When making a decision, what happens if you do nothing: i.e. take no action? The answer is the default option. There is evidence that changing the default option for the same decision can sometimes have a big impact on the final choices people make. For example, when a person starts a new job, they often have to decide whether to contribute to the company’s pension scheme. The default option is typically for employees not to contribute. They have to do something actively (e.g. fill in an online form) to opt in to the scheme. An alternative is to change the default option so that employees are contributing to the pension. They now have to do something to opt out of the scheme.
Changing the default should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics. However, research by Madrian and Shea (2001) found that it had a big effect. When employees had to opt-in, 49 per cent enrolled in a company pension. When they had to opt out, the figure increased to 86 per cent.
Other research suggests that defaults can influence the likelihood of getting a flu jab, making healthier food choices, receiving e-mail marketing and choosing certain types of car insurance.
One policy area where the choice of default has become a topical issue is organ donation. In 2017, over 400 people died in the UK because it was impossible to find an appropriate donor. Could changing the default increase the number of donors?
The scheme that operates in England requires people to sign-up to the organ donor register: i.e. they have to opt in. Although 80 per cent of the public support organ donation less than 50 per cent ever get around to signing this register.
Parliament recently approved the Organ Donation Bill and the new law will come into effect in 2020. The default position will change so that people are automatically signed-up for organ donation. If they do not want to donate their organs, they will have to opt out of the register.
In December 2015, the devolved Welsh government introduced a similar scheme. Although it is quite early to give a full assessment of the policy, its impact has been smaller than many people had hoped.
Why have the initial results been disappointing? One potential downside with an opt-out scheme is that it may create greater uncertainty about someone’s true wishes. With an opt-in scheme, a relative takes a deliberate action to indicate their preference to be an organ donor. In England, approximately 10 per cent of families overrule the wishes of a relative who has actively signed the register.
With an opt-out scheme, family members may worry that their relative did not want to donate their organs but never found the time to take their name off the register. In 2017/18, families in Wales overruled the presumed consent of their relatives in 33 per cent of cases.
Some countries, such as Singapore and Austria, operate a ‘hard opt-out’ policy. In these schemes, families cannot overrule and this leads to high organ donor rates. However, this type of policy is unpopular with large sections of the electorate who feel it is over paternalistic.
Forcing people to make a choice
Is it possible to force people to make a choice and so reveal their preferences to others? This is a policy of active choice. For example, the government could make the issuing of a driving licence conditional on a people making a choice about whether or not to sign the organ donor register.
This type of policy has been trialled in the USA with the take up of home delivered prescriptions. For the majority of people, there are clear advantages of choosing to have home delivered prescriptions rather than visiting a pharmacy – it is both cheaper and involves less time/hassle. However, the default option is to visit a pharmacy and one study found that only 6 per cent of people chose home delivered options. With the introduction of active choice, this figure increased to 42 per cent.
Some have argued that it is socially undesirable to force people to make a choice. An alternative is simplified active choice – people can either make a choice or accept the default option.
- Explain why changing the default option should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics.
- What is present bias? How does it differ from simple impatience? Explain how present bias might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
- What is loss aversion? How does it differ from diminishing marginal utility? Explain how loss aversion might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
- What are some of the limitations of using defaults in policy-making?
- Is active choice less paternalistic than changing the default option?
- Think of some reasons why someone may not want to make a choice.
An historic agreement has been reached between Argentina over outstanding debt owed to creditor nations. Creditor nations come together as the ‘Paris Club’ and at a Paris Club meeting on May 28, details of a repayment plan were agreed. Argentina hopes that the agreement will enable it to start borrowing again on international markets: something that had been largely blocked by outstanding debt, which, up to now, Argentina had been unwilling to repay.
The problem goes back to 2001. Argentina was faced with international debt payments of $132bn, equalling some 27% of GDP and over 300% of export earnings. But at the time the country was in recession and debts were virtually impossible to service. It had received some help from the International Monetary Fund, but in December 2001, the IMF refused a request for a fresh loan of $1.3 billion
As Case Study 27.5 in MyEconLab for Economics, 8th edition explains:
This triggered a crisis in the country with mass rioting and looting. As the crisis deepened, Argentina announced that it was defaulting on its $166 billion of foreign debt. This hardly came as a surprise, however. For many commentators, it was simply a question of when.
