
In the new century, war and revolution overtook the markets. Now the negotiations had to be with the successor states of vanished empires-Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and, on a scale of its own, the empire of the Tsars. Year by year, the Corporation's reports would carry long, mournful lists of Russian railways whose secured and bonded obligations were of no concern to Lenin's regime or to Stalin's. Even the uneasy peace, or interlude between two European wars, brought more defaulters.