RPT-Fitch: The money printing myth - why sovereigns default on local currency debt

Fri May 10, 2013 4:06am EDT

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May 10 (Reuters) - (The following statement was released by the rating agency)

Fitch Ratings says in a newly-published report that the popular perception that sovereigns cannot default on debt denominated in their own currency because of their power to print money is a myth. They can and do. Local currency defaults in the recent era include: Venezuela (1998), Russia (1998), Ukraine (1998), Ecuador (1999), Argentina (2001) and Jamaica (2010 and 2013). Nonetheless, we recognise that local currency defaults are less frequent than foreign currency defaults and are unlikely for countries with debt mainly denominated in local currency at long maturity.

To assess the capacity which sovereigns have to inflate away their debt, this report uses our debt dynamics model to illustrate how much surprise inflation might be required for three hypothetical scenarios. For a country with a large primary budget deficit, gains to the debt to GDP ratio from even quite high inflation would be short-lived. While for a country with a debt to GDP ratio of 100%, primary deficit of 1%, real growth equal to the real interest rate and a 10-year average debt maturity, it would take a jump to 30% inflation (from our 2% baseline) for three years and 10% thereafter to bring the debt ratio below the 60% Maastricht threshold.

Undoubtedly, higher inflation can be used to raise seigniorage (the difference between the value of money and the cost to print it) and remittance of central bank profits to the government, up to a point. Nevertheless, in the long run, the ratio of government debt/GDP will rise if the government is running a primary budget deficit (excluding interest payments and including seigniorage), assuming the real growth rate does not exceed the real interest rate, irrespective of the inflation rate.

An unanticipated burst of inflation can reduce the real value of government debt as long as the debt is not of short maturity (as higher inflation is quickly reflected in the marginal cost of funding), index linked or denominated in foreign currency (as the exchange rate would depreciate). Thus countries with such characteristics - which give them 'monetary sovereignty' - do have some capacity to inflate away their debt.

Inflation is economically and politically costly. Thus, even if a sovereign has a capacity to inflate away its debt, it might choose not to. It is also far from clear how much money would need to be printed to deliver the 'right' inflation rate, as the current debate over quantitative easing highlights. Instead a sovereign might view a Distressed Debt Exchange (DDE) as a less bad policy option. Fitch classifies a DDE as a default.

The myth that sovereigns that can print money cannot default on debt in their own currency has also fed the proposition that such local currency ratings are irrelevant. Fitch disagrees that default is inconceivable or impossible. The agency agrees that countries with strong monetary sovereignty and financing flexibility are unlikely to default and these are important factors in Fitch's sovereign rating methodology that affect both local and foreign currency ratings.

A sovereign's local currency rating is closely linked to its foreign currency rating. It is typically one or two notches higher, owing to the sovereign's somewhat greater capacity to pay debt in local currency, as taxes are usually paid in local currency and it may have better access to a stable domestic capital market, as well as some capacity to print money. It may also be more willing to service local currency debt if more of it is held by local banks and other residents.

The report also is available on www.fitchratings.com.

Link to Fitch Ratings' Report: Why Sovereigns Can Default on Local Currency Debt


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