The UK’s unpaid war debts to the United States, 1917-1980

by David James Gill (University of Nottingham)

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Trenches in World War I. From <www.express.co.uk>

We all think we know the consequences of the Great War – from the millions of dead to the rise of Nazism – but the story of the UK’s war debts to the United States remains largely untold.

In 1934, the British government defaulted on these loans, leaving unpaid debts exceeding $4 billion. The UK decided to cease repayment 18 months after France had defaulted on its war debts, making one full and two token repayments prior to Congressional approval of the Johnson Act, which prohibited further partial contributions.

Economists and political scientists typically attribute such hesitation to concerns about economic reprisals or the costs of future borrowing. Historians have instead stressed that delay reflected either a desire to protect transatlantic relations or a naive hope for outright cancellation.

Archival research reveals that the British cabinet’s principal concern was that many states owing money to the UK might use its default on war loans as an excuse to cease repayment on their own debts. In addition, ministers feared that refusal to pay would profoundly shock a large section of public opinion, thereby undermining the popularity of the National government. Eighteen months of continued repayment therefore provided the British government with more time to manage these risks.

The consequences of the UK’s default have attracted curiously limited attention. Economists and political scientists tend to assume dire political costs to incumbent governments as well as significant short-term economic shocks in terms of external borrowing, international trade, and the domestic economy. None of these consequences apply to the National government or the UK in the years that followed.

Most historians consider these unpaid war debts to be largely irrelevant to the course of domestic and international politics within five years. Yet archival research reveals that they continued to play an important role in British and American policy-making for at least four more decades.

During the 1940s, the issue of the UK’s default arose on several occasions, most clearly during negotiations concerning Lend-Lease and the Anglo-American loan, fuelling Congressional resistance that limited the size and duration of American financial support.

Successive American administrations also struggled to resist growing Congressional pressure to use these unpaid debts as a diplomatic tool to address growing balance of payment deficits from the 1950s to the 1970s. In addition, British default presented a formidable legal obstacle for the UK’s return to the New York bond market in the late 1970s, threatening to undermine the efficient refinancing of the government’s recent loans from the International Monetary Fund.

The consequences of the UK’s default on its First World War debts to the United States were therefore longer lasting and more significant to policy-making on both sides of the Atlantic than widely assumed.

 

How did investors view the reforms and supervisory organisations of the late nineteenth century?

by Avni Önder Hanedar (Sakarya University)

In the last couple of decades, high debt burden in emerging economies created financial crises and the low growth rate during the 2008 financial crisis led to a default problem for Greece. Some reforms were proposed, such as institutional changes and the establishment of an entity under control of the other Eurozone members to supervise the repayment of debts. These events have some similarities with the default of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (OPDA) (Düyun-u Umumiye). To deal with the inefficiencies in the Ottoman economy and political system, reforms were implemented, as supervisory organizations were established during the nineteenth century. Important ones were the adoption of the gold standard in 1880, the Administration of Six Indirect Revenues (Rüsum-u Sitte) (ASIR) in 1879, and the OPDA in 1881. It seems that many of them were not seen by investors as promising, since a British weekly magazine, Punch or The London Charivari, illustrated these events as bubbles. A paper of  Elmas Yaldız Hanedar, Avni Önder Hanedar, and Ferdi Çelikay examined how such events were perceived at the İstanbul bourse, which could shed light on today’s realities.

1
Cartoon of Punch or The London Charivari on 6 January 1877 about the Ottoman reforms.a caption

 

The paper manually collected historical data on the price of the General Debt bond traded at the İstanbul bourse between 1873 and 1883 from volumes of daily Ottoman newspapers, i.e., Basiret, Ceride-i Havadis, and Vakit. This bond was the most actively traded one at the İstanbul bourse in 1881, during the foundation of the OPDA.

2
A column of Vakit pointing out the values of bonds, stocks, and foreign currencies at the İstanbul bourse on 6 October 1875 (Vakit. (6 October 1875). Sarafiye, Galata piyasası, 2)

The paper is the first to measure in econometrically sophisticated manner investors’ beliefs at the İstanbul bourse in reference to the reforms and financial control organizations. Historical research does not include detailed empirical information for the effects of reforms and financial control organizations on the İstanbul bourse during the default period. Using unique data on the most actively traded Ottoman government bond, the paper extends the historical literature on the İstanbul bourse (See Hanedar et al. (2017)) and reforms (See Mauro et al. (2006), Birdal (2010), Mitchener and Weidenmier (2010) looking at bond markets in multiple developing countries, with samples that include the Ottoman Empire).

