Sovereign States Default, Repudiate; Sun Still Rises

Frivolous commentary on the US debt crisis (like this) attributes to opponents of raising the debt ceiling the view that “defaults don’t matter.” Sensible people recognize, of course, that default (and even repudiation) are policy options that have benefits and costs, just as continuing to borrow and increasing the debt have benefits and costs. Reasonable people can disagree about the relevant magnitudes, but comparative institutional analysis is obviously the way to go here. (Unfortunately, most of the academic discussion has focused entirely on the possible short-term costs of default, with almost no attention paid to the almost certain long-term costs of continued borrowing.)

I’m a bit surprised no one has brought up William English’s 1996 AER paper, “Understanding the Costs of Sovereign Default: American State Debts in the 1840’s,” which provides very interesting evidence on US state defaults. It’s not a natural experiment, exactly, but does a nice job exploring the variety of default and repudiation practices among states that were otherwise pretty similar. Here’s the meat:

Between 1841 and 1843 eight states and one territory defaulted on their obligations, and by the end of the decade four states and one territory had repudiated all or part of their debts. These debts are properly seen as sovereign debts both because the United States Constitution precludes suits against states to enforce the payment of debts, and because most of the state debts were held by residents of other states and other countries (primarily Britain). . . .

In spite of the inability of the foreign creditors to impose direct sanctions, most U.S. states repaid their debts. It appears that states repaid in order to maintain their access to international capital markets, much like in reputational models. The states that repaid were able to borrow more in the years leading up to the Civil War. while those that did not repay were, for the most part, unable to do so. States that defaulted temporarily were able to regain access to the credit market by settling their old debts. More surprisingly, two states that repudiated a part of their debt were able to regain access to capital markets after servicing the remainder of their debt for a time.

Amazingly, the earth did not crash into the sun, nor did the citizens of the delinquent states experience locusts, boils, or Nancy Grace. Bond yields of course rose in the repudiating, defaulting, and partially defaulting states, but not to “catastrophic” levels. There were complex restructuring deals and other transactions to try to mitigate harms.

A recent CNBC story on Europe cited “the realization that sovereign risk, and particularly developed market sovereign risk exists, because most developed world sovereign was basically treated as entirely risk free,” quoting a principal at BlackRock Investment Institute. “With hindsight, we can say . . . that they have never been risk free, it’s just that we have been living in a quiet time over the last 20 years.” Doesn’t sound like Apocalypse to me.

[Cross posted at Organizations and Markets]

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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