Reputation and International Cooperation: Sovereign Debt across Three Centuriesby Michael Tomz
How does cooperation emerge in a condition of international anarchy? Michael Tomz sheds new light on this fundamental question through a study of international debt across three centuries. Tomz develops a reputational theory of cooperation between sovereign governments and foreign investors. He explains how governments acquire reputations in the eyes of investors,
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How does cooperation emerge in a condition of international anarchy? Michael Tomz sheds new light on this fundamental question through a study of international debt across three centuries. Tomz develops a reputational theory of cooperation between sovereign governments and foreign investors. He explains how governments acquire reputations in the eyes of investors, and argues that concerns about reputation sustain international lending and repayment.
Tomz's theory generates novel predictions about the dynamics of cooperation: how investors treat first-time borrowers, how access to credit evolves as debtors become more seasoned, and how countries ascend and descend the reputational ladder by acting contrary to investors' expectations. Tomz systematically tests his theory and the leading alternatives across three centuries of financial history. His remarkable data, gathered from archives in nine countries, cover all sovereign borrowers. He deftly combines statistical methods, case studies, and content analysis to scrutinize theories from as many angles as possible.
Tomz finds strong support for his reputational theory while challenging prevailing views about sovereign debt. His pathbreaking study shows that, across the centuries, reputations have guided lending and repayment in consistent ways. Moreover, Tomz uncovers surprisingly little evidence of punitive enforcement strategies. Creditors have not compelled borrowers to repay by threatening military retaliation, imposing trade sanctions, or colluding to deprive defaulters of future loans. He concludes by highlighting the implications of his reputational logic for areas beyond sovereign debt, further advancing our understanding of the puzzle of cooperation under anarchy.
"In an extraordinarily well-researched and very interesting book on the not so interesting subject of sovereign debt, Michael Tomz shows that contrary to popular belief and several dominant theories, states do now and have always cared about their international financial reputations."Anastasia Xenias, Political Science Quarterly
"Tomz has gathered a large amount of quantitative and qualitative historical evidence from archives and libraries in nine countries. International historians can benefit both from reading his case studies and from thinking about the role of market forces in international relations in the light of his theory on sovereign debt."G.C. Peden, The International History Review
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Read an ExcerptReputation and International Cooperation Sovereign Debt across Three Centuries
By Michael Tomz Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
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Chapter One The Puzzle of Cooperation in International Debt
EVERY DAY, LEADERS make promises to foreign governments and nonstate actors. They pledge to repay debts, supply foreign aid, curtail pollution, and limit their military arsenals. Leaders vow to lower barriers to international trade and capital, respect human rights at home, and promote democracy abroad. In principle, these commitments-some formal, some not-regulate how governments behave in world affairs.
Without a world government to enforce commitments, though, why should anyone take foreign leaders at their word? The answer is far from obvious. Some international agreements so clearly serve the interests of participants that defection would be unthinkable. Often, however, cheating would give the transgressor an immediate economic windfall, a military advantage, or a firmer grip on power at home. Moreover, the anarchical nature of world politics makes third-party enforcement of commitments unlikely. In this context, neither scholars nor political leaders can take international promise-keeping for granted.
This book examines one of the oldest and most pervasive types of international promises: debt contracts between sovereign governments and private foreign lenders. For centuries, bondholders and banks have lentmoney to foreign governments for a variety of objectives, including economic development, military procurement, and domestic consumption. The practice continues to this day. Private bondholders and banks now advance more than $100 billion per year to foreign governments around the world.
International debt contracts raise serious problems of credibility. When a government borrows money on world capital markets, it pledges to repay the principal plus interest and fees according to a schedule in the loan agreement. After creditors disburse the funds, though, the government may be tempted to break its promise by refusing to make full and punctual installments. The government can suspend interest payments, slow the rate of amortization, or-even worse-repudiate the debt, thereby denouncing the obligation as illegitimate.
History abounds with examples of default on international loans. In January 2002 the Argentine administration stopped servicing roughly $100 billion in foreign bonds, triggering the largest default of all time. Its decision, though unprecedented in magnitude, represents only one entry in a litany of defaults by governments over the past few centuries. In a typical year, approximately 10 percent of governments fail to meet contractual obligations to foreign bondholders and commercial banks, and during systemic crises such as the Great Depression, nearly half the countries in the world have been in arrears on their international debts.
Considering the inherent problem of credibility in world affairs, and given numerous cases of default throughout history, what gives bondholders and banks the confidence to lend money to foreign governments? Furthermore, why do governments ever repay their debts to private lenders in distant countries? There is, of course, a deep puzzle here-arguably one of the deepest in the study of politics: how does cooperation emerge in a condition of anarchy? The remainder of the book addresses this question in the context of international debt.