The methodology in the paper was to analyse the variance of returns (derived from the price showed in above) as a proxy of financial instabilities and risks. To model volatility, the paper estimated a GARCH model with dummy variables for reforms and financial control organizations at and after the dates of the events (i.e., short- and long-run).

 

 

 

 

 

 

3
The General Debt bond price (Turkish Liras) and key events. The data are derived from Vakit, Ceride-i Havadis, and Basiret, 187383.

The empirical results indicated a permanent decrease in volatility after the establishment of the OPDA and the gold standard. The foundation of a locally controlled finance commission in 1874 was correlated with a lower volatility level at the date of the event, but increased volatility in the long term. The Ottoman case is instructive for the understanding of today’s economic situation in emerging markets such as Greece, while it could be argued that long-lived and comprehensive measures with foreign creditors’ supervision on fiscal and monetary systems matter more for investors’ perceptions. Lowering government interventions on economic system and transaction costs due to bimetallism were viewed as promising. Investor beliefs that the local and short-lived reforms and supervisory organizations were ineffective could be due to several factors such as lack of measures to limit public expenditures.

 

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Volatility changes in the General Debt bond return, 1873–83. * and *** denote statistically significant coefficients at 10% and 1%.

 

References

Vakit. (6 October 1875). Sarafiye, Galata piyasası, 2.

Birdal, M. (2010). The Political economy of Ottoman public debt, insolvency and European control in the late nineteenth century. London: I. B. Tauris and Co Ltd.

Hanedar, A. Ö., Hanedar, E. Y., Torun, E., & Ertuğrul, H. M. (2017). Dissolution of an Empire: Insights from the İstanbul Bourse and the Ottoman War Bond. Defence and Peace Economics, (Forthcoming).

Mauro, P., Sussman, N., & Yafeh, Y. (2006). Emerging markets and financial globalization: Sovereign bond spreads in 1870-1913 and today. Oxford: Oxford University press.

Mitchener, K. J. & Weidenmier, M. D. (2010). Super sanctions and sovereign debt repayment. Journal of International Money and Finance, 29(1), 19–36.

The Public Works Loan Board and the growth of the state in nineteenth century England

by Ian Webster

The Public Works Loan Board was formed in 1817, when the government was faced with a stagnant economy and rising unemployment after the Napoleonic wars. It was established to lend money to finance public works like road, bridge and canal building. Later in the nineteenth century, the PWLB became a major lender to local government to finance the building of workhouses, schools, sewers and water supply facilities. The PWLB still exists in the twenty first century, and is the major provider of loans to local government.

During the nineteenth century, the PWLB survived two attempts by chancellors of the exchequer to abolish it. Sometimes its decisions were overruled by Parliament which directed the PWLB to make loans which were unlikely to be repaid. The Treasury preferred to see the PWLB as a high-cost ‘last resort’ lender when the private sector wouldn’t lend. But the prevailing view of the PWLB was as a low-cost lender to reduce the cost of national public health and education policies to local ratepayers.

These debates continue today. A recent chancellor of the exchequer sought to increase the PWLB’s interest rates closer to market rates, in order to encourage more private sector lending. He also proposed the abolition of the PWLB as a body of commissioners. There is still a debate about the merits of government borrowing to improve public infrastructure.

PWLB profits and losses 1817-76
Sums lent Profits(losses)
£M £M %
Lending decisions made independently of Parliament 37.9 3.4 9%
Lending decisions made by Parliament 4.2 (2.3) (55%)
Totals 42.1 1.1 3%

 

The research reached three main conclusions. First, 90 per cent of the PWLB’s lending was profitable, in spite of the fact that most loans were made at below market rates of interest. The critical factor is that lending decisions were made independently and with a prime concern about the security of the loan. The remaining 10 per cent of loans were made at the direction of Parliament. In these cases, social or economic reasons overcame the PWLB’s concern about repayment, and large losses resulted. Second, seeing the PWLB as a low-cost loan provider was a victory for local interests and national spending departments, over the Treasury desire to minimise the national debt. Third, the story of the PWLB highlights five key decisions between 1859 and 1876 that contributed to the substantial growth in government activities in the late nineteenth century. Without the PWLB’s cheap loans, it would have taken longer for elementary education and constant clean water supplies to become universal services.

