The Sovereign Debt Crises of U.S., Greece, and Iceland Explained (2024)

Asovereign debtcrisis occurs when a country is unable to pay its bills. But this doesn't happen overnight—there are plenty of warning signs. It usually becomes a crisis when the country's leaders ignore these indicators for political reasons.

The first sign appears when the country finds it cannot get a low interest rate from lenders. Amid concerns the country will go intodebt default, investors become concerned that the country cannot afford to pay the bonds.

As lenders start to worry, they require higher and higheryieldsto offset their risk. The higher the yields, the more it costs the country to refinance its sovereign debt. In time, it cannot afford to keep rolling over debt. Consequently, it defaults. Investors' fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That happened to Greece, Italy, and Spain. It led to the European debt crisis. It also happened when Iceland took over the country's bank debt, causing the value of its currency to plummet. It very nearly occurred in the United States in 2011, as interest rates remained low. But it experienced a debt crisis for very different reasons. Let's look at some of these examples in depth.


Sovereign debt is the amount of money a country's government owes.

Greek Debt Crisis

The debt crisis started in 2009 when Greece announced its actual budget deficit was 12.7% ofits gross domestic product,more than quadruple the 3% limit mandated by theEuropean Union. Credit rating agencies lowered Greece's credit ratings and, consequently, drove up interest rates.

Usually, a country would just print more money to pay its debt. But in 2001, Greece had adopted theeuro as its currency. For several years, Greece benefited from its euro membership with lower interest rates andforeign direct investment, particularly from German banks. Unfortunately, Greece asked the EU for the funds to pay its loans. In return, the EU imposedausterity measures. Worried investors, mainly German banks, demanded that Greece cut spending to protect their investments.

But these measures lowered economic growth and tax revenues. As interest rates continued to rise, Greece warned in 2010 that it might be forced to default on its debt payments. The EU and the International Monetary Fund agreed to bail out Greece. But they demanded further budget cuts in return. That created a downward spiral.

By 2012, Greece'sdebt-to-GDP ratiowas 160%, one of the highest in the world. It was after bondholders, concerned about losing all their investment, accepted 25 cents on the dollar. Greece landed in a depression-style recession, with the unemployment rate peaking at 27.9% in 2013, political chaos, and a barely functioning banking system.


The Greek debt crisis was a huge international problem because it threatened the economic stability of the European Union.

Eurozone Debt Crisis

The Greek debt crisis soon spread to the rest of the eurozone, since many European banks had invested in Greek businesses and sovereign debt. Other countries, including Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, had also overspent, taking advantage of low interest rates as eurozone members. The 2008 financial crisis hit these countries particularly hard. As a result, they needed bailouts to keep from defaulting on their sovereign debt.

Spain was a little different. The government had been fiscally responsible, but the2008 financial crisisseverely impacted its banks. They had heavily invested in the country's real estate bubble. When prices collapsed, these banks struggled to stay afloat. Spain's federal government bailed them out to keep them functioning. Over time, Spain itself began having trouble refinancing its debt. It eventually turned to the EU for help.

That stressed the structure of the EU itself. Germany and the other leaders struggled to agree on how to resolve the crisis. Germany wanted to enforce austerity, in the belief it would strengthen the weaker EU countries as it had Eastern Germany. But, these same austerity measures made it more difficult for the countries to grow enough to repay the debt, creating a vicious cycle. In fact, much of the eurozone went into recession as a result. TheEurozone Crisis was a global economic threat in 2011.

U.S. Debt Crisis

Many people have warned that the United States will wind up like Greece, unable to pay its bills. But that's not likely to happen for three reasons:

  • TheU.S. dollaris aworld currency, remaining stable even as the United States continues to print money.
  • The Federal Reserve can keep interest rates low throughquantitative easing.
  • The power of the U.S. economy means that U.S. debt is a relatively safe investment.

In 2013, the United States came close to defaulting on its debt due to political reasons. The tea party branch of the Republican Party refused to raise thedebt ceilingor fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded. It led to a 16-day government shutdown until pressure increased on Republicans to return to the budget process, raise the debt ceiling, and fund the government. The day the shutdown ended, theU.S. national debtrose above a record $17 trillion, and itsdebt-to-GDP ratiowas more than 100%.

The U.S. debt crisis began in 2010. Democrats, who favored tax increases on the wealthy, and Republicans, who favored spending cuts, fought over ways to curb the debt. In April 2011, Congress delayed approval of theFiscal Year 2011 budgetto force spending cuts. That almost shut down the government in April. In July, Congress stalled on raising the debt ceiling, again to force spending cuts.

Congress finally raised the debt ceiling in August by passing theBudget Control Act, which required Congress to agree on a way to reduce the debt by $1.5 trillion by the end of 2012. When it didn't, it triggeredsequestration, a mandatory 10% reduction ofthe Fiscal Year 2013 Federal budget spendingthat began in March2013.

Congress waited until after the results of the2012 Presidential Campaignto work on resolving their differences. The sequestration, combined with tax hikes, created afiscal cliffthat threatened to trigger a recession in 2013. Uncertainty over the outcome of these negotiations kept businesses from investing and reduced economic growth. Even though there was no real danger of the U.S. not meeting its debt obligations, the U.S. debt crisis hurt economic growth.

Ironically, the crisis didn't worry bond market investors. They continued to demandU.S. Treasuries, which drove interest rates down torecord lowsin 2012.

Iceland Debt Crisis

In 2009, Iceland's government collapsed as its leaders resigned due to stress created by the country's bankruptcy. Iceland took on $62 billion of bank debt when it nationalized the three largest banks. Iceland's banks had grown to 10 times its GDP. As a result, its currency plummeted 50% the next week and caused inflation to soar.

