What Is a Sovereign Debt Crisis? With Examples

Explanation for U.S., Europe, Greece, and Iceland Debt Crises

Greek riots
Protesters hurl molotov cocktail bombs towards riot police in Sytagma square during the general strike in Athens on 19 October 2011. Credit: Federico Verani / Getty Images

Definition: A sovereign debt crisis is when a country is unable to pay its bills. But this doesn't happen overnight as there are plenty of warning signs. It usually becomes a crisis when the country's leaders ignore these indicators for political reasons.

The first sign is when the country finds it cannot get a low-interest rate from lenders. Why? Investors become concerned that the country cannot afford to pay the bonds, and it will go into debt default.

As lenders start to worry, they require higher and higher yields to offset their risk. The higher the yields, the more it costs the country to refinance its sovereign debt. In time, it really cannot afford to keep rolling over debt, and it defaults. Investors' fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That happened to Greece, Italy, and Spain, leading to the European debt crisis. It also happened when Iceland took over the country's bank debt, causing the value of its currency to plummet. But this did not occur in the United States in 2011, as interest rates remained low. Nevertheless, it experienced a debt crisis for very different reasons.

Greek Debt Crisis

The debt crisis started in 2009 when Greece announced its actual budget deficit was 12.9% of gross domestic product, more than quadruple the 3% limit mandated by the European Union (EU). Credit rating agencies lowered Greece's credit ratings, driving up interest rates.

Usually, a country would just print more money to pay its debt. However, in 2001 Greece had adopted the euro as its currency. For several years, Greece benefited from its euro membership with lower interest rates and foreign direct investment, particularly from German banks. Unfortunately, Greece asked the EU for the funds to pay its loans.

In return, the EU imposed austerity measures. Worried investors (mainly German banks) demanded that Greece cut spending to protect their investments.

However, these measures lowered economic growth and tax revenues. As interest rates continued to rise, Greece warned in 2010 that it might be forced to default on its debt payments. The EU and the IMF agreed to bail out Greece but demanded further budget cuts in return. That created a downward spiral.

By 2012, Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio was 175%, one of the highest in the world. It was after bondholders, concerned about losing all their investment, accepted 25 cents on the dollar. Greece is now in a depression-style recession, with a 25% unemployment rate, political chaos, and a barely functioning banking system. For more, see What Is the Greece Debt Crisis?

Eurozone Debt Crisis

The Greek debt crisis soon spread to the rest of the eurozone, since many European banks had invested in Greek businesses and sovereign debt. Other countries, like Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, had also overspent, taking advantage of low-interest rates as eurozone members. The 2008 financial crisis hit these countries particularly hard. As a result, they needed bailouts to keep from defaulting on their sovereign debt.

Spain was a little different. The government had been fiscally responsible, but the 2008 financial crisis severely impacted its banks. They had heavily invested in the country's real estate bubble. When prices collapsed, these banks struggled to stay afloat. Spain's federal government bailed them out to keep them functioning. Over time, Spain itself began having trouble refinancing its debt. It eventually turned to the EU for help.

That stressed the structure of the EU itself. Germany and the other leaders struggled to agree on how to resolve the crisis. Germany wanted to enforce austerity, in the belief it would strengthen the weaker EU countries as it had Eastern Germany. However, these same austerity measures made it more difficult for the countries to grow enough to repay the debt, creating a vicious cycle.

In fact, much of the eurozone went into recession as a result. For more, see Eurozone Crisis.

U.S. Debt Crisis

Many people warned the U.S. would wind up like Greece, unable to pay its bills. However, that's not likely to happen for three reasons:

  1. The U.S. dollar is a world currency, remaining stable even as the U.S. continues to print money.
  2. The Federal Reserve can keep interest rates low through quantitative easing.
  3. The power of the U.S. economy means that U.S. debt is a relatively safe investment.

In 2013, the U.S. came close to defaulting on its debt due to political reasons. The tea party branch of the Republican Party refused to raise the debt ceiling or fund the government unless Obamacare were defunded. It led to a 16-day government shutdown until pressure increase on Republicans to return to the budget process, raise the debt ceiling, and fund the government. The day the shutdown ended, the U.S. national debt rose above a record $17 trillion, and its debt to GDP ratio was more than 100%. 

The year earlier, the debt was an issue during the 2012 Presidential election. Again, tea party Republicans fought to push the U.S. over a fiscal cliff unless spending was cut. The cliff was averted, but it meant the budget would be cut 10% across the board through sequestration.

The U.S. debt crisis began in 2010. Democrats, who favored tax increases on the wealthy, and Republicans, who favored spending cuts, fought over ways to curb the debt. In April 2011, Congress delayed approval of the FY 2011 budget to force spending cuts. That almost shut down the government in April. In July, Congress stalled on raising the debt ceiling, again to force spending cuts.

Congress finally raised the debt ceiling in August, by passing the Budget Control Act. It required Congress to agree on the way to reduce the debt by $1.5 trillion by the end of 2012. When it didn't, it triggered sequestration. That's a mandatory 10% reduction of FY 2013 Federal budget spending that began in March 2013.

Congress waited until after the results of the 2012 Presidential Campaign to work on resolving their differences. The sequestration, combined with tax hikes, created a fiscal cliff that threatened to trigger a recession in 2013. Uncertainty over the outcome of these negotiations kept businesses from investing nearly $1 trillion and reduced economic growth. Therefore, even though there was no real danger of the U.S. not meeting its debt obligations, the U.S. debt crisis hurt economic growth.

Ironically, the crisis didn't worry bond market investors, who continued to demand U.S. Treasuries, driving interest rates down to 200-year lows in 2012.

Iceland Debt Crisis

In 2009, Iceland's government collapsed as its leaders resigned due to stress created by the country's bankruptcy. Iceland took on $62 billion of bank debt when it nationalized the three largest banks. Iceland's GDP was only $14 billion. As a result, its currency plummeted 50% the next week, causing inflation to soar.

The banks had made too many foreign investments that went bankrupt in the 2008 financial crisis. Iceland nationalized the banks to prevent their collapse, which in turn brought about the demise of the government itself. For more, see How Iceland's Economy Recovered from Bankruptcy