To contact the author: ian.webster1954@gmail.com

Speculative Bubbles in History

by William Quinn and John Turner (Queen’s University Belfast)

South_Sea_Bubble_Cards-Tree
Unknown, 1720ca. Tree caricature from South Sea bubble cards. Public domain, available here

Although the “speculative bubble” is one of few financial concepts to regularly show up in popular culture, in academic financial economics it is a remarkably controversial topic. There are unresolved debates surrounding what constitutes a bubble, whether bubbles actually exist, whether central banks should take action in order to ‘prick’ bubbles, and why, exactly, bubbles often lead to economic recessions. Even the use of the word “bubble” can provoke the ire of economists: Peter Garber describes it as “a fuzzy word filled with import but lacking any solid operational definition”, whereas Eugene Fama simply states that “the word ‘bubble’ drives me nuts”.

Assuming that bubbles actually exist as a recurring phenomenon, how should they be defined? Charles Kindleberger defined a bubble as any substantial upward price movement followed by a crash. This, however, feels incomplete: if an industry grew due to unforeseeable good news, before shrinking due to unforeseeable bad news, it would not seem accurate to describe the event as a bubble. Peter Garber therefore proposes defining a bubble as “a price movement that is inexplicable based on fundamentals”, which seems more consistent with the popular understanding of the word.

A problem with Garber’s definition is that, although it is more precise, it renders bubbles impossible to identify with certainty. This is because testing for market efficiency always invokes a ‘double hypothesis’ problem: one can never tell whether prices were truly inconsistent with fundamentals, or they just appear to have been because the pricing model used for the test was incomplete. One solution is to avoid using the word ‘bubble’ at all. But given how frequently the concept appears outside of academia, it would be absurd if academic finance had nothing to say on the subject at all. In practice, the most sensible solution is often to revert to Kindleberger’s definition.

Why are economic historians interested in bubbles? There are purely historical reasons to be interested in these events: they have often played a central role in the development of financial markets and corporate law, most notably with the Bubble Act of 1720. However, this is also a field in which the past can directly inform the present. The potentially severe economic consequences of bubbles makes their study essential, but they are also rare events, and acquiring an overview of the subject is almost impossible without a historical perspective. Economic history has therefore recently contributed to three areas of contemporary, policy-relevant debates surrounding bubbles.

The first area is the central question of whether bubbles represent examples of market irrationality. The historical evidence on this point is somewhat mixed. Qualitative evidence has been used to suggest that bubbles result from mass irrationality, or, as Charles Mackay put it, the ‘madness of crowds’. However, closely analysing share prices during famous episodes often contradicts these stories. This is not to say that the price at the peak of a bubble is necessarily “correct”, but there is generally a sense in which it is justifiable. For example, Gareth Campbell has shown how prices during the British Railway Mania, although inaccurate in hindsight, were generally consistent with the pricing models widely used at the time. In practice, these models overestimated the sustainability of high initial dividends. But this is a long way from the ‘madness’ described by Mackay. The evidence from historical bubbles suggest that, while prices might not always have perfectly reflected underlying fundamentals, the popular characterisation of bubble investors as naïve fools absorbed by a speculative frenzy is inaccurate.

The second area is the question of whether central banks should raise interest rates in order to ‘prick’ a bubble, thereby preventing adverse economic consequences if it is allowed to grow. There are strong economic arguments for and against this point, but historical evidence generally suggests that it is a bad idea. Ben Bernanke, amongst others, has argued that the attempts of the Federal Reserve to burst the asset price bubble on the eve of the Wall Street Crash were partly responsible for the Great Depression. Hans-Joachim Voth has convincingly shown that a similar mistake was made in Germany in 1927, with even more severe political consequences. The counter-argument put forward by Nouriel Roubini is that these particular examples involve monetary policy which was ‘botched’, and more well-informed efforts to influence asset prices could be effective. This is theoretically possible, but any historical examples seem insignificant in comparison to the severe consequences of the aforementioned attempts to burst bubbles in the 1920s.

The final area is the question of why financial bubbles are often followed by a recession. Here there are two plausible mechanisms: the ‘wealth effect’ and the ‘debt effect’. The wealth effect argument is that the bursting of the bubble inflicts heavy losses on investors, who respond by decreasing spending, thus reducing aggregate demand. The debt effect argument is that, after the bubble bursts, demand is reduced because the public are less inclined to borrow, and banks are less inclined to lend. A 140-year study by Óscar Jordá, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor finds that, while both of these mechanisms seemingly occur, recessions are much more severe when the bubble was accompanied by a high level of leverage. John Turner in his book Banking in Crisis, has suggested that bubbles which are driven by indebtedness, such as the housing bubble of 2006-07, are particularly dangerous for banking systems and economies.