The Economic History Review

Credibility building in the sovereign debt market: Evidence from prewar China

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Authors: Chun-Yu Ho, Dan Li
Published online: September 26, 2023DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13283

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This paper qualitatively and quantitatively examines the development of the sovereign debt market in Prewar China under different governments. During the Beijing Era (1912–26), accompanied by the establishment of necessary financial institutions, the sovereign debt market emerged to meet fiscal needs. Surprisingly, the Nationalist government, in power from 1927, successfully cultivated a robust market characterized by its expanding size and liquidity. Setting itself apart from its predecessors, the government established credibility as a borrower in two key ways. Firstly, it demonstrated unwavering commitment to debt service by settling previous debts and offering well-structured new ones, even during challenging times. Furthermore, the government escrowed fiscal revenue, pledged for debt repayments, to a semi-independent committee of private bankers on behalf of debtholders, enhancing public confidence. Secondly, the government showcased its ability to secure tax revenues for debt repayments. However, starting from 1931/2, the debt market experienced a decline due to the government’s compromised ability to pay resulting from external wars and shifting political priorities that weakened its commitment to debt repayments. Empirical evidence confirms the market’s responsiveness to regime shifts and policy changes. This paper sheds light on how a nascent autocratic government can successfully borrow from the public.