Defaults on sovereign debt – the term commonly used to denote debt issued by national governments and other fiscally autonomous territories – are a recurring feature of public finance. They are more widespread than is often appreciated, since 1960 involving 145 governments, over half the current sovereign universe. Examples include the many governments ensnared in the Latin American and Eastern European debt crises of the 1980s. More recently, there have been big bond defaults by Russia (1998), Argentina (2001), Greece (2012), and Puerto Rico (2015). On a smaller scale, scores of sovereign defaults can occur each year on one or more types of debt. Some, such as Sudan’s, have dragged on for decades and remain unresolved (Chart 1).
Michael Anson, Norma Cohen, Alastair Owens and Daniel Todman
Financing World War I required the UK government to borrow the equivalent of a full year’s GDP. But its first effort to raise capital in the bond market was a spectacular failure. The 1914 War Loan raised less than a third of its £350m target and attracted only a very narrow set of investors. This failure and its subsequent cover-up has only recently come to light following research analysing the Bank’s ledgers. It reveals the shortfall was secretly plugged by the Bank, with funds registered individually under the names of the Chief Cashier and his deputy to hide their true origin. Keynes, one of a handful of officials in the know at the time, described the concealment as “a masterly manipulation”.