Every form of debt is typically a contractual agreement between a lender and a borrower. The former initially pays a money amount to the latter, the latter promises regular interest payments in the future (ct) for a certain time period (n years) and then return of the whole nominal value of the contract (C). This practically means that the owner of the contract (creditor) acquires a right on a future stream of payments and the contract a present value for the same reason. In a general case, the present value of the contract is given by the following formula (r is the discounting rate):
PV = ∑t=1n ct/(1 + r)t + C/(1 + r)n
Put simply, the equation gives the present value of the liability discounting all future anticipated payments. Default is by definition any ex post change in the stream of current and future payments on the debt contract. This change makes the contract less valuable to the creditor, reducing its present value for non-execution of the agreed payments.
In the case that the borrower is a private firm (or a household), law and related third party enforcers (including but not limited to the courts) guarantee the execution of the contractual terms. If the borrower in the international financial markets is a sovereign state, things are quite different as the third-party enforcement is typically futile. Sovereign borrowers may voluntarily choose to self-comply to the contractual terms; nevertheless, if not, there is no typical third-party enforcement on the international level. Even in the case that the debt contracts are subject to foreign law, the enforcement powers of the foreign courts are limited. The case of Argentina is indicative enough. As it is now well known and widely discussed, the court judgment of Thomas P. Griesa determined that the Argentine government should pay the holdouts pari passu despite the fact that the great majority of creditors had agreed to a restructuring. The decision had its results and triggered a new mini-default, but by no means could typically enforce a policy change to Argentina. In the relevant literature, this is usually called fundamental asymmetry of the sovereign debt market. In the mainstream misleading analytical context (where states, firms, and households are treated as coherent agents acting on a cost/benefit basis and pursuing the optimum position) the key question is the following: why do sovereign borrowers comply with the contractual terms much more often than expected?
Sovereign borrowers avoid default and self-comply with the contractual terms because the strategic benefits from a default do not exceed the anticipated losses. There is truth in this argument. For instance, a sovereign default would heavily affect the domestic financial system, which is usually not only exposed to domestic sovereign debt but would also face serious impediments in its organic connection to the international markets (in the case of a developed capitalist economy, this implies extra financial costs for the private sector and thus serious macroeconomic consequences for employment and growth). One should also take into consideration the economic and political consequences of a default, since negotiations with the creditors take considerable time. The list of cost/benefit analysis can be quite long, but this train of thought misses the crucial factor: the very nature of contemporary capitalist power.
Cost-benefit analysis takes a concrete form only within the contemporary context of capitalist power. International financial markets do not curtail the range of state sovereignty – they reshape the contour of capitalist power. Contemporary capitalism (the term “neoliberalism” is too restrictive to capture all its aspects) amounts to a recomposition or reshaping of the relations between capitalist states (as uneven links in the context of the global imperialist chain), individual capitals (which are constituted as such only in relation to a particular national social capital), and “liberalized” financial markets. This recomposition presupposes a proper reforming of all components involved, in a way that secures the reproduction of the dominant (neoliberal) capitalist paradigm. From this point of view, contemporary capitalism comprises a historical specific form of organization of capitalist power on a social-wide scale, wherein governmentality through financial markets acquires a crucial role. The new condition of governmentality (reproduction of capitalist rule) thus takes the form of a “state-and-market” type of connection. Regardless of the results of cost-benefit calculus, the organic inclusion of the economy in the international markets is a critical premise for the organization of capitalist rule. On the other hand, it is also clear that a recomposition of the relation to international markets (national self-sufficiency) can easily incite the most regressive and authoritarian forms of state governance, if it is not accompanied by a radical shift in the class relations of power.