Argentina’s default on its debts was the biggest of its kind in history. In a series of dramatic measures, the Argentine peso was initially devalued by 29%. Over the next three months, the peso depreciated a further 40%.
The economy seemed in free-fall. GDP fell by 11% in 2002 and, by the end of the year, income per head was 22% below that of 1998. Unemployment was 21%.
Then, however, the economy began to recover, helped by higher (peso) prices for exports resulting from the currency depreciation. In 2003 economic growth was 9.0% and averaged 8.4% per annum from 2004 to 2008.
But what of the debt? In 2005, Argentina successfully made a huge debt swap with banks and other private creditors (see Box 27.1 in Economics, 8th edition). A large proportion of its defaulted debt was in the form of bonds. It offered to swap the old bonds for new peso bonds, but worth only 35% as much (known as a ‘haircut’). By the deadline of 25 February, there was a 76% take-up of the offer: clearly people thought that 35% was better than nothing! At a stroke, bonds originally worth $104 billion now became worth just $36.2 billion. Later the take-up of the offer increased to 93%. But still 7% held out.
Then in 2006 its debt of nearly $10 billion was repaid to the IMF. General government debt stock as a percentage of GDP fell from 172% in 2002 to 106% in 2006 and to 48% in 2010.
In September 2008, the government of President Cristina Kirchner pledged to use some of its foreign currency reserves of $47 billion to pay back the remainder of the defaulted debt still owed to Paris Club creditors. But negotiations stalled.
However, at the Paris Club meeting of 28 May this year, agreement was finally reached. Argentina will repay the outstanding $9.7bn owed to individual creditor countries. This will take place over 5 years, with a first instalment of $1.15bn being paid before May 2015.
Argentina hopes that the agreement will open up access to overseas credit, which, up to now, has been limited because of this unresolved debt. However, Argentina still owes money to the holders of the 7% of bonds who did not accept the haircut offered in 2005. Their claims are being heard in the US Supreme Court on 12 June this year. The outcome will be critical in determining whether Argentina will be able to raise new funds on the bond market.
Argentina clinches landmark debt repayment deal with Paris Club Reuters, Leigh Thomas and Sarah Marsh (29/5/14)
Argentina Will Repay Paris Club Debt 13 Years After Default Bloomberg, Charlie Devereux and Pablo Gonzalez (29/5/14)
Argentina and the capital markets: At least they have Paris The Economist (30/5/14)
Argentina’s Paris Club Deal to Bring Investment, Kicillof Says Bloomberg, Charlie Devereux (30/5/14)
Argentina Leaves Singer for Last in Preparing Bond Market Return Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Camila Russo and Katia Porzecanski (30/5/14)
Argentina in deal with Paris Club to pay $10bn debts BBC News (29/5/14)
Argentina debt deal could help ease re-entry to international markets The Guardian (29/5/14)
Argentina agrees deal to pay back $10bn debt The Telegraph (29/5/14)
- What is the Paris Club? Why did the recent meeting of the Paris Club concerning Argentina’s debt not include the IMF?
- What moral hazards are involved in (a) defaulting on debt; (b) offering debt relief to debtor countries; (c) agreeing to pay bond holders who did not accept the haircut?
- In hindsight, was it in Argentina’s interests to default on its international debts in 2001?
- Assume a country has a severe debt problem. What are the benefits and costs of using devaluation (or depreciation) to tackle the problem?
The debts of many countries in the eurozone are becoming increasingly difficult to service. With negative growth in some countries (Greece’s GDP is set to decline by over 5% this year) and falling growth rates in others, the outlook is becoming worse: tax revenues are likely to fall and benefit payments are likely to increase as automatic fiscal stabilisers take effect. In the light of these difficulties, market rates of interest on sovereign debt in these countries have been increasing.
