Anis Chowdhury and Jomo Kwame Sundaram
SYDNEY and KUALA LUMPUR: In July, the UN Secretary-General warned that a “series of countries in insolvency might trigger a global depression”. Earlier, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had called for a US$2.5 trillion coronavirus crisis package for developing countries.
In the face of the world’s worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, a sense of urgency has now spread to most national capitals and the Washington-based Bretton Woods institutions. Unless urgently addressed, the massive economic contractions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and policy responses to contain contagion threaten to become depressions.
Nevertheless, many long preoccupied with developing countries’ debt burdens and excessive debt insist on using scarce fiscal resources, including donor assistance, to reduce government debt, instead of strengthening fiscal measures for adequate and appropriate relief and recovery measures.
Most debt restructuring measures do not address countries’ currently more urgent need to finance adequate and appropriate relief and recovery packages. In the new circumstances, the debt preoccupation, perhaps appropriate previously, has become a problematic distraction, diminishing the ‘fiscal space’ for addressing contagion and its consequences.
Buybacks no solution
One problematic debt distraction is the renewed call for debt buybacks from private creditors, through an IMF-managed Brady Plan-like multilateral bond buyback facility funded by a global consortium of countries. The historical evidence is clear that bond buybacks are no panacea and neither an equitable nor efficient way to reduce sovereign debt.
The contemporary situation is quite different from the one three decades ago when US Treasury Secretary Brady’s plan successfully cut losses for the US commercial banks responsible for most debt to Latin American and other developing country governments. Hence, prospects for a comprehensive arrangement involving all creditors are far more remote now. Unsurprisingly, debt buybacks have been rare since the mid-1990s.
Furthermore, private bond markets have changed significantly from what they were during the Brady era when there was last a comparable effort involving many debtor countries. Importantly, the new creditors largely consist of pension and mutual funds, insurance companies, investment firms and sophisticated individual investors. Also, today’s creditors have less incentive to participate in sovereign debt restructurings.
Many of today’s creditors are now represented by powerful lobbies, most significantly, the International Institute of Finance (IIF). Unlike before, when their efforts focused on OECD developed economies, the IIF now actively works directly with developing country finance ministers and central bank governors.
Voluntary scheme problematic
But the debt buyback proposal, to be underwritten by a multilateral donor consortium, can inadvertently encourage hard bargaining by powerful creditors who know that money is available, while retaining the option of threatening litigation. Hence, resulting buybacks are likely to cost more. The evidence shows that a country’s secondary market debt price is higher when it has a buyback programme than otherwise.
Such an approach can also encourage trading in risky sovereign bonds promising higher returns, inadvertently sowing the seeds for another debt crisis. Private investment funds are more likely to buy such bonds if there is a higher likelihood of selling them off, while still making money from the high interest rates, even when the bonds are sold at large discounts.
The proposal’s voluntary feature also creates incentives for creditors to ‘free-ride’ by ‘holding-out’, thus undermining the likelihood of success. If the scheme is expected to effectively restore creditworthiness, then each existing creditor would hold on to the original claims, expecting market value to rise as new creditors provide relief.
Maintaining a good credit rating undoubtedly enables access to international funds at relatively lower interest rates. But low-income countries typically have poor access to international capital markets, and only get access by paying high risk premia, due to poor credit ratings.
Compared to near zero interest rates in major OECD economies, African governments pay 5~16% on 10-year bonds, while Kenya, Zambia and others pay more. Borrowing costs for developing countries issuing Eurobonds more than doubled due to high interest rates.
Also, many, if not most contemporary creditors are not primarily involved in lending money. They are therefore unlikely to respond to government requests for new loans needed to grow out of a debt crisis.
New obstacles include the greater variety of powerful creditors, the unintended incentives for free-riding inherent in voluntary debt reduction, problematic precedents as well as perverse incentives for both governments and bondholders. Perhaps most importantly, debt reduction by purely ‘voluntary’ means -- like buybacks, exit bonds, and debt-equity swaps – is unlikely to be adequate to the enormity of the problem.
Only banks definitely gained from the Brady deals. Benefits were unclear for most debtors other than Mexico and Argentina, and particularly ineffective for Uruguay and the Philippines, where gains were paltry, if not negative.
Positive effects for economic growth were very small, as most buybacks failed to improve either market confidence in or the creditworthiness of debtor countries. Hence, even if private creditors participate, there is no guarantee that debtor countries will benefit significantly at the end of the long and complicated processes envisaged.
The 2012 Greek bond buybacks, backed by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF ‘troika’, effectively bailed out the mostly French and German banks owed money by Greece. Celebrated as a success, it neither restored Greece’s growth nor reduced its debt burden.
While bond buybacks can always be a debt restructuring option for consideration, Ecuador’s in 2008-2009 are probably the only one regarded as favourable to the debtor country. Wall Street observers suggest that Argentina’s recent initiative may also have a positive outcome.
Also, after successfully restructuring its commercial debt, the country is now better able to negotiate with its official creditors, particularly the IMF. These ‘successes’ have been exceptional, led by the countries themselves and ultimately settled on their terms, taking advantage of opportunities presented by global crises for comprehensive national debt restructuring.
Importantly, neither creditor consortia nor multilateral financial institutions were involved in coordinating or underwriting both restructurings, and hence could not impose onerous policy conditionalities. Thus, when able to take advantage of favourable conditions for negotiating strategic buybacks, debtor countries may be better able to benefit from them.
Urgent financing needed
Despite her earlier reputation as a ‘debt hawk’, new World Bank Chief Economist Carmen Reinhart recognizes the gravity of the situation and recently advised countries to borrow more: “First fight the war, then figure out how to pay for it.” Hence, in these COVID-19 times, donor money would be better utilized to finance relief and recovery, rather than debt buybacks.
Multilateral development finance institutions should resume their traditional role of mobilizing funds at minimal cost to finance development, or currently, relief and recovery, by efficiently intermediating on behalf of developing countries. They can borrow at the best available market rates to lend to developing countries which, otherwise, would have to borrow on their own at more onerous rates.