How risky is sovereign debt?

One memorable answer, “Countries don’t go bankrupt,” is attributed to Walter Wriston, the most prominent banker of his day and the chairman of Citibank from 1967 to 1984. That is right in a narrow legal sense, since a sovereign government cannot be put into bankruptcy. But in the general sense, everybody knows it is disastrously wrong: governments can and do go broke and not pay on their debt.

The 1980s dramatically falsified the Wriston answer. A large number of governments with heavy borrowings from U.S. banks were broke and defaulting. This led to highly-placed fears that the entire American banking system might be insolvent. So Paul Volcker, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, papered over the crisis by ordering that the banks’ books be cooked and losses postponed. When the crisis broke in 1982, Volcker is reported to have said one Friday evening, “The American banking system might not last until Monday”!

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