CAMBRIDGE – Default is back. Sovereign finances weathered a wrenching global recession and a collapse in commodity prices surprisingly well over the past few years. But failed economic models cannot limp along forever, and the slow bleeding of the economies of Puerto Rico and Venezuela have now forced their leaders to say “no mas” to repaying creditors.
Earlier this year, Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy. At the time, the United States commonwealth had about $70 billion in debt and another $50 billion or so in pension liabilities. This made it the largest “municipal” bankruptcy filing in US history.
The debt crisis came after more than a decade of recession (Puerto Rico’s per capita GDP peaked in 2004), declining revenues, and a steady slide in its population. The demographic trends are all the more worrisome because those fleeing Puerto Rico in search of better opportunities on the US mainland are much younger than the population staying behind. And in September, at a time of deepening economic hardship, hurricane Maria dealt the island and its residents an even more devastating blow, the legacy of which will be measured in years, if not decades.
More recently, in mid-November, Venezuela defaulted on its external sovereign debt and debts owed by the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. Default on official domestic debt, either explicitly or through raging hyperinflation, had long preceded this latest manifestation of national bankruptcy.
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