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Econographics July 12, 2023

Progress on debt restructuring provides a glimmer of hope for developing countries

By Jeremy Mark and Vasuki Shastry

After more than three years of debt distress across the developing world, there is a glimmer of hope as government and private-sector creditors finally take the first steps to restructure debt. This progress could provide financial breathing room after a succession of economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation, and sharply rising global interest rates.

But many questions remain about whether creditors truly are prepared to meaningfully reduce debt burdens. These issues likely will be on the table in India this week (July 14 to 18) when the Group of Twenty (G20) finance ministers and central bank governors gather to discuss debt restructuring and other global economic issues.

In Zambia, which defaulted on its debts in 2021, government creditors led by China have resolved months of jostling and agreed to a restructuring of $6.3 billion of the country’s more than $8 billion of debt. The agreement extends for 20 years the country’s debt-repayment schedule and lowers its annual interest bill to one percent until economic growth recovers. Now, the country’s private-sector lenders, who hold billions of dollars of government IOUs, are talking about writing down some of their Zambia loans, and in Ghana are writing off loans and restructuring dollar-denominated bonds. Meanwhile, both classes of creditors are deep in restructuring discussions with Sri Lanka, which has requested a 30 percent haircut on some bonds.

These settlements would pave the way for assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and provide a way forward—albeit a difficult one—for dozens of low-income countries that are in or nearing debt distress. This represents progress compared with a year ago, when China and the private sector were balking at a transparent negotiating process. But there are still many issues to address—especially how far China really is prepared to go in reducing the burden of its vast lending. Unlike previous global debt episodes, notably the Latin America debt crisis of the 1980s and debt relief to low-income countries early this century, there is unlikely to be a grand bargain this time around.

While the preliminary agreement with Zambia has been heralded as “an epochal shift in global finance,” the reality is that negotiations there and elsewhere are following a well-trodden path: first the seal of approval of an IMF rescue program (which in Zambia’s case was reached in 2022), with promises of IMF money once a debt restructuring is agreed to. Then the hard bargaining with government lenders, followed by talks with private creditors. This slow progress is a far cry from late 2020 when the G20 agreed on a restructuring process for the poorest countries called the Common Framework that briefly raised hopes of a rapid succession of debt reductions—hopes that were dashed largely because of foot-dragging by China and foreign lenders.

Before the emergence of China as a major creditor to middle and low-income countries during the lending spree that accompanied its Belt and Road Initiative, debt negotiations went through the IMF and the Paris Club of advanced-economy lenders. It was arguably a simpler world, not least because private-sector lenders’ debt exposure in developing countries was marginal. That changed after 2010, when institutional investors joined China in shoveling money out the door to what became known as “frontier economy” borrowers. Between 2007 and 2020, an unprecedented 21 African countries accessed international debt markets. Today, debtors must proