Default (finance)

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In finance, default is failure to meet the legal obligations (or conditions) of a loan, [1] for example when a home buyer fails to make a mortgage payment, or when a corporation or government fails to pay a bond which has reached maturity. A national or sovereign default is the failure or refusal of a government to repay its national debt.


The biggest private default in history is Lehman Brothers, with over $600 billion when it filed for bankruptcy in 2008. The biggest sovereign default is Greece, with $138 billion in March 2012. [2]

Distinction from insolvency, illiquidity and bankruptcy

The term "default" should be distinguished from the terms "insolvency", illiquidity and "bankruptcy":

Types of default

Default can be of two types: debt services default and technical default. Debt service default occurs when the borrower has not made a scheduled payment of interest or principal. Technical default occurs when an affirmative or a negative covenant is violated.

Affirmative covenants are clauses in debt contracts that require firms to maintain certain levels of capital or financial ratios. The most commonly violated restrictions in affirmative covenants are tangible net worth, working capital/short term liquidity, and debt service coverage.

Negative covenants are clauses in debt contracts that limit or prohibit corporate actions (e.g. sale of assets, payment of dividends) that could impair the position of creditors. Negative covenants may be continuous or incurrence-based. Violations of negative covenants are rare compared to violations of affirmative covenants.

With most debt (including corporate debt, mortgages and bank loans) a covenant is included in the debt contract which states that the total amount owed becomes immediately payable on the first instance of a default of payment. Generally, if the debtor defaults on any debt to the lender, a cross default covenant in the debt contract states that that particular debt is also in default.

In corporate finance, upon an uncured default, the holders of the debt will usually initiate proceedings (file a petition of involuntary bankruptcy) to foreclose on any collateral securing the debt. Even if the debt is not secured by collateral, debt holders may still sue for bankruptcy, to ensure that the corporation's assets are used to repay the debt.

There are several financial models for analyzing default risk, such as the Jarrow-Turnbull model, Edward Altman's Z-score model, or the structural model of default by Robert C. Merton (Merton Model).

Sovereign defaults

Sovereign borrowers such as nation-states generally are not subject to bankruptcy courts in their own jurisdiction, and thus may be able to default without legal consequences. One example is Greece, which defaulted on an IMF loan in 2015. In such cases, the defaulting country and the creditor are more likely to renegotiate the interest rate, length of the loan, or the principal payments. [3] In the 1998 Russian financial crisis, Russia defaulted on its internal debt (GKOs), but did not default on its external Eurobonds. As part of the Argentine economic crisis in 2002, Argentina defaulted on $1 billion of debt owed to the World Bank. [4]

Orderly default

In times of acute insolvency crises, it can be advisable for regulators and lenders to preemptively engineer the methodic restructuring of a nation's public debt—also called "orderly default" or "controlled default". [5] [6] Experts who favor this approach to solve a national debt crisis typically argue that a delay in organising an orderly default would wind up hurting lenders and neighboring countries even more. [7]

Strategic default

When a debtor chooses to default on a loan, despite being able to service it (make payments), this is said to be a strategic default. This is most commonly done for nonrecourse loans, where the creditor cannot make other claims on the debtor; a common example is a situation of negative equity on a mortgage loan in common law jurisdictions such as the United States, which is in general non-recourse. In this latter case, default is colloquially called "jingle mail"—the debtor stops making payments and mails the keys to the creditor, generally a bank.

Sovereign strategic default

Sovereign borrowers such as nation-states can also choose to default on a loan, even if they are capable of making the payments. In 2008, Ecuador's president Rafael Correa strategically defaulted on a national debt interest payment, stating that he considered the debt "immoral and illegitimate". [8]

Consumer default

Consumer default frequently occurs in rent or mortgage payments, consumer credit, or utility payments. A European Union wide analysis identified certain risk groups, such as single households, being unemployed (even after correcting for the significant impact of having a low income), being young (especially being younger than around 50 years old, with somewhat different results for the New Member States, where the elderly were more often at risk as well), being unable to rely on social networks, etc. Even internet illiteracy has been associated with increased default, potentially caused by these households being less likely to find their way to the social benefits they are often entitled to. While effective non-legal debt counseling is usually the preferred -more economic and less disruptive- option, consumer default can end-up in legal debt settlement or consumer bankruptcy procedures, the last ranging from 1-year procedures in the UK to 6-year procedures in Germany. [9]

Research in the United States has found that pre-purchase counseling can significantly reduce the rate of defaults. [10] [11]

Related Research Articles

Bankruptcy is a legal process through which people or other entities who cannot repay debts to creditors may seek relief from some or all of their debts. In most jurisdictions, bankruptcy is imposed by a court order, often initiated by the debtor.

Debt deferred payment, or series of payments, that is owed in the future

Debt is an obligation that requires one party, the debtor, to pay money or other agreed-upon value to another party, the creditor. Debt is a deferred payment, or series of payments, which differentiates it from an immediate purchase. The debt may be owed by sovereign state or country, local government, company, or an individual. Commercial debt is generally subject to contractual terms regarding the amount and timing of repayments of principal and interest. Loans, bonds, notes, and mortgages are all types of debt. The term can also be used metaphorically to cover moral obligations and other interactions not based on economic value. For example, in Western cultures, a person who has been helped by a second person is sometimes said to owe a "debt of gratitude" to the second person.

Debt consolidation form of debt refinancing that entails taking out one loan to pay off many others

Debt consolidation is a form of debt refinancing that entails taking out one loan to pay off many others. This commonly refers to a personal finance process of individuals addressing high consumer debt, but occasionally it can also refer to a country's fiscal approach to consolidate corporate debt or Government debt. The process can secure a lower overall interest rate to the entire debt load and provide the convenience of servicing only one loan or debt.

A credit risk is the risk of default on a debt that may arise from a borrower failing to make required payments. In the first resort, the risk is that of the lender and includes lost principal and interest, disruption to cash flows, and increased collection costs. The loss may be complete or partial. In an efficient market, higher levels of credit risk will be associated with higher borrowing costs. Because of this, measures of borrowing costs such as yield spreads can be used to infer credit risk levels based on assessments by market participants.

Debt restructuring is a process that allows a private or public company or a sovereign entity facing cash flow problems and financial distress to reduce and renegotiate its delinquent debts to improve or restore liquidity so that it can continue its operations.

A debtor is an entity that owes a debt to another entity. The entity may be an individual, a firm, a government, a company or other legal person. The counterparty is called a creditor. When the counterpart of this debt arrangement is a bank, the debtor is more often referred to as a borrower.

Insolvency is the state of being unable to pay the money owed, by a person or company, on time; those in a state of insolvency are said to be insolvent. There are two forms: cash-flow insolvency and balance-sheet insolvency.

Unsecured debt

In finance, unsecured debt refers to any type of debt or general obligation that is not protected by a guarantor, or collateralized by a lien on specific assets of the borrower in the case of a bankruptcy or liquidation or failure to meet the terms for repayment. Unsecured debt are sometimes called as signature debt or personal loan. These differ from secured debt such as a mortgage, which is backed by a piece of real estate, or gold in case of Gold Loan or other securities like Fixed Deposits, Shares or insurance papers.

Credit loan

Credit is the trust which allows one party to provide money or resources to another party wherein the second party does not reimburse the first party immediately, but promises either to repay or return those resources at a later date. In other words, credit is a method of making reciprocity formal, legally enforceable, and extensible to a large group of unrelated people.

Consumer bankruptcy in Canada is governed by the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act ("BIA"). The legislation is complemented by regulations, as well as directives from the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy that provide guidelines to trustees in bankruptcy on various aspects of the BIA.

Security interest legal right granted by a debtor to a creditor over the debtors property

A security interest is a legal right granted by a debtor to a creditor over the debtor's property which enables the creditor to have recourse to the property if the debtor defaults in making payment or otherwise performing the secured obligations. One of the most common examples of a security interest is a mortgage: a person borrows money from the bank to buy a house, and they grant a mortgage over the house so that if they default in repaying the loan, the bank can sell the house and apply the proceeds to the outstanding loan.

In England and Wales, an individual voluntary arrangement (IVA) is a formal alternative for individuals wishing to avoid bankruptcy.

Debt settlement is also called debt reduction, debt negotiation or debt resolution. Settlements are negotiated with the debtor's unsecured creditors. Commonly, creditors agree to forgive a large part of the debt: perhaps around half, though results can vary widely. When settlements are finalized, the terms are put in writing. It is common that the debtor makes one lump-sum payment in exchange for the creditor agreeing that the debt is now cancelled and the matter closed. Some settlements are paid out over a number of months. In either case, as long as the debtor does what is agreed in the negotiation, no outstanding debt will appear on the former debtor's credit report.

