Monthly Archives: October 2016

A New Take on Sovereign Debt and Gunboat Diplomacy

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Debt forgiveness in the German mirror

The Economic Consequences of the 1953 London Debt Agreement

By Gregori Galofré-Vilà (Oxford), Martin McKee (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Chris Meissner (UC Davis) and David Stuckler (Oxford)

Abstract: In 1953 the Western Allied powers implemented a radical debt-relief plan that would, in due course, eliminate half of West Germany’s external debt and create a series of favourable debt repayment conditions. The London Debt Agreement (LDA) correlated with West Germany experiencing the highest rate of economic growth recorded in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. In this paper we examine the economic consequences of this historical episode. We use new data compiled from the monthly reports of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1948 to the 1960s. These reports not only provide detailed statistics of the German finances, but also a narrative on the evolution of the German economy on a monthly basis. These sources also contain special issues on the LDA, highlighting contemporaries’ interest in the state of German public finances and public opinion on the debt negotiation. We find evidence that debt relief in the LDA spurred economic growth in three main ways: creating fiscal space for public investment; lowering costs of borrowing; and stabilising inflation. Using difference-in-differences regression models comparing pre- and post LDA years, we find that the LDA was associated with a substantial rise in real per capita social expenditure, in health, education, housing, and economic development, this rise being significantly over and above changes in other types of spending that include military expenditure. We further observe that benchmark yields on long-term debt, an indication of default risk, dropped substantially in West Germany when LDA negotiations began in 1951 and then stabilised at historically low rates after the LDA was ratified. The LDA coincided with new foreign borrowing and investment, which in turn helped promote economic growth. Finally, the German currency, the deutschmark, introduced in 1948, had been highly volatile until 1953, after which time we find it largely stabilised.


Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-09-04

Review by Natacha Postel-Vinay (LSE)

The question of debt forgiveness is one that has drawn increased attention in recent years. Some have contended that the semi-permanent restructuring of Greece’s debt has been counterproductive and that what Greece needs is at least a partial cancellation of its debt. This, it is argued, would allow both faster growth and a higher likelihood of any remaining debt repayment. Any insistence on the part of creditors for Greece to pay back the full amount through austerity measures would be self-defeating.

One problem with this view is that we know very little about whether debt forgiveness can lead to faster growth. Reinhart and Trebesch (2016) test this assumption for 45 countries between 1920-1939 and 1978-2010, and do find a positive relationship. However they leave aside a particularly striking case: that of Germany in the 1950s, which benefited from one of the most generous write-offs in history while experiencing “miracle” growth of about 8% in subsequent years. This case has attracted much attention recently given German leaders’ own insistence on Greek debt repayments (see in particular Ritschl, 2011; 2012; Guinnane, 2015).

Eichengreen and Ritschl (2009), rejecting several popular theories of the German miracle, such as a reallocation of labour from agriculture to industry or the weakening of labour market rigidities, already hypothesized that such debt relief may have been an important factor in Germany’s super-fast and sustained post-war growth. Using new data from the monthly reports of the Deutsche Bundesbank from 1948 to the 1960s, Gregori Galofré-Vilà, Martin McKee, Chris Meissner and David Stuckler (2016) attempt to formally test this assumption, and are quite successful in doing so.

By the end of WWII Germany had accumulated debt to Europe worth nearly 40% of its 1938 GDP, a substantial amount of which consisted in reparation relics from WWI. Some already argued at the time that these reparations and creditors’ stubbornness had plagued the German economy, which in the early 1930s felt constrained to implement harsh austerity measures, thus contributing to the rise of the National Socialists to power. It was partly to avoid a repeat of these events that the US designed the Marshall Plan to help the economic reconstruction of Europe post-WWII.



Marshall aid to Europe between 1948 and 1951 was less substantial than is commonly thought, but it came with strings attached which may have indirectly contributed to German growth. In particular, one of the conditions France and the UK had to fulfil in order to become recipients of Marshall aid was acceptance that Germany would not pay back any of its debt until it reimbursed its own Marshall aid. Currency reform in 1948 and the setting up of the European Payments Union facilitated this process.

Then came the London Debt Agreement, in 1953, which stipulated generous conditions for the repayment of half the amount due from Germany. Notably, it completely froze the other half, or at least until reunification, which parties to the agreement expected would take decades to occur. There was no conference in 1990 to settle the remainder.


Galofré-Vilà et al. admit not being able to directly test the hypothesis that German debt relief led to faster growth. Instead, making use of simple graphs, they look at how the 1953 London Debt Agreement (LDA) led to lower borrowing costs and lower inflation, which comes out as obvious and quite sustained on both charts.

Perhaps more importantly, they measure the extent to which the LDA freed up space for social welfare investment. For this, they make use of the fact that Marshall aid had mainly been used for infrastructure building, so that the big difference with the LDA in terms of state expenditure should have been in terms of health, education, “economic development,” and housing. Then they compare the amount of spending on these four heads to spending in ten other categories before 1953, and check whether this difference gets any larger after the LDA. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does, and significantly so.

This way of testing the hypothesis that the LDA helped the German economy may strike some as too indirect and therefore insufficient. This is without mentioning possible minor criticisms such as the fact that housing expenditure is included in the treatment, not control group (despite the 1950 Housing Act), or that the LDA is chosen as the key event despite the importance of the Marshall Plan’s early debt relief measures.

Nevertheless testing such a hypothesis is necessarily a very difficult task, and Galofré-Vilà et al.’s empirical design can be considered quite creative. They are of course aware that this cannot be the end of the story, and they are careful to caution readers against hasty extrapolations from the post-war German case to the current Spanish or Greek situation. Some of their arguments have somewhat unclear implications (for instance, that Germany at the time represented 15% of the Western population at the time, whereas the Greek population represents only 2%).