The literature on international relations offers two major perspectives about how credibility and cooperation can be sustained in an anarchical world. The first is repeat play, in which leaders cooperate today to ensure good relations in the future. The second is issue linkage, the process of connecting behavior in one area to the threat of sanctions in another. Both provide substantial insights into world politics, but neither-without amendment-adequately accounts for historical patterns of behavior in international finance. After noting the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches as applied to international debt, I propose a reputational theory that builds on models of repeat play but modifies them by conjoining two key features: incomplete information and political change. I then show, using three centuries of data from international capital markets, that this reputational theory offers new insight into relations between debtors and creditors.
One of the most fertile lines of research in international relations concerns the effects of repeat play. Using game theory, political scientists and economists have demonstrated that cooperation can arise from the threat of retaliation in ongoing relationships. If two parties interact repeatedly with one another, each could retaliate tomorrow in response to uncooperative behavior today. The most severe retaliatory strategy is the grim trigger: "Cross me once and I will never cooperate with you again." A more forgiving strategy, tit-for-tat, requires players to mimic their opponents by matching each act of cooperation with cooperation and punishing each instance of defection by striking back once. Many other strategies could achieve the same objective of punishing cheaters in the future.
When the threat of retaliation is sufficiently plausible and severe, it can support cooperation even in the absence of third-party enforcement. As Robert Axelrod explains, the future can "cast a shadow back upon the present and thereby affect the current strategic situation." Leaders who care enough about the future will calculate that the costs of forgoing cooperation tomorrow outweigh the immediate gains from behaving selfishly today.
It is easy to see how this logic could motivate governments to repay and give investors the confidence to lend. Most countries need to borrow not once but repeatedly to meet ongoing demands for economic development, national defense, and domestic consumption. Investors could, therefore, adopt a history-contingent strategy: penalize countries that default by barring them from new loans or by charging higher interest rates in subsequent years. Faced with this retributive strategy, credit-hungry governments would have powerful incentives to honor their debts, and investors could advance money with reasonable assurance of being repaid.
Does existing research support the repeat-play theory? Surprisingly, the answer appears to be no. In their study of sovereign debt since the 1850s, Peter Lindert and Peter Morton conclude that "investors seem to pay little attention to the past repayment record of the borrowing governments.... [T]hey do not punish governments with a prior default history, undercutting the belief in a penalty that compels faithful repayment." Other scholars, focusing on different time periods, have reached similar conclusions. Cardoso and Dornbusch, Eichengreen and Portes, and Jorgensen and Sachs note, for example, that countries that fell into arrears during the Great Depression did not subsequently receive worse terms of credit than countries that had paid in full. One major study by Özler finds that countries with histories of repayment difficulties were charged higher interest rates during the period 1968-81, but even then the default premiums were remarkably small. The prevailing interpretation of history, it seems, is that international creditors ignore history!
How have scholars explained investors' apparent inattention to history? Some cite ignorance. Vinod Aggarwal opens his massive study of debt rescheduling by contending that "almost without exception, modern bankers have made mistakes as a result of their unfamiliarity with the turbulent history of international lending. Few lenders in the 1970s, for example, knew that sovereign countries had frequently defaulted on their debt payments in the past." Others blame irrational exuberance: investors have been drawn into speculative manias and, without systematically weighing the consequences, have lent even to countries with records of default. Whatever the reason, the received wisdom casts serious doubt on the use of history-contingent strategies to enforce debt contracts.
The repeat-play argument seems problematic not only in practice but also in theory. To bar a defaulter from capital markets or force it to pay higher interest rates, an aggrieved creditor would need the cooperation of most-if not all-current and future lenders around the world. Why, though, would profit-seeking bondholders and banks collaborate in punishing a government for defaulting on someone else's loans? The notion of retribution seems especially problematic because, for most of financial history, loans came from tens of thousands of scattered investors who probably could not have coalesced into a punishment cartel. Without extensive cooperation among creditors, the threat of punishment may not be credible. Ironically, the repeat-play argument may solve one credibility problem by creating another. We are, therefore, left with a puzzle. If existing research is correct in concluding that creditors ignore history, and if even retribution-minded creditors would face severe problems in organizing collective punishment, why do sovereign governments ever repay their debts? Perhaps even more troublesome, what inspires investors to lend billions of dollars to governments each year, if not the ability to withhold credit in an ongoing lending relationship? A second possibility is issue linkage.
In a complex and interdependent world, countries and nonstate actors can enforce agreements by linking issues, that is, by threatening to retaliate in one area of world affairs if foreigners behave selfishly in another. Actors might, for example, sever economic relations with countries that violate arms control agreements or apply military pressure against parties that fail to respect human rights. Provided the links between issues are credible, leaders will think twice before crossing foreigners, since the gain from cheating on one issue may be outweighed by the loss of cooperation on another.