A secured loan is a loan in which the borrower pledges some asset as collateral for the loan, which then becomes a secured debt owed to the creditor who gives the loan. The debt is thus secured against the collateral, and if the borrower defaults, the creditor takes possession of the asset used as collateral and may sell it to regain some or all of the amount originally loaned to the borrower. An example is the foreclosure of a home. From the creditor's perspective, that is a category of debt in which a lender has been granted a portion of the bundle of rights to specified property. If the sale of the collateral does not raise enough money to pay off the debt, the creditor can often obtain a deficiency judgment against the borrower for the remaining amount.

Bankruptcy is a legally declared inability or impairment of ability of an individual or organization to pay their creditors. In most cases personal bankruptcy is initiated by the bankrupt individual. Bankruptcy is a legal process that discharges most debts, but has the disadvantage of making it more difficult for an individual to borrow in the future. To avoid the negative impacts of personal bankruptcy, individuals in debt have a number of bankruptcy alternatives.

A loan covenant is a condition in a commercial loan or bond issue that requires the borrower to fulfill certain conditions or which forbids the borrower from undertaking certain actions, or which possibly restricts certain activities to circumstances when other conditions are met.

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 may either be accompanied by formal declaration (repudiation) of a government not to pay its debts, or it may be unannounced. A credit rating agency will take into account in its gradings capital, interest, extraneous and procedural defaults, failures to abide by the terms of bonds or other debt instruments. Countries have at times escaped the real burden of some of their debt through inflation. This is not "default" in the usual sense because the debt is honored, albeit with currency of lesser real value. Sometimes governments devalue their currency. This can be done by printing more money to apply toward their own debts, or by ending or altering the convertibility of their currencies into precious metals or foreign currency at fixed rates. Harder to quantify than an interest or capital default, this often is defined as an extraneous or procedural default (breach) of terms of the contracts or other instruments.

Defaulting on a student loan in the United States can have a number of negative consequences. To understand loan default, it is helpful to have a few common terms defined:

A cram down or cramdown is the involuntary imposition by a court of a reorganization plan over the objection of some classes of creditors.

Financial law area of law that regulates insurance, derivatives, commercial banking, capital markets and investment management sectors

Financial law is the law and regulation of the insurance, derivatives, commercial banking, capital markets and investment management sectors. Understanding Financial law is crucial to appreciating the creation and formation of banking and financial regulation, as well as the legal framework for finance generally. Financial law forms a substantial portion of commercial law, and notably a substantial proportion of the global economy, and legal billables are dependent on sound and clear legal policy pertaining to financial transactions. Therefore financial law as the law for financial industries involves public and private law matters. Understanding the legal implications of transactions and structures such as an indemnity, or overdraft is crucial to appreciating their effect in financial transactions. This is the core of Financial law. Thus, Financial law draws a narrower distinction than commercial or corporate law by focusing primarily on financial transactions, the financial market, and its participants; for example, the sale of goods may be part of commercial law but is not financial law. Financial law may be understood as being formed of three overarching methods, or pillars of law formation and categorised into five transaction silos which form the various financial positions prevalent in finance.


  1. {{cite boopoooiyrspjlM,. , eodkpweij | last =O'Sullivan | first =Arthur | authorlink =Arthur O'Sullivan (economist) | first2 =Steven M. | last2 =Sheffrin | title =Economics: Principles in Action | publisher =Pearson Prentice Hall | year =2003 | location =Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458 | page =261 | isbn =0-13-063085-3}}
  2. Greece could be biggest national default in history, June 29, 2015, Patrick Gillespie, CNN Money
  3. Rahnama-Moghadam, Samavati, Dilts (1995). Doing Business in Less Developed Countries: Financial Opportunities and Risks. Quorum/Greenwood. p. 108. ISBN   0-89930-854-6.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. "Argentina in $1bn loan default". BBC . December 13, 2002. Retrieved 2008-11-11. Argentina will continue to default on $1bn of debt owed to the World Bank, a move which will effectively isolate the country from all major international lenders.
  5. M. Nicolas J. Firzli, "Greece and the Roots the EU Debt Crisis" The Vienna Review, March 2010
  6. Nouriel Roubini, "Greece’s best option is an orderly default" Financial Times, June 28, 2010
  7. Louise Armitstead, "EU accused of 'head in sand' attitude to Greek debt crisis" The Telegraph, 23 June 2011
  8. "Ecuador defaults on foreign debt". BBC News. December 13, 2008.
  9. "Managing household debts: social service provision in the EU". 2012-07-04. Retrieved 2013-10-14.
  10. Pre-purchase Counseling Is Getting Better All the Time Archived 2017-02-08 at the Wayback Machine . Freddie Mac.
  11. Pre-Purchase Counseling Benefits Banks and Homeowners. American Banker.