Workshop: Eurozone With or Without Sovereign Default?

I’m going to Florence this afternoon to present at a workshop on “Life in the Eurozone With or Without Sovereign Default?” that will be taking place tomorrow at the European University Institute. The program looks interesting and there will be a live web stream of the event. The slides for my presentation are here in Powerpoint 2007 format and here in a somewhat grimier PDF.

Bini-Smaghi: Whither Europe after the Crisis?

Lorenzo sure is busy giving speeches these days. Here‘s his latest. Some highlights:

Recently, a former Irish Prime Minister has even had the honour of front page headlines when he reproached the ECB for not having sufficiently monitored the Irish banking system when it is well known that in Europe the powers of prudential supervision are the responsibility of the national authorities, a competence that you do not want to give up.

And it’s not only former Irish Prime Ministers that get a tongue-lashing. Current heads of state also:

The piecemeal approach followed in recent months risks losing sight of the long-term goal. The measures may not be completely coherent. We came close to it last autumn, with the Franco-German proposal, endorsed by other countries, to make it easier for countries to go bankrupt. Fortunately, the idea has not gained acceptance, not only because of the ECB’s dislike but also because of the devastating effect it has had on financial markets. It will take time to recover from the loss of credibility suffered by Europe with that proposal.

The proposal was based on the assumption that the best way to discipline governments and to ensure sounder public finances is to make it easier for a country to declare bankruptcy. As soon as a country has problems with its public finances, it should seek a restructuring of its debts or automatically extend its bond maturities as a necessary condition for receiving help from European and international institutions.

This idea is mistaken for several reasons.

Read it yourself to see if you’re convinced by Lorenzo’s vision of a default-free Europe.

The Costs of Default

Panizza, Sturzenegger, and Zettelmeyers influential 2009 Journal of Economic Literature survey on the economics of debt and default has been referenced on different threads over the last few days.   The message has been that the costs of sovereign default in terms debt market access and borrowing costs are relatively low.   While I know that those referencing the paper know these findings provide only part of the picture, I am concerned that some blog readers will come away with too strong a conclusion. 

The puzzle of sovereign debt markets is that they should only be possible if there are costs to default and especially to voluntary default.   In contrast to corporate borrowers, legal sanctions do not provide much of a deterrent for sovereign governments.   The traditional explanation has instead focused on the value of reputation and thus on future access.   But the finding of low direct capital market punishments for defaulters has put that explanation in doubt. 

Yet sovereign debt markets are alive and well.   From this we can infer that there must be costs of some sort.   Recent attention has focused on domestic costs, such as the costs of severe output losses that have accompanied a number of recent debt crises. 

Here is what Panizza et al. (cautiously) conclude:

If anything, defaults appear to be deterred by the domestic collateral damage that tends to accompany debt crises, rather than punishments from outside.   While it is very difficult to empirically disentangle the causes and effects of defaults, there is at least some evidence supporting the idea that defaults may magnify the output drops observed during debt crises.   Once output costs in line with this evidence are assumed in parameterized models of sovereign borrowing, the level of sovereign debt that can be sustained in equilibrium rise to more reasonable levels compared to models in capital market penalties are the only punishment. 

One interesting possibility is that in a world with uncertainty about government/country type, revealing yourself as non-honest can have implications for broader dealings both domestically and internationally. 

Even if we take a strict cost-benefit perspective, we should approach default cautiously whether it is debt restructuring or the revocation of guarantees.