Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How to wreak havoc in sovereign debt seniority

With the European sovereign debt crisis continuing to linger with the frustrating hesitation waltz of the politicians, it may be a good idea to look back at somewhat similar situations in the past to learn what worked and what did not. There is actually a particularly striking example of how not do to things, the German debt between World War I and the rise of Nazism.

Albrecht Ritschl takes a fresh look at this, with the current crisis in mind. The Great Depression in Germany was particularly severe and has been blamed on the reparation payments that were imposed on the country after the war. Ritschl argues the true reason is more subtle than that. Until 1929, commercial credit to Germany had seniority of reparation payments. This meant that lending to Germany was relatively safe, and Germany took advantage of that with an unprecedented borrowing spree. Then came the Young Plan in 1929, which was supposed to reschedule the reparation payments that were absolutely crushing (after all, reparations amounted to over half the gold ever mined on earth). While the reorganization of the debt included a lower principal, it also gave reparation payments seniority over commercial debt. Suddenly, lending to Germany was much more risky. Of course, the balance of payments and private investment collapsed, and Germany slid into a deep depression.

Lesson: be very careful with changing debt seniority. But it can still make sense to use wisely this instrument, as discussed before.

1 comment:

Albrecht Ritschl said...

Thanks for posting my research. Just a quick but no-so-minor caveat: I argue in this paper (as I have done elsewhere) that the burden of reparations under the Dawes and Young plans was by no means unbearable (in the sense of not presenting unsurmountable budgetary problems). What added to the burden was Germany's borrowing spree during the 1920s described in the paper. AR