This insight, so central to international relations theory, may explain how debt contracts have been enforced for centuries. On their own or with help from their home government, banks and bondholders could impose nonfinancial penalties on countries that default. Charles Lipson usefully refers to this kind of retaliation as an "extrinsic" sanction because it involves punishment on an issue distinct from the one that sparked the dispute. In contrast, the repeat-play strategy of withholding access to capital is an "intrinsic" sanction because creditors strike back in the same issue area in which the borrower cheated in the first place.
Creditors could impose various extrinsic sanctions on defaulters. One option is military intervention. The idea of using arms to extract repayment may seem odd today, but many scholars believe this mode of enforcement prevailed until the early twentieth century. Martha Finnemore, for example, writes that militarized debt collection was "accepted practice" in the nineteenth century and fell from favor only after the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. Some academics judge that military pressure was commonly used to collect debts. Others think creditors applied police powers selectively, sending gunboats to compel debtors in only a few colorful cases. Ultimately, though, the prospect of military force should have mattered more than the frequency. According to economists Paul De Grauwe and Michele Fratianni, the mere threat of gunboats influenced the behavior of nineteenth-century borrowers.
References to gunboat diplomacy appear not only in scholarly writings, but also in the modern financial press. During the debt crisis of the 1980s, for example, the Wall Street Journal ran the following front-page headline: "Theodore Roosevelt Knew How to Collect on Defaulted Loans- He Would Send in the Marines to Protect U.S. Bankers from Deadbeat Nations." The Journal contrasted the modern era of peaceful debt renegotiation with a previous age, in which "governments employed soldiers rather than accountants and lawyers to resolve international financial problems." To the extent that this characterization is accurate, military force kept debtors honest for at least part of world history.
A second type of extrinsic sanction involves commerce rather than military cruisers. In many models of sovereign debt, lenders motivate the borrower to repay by establishing a tactical link between finance and trade. If a government defaults, private creditors retaliate not by denying access to future loans but by disrupting commercial relations. Creditors seize goods that belong to the debtor, withhold short-term credit for imports and exports, or (with the help of their home government) impose an embargo on commercial relations with the defaulting state. Confronted with cross-issue retribution of this type, governments may find it worthwhile to repay.
As Philip Lane points out, "The imposition of trade sanctions on the offending country" is "the classic punishment ... in the sovereign debt literature." It is easy to see why. Countries gain significantly from international trade, due to the principle of comparative advantage. The prospect of losing trade could, therefore, dissuade debtors from cheating on loans. Moreover, the age of gunboat diplomacy may have passed, but trade sanctions remain a potential weapon in the arsenal of creditors. Linkages between debt and trade could, therefore, explain repayment not only before World War I, but also in more modern times.
Empirical research on the topic has just begun, however, and the available evidence is contradictory. In two recent studies, Andrew Rose shows that trade declines after countries reschedule their debts at the expense of creditors, and that countries receive more loans from large trading partners than from small ones. Both findings are broadly consistent with the trade sanctions hypothesis. On the other hand, Martinez and Sandleris and Mitchener and Weidenmier find no evidence that debtor-creditor trade falls in response to default, and William English demonstrates that many U.S. states repaid their foreign debts during the nineteenth century, even though they were immune to trade sanctions from Britain.
The trade sanctions hypothesis also suffers from the same theoretical weakness as the repeat-play argument. To exclude a defaulter from international trade, each lender would need help from many foreign actors. Countries and firms that trade with the defaulter-and ones that potentially could do so-would need to collude, even if they were not party to the original loan. Without collusion, the defaulter could minimize its punishment by increasing ties with other buyers and sellers, or by transshipping its products through other states. Trade sanctions, like credit embargoes, raise daunting problems of collective action.
Once again, we are left with a puzzle. Military coercion may have contributed to debt repayment during the 1800s (a theme I reexamine later in the book), but it cannot explain lending and repayment today. The trade sanctions hypothesis, in contrast, has greater explanatory potential across countries and over time and is "widely accepted" among economic theorists. Nevertheless, it is not obvious that traders worldwide would unite against a defaulter, and evidence about the hypothesized link between debt and trade remains limited and mixed. At this point, we cannot confidently say why countries repay their foreign debts or what gives private investors the assurance to lend.
Toward a Reputation-Based Solution
This book argues that we can make progress toward understanding the behavior of debtors and creditors by developing a dynamic theory of reputation-one that combines repeat play with uncertainty and political change. Building on classical theories of repeated interaction, I relax the standard assumption of complete information about the preferences of foreign governments and allow preferences to change over time. These two innovations transform the standard repeat-play theory into a dynamic model of reputation in which investors continually update their beliefs about the type of government they are confronting. The evolving beliefs of investors, which constitute the borrower's reputation in foreign eyes, are fundamental to both lending and repayment. I discuss incomplete information and political change below, incorporate them into a theory of reputation in chapter 2, and test the theory's explanatory power in the remainder of the book.
Excerpted from Reputation and International Cooperation by Michael Tomz
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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TomzMichael: Michael Tomz is assistant professor of political science at Stanford University.
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