There is broad consensus in the economic literature that the presence of costly sovereign defaults is the mechanism that makes sovereign debt possible (Dooley, 2000). In the case of sovereign debt, creditor rights are not as strong as in the case of private debts. If a private firm becomes insolvent, creditors have a well-defined claim on the company’s assets even if they may be insufficient to cover the totality of the debt. These legal rights are necessary for private debts to exist.1 In the case of a sovereign debt, in contrast, the legal recourse available to creditors has limited applicability because many assets are immune from any legal action, and uncertain effectiveness because it is often impossible to enforce any favorable court judgment.2 But the literature sustains that sovereign debt markets are still viable because, if defaults are costly in some way to the borrowing country, there will be an incentive to repay debts, regardless of the effectiveness of legal recourse. It is noteworthy that we use the term default to encompass any situation in which the sovereign does not honor the original terms of the debt contract, including voluntary restructurings where there is a loss of value for the creditors. This is entirely in line with the concept applied by credit-rating agencies.
There is much less agreement on what the costs of default actually are, let alone their magnitude. Traditionally, the sovereign debt literature has focused on two mechanisms: reputational costs, which in the extreme could result in absolute exclusion from financial markets, and direct sanctions such as legal attachments of property and international trade sanctions imposed by the countries of residence of creditors. The reputational cost of default has a well-established theoretical and historical tradition, with Eaton and Gersovitz (1981) presenting the canonical, formal model. An influential article by Bulow and Rogoff (1989a), however, casts doubts on the validity of the reputational cost, and points instead to direct sanctions—such as trade embargoes—as the only viable mechanism that makes governments repay their debts. While their argument may not be robust to other model specifications, there is a widespread body of literature based on the sanctions view.3 But there is comparatively little work on assessing the empirical relevance of these mechanisms. An exception is Tomz (2007), who based on an extensive review of historical case studies, finds widespread evidence in favor of the importance of reputation in financial markets, in contrast to the view that seemed to prevail earlier (for example, Lindert and Morton, 1989).4
More recently, recognizing that holders of government debt are not only foreign investors (in fact, perhaps a majority of investors in government bonds are domestic institutions and resident individuals in many cases nowadays) more attention has been paid to the consequences of default for the domestic economy, in particular the banking sector.
This channel is particularly relevant because, in many emerging economies, banks hold significant amounts of government bonds in their portfolios. Thus, a sovereign default would weaken their balance sheets and even create the threat of a bank run. To make matters worse, banking crises are usually resolved through the injection of government “recapitalization” bonds and central bank liquidity. But in a debt crisis, government bonds have questionable value and the domestic currency may not carry much favor with the public either. A corollary of the domestic economic costs of debt crises is that they may also involve a political cost for the authorities. A declining economy and a banking system in crisis do not bode well for the survival in power of the incumbent party and the policymaking authorities. Although such linkage has been noted in the case of currency devaluations, for example, it has not been explored in the case of debt defaults.
This paper evaluates empirically each one of the suspected mechanisms through which default costs may affect a sovereign government. It should be recognized at the outset that it is quite difficult to find econometrically sound ways to isolate the costs of default. For instance, while it is easy to find a negative correlation between default and growth, it is much more difficult to test whether this negative correlation is driven by the default episode or by a series of other factors that are the cause of both the debt default and an economic recession. Moreover, it is also hard to identify the direction of causality between growth and default.
Thus, this paper has more modest objectives. Rather than attempting to quantify precisely the costs of default on sovereign debt, the objective is to evaluate if there is some empirical basis for—or lack of evidence against—each one of the mechanisms that are believed to be relevant, and perhaps discard those mechanisms that appear to be less consistent with the data.
In addition to the traditional reputational and trade sanctions, the paper explores the significance of effects that operate through the domestic banking system and the political costs of default for the government.5
Identifying the channel and magnitude of the costs of sovereign default with some degree of precision would be important for a number of reasons. The “default point” for a sovereign should be the point at which the cost of servicing debt in its full contractual terms is higher than the costs incurred from seeking a restructuring of those terms, when these costs are comprehensively measured. An accurate measure of the default point is necessary, for example, to assess how “safe” a certain level of debt is, namely, how likely it is that an economic shock would trigger a situation of default.6 In fact, it is not possible to compute the probability of default, or to price a sovereign bond without making a judgment about the default point.
From a policy perspective, an understanding of the channels through which default costs apply can help design initiatives to improve the functioning of international financial markets and lower the cost of borrowing for many sovereigns. For example, if the costs of default apply largely through international trade, a more open economy would have a higher default point than a more closed economy, other things equal, and would be less risky for lenders, which would result in lower borrowing costs.
This paper analyzes the incidence of four types of cost that may result from an international sovereign default: reputational costs, international trade exclusion costs, costs to the domestic economy through the financial system, and political costs to the authorities. We find that reputational costs, as reflected in credit ratings and interest rate spreads, are significant but appear to be short-lived; that despite evidence that trade and trade credit are negatively affected by default, controlling for trade credit does not seem to modify the effect of default on trade; that growth in the domestic economy suffers, and more so in cases where the causes for default seem less compelling, although this effect also seems to be short-lived; that default episodes seem to cause banking crises and not vice versa, but that—outside of banking crisis episodes—more credit dependent industries do not suffer more than other industries following a sovereign default; and that the political consequences of a debt crisis are dire for incumbent governments and finance ministers, broadly in line with what happens in currency crises.