Perhaps a stronger argument would be that Germany’s post-war debt was of a different character than Greek’s current debt: some would even call it “excusable” because it was mainly war debt; it was not (at least arguably) a result of past spending excesses. For this reason, one may at least ask whether debt forgiveness in the Greek context would have the same — almost non-existent — moral hazard effects as in the German case. Interestingly, the authors point out that German debt repayment after the LDA was linked to Germany’s economic growth and exports (so that the debt service/export revenue ratio could not exceed 3%). This sort of conditionality is strangely somewhat of a rarity among today’s sovereign debt contracts. It could be seen as a possible solution to fears of moral hazard, thereby mitigating any differences in efficiency of debt relief emanating from differences in the nature of the debt contracted.



Eichengreen, B., & Ritschl, A. (2009). Understanding West German economic growth in the 1950s. Cliometrica, 3(3), 191-219.

Guinnane, T. W. (2015). Financial vergangenheitsbewältigung: the 1953 London debt agreement. Yale University Economic Growth Center Discussion Paper, (880).

Reinhart, C. M., & Trebesch, C. (2014). A distant mirror of debt, default, and relief (No. w20577). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Ritschl, A. (2011). “Germany owes Greece a debt.” in The Guardian. Tuesday 21 June 2011.

Ritschl, A. (2012). “Germany, Greece and the Marshall Plan.” In The Economist. Friday 15 June.

Review: Avner Offer and Gabriel Soderberg, The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn (Princeton University Press, 2016) — The Long Run

The Nobel Factor: On the eve of the announcement of the Nobel prize in economics we review Offer and Soderberg’s new book and ask “What relationship should economic historians have to economics? ” What relationship should economic historians have to economics? For those who see economic history as essentially applied economics, the answer is perhaps […]

via Review: Avner Offer and Gabriel Soderberg, The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn (Princeton University Press, 2016) — The Long Run

Keynes and Actual Investment Decisions in Practice

Keynes and Wall Street

By David Chambers (Judge Business School, Cambridge University) and Ali Kabiri (University of Buckingham)

Abstract: This article examines in detail how John Maynard Keynes approached investing in the U.S. stock market on behalf of his Cambridge College after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. We exploit the considerable archival material documenting his portfolio holdings, his correspondence with investment advisors, and his two visits to the United States in the 1930s. While he displayed an enthusiasm for investing in common stocks, he was equally attracted to preferred stocks. His U.S. stock picks reflected his detailed analysis of company fundamentals and a pronounced value approach. Already in this period, therefore, it is possible to see the origins of some of the investment techniques adopted by professional investors in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Source: Business History Review (2016), 90(2,Summer), pp. 301-328 (Free access from October 4 to 18, 2016).

Reviewed by Janette Rutterford (Open University)

This short article looks at Keynes’ purchases of US securities in the period from after the Wall Street Crash until World War II. The investments the authors discuss are not Keynes’ personal investments but are those relating to the discretionary fund (the ‘Fund’) which formed part of the King’s College, Cambridge endowment fund and which was managed by Keynes. The authors rely for their analysis on previously unused archival material: the annual portfolio holdings of the endowment fund; the annual report on discretionary fund performance provided by Keynes to the endowment fund trustees; correspondence between Keynes and investment experts; and details of two visits by Keynes to the US in 1931 and 1934.


The authors look at various aspects of the investments in US securities made by Keynes. They first note the high proportion of equities in the endowment fund as a whole. They then focus in detail on the US holdings which averaged 33% by value of the Fund during the 1930s. They find that Keynes invested heavily in preferred stock, which he believed had suffered relatively more than ordinary shares in the Wall Street Crash and, in particular, where the preference dividends were in arrears. He concentrated on particular sectors – investment trusts, utilities and gold mining – which were all trading at discounts to underlying value, either to do with the amount of leverage or with the price of gold. He also made some limited attempts at timing the market with purchases and sales, though the available archival data for this is limited. The remainder of the paper explores the type of investment advice Keynes sought from brokers, and from those finance specialists and politicians he met on his US visits. The authors conclude that he used outside advice to supplement his own views and that, for the Fund, as far as investment in US securities was concerned, he acted as a long-term investor, making targeted, value investments rather than ‘following the herd’.

This paper adds a small element to an area of research which is as yet in its infancy: the analysis of actual investment decision making in practice, and the evolution of investment strategies over time. In terms of strategies, Keynes used both value investing and, to a lesser extent, market timing for the Fund. Keynes was influenced by Lawrence Smith’s 1925 book which recommended equity investment over bond investment on the basis of total returns (dividends plus retained earnings) rather than just dividend yield, the then common equity valuation method. Keynes appears not to have known Benjamin Graham but came to the same conclusion – namely that, post Wall Street Crash, value investing would lead to outperformance. He experimented with market timing in his own personal portfolio but only to a limited extent in the Fund. He was thus an active investor tilting his portfolio away from the market, by ignoring both US and UK railway and banks securities. Another fascinating aspect which is only touched on in this paper is the quality of investment advice at the time. How does it stack up compared to current broker research?


The paper highlights the fact that issues which are still not settled today were already a concern before WWII. Should you buy the market or try to outperform? What is the appropriate benchmark portfolio against which to judge an active strategy? How should performance be reported to the client (in this case the trustees) and how often? How can one decide how much outperformance comes from the asset allocation choice of shares over bonds, from the choice of a particular sector, at a particular time, whilst making allowance for forced cash outflows or sales such as occurred during WWII? More research on how these issues were addressed in the past will better inform the current debate.