The joy of a four-day weekend – as well as cooking and gardening, I’ve read a thoroughly enjoyable economic history book with great relevance for the present debate on sovereign borrowing. It’s Lending to the Borrower from Hell: Debt, Taxes and Default in the Age of Philip II by Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Voth.
Part of my enjoyment was that I studied this period for my history A level (and almost read history at university before economics captured me), and so was absorbed in 16th and 17th century Europe during those impressionable teenage years. It’s extraordinary that so many Europeans know so little about it now – certainly, British schoolchildren jump from the Tudors straight to World War II and the Cold War. For a sense of how turbulent and decisive a period it was, the novel Q by the Italian collective Luther Blissett is hard to beat; I have the Wu Ming “sequel”, Altai, on my in-pile now.
However, even if you don’t share my specific interest in the period, this is an essential book for economists interested in sovereign debt – and which of us is not at the moment? It fills in some important detail about an episode in debt history that features in the data set of the monumental This Time is Different. A large part of the achievement of the authors is the collection of a highly impressive data set on the debt issuance, repayments, revenues and expenses of Philip II of Spain, based on obviously extensive archival research as well as secondary sources.This was, of course, the period when New World silver started to reach the coffers of the Castilian crown in large quantities. The Borrower from Hell underlines the concept of resource curse.
Philip II has the reputation of being the Borrower from Hell because of the frequency with which he defaulted – there was a payment suspension more often than one year in every five during his reign. As the authors point out, the Reinhart-Rogoff data set shows 20% of countries in default on average in every year since 1800, so the reputation may be unfair; but the scale of the borrowing was large and Philip II defaulted a record-breaking 13 times in succession: “No country in recorded history has defaulted more times.”
So the question is why he got the opportunity to do so; why did bankers continue lending to him? How can there be a ‘borrower from hell’? The book carries out an IMF-type sustainability exercise on the historical data set and concludes that the debt burden was sustainable although there were liquidity crises due to events – usually a military loss. It also argues that the structure of the lending meant there was a kind of balance of power between king and lenders. The form the lending took was syndicated loans provided by a relatively small and tight-knit group of families; 130 people from 63 families lent Philip money over the years but 3 families accounted for 40% of all loans and 10 families for 70%. The banking network was stable and dominated the available funds. So whereas two hundred years earlier Philip IV of France had executed those who lent him money (Jews, Lombards, Templars) when he couldn’t pay, Philip II of Spain had a long relationship with his financiers. The ‘absolutism’ of the 16th and 17th centuries was in fact constrained, a useful fiction for both monarch and elites.
The data indicate that despite the defaults, holidays and renegotiations, the average return on the loans was highly favourable. The book argues that the lending was understood to be contingent and that a renegotiation would ensue if events turned out badly for the king. The negotiations were typically speedy, as was the return to lending. The bankers were sharing the risk with Philip, their return amply compensating them for it. It sounds not unlike Robert Shiller’s proposal for event-dependent sovereign loans in his book The New Financial Order.
Lending to the Borrower from Hell is a useful reminder that, not only is sovereign lending wholly intertwined with the state, it can perform a useful rather than a solely destructive function. The book does not indulge in drawing lessons for modern finance, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the structure of modern financial markets deserves close scrutiny in evaluating lessons from the crisis. And that the balance of power between, say, the Greek government and Wall Street banks has been made completely clear by the terms of Greece’s “rescue”.
As for the resource curse, Drelichman and Voth conclude with a discussion of the reasons for later Spanish economic decline: “The inability to raise state capacity must ultimately be traced back to a resource windfall – silver. It kept the Crown fiscally sound without the need to strike a bargain that would have helped build a stronger, more capable state in the long run.”
A final note: this is a tremendously well-written book, a pleasure to read.