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Sovereign Debt as a Contingent Claim: Excusable Default, Repudiation, and Reputation

  • Herschel I. Grossman
  • John B. Van Huyck

History suggests the following stylized facts about default on sovereign debt:(1) Defaults are associated with identifiably bad states of the world. (2) Defaults are usually partial, rather than complete.(3) Sovereign states usually are able to borrow again soon after a default. Motivated by these facts, this paper analyses a reputational equilibrium in a model that interprets sovereign debts as contingent claims that both finance investments and facilitate risk shifting. Loans are a useful device to facilitate risk shifting because they permit the prepayment of indemnities. Nevertheless, because the power to abrogate commitments without having to answer to a higher enforcement authority is an essential aspect of sovereignty, a decision by a sovereign to validate lender expectations about debt servicing depends on the sovereign's concern for its trust worthy reputation. A trustworthy reputationis valuable because it provides continued access to loans. A key aspect of the analysis is that lenders differentiate excusable default, which is associated with implicitly understood contingencies, from unjustifiable repudiation. In the reputational equilibrium, the short-run benefits from repudiation are smaller than the long-run costs from loss of a trustworthy reputation. Thus, although sovereigns sometimes excusably default, they never repudiate their debts. The reputational equilibrium can involve efficient risk shifting and efficient investment or it can involve a binding lending ceiling that limits risk shifting and can also restrict investment. The factors that tend to produce a binding lending ceiling include a high time discount rate for the sovereign, low-risk aversion forthe sovereign, and a low net return from the sovereign's investments.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 1673.

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Date of creation: Jul 1985
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as The American Economic Review, Vol. 78, No. 5, pp. 1088-1097, (December 1988).
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:1673
Note: ME EFG
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  1. Eaton, Jonathan & Gersovitz, Mark, 1981. "Debt with Potential Repudiation: Theoretical and Empirical Analysis," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 48(2), pages 289-309, April.
  2. Kletzer, Kenneth M, 1984. "Asymmetries of Information and LDC Borrowing with Sovereign Risk," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 94(374), pages 287-307, June.
  3. Jeffrey Sachs & Daniel Cohen, 1982. "LDC Borrowing with Default Risk," NBER Working Papers 0925, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Lucas, Robert Jr. & Stokey, Nancy L., 1983. "Optimal fiscal and monetary policy in an economy without capital," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 12(1), pages 55-93.
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