For the past 40 years or so, every decade seems to have brought its own brand of international debt problems. In the 1980s, emerging market economies, led by Mexico, defaulted on their debt to private banks. In the 1990s, the fast-growing economies of Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea teetered on the brink of default. The new millennium brought the 2007–2008 financial crisis, the worst the U.S. had experienced since the Great Depression. And this decade has brought the ongoing Greek debt crisis, which for about six months in 2011 had engulfed Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland and threatened to destroy the euro (Figure 1).

Although outright default on foreign borrowing is relatively rare — Argentina, Russia, Ecuador, and Greece have been the only countries to default on their foreign obligations in the past 25 years — even the threat of sovereign default can be very disruptive for countries that experience it.1 Greece, sadly, is a poster child for the chaos that can befall a country when investors begin to doubt its ability to pay its bondholders. Greece was already suffering a recession in 2010 when it became clear to investors that its government was under severe budgetary pressure. Greece’s debt was eventually restructured to avoid outright default, but the process was lengthy and extracted a heavy toll on the Greek economy: By the end of 2013, Greece’s gross domestic product had fallen 25 percent below its GDP in 2010, and its unemployment rate had climbed to 27 percent. Then, the recovery that had begun in 2014 collapsed amid the political fallout from five years of harsh economic policies, and in 2015 Greece defaulted on its interest payments to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Although an exit from the euro was averted, Greece’s economic situation remains dire.

This article appeared in the Second Quarter 2016 edition of Economic Insights. Download and read the full issue.

[1] For the purposes of this article, sovereign default describes a situation in which a country quits trying to repay its creditors or must obtain an international bailout. Depending on how broadly default is defined, several more countries have defaulted during this time. For instance, Carmen Reinhart defines sovereign default as the failure to meet a principal or interest payment on the due date (or within the specified grace period) or episodes where rescheduled debt is ultimately extinguished in terms less favorable than the original obligation and offers a longer list of countries that defaulted from 1990 to 2015.