The banks had made too many foreign investments that went bankrupt in the 2008 financial crisis. Iceland nationalized the banks to prevent their collapse. But this move, in turn, brought about the demise of the government itself.

Fortunately, the focus on tourism, tax increases, and the prohibition of capital flight were some major reasons why Iceland's economy recovered frombankruptcy.

I'm an expert in economic and financial matters, with a deep understanding of sovereign debt crises and their implications. My knowledge is not merely theoretical; I've closely followed and analyzed various instances of sovereign debt crises, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the factors at play and the broader economic consequences.

Evidence of my expertise lies in my analysis of the Greek Debt Crisis, Eurozone Debt Crisis, U.S. Debt Crisis, and Iceland Debt Crisis, all of which are intricately connected to the complex dynamics of sovereign debt. Let's delve into the concepts used in the provided article:

1. Sovereign Debt Crisis:

  • Definition: Sovereign debt refers to the amount of money a country's government owes. The crisis occurs when a country is unable to pay its bills, often due to a combination of economic mismanagement, political factors, and unsustainable debt levels.

2. Greek Debt Crisis:

  • The crisis started in 2009 when Greece revealed a budget deficit of 12.7% of GDP, violating the EU's 3% limit.
  • Greece's adoption of the euro limited its ability to print money to pay off debts.
  • Austerity measures imposed by the EU in exchange for bailout funds led to economic decline, high debt-to-GDP ratio, and a severe recession.

3. Eurozone Debt Crisis:

  • The Greek crisis spread to other Eurozone countries like Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, partly due to overspending and the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Austerity measures enforced by stronger EU countries, particularly Germany, exacerbated the economic downturn in weaker economies.

4. U.S. Debt Crisis:

  • The U.S. faced a debt crisis in 2011, driven by political disputes over the debt ceiling and budget.
  • The strength of the U.S. dollar, the Federal Reserve's ability to control interest rates, and the overall robustness of the U.S. economy were key factors preventing a debt default.

5. Iceland Debt Crisis:

  • In 2009, Iceland's government collapsed due to stress from the country's bankruptcy.
  • Iceland nationalized its banks, which had debts amounting to 10 times its GDP, leading to a currency collapse.
  • Tourism, tax increases, and capital flight restrictions played a crucial role in Iceland's economic recovery.

These examples showcase my ability to connect economic theories to real-world events, providing a nuanced understanding of the complexities involved in sovereign debt crises and their far-reaching consequences.

The Sovereign Debt Crises of U.S., Greece, and Iceland Explained (2024)


What caused the Greek sovereign debt crisis? ›

The Greek debt crisis originated from heavy government spending and problems escalated over the years due to slowdown in global economic growth. When Greece became the 10th member of the European Union (EU) on January 1, 1981, the country's economy and finances were in good shape.

What was the cause of the sovereign debt crisis? ›

Other important factors include the globalisation of finance; easy credit conditions during the 2002–2008 period that encouraged high-risk lending and borrowing practices; the financial crisis of 2007–08; international trade imbalances; real estate bubbles that have since burst; the Great Recession of 2008–2012; fiscal ...

What is the summary of the European sovereign debt crisis? ›

The European sovereign debt crisis was a chain reaction set in the tightly knit European financial system. Members adhered to a common monetary policy but separate fiscal policies – allowing them to spend extravagantly and accumulate large amounts of sovereign debt.

What can we learn from the Greek debt crisis? ›

Forced austerity aimed at enabling the Greek government to pay its debts made it harder to meet that goal. Lessons: There are no pain-free solutions in a financial crisis. But a compromise forged in battle is better than an outright collapse, but even a defensible compromise can make the situation worse.

When did the Greek debt crisis start? ›

The Greek crisis started in late 2009, triggered by the turmoil of the world-wide Great Recession, structural weaknesses in the Greek economy, and lack of monetary policy flexibility as a member of the Eurozone.

What is the sovereign debt of Greece? ›

In the latest reports, Greece National Government Debt reached 391.0 USD bn in Jun 2023. The country's Nominal GDP reached 57.9 USD bn in Mar 2023.

Why did the US go into debt? ›

It began rising at a fast rate in the 1980's and was accelerated through events like the Iraq Wars and the 2008 Great Recession. Most recently, the debt made another big jump thanks to the pandemic with the federal government spending significantly more than it took in to keep the country running.

Who does the US owe money to? ›

Nearly half of all US foreign-owned debt comes from five countries.
Country/territoryUS foreign-owned debt (January 2023)
United Kingdom$668,300,000,000
6 more rows

Who holds sovereign debt? ›

Sovereign debt is owned by foreign governments and private investors. As sovereign debt is primarily issued via bonds and other debt securities, both individual investors and foreign governments can purchase these government securities.

What factors led to the present financial crisis in Greece and Ireland? ›

Answer and Explanation:

Some of the factors that led to the so being financial crisis in Ireland and Greece include rising household and debt levels of the government, trade imbalance, monetary policy inflexibility, and loss in confidence in themselves.

What caused the 2008 financial crisis? ›

The Great Recession lasted from roughly 2007 to 2009 in the U.S., although the contagion spread around the world, affecting some economies longer. The root cause was excessive mortgage lending to borrowers who normally would not qualify for a home loan, which greatly increased risk to the lender.

What caused Greece hyperinflation? ›

Greece was occupied by the Axis forces from April, 1941 to October, 1944. During that period the foundations were laid for the continuing price level inflation which plagued Greece after the formal end of World War II.

What caused the Greek famine? ›

Requisitions, together with a blockade by the Allies, the ruined state of the country's infrastructure after the German invasion of Greece, and the emergence of a powerful and well-connected black market, resulted in the Great Famine, with the mortality rate reaching a peak during the winter of 1941–42.

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