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Econographics October 24, 2023

Creditors are still not doing enough to relieve developing country debt: A tale of two confabs

By Vasuki Shastry and Jeremy Mark

This article was updated on October 26 to reflect new information about Zambia’s debt negotiations.

The fragmentation of the global economy has been on display at two international conferences in recent weeks—and it doesn’t bode well for deeply indebted developing countries beset by inflation and lost access to capital markets.

The fault lines, centered on the divide between the United States and China, are adding new difficulties to efforts to restructure defaulted loans, and that will produce more pain for countries whose limited resources go to creditors instead of their own people. The recent sharp rise of global interest rates will only exacerbate the problem.

The debt issue loomed over ministers from 190 countries at the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in Marrakesh, Morocco, earlier this month. There was one breakthrough: an agreement on restructuring Zambia’s debt to government lenders, of which China is the largest creditor. But that came nearly three years after the country defaulted and then only after nine months of hard negotiations with a creditor committee headed by China and France. Those talks followed a Group of 20 (G20) Common Framework agreement in 2020 to establish a mechanism for restructuring the debt of the world’s poorest nations. The Marrakech meetings also announced progress at a roundtable on “processes and practices” related to restructuring—euphemisms for technical issues (mostly raised by China) that have slowed the provision of debt relief.

Perhaps the most significant development on debt during Marrakech was bad news: Sri Lanka announced an agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China to restructure $4.2 billion of debt. Sri Lanka, a more developed country whose 2020 default is not covered by the G20 framework, has been conducting what one IMF official described at an Atlantic Council panel as “ten parallel discussions.” The agreement underlined China’s willingness to undercut a multilateral workout in pursuit of its own interests. In this case, Beijing cut its deal even as it sat in as an “observer” in talks between Sri Lanka and a creditor committee led by India and Japan. The Ex-Im Bank deal, whose terms have not been released, also got out ahead of Sri Lanka’s negotiations with private sector creditors.

China’s approach took on more meaning when representatives from more than 100 countries, including twenty-two heads of state, gathered last week in Beijing under the patronizing gaze of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). That vast effort has built infrastructure throughout the developing world, but also has saddled countries with over $1 trillion of debt. Unlike Marrakech, discussion of debt was largely absent from the proceedings, outside of remarks from Vice Premier He Lifeng at a side event and a paragraph in the forum’s 16,500 word “white paper.” Xi Jinping’s speech to the forum focused on the BRI’s achievements and criticized “ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry, and bloc politics,” a pointed reference to US policies toward China.

The divergence between the two international gatherings underlined the increasing difficulty of sustaining international cooperation on debt issues. In the pre-COVID era, restructurings normally proceeded quickly after a country defaulted, with the defaulter reaching an agreement with the IMF on a loan and reform program, creditor governments providing financing assurances to support restructuring, and subsequent debt talks normally taking about two months.

While the Zambia negotiations were an improvement over the first Common Framework process with Chad, which took eleven months, each restructuring is essentially terra incognita. These days, debtor countries face a complicated creditor landscape—a largely Western group of government lenders called the Paris Club; multilateral financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank; China and other new sovereign lenders like India, which works closely with the Paris Club; and the private sector, which accounts for the largest amount of lending in many countries and has its own conflicting stakeholders (traditional banks vs bondholders).

The Common Framework has sought to incentivize the various creditor groups to act in relative concert and reduce the negative economic impact on low-income countries. But distrust has made this much more difficult to achieve, especially as Beijing and private-sector lenders jostle for the best terms. The disorder is more pronounced in non-Common Framework countries, where there is no agreement on an orderly process. For example, the IMF now lends to Suriname while its government has stopped repaying Chinese loans—a process called lending into arrears—because Beijing has not provided assurances of continued financing during restructuring. Meanwhile, private bondholders forged ahead with a deal that will involve a 25 percent “haircut”—or reduction in principal owed—on two bond issues, with repayment to be funded by future oil revenues.

While it is useful that creditors and debtors meet under the aegis of the IMF and World Bank roundtable to discuss outstanding issues, this is no substitute for real progress. There are still many issues even for Zambia, which still must reach separate agreements with each individual creditor government. While it has reached an agreement in principle with Eurobond holders—with an 18 percent haircut—there is still a long way to go with other private-sector bondholders and banks, which include Chinese state banks that Beijing insisted be excluded from the sovereign portion of the Zambia agreement. There are many issues still to resolve before a final restructuring accord is in place, as Brad Setser and Théo Maret enumerated in September.

Private sector lenders will inevitably insist on similar terms to the sovereign creditors. But this emphasis on “comparability of treatment” may compound future problems because creditors in both Zambia and Sri Lanka are requiring higher interest rates on restructured debt if economic growth recovers. One problem this poses for debtor countries is that the burden of higher interest payments—which will only become heavier with global rates rising—will fall on already strained fiscal resources. An IMF study on debt in sub-Saharan Africa released during the Marrakech meeting detailed the sharp rise in the share of government revenue going to interest payments. It warned about the “difficult policy choices” countries will confront “to remain current on debt.” Those policy choices will hit the most vulnerable citizens hardest in the form of less money for health, education, and economic development.

The principle that a country should repay its obligations when economic conditions have recovered makes sense, at least in theory. However, if creditors insist that borrowers facing severe economic challenges continue to tighten their belts when conditions improve—which is what the growth-linked repayment schedules would entail—there will still be serious social costs. That will be part and parcel of an increasingly unmanageable restructuring process that likely will increase global inequality and fragmentation.

Vasuki Shastry, formerly with the IMF, Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Standard Chartered Bank, is the author of the recently published The Notorious ESG: Business, Climate, and the Race to Save the Planet.

Jeremy Mark is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Geoeconomics Center. He previously worked for the IMF, CNBC Asia, and The Asian Wall Street Journal.

At the intersection of economics, finance, and foreign policy, the GeoEconomics Center is a translation hub with the goal of helping shape a better global economic future.

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Image: World Bank President Ajay Banga, World Bank Secretary Mercy Tembon, Ukraine Minister of Finance Serhiy Marchenko, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Secretary Ceda Ogada and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Kristalina Georgieva take a moment of silence for the victims of the earth-quake during the annual meeting's plenary at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, following last month's deadly earthquake, in Marrakech, Morocco, October 13, 2023. REUTERS/Susana Vera