Gouging the Gauchos

NEW YORK – Like individuals, corporations, and other private firms that rely on bankruptcy procedures to reduce an excessive debt burden, countries sometimes need orderly debt restructuring or reduction. But the ongoing legal saga of Argentina’s fight with holdout creditors shows that the international system for orderly sovereign-debt restructuring may be broken.

Individuals, firms, or governments may end up with too much debt because of bad luck, bad decisions, or a combination of the two. If you get a mortgage but then lose your job, you have bad luck. If your debt becomes unsustainable because you borrowed too much to take long vacations or buy expensive appliances, your bad behavior is to blame. The same applies to corporate firms: some have bad luck and their business plans fail, while others borrow too much to pay their mediocre managers excessively.

Bad luck and bad behavior (policies) can also lead to unsustainable debt burdens for governments. If a country’s terms of trade (the price of its exports) deteriorate and a large recession persists for a long time, its government’s revenue base may shrink and its debt burden may become excessive. But an unsustainable debt burden may also result from borrowing to spend too much, failure to collect sufficient taxes, and other policies that undermine the economy’s growth potential.

When the debt burden of an individual, firm, or government is too high, legal systems need to provide orderly ways to reduce it to a more sustainable level (closer to the debtor’s potential income). If it is too easy to default and reduce one’s debt burden, the result is moral hazard, because debtors gain an incentive to indulge in bad behavior. But if it is too difficult to restructure and reduce debts when bad luck leads to unsustainable debts, the result is bad for both the debtor and its creditors, who are better off when a reduced debt ratio is serviced than when a debtor defaults.