BIS Working Papers
The Liquidation of Government Debt
by Carmen M. Reinhart and M. Belen Sbrancia, Discussion Comments by Ignazio Visco and Alan Taylor
Monetary and Economic Department
"... Financial Repression Defined
The pillars of “Financial repression”
The term financial repression was introduced in the literature by the works of Edward Shaw (1973) and Ronald McKinnon (1973). Subsequently, the term became a way of describing emerging market financial systems prior to the widespread financial liberalization that began in the 1980 (see Agenor and Montiel, 2008, for an excellent discussion of the role of inflation and Giovannini and de Melo, 1993 and Easterly, 1989 for country-specific estimates). However, as we document in this paper, financial repression was also the norm for advanced economies during the post-World War II period and in varying degrees up through the 1980s. We describe here some of its main features.
(i) Explicit or indirect caps or ceilings on interest rates, particularly (but not exclusively) those on government debts. These interest rate ceilings could be effected through various means including: (a) explicit government regulation (for instance, Regulation Q in the United States prohibited banks from paying interest on demand deposits and capped interest rates on saving deposits); (b) ceilings on banks’ lending rates, which were a direct subsidy to the government in cases where it borrowed directly from the banks (via loans rather than securitized debt); and (c) interest rate cap in the context of fixed coupon rate nonmarketable debt or (d) maintained through central bank interest rate targets (often at the directive of the Treasury or Ministry of Finance when central bank independence was limited or nonexistent). Allan Meltzer’s (2003) monumental history of the Federal Reserve (Volume I) documents the US experience in this regard; Alex Cukierman’s (1992) classic on central bank independence provides a broader international context.
(ii) Creation and maintenance of a captive domestic audience that facilitated directed credit to the government. This was achieved through multiple layers of regulations from very blunt to more subtle measures. (a) Capital account restrictions and exchange controls orchestrated a “forced home bias” in the portfolio of financial institutions and individuals under the Bretton Woods arrangements. (b) High reserve requirements (usually non-remunerated) as a tax levy on banks (see Brock, 1989, for an insightful international comparison). Among more subtle measures, (c) “prudential” regulatory measures requiring that institutions (almost exclusively domestic ones) hold government debts in their portfolios (pension funds have historically been a primary target). (d) Transaction taxes on equities (see Campbell and Froot, 1994) also act to direct investors toward government (and other) types of debt instruments. And (e) prohibitions on gold transactions.
(iii) Other common measures associated with financial repression aside from the ones discussed above are, (a) direct ownership (e.g., in China or India) of banks or extensive management of banks and other financial institutions (e.g., in Japan) and (b) restricting entry into the financial industry and directing credit to certain industries (see Beim and Calomiris, 2000)..."
Episodes of Domestic Debt Conversions, Default or Restructuring,1920s–1950s
United Kingdom 1932 - Most of the outstanding WWI debt was consolidated into a 3.5 percent perpetual annuity. This domestic debt conversion was apparently voluntary. However, some of the WWI debts to the United States were issued under domestic (UK) law (and therefore classified as domestic debt) and these were defaulted on following the end of the Hoover 1931 moratorium.
United States 1933 - Abrogation of the gold clause. In effect, the U.S. refused to pay Panama the annuity in gold due to Panama according to a 1903 treaty. The dispute was settled in 1936 when the US paid the agreed amount in gold balboas..."
"The financial repression route taken at the creation of the Bretton Woods system was facilitated by initial conditions after the war, which had left a legacy of pervasive domestic and financial restrictions. Indeed, even before the outbreak of World War II, the pendulum had begun to swing away from laissez-faire financial markets toward heavier-handed regulation in response to the widespread financial crises of 1929-1931. But one cannot help thinking that part of the design principle of the Bretton Woods system was to make it easier to work down massive debt burdens. The legacy of financial crisis made it easier to package those policies as prudential.
To deal with the current debt overhang, similar policies to those documented here may re-emerge in the guise of prudential regulation rather than under the politically incorrect label of financial repression. Moreover, the process where debts are being “placed” at below market interest rates in pension funds and other more captive domestic financial institutions is already under way in several countries in Europe. There are many bankrupt (or nearly so) pension plans at the state level in the United States that bear scrutiny (in addition to the substantive unfunded liabilities at the federal level).
While to state that initial conditions on the extent of global integration are vastly different at the outset of Bretton Woods in 1946 and today is an understatement, the direction of regulatory changes have many common features. The incentives to reduce the debt overhang are more compelling today than about half a century ago. After World War II, the overhang was limited to public debt (as the private sector had painfully deleveraged through the 1930s and the war); at present, the debt overhang many advanced economies face encompasses (in varying degrees) households, firms, financial institutions and governments."