RECOVERY BEFORE REDEMPTION: A THEORY OF DELAYS IN SOVEREIGN DEBT RENEGOTIATIONS
Mark L. J. Wright
Negotiations to restructure sovereign debts are protracted, taking on average almost 8 years to complete. In this paper we construct a new database (the most extensive of its kind covering ninety recent sovereign defaults) and use it to document that these negotiations are also ineffective in both repaying creditors and reducing the debt burden countries face. Specifically, we find that creditor losses average roughly 40 per-cent, and that the average debtor exits default more highly indebted than when they entered default. To explain this apparent large inefficiency in negotiations, we present a theory of sovereign debt renegotiation in which delay arises from the same commitment problems that lead to default in the first place. A debt restructuring generates surplus for the parties at both the time of settlement and in the future. However, a creditor’s ability to share in the future surplus is limited by the risk that the debtor will default on the settlement agreement. Hence, the debtor and creditor find it privately optimal to delay restructuring until future default risk is low, even though delay means some gains from trade remain unexploited. We show that a quantitative version of our theory can account for a number of stylized facts about sovereign default, as well as the new facts about debt restructurings that we document in this paper. Finally, we argue that our findings shed light on the existence of delays in bargaining in a wider range of contexts.
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