Talk of default has got louder. If Greece cannot service its public-sector debt, currently standing at around 150% of GDP (way above the 60% ceiling set in the Stability and Growth Pact), then simply lending it more will merely delay the problem. Ultimately, if it cannot grow its way out of the debt, then either it must receive a fiscal transfer from the rest of the eurozone, or part of its debts must be cancelled or radically rescheduled.
But Greece is a small country, and relative to the size of the whole eurozone’s GDP, its debt is tiny. Italy is another matter. It’s public-sector debt to GDP ratio, at around 120% is lower than Greece’s, but the level of debt is much higher: $2 trillion compared with Greece’s $480 billion. Increasingly banks are becoming worried about their exposure to Italian debt – both public- and private-sector debt.
As we saw in the news item “The brutal face of supply and demand”, stock markets have been plummeting because of the growing fears about debts in the eurozone. And these fears have been particularly focused on banks with high levels of exposure to these debts. French banks are particularly vulnerable. Indeed, Credit Agricole and Société Générale, France’s second and third largest banks, had their creidit ratings cut by Moody’s rating agency. They have both seen their share prices fall dramatically this year: 46% and 55% respectively.
Central banks have been becoming increasingly concerned that the sovereign debt crisis in various eurozone countries will turn into a new banking crisis. In an attempt to calm markets and help ease the problem for banks, five central banks – the Federal Reserve, the ECB, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank – announced on 15 September that they would co-operate to offer three-month US dollar loans to commercial banks. They would provide as much liquidity as was necessary to ease any funding difficulties.
The effect of this action calmed the markets and share prices in Europe and around the world rose substantially. But was this enough to stave off a new banking crisis? And did it do anything to ease the sovereign debt crisis and the problems of the eurozone? The following articles explore these questions.
Central banks expand dollar operations Reuters, Sakari Suoninen and Marc Jones (15/9/11)
Europe’s debt crisis prompts central banks to provide dollar liquidity Guardian, Larry Elliott and Dominic Rushe (15/9/11)
From euro zone to battle zone Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Evans (17/9/11)
Global shares rise on central banks’ loan move BBC News (16/9/11)
Geithner warns EU against infighting over Greece BBC News (16/9/11)
How The European Debt Crisis Could Spread npr (USA), Marilyn Geewax (15/9/11)
No Marshall Plan for Europe National Post (Canada) (16/9/11)
Central banks act to help Europe lenders Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, Richard Milne and Alex Barker (15/9/11)
Central Banks Seeking Quick Fix Push Dollar Cost to August Lows Bloomberg Businesweek, John Glover and Ben Martin (15/9/11)
Central banks act to provide euro zone dollar liquidity Irish Times (15/9/11)
Central banks pump money into market: what the analysts say The Telegraph (15/9/11)
Central banks and the ‘spirit of 2008’ BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/9/11)
Central Bank statements
News Release: Additional US dollar liquidity-providing operations over year-end Bank of England (15/9/11)
Press Release: ECB announces additional US dollar liquidity-providing operations over year-end ECB (15/9/11)
Additional schedule for U.S. Dollar Funds-Supplying Operations Bank of Japan (15/9/11)
Central banks to extend provision of US dollar liquidity Swiss National Bank (15/9/11)
- Explain what is meant by debt servicing.
- How may the concerted actions of the five central banks help the banking sector?
- Distinguish between liquidity and capital. Is supplying extra liquidity a suitable means of coping with the difficulties of countries in servicing their debts?
- If Greece cannot service its debts, what options are open to (a) Greece itself; (b) international institutions and governments?
- In what ways are the eurozone countries collectively in a better economic and financial state than the USA?
- Is the best solution to the eurozone crisis to achieve greater fiscal harmonisation?
- What are the weaknesses of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) as currently constituted? Should it be turned into a bank or special credit institution taking the role of a ‘European Monetary Fund’?
- Should countries in the eurozone be able to issue eurobonds?
