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Are harsh penalties for default really better?

  • Kartik B. Athreya
  • Xuan S. Tam
  • Eric R. Young

How might society ensure the allocation of credit to those who lack meaningful collateral? Two very different options that have each been pursued by a variety of societies through time and space are (i) relatively harsh penalties for default and, more recently, (ii) loan guarantee programs that allow borrowers to default subject to moderate consequences and use public funds to compensate lenders. The goal of this paper is to provide a quantitative statement about the relative desirability of these responses. Our findings are twofold. First, we show that under a wide array of circumstances, punishments harsh enough to ensure all debt is repaid improve welfare. With respect to loan guarantees, our findings suggest that such efforts are largely useless at best, and substantially harmful at worst. Generous loan guarantees virtually ensure substantially higher taxes — with transfers away from the non-defaulting poor to the defaulting middle-class — and greater deadweight loss from high equilibrium default rates. Taken as a whole, our findings suggest that current policy toward default is likely to be counterproductive, and that guarantees for consumption loans are not the answer.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond in its series Working Paper with number 09-11.

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Date of creation: 2009
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedrwp:09-11
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