Risk and liability change the initially stipulated terms of contracts, overruling their otherwise binding nature. Risk encourages careful assessment of debtors' abilities to service debts. Errors and negligence in assessment, and even external shocks, make creditors suffer losses. Disregarding one's duty of care or professional standards, or engaging in tortious or illegal behavior makes actors liable to compensate for any resulting damage—a necessary systemic element of the framework markets need to function well. Neither mechanism was allowed to work properly in sovereign lending.
This essay analyzes why risk and liability are necessary mechanisms of well-functioning markets, and discusses how risk can be handled. In the United States, inappropriate regulatory norms hindered providing against risk in the case of sovereign debt. The absence of liability—a market imperfection—has produced debts no decent legal system would recognize as legitimate domestic debt, thus aggravating the sovereign debt problem, and giving rise to concepts such as criminal, odious, and illegal debts. Discriminating sovereign debtors and disobeying the rule of law caused market distortions, resulting in not only grave damages to debtors, but also losses to creditors that the mechanisms risk and liability would have avoided. Finally, I briefly present proposals to repair these shortcomings in order to avoid the disasters of the past.