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To err is human: US rating agencies and the interwar foreign government debt crisis

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  • FLANDREAU, MARC
  • GAILLARD, NORBERT
  • PACKER, FRANK

Abstract

This article provides a new perspective on the interwar foreign debt crisis by analysing original data on the credit ratings, market yields and subsequent performance of government borrowers in the New York market. We focus on the four agencies that are known to have been operating at the time (Fitch, Moody's, Poor's and Standard Statistics). We provide a description of the rise of the market for grades and gather information on the products sold, price schedules, etc. We find that rating agencies did exhibit features similar to those that have attracted considerable interest recently: namely, they did not react until the crisis had already begun and then implemented massive downgrades. We conclude by suggesting that, given the less than stellar record of the agencies, their emergence in the 1930s as a regulatory tool will have to be explained in future research.

Suggested Citation

  • Flandreau, Marc & Gaillard, Norbert & Packer, Frank, 2011. "To err is human: US rating agencies and the interwar foreign government debt crisis," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 15(3), pages 495-538, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:ereveh:v:15:y:2011:i:03:p:495-538_00
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Sy, Amadou N.R., 2004. "Rating the rating agencies: Anticipating currency crises or debt crises?," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 28(11), pages 2845-2867, November.
    2. Klug, Adam & Landon-Lane, John S. & White, Eugene N., 2005. "How could everyone have been so wrong? Forecasting the Great Depression with the railroads," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 42(1), pages 27-55, January.
    3. Efraim Benmelech & Jennifer Dlugosz, 2010. "The Credit Rating Crisis," NBER Chapters, in: NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2009, Volume 24, pages 161-207, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Eichengreen, Barry & Portes, Richard, 1986. "Debt and default in the 1930s : Causes and consequences," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 30(3), pages 599-640, June.
    5. Reisen, Helmut & von Maltzan, Julia, 1999. "Boom and Bust and Sovereign Ratings," International Finance, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 2(2), pages 273-293, July.
    6. G. Ferri & L.-G. Liu & J. E. Stiglitz, 1999. "The Procyclical Role of Rating Agencies: Evidence from the East Asian Crisis," Economic Notes, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA, vol. 28(3), pages 335-355, November.
    7. Carmen M. Reinhart, 2002. "An Introduction," World Bank Economic Review, World Bank Group, vol. 16(2), pages 149-150, August.
    8. Richard Cantor & Frank Packer, 1996. "Determinants and impact of sovereign credit ratings," Economic Policy Review, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, vol. 2(Oct), pages 37-53.
    9. Cantor, Richard & Packer, Frank, 1997. "Differences of opinion and selection bias in the credit rating industry," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 21(10), pages 1395-1417, October.
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    1. Ideen und Interessen
      by Tobias Straumann in Never mind the markets on 2012-07-31 09:00:32

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    Cited by:

    1. Amstad, Marlene & Packer, Frank & Shek, Jimmy, 2020. "Does sovereign risk in local and foreign currency differ?," Journal of International Money and Finance, Elsevier, vol. 101(C).
    2. Olivier Accominotti & Barry Eichengreen, 2016. "The mother of all sudden stops: capital flows and reversals in Europe, 1919–32," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 69(2), pages 469-492, May.
    3. Bussière, M. & Ristiniemi, A., 2012. "Credit Ratings and Debt Crises," Working papers 396, Banque de France.
    4. Reinhart, Carmen M. & Trebesch, Christoph, 2014. "A Distant Mirror of Debt, Default, and Relief," CEPR Discussion Papers 10195, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    5. Carmen M. Reinhart & Christoph Trebesch, 2016. "Sovereign Debt Relief and Its Aftermath," Journal of the European Economic Association, European Economic Association, vol. 14(1), pages 215-251.
    6. Marc Flandreau, 2013. "Do good sovereigns default? Lessons of history," BIS Papers chapters, in: Bank for International Settlements (ed.), Sovereign risk: a world without risk-free assets?, volume 72, pages 19-25, Bank for International Settlements.
    7. Bradley, Michael & De Lira Salvatierra, Irving & Gulati, Mitu, 2014. "Lawyers: Gatekeepers of the sovereign debt market?," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 38(S), pages 150-168.
    8. Flores Zendejas, Juan, 2015. "Capital Markets and Sovereign Defaults: A Historical Perspective," Working Papers unige:73325, University of Geneva, Paul Bairoch Institute of Economic History.
    9. Marc Flandreau & Juan Flores & Norbert Gaillard & Sebastian Nieto-Parra, 2011. "The Changing Role of Global Financial Brands in the Underwriting of Foreign Government Debt (1815-2010)," IHEID Working Papers 15-2011, Economics Section, The Graduate Institute of International Studies.
    10. Marlene Amstad & Frank Packer, 2015. "Sovereign ratings of advanced and emerging economies after the crisis," BIS Quarterly Review, Bank for International Settlements, December.

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