Avoiding the Bulow and Rogoff 1988 result on the impossibility of borrowing

Bulow and Rogoff 1988 NBER working paper 2623 proves that countries cannot borrow, due to their inability to credibly commit to repay, if after default they can still buy insurance. The punishment of defaulting on debt is being excluded from future borrowing. This punishment is not severe enough to motivate a country to repay, by the following argument. A country has two reasons to borrow: it is less patient than the lenders (values current consumption or investment opportunities relatively more) and it is risk-averse (either because the utility of consumption is concave, or because good investment opportunities appear randomly). Debt can be used to smooth consumption or take advantage of temporary opportunities for high-return investment: borrow when consumption would otherwise be low, pay back when relatively wealthy.

After the impatient country has run up its debt to the maximum level the creditors are willing to tolerate, the impatience motive to borrow disappears, because the lenders do not allow more consumption to be transferred from the future to the present. Only the insurance motive to borrow remains. The punishment for default is the inability to insure via debt, because in a low-consumption or valuable-investment state of affairs, no more can be borrowed. Bulow and Rogoff assume that the country can still save or buy insurance by paying in advance, so “one-sided” risk-sharing (pay back when relatively wealthy, or when investment opportunities are unavailable) is possible. This seemingly one-sided risk-sharing becomes standard two-sided risk-sharing upon default, because the country can essentially “borrow” from itself the amount that it would have spent repaying debt. This amount can be used to consume or invest in the state of the world where these activities are attractive, or to buy insurance if consumption and investment are currently unattractive. Thus full risk-sharing is achieved.

More generally, if the country can avoid the punishment that creditors impose upon default (evade trade sanctions by smuggling, use alternate lenders if current creditors exclude it), then the country has no incentive to repay, in which case lenders have no incentive to lend.

The creditors know that once the country has run up debt to the maximum level they allow, it will default. Thus rational lenders set the maximum debt to zero. In other words, borrowing is impossible.

A way around the no-borrowing theorem of Bulow and Rogoff is to change one or more assumptions. In an infinite horizon game, Hellwig and Lorenzoni allow the country to run a Ponzi scheme on the creditors, thus effectively “borrow from time period infinity”, which permits a positive level of debt. Sometimes even an infinite level of debt.

Another assumption that could realistically be removed is that the country can buy insurance after defaulting. Restricting insurance need not be due to an explicit legal ban. The insurers are paid in advance, thus do not exclude the country out of fear of default. Instead, the country’s debt contract could allow creditors to seize the country’s financial assets abroad, specifically in creditor countries, and these assets could be defined to include insurance premiums already paid, or the payments from insurers to the country. The creditors have no effective recourse against the sovereign debtor, but they may be able to enforce claims against insurance firms outside the defaulting country.

Seizing premiums to or payments from insurers would result in negative profits to insurers or restrict the defaulter to one-sided risk-sharing, without the abovementioned possibility of making it two-sided. Seizing premiums makes insurers unwilling to insure, and seizing payments from insurers removes the country’s incentive to purchase insurance. Either way, the country’s benefit from risk-sharing after default is eliminated. This punishment would motivate loan repayment, in turn motivating lending.

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