Research / BFI Working PaperAug 08, 2022

When is Sovereign Debt Odious? A Theory of Government Repression, Growth Traps, and Growth Boosts

Viral V. Acharya, Raghuram Rajan, Jack Shim

We examine the dynamics of a country’s growth, consumption, and sovereign debt, assuming that the government is myopic and wants to maximize short-term, self-interested spending. Surprisingly, government myopia can increase a country’s access to external borrowing. In turn, access to borrowing can extend the government’s effective horizon; the government’s ability to borrow hinges on it convincing creditors they will be repaid, which gives it a stake in generating future revenues. In a high-saving country, the lengthening of the government’s effective horizon can incentivize it to tax less, resulting in a “growth boost”, with higher steady-state household consumption than if it could not borrow. However, in a country that saves little, the government may engage in more repressive policies to enhance its debt capacity. This could lead to a “growth trap” where household steady-state consumption is lower than if the government had no access to debt. We discuss the effectiveness of alternative debt policies, including declaring debt odious, debt forgiveness, and debt ceilings. We also analyse the impact of unanticipated shocks on the country’s welfare.

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