A New Take on Sovereign Debt and Gunboat Diplomacy

Going multilateral? Financial Markets’ Access and the League of Nations Loans, 1923-8

By

Juan Flores (The Paul Bairoch Institute of Economic History, University of Geneva) and
Yann Decorzant (Centre Régional d’Etudes des Populations Alpines)

Abstract: Why are international financial institutions important? This article reassesses the role of the loans issued with the support of the League of Nations. These long-term loans constituted the financial basis of the League’s strategy to restore the productive basis of countries in central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. In this article, it is argued that the League’s loans accomplished the task for which they were conceived because they allowed countries in financial distress to access capital markets. The League adopted an innovative system of funds management and monitoring that ensured the compliance of borrowing countries with its programmes. Empirical evidence is provided to show that financial markets had a positive view of the League’s role as an external, multilateral agent, solving the credibility problem of borrowing countries and allowing them to engage in economic and institutional reforms. This success was achieved despite the League’s own lack of lending resources. It is also demonstrated that this multilateral solution performed better than the bilateral arrangements adopted by other governments in eastern Europe because of its lower borrowing and transaction costs.

Source: The Economic History Review (2016), 69:2, pp. 653–678

Review by Vincent Bignon (Banque de France, France)

Flores and Decorzant’s paper deals with the achievements of the League of Nations in helping some central and Eastern European sovereign states to secure market access during in the Interwar years. Its success is assessed by measuring the financial performance of the loans of those countries and is compared with the performance of the loans issued by a control group made of countries of the same region that did not received the League’s support. The comparison of the yield at issue and fees paid to issuing banks allows the authors to conclude that the League of Nations did a very good job in helping those countries, hence the suggestion in the title to go multilateral.

The authors argue that the loans sponsored by the League of Nation – League’s loan thereafter – solved a commitment issue for borrowing governments, which consisted in the non-credibility when trying to signal their willingness to repay. The authors mention that the League brought financial expertise related to the planning of the loan issuance and in the negotiations of the clauses of contracts, suggesting that those countries lacked the human capital in their Treasuries and central banks. They also describe that the League support went with a monitoring of the stabilization program by a special League envoy.

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Empirical results show that League loans led to a reduction of countries’ risk premium, thus allowing relaxing the borrowing constraint, and sometimes reduced quantity rationing for countries that were unable to issue directly through prestigious private bankers. Yet the interests rates of League loans were much higher than those of comparable US bond of the same rating, suggesting that the League did not create a free lunch.

Besides those important points, the paper is important by dealing with a major post war macro financial management issue: the organization of sovereign loans issuance to failed states since their technical administrative apparatus were too impoverished by the war to be able to provide basic peacetime functions such as a stable exchange rate, a fiscal policy with able tax collection. Comparison is made of the League’s loans with those of the IMF, but the situation also echoes the unilateral post WW 2 US Marshall plan. The paper does not study whether the League succeeded in channeling some other private funds to those countries on top of the proceeds of the League loans and does not study how the funds were used to stabilize the situation.

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The paper belongs to the recent economic history tradition that aims at deciphering the explanations for sovereign debt repayment away from the gunboat diplomacy explanation, to which Juan Flores had previously contributed together with Marc Flandreau. It is also inspired by the issue of institutional fixes used to signal and enforce credible commitment, suggesting that multilateral foreign fixes solved this problem. This detailed study of financial conditions of League loans adds stimulating knowledge to our knowledge of post WW1 stabilization plans, adding on Sargent (1984) and Santaella (1993). It’s also a very nice complement to the couple of papers on multilateral lending to sovereign states by Tunker and Esteves (2016a, 2016b) that deal with 19th century style multilateralism, when the main European powers guaranteed loans to help a few states secured market access, but without any founding of an international organization.

But the main contribution of the paper, somewhat clouded by the comparison with the IMF, is to lead to a questioning of the functions fulfilled by the League of Nations in the Interwar political system. This bigger issue surfaced at two critical moments. First in the choice of the control group that focus on the sole Central and Eastern European countries, but does not include Germany and France despite that they both received external funding to stabilize their financial situation at the exact moment of the League’s loans. This brings a second issue, one of self-selection of countries into the League’s loans program. Indeed, Germany and France chose to not participate to the League’s scheme despite the fact that they both needed a similar type of funding to stabilize their macro situation. The fact that they did not apply for financial assistance means either that they have the qualified staff and the state apparatus to signal their commitment to repay, or that the League’s loan came with too harsh a monitoring and external constraint on financial policy. It is as if the conditions attached with League’ loans self-selected the good-enough failed states (new states created out of the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) but discouraged more powerful states to apply to the League’ assistance.

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Now if one reminds that the promise of the League of Nations was the preservation of peace, the success of the League loans issuance was meager compared to the failure in preserving Europe from a second major war. This of course echoes the previous research of Juan Flores with Marc Flandreau on the role of financial market microstructure in keeping the world in peace during the 19th century. By comparison, the League of Nations failed. Yet a successful League, which would have emulated Rothschild’s 19th century role in peace-keeping would have designed a scheme in which all states in need -France and Germany included – would have borrowed through it.

This leads to wonder the function assigned by their political brokers to the program of financial assistance of the League. As the IMF, the League was only able to design a scheme attractive to the sole countries that had no allies ready or strong-enough to help them secure market access. Also why did the UK and the US chose to channel funds through the League rather than directly? Clearly they needed the League as a delegated agent. Does that means that the League was another form of money doctors or that it acts as a coalition of powerful countries made of those too weak to lend and those rich but without enforcement power? This interpretation is consistent with the authors’ view “the League (…) provided arbitration functions in case of disputes.”

In sum the paper opens new connections with the political science literature on important historical issues dealing with the design of international organization able to provide public goods such as peace and not just helping the (strategic) failed states.

References

Esteves, R. and Tuner, C. (2016a) “Feeling the blues. Moral hazard and debt dilution in eurobonds before 1914”, Journal of International Money and Finance 65, pp. 46-68.

Esteves, R. and Tuner, C. (2016b) “Eurobonds past and present: A comparative review on debt mutualization in Europe”, Review of Law & Economics (forthcoming).

Flandreau, M. and Flores, J. (2012) “The peaceful conspiracy: Bond markets and international relations during the Pax Britannica”, International Organization, 66, pp. 211-41.

Santaella, J. A (1993) ‘Stabilization programs and external enforcement: experience from the 1920s’, Staff Papers—International Monetary Fund (J. IMF Econ Rev), 40, pp. 584–621

Sargent, T. J., (1983) ‘The ends of four big inflations’, in R. E. Hall, ed., Inflation: Causes and Effects (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, pp. 41–97