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U.S. showdown roiled globe -- but default is not always a dirty word

A history of defaulting on debt

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Story highlights

  • People and companies default -- but countries rarely do, at least in the traditional sense
  • U.S. politicians play financial brinkmanship but the country was not at risk of default
  • Other countries have defaulted -- including Argentina and Russia
  • And some, history shows, have been economically better off for having done so

Countries rarely default, at least not under the basic understanding of the term.

If you or I can't pay our bills and creditors come calling, eventually we can declare bankruptcy and painfully move on. Most of our creditors get little or nothing back. And companies to do it all the time -- indeed, it seems a matter of course for U.S. airlines.

But countries don't really go bankrupt. They choose to stop paying, one way or another.

The difference? Countries get new tax payers every day. They are born or they migrate. Countries cannot become insolvent. They stop paying to save money.

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How do they choose to default? Politicians can flirt with financial suicide, as some members of the U.S. Congress are fond of doing. But let's be clear, the U.S. was not going to default. The showdown was just politics.

"The United States has enormous credibility and is at no risk of default," Anne Pettifor, of Prime Economics, told me. "In my view there is no possibility whatsoever of the USA defaulting on its debt."

So, the USA cannot really default, thanks in part to a strong Federal Reserve and international creditors still wanting to buy its bonds, no matter how low the interest rate falls.

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But other countries have chosen to default, at least in theory. From Argentina to Russia to North Korea, countries have stopped paying the interest or principle on domestic or international obligations.

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In Russia's case, it was able to pay back creditors within a few years, thanks to the rise of energy prices. Russia did not walk away from its creditors.

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Argentina was a much tougher case. When it stopped paying creditors in late 2001, it caused a great deal of pain for its citizens in 2002-2003. Its efforts to settle with creditors still bubble up in New York courts. No one can say Argentina has fully recovered its reputation in the international markets. Some bondholders simply refuse to take a portion of what they are owed and move on. They want their money back.

Still its economy grew quickly within a few years of default. Does that mean that defaulting is not a terrible step? After all, it means a country can get a handle on its obligations.

"The debts become more manageable and therefore the country becomes more creditworthy," Pettifor said. Then, however, "the creditors pile in."

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Nazi Germany defaulted in 1933. The new government was not going to honor the obligations of the previous leaders. We all know how that went. It was decades before some of the German debt was paid back in a token way.

No eurozone country has unilaterally refused to pay its bills. The market made it impossible for the like of Ireland and Greece to issue new bonds at a sustainable interest rate. New creditors stepped in, instead of walking away. We know them as the troika -- made up of the European Central Bank, European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Greece's meltdown led to bondholders taking the "haircut," yet the country is set to take another package of aid. But it can't inflate its currency (it lost that option when it joined the euro) and can't default (for the same reason).

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The latest plan is not the bailout, but the "bail-in." Look at Cyprus. Bond holders hold off, the depositors pay up (those forced to bail-in) and everyone holds their breath hoping the country can rebuild its economy and banking sector and eventually pay back something.

After all, the troika expects to be paid back. If not, that would be a default. All this makes you wonder why the USA would even want to be mentioned in the same breath or paragraph with these countries.