The Greek economy is suffering. In April 2010, a €45 billion bailout package was agreed between Greece and the IMF and the EU. This was increased to €110 billion in May 2011. (The bailout loans expire in 2013.) In return for the loans, Greece agreed to tough austerity measures, involving tax increases, clamping down on tax evasion and government expenditure cuts. These measures have succeeded in cutting the deficit by 5 percentage points, but it still stood at 10.5% of GDP in 2010. Public-sector debt rose from 127% of GDP in 2009 to 143% in 2010. The market cost of borrowing on two-year government bonds currently stands at 23% per annum – a sign of a serious lack of confidence by investors in Greece’s ability to repay the loans.
The austerity measures have brought great hardship. Unemployment has soared. In February 2011, it reached 15.9%; in February last year it was 12.1%. According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook (Table A2), Greek real GDP fell by 2.0% in 2009, by 4.5% in 2010 and is forecast to fall by 3.0% in 2011. But with GDP falling, this brings automatic fiscal stabilisers into play: lower incomes mean lower income tax revenues; lower expenditure means lower VAT revenue; higher unemployment means that more people claim unemployment-related benefits. This all makes it harder to meet the deficit reduction targets through discretionary tax rises and government expenditure cuts and makes it even more important to cut down on tax evasion. But, of course, the more taxes rise and the more government expenditure is cut, the more this suppresses aggregate demand. The austerity measures have thus worsened the recession.
On May 9, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Greece’s rating to B (15 points below the top rating of AAA and 6 points into ‘junk’ territory). It now has the lowest rating in Europe along with Belarus.
Worries have been growing that Greece might be forced to default on some its debt, or choose to do so. This would probably mean an extension of repayment periods. In other words, bondholders would be paid back in full but at a later date. This has been referred to as ‘debt re-profiling’. This could cause a renewed loss of confidence, not only in the Greek economy, but also in banks that are major lenders to Greece and which would be exposed in the case of default or restructuring.
The IMF and the ECB have been quick to stress that Greece can continue to manage its debt and that, if necessary, another loan might be negotiated. Anticipations are that Greece could indeed ask for a further bailout. But is this the answer? Or would it be better if Greece sought a restructuring of its debt? The following webcasts and podcasts consider the issue.
Webcasts and podcasts
Greece may need second financial bail-out BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (11/5/11)
Greece needs revised bail-out Financial Times Global Economy Webcasts, Luke Templeman and Vincent Boland (9/5/11)
Why Greece must stick to the plan Financial Times Global Economy Webcasts, Ralph Atkins, Frankfurt Bureau Chief, talks to Jurgen Stark (11/5/11)
Will Greece need more money? BBC News, Matina Stevis (9/5/11)
Economists debate Greek crisis BBC News, Thomas Mayer and David McWilliam (9/5/11)
Greece at ‘a very difficult stage’ BBC Today Programme, Stephanie Flanders and Vassilis Xenakis (11/5/11)
The Business podcast: PPI scandal and Greece’s debt crisis Guardian Podcast, Aditya Chakrabortty (11/5/11) (listen to last part of podcast, from 19:20)
Greece: Eurozone ministers discuss terms of second bailout BBC News, Nigel Cassidy (16/5/11)
Greece dominates eurozone talks in Brussels BBC News, Matthew Price (17/5/11)
S&P moves to cut Greek credit rating Financial Times, Richard Milne, Tracy Alloway and Ralph Atkins (9/5/11)
One Year After the Bailout, Greece is Still Hurting Time Magazine, Joanna Kakissis (12/5/11)
What price a Greek haircut? BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (10/5/11)
What is debt ‘reprofiling’? BBC News, Laurence Knight (17/5/11)
Reprofiling: Greece’s restructuring-lite Channel 4 News, Faisal Islam (17/5/11)
- What are the arguments for and against tough austerity measures for Greece and other eurozone countries with high deficits, such as Portugal and Ireland?
- Should Greece seek a restructuring of its debts?
- What is a ‘haircut’ and is this a suitable form of restructuring?
- What are the arguments for and against a default, or partical default, by the Greek government on its debt?
- Is it in the intesests of European banks to offer a further bailout to Greece?
- What should be the role of the IMF in the current situation in Greece?