Sovereign Defaults, 1975-2014

A sovereign default is the failure or refusal of the government of a sovereign state to pay back its debt in full. Cessation of due payments (also euphemistically termed receivables) may either be accompanied by formal declaration (repudiation) of a government not to pay (or only partially pay) its debts, or it may be unannounced. Defaults have typically involved low-income and emerging-market economies, although recent cases include advanced-economy sovereigns. Until recently, there have been few efforts to systematically measure and aggregate the nominal value of the different types of sovereign government debt in default. This reflects a number of factors. An important reason is that there is no single internationally recognized definition of what constitutes a sovereign default. As a result, standards used by government borrowers and their creditors to report defaults, if they report at all, differ, and information on the various types of defaulted debt must be mined from different sources.

To help fill this gap, the Bank of Canada’s Credit Rating Assessment Group (CRAG) has developed a comprehensive database of sovereign defaults. The database draws on previously published data sets compiled by various official and private sector sources. It combines elements of these, together with new information, to develop estimates of stocks of government obligations in default, including bonds and other marketable securities, bank loans, and official loans in default, valued in U.S. dollars, for the years 1975 to 2014 on both a country-by-country and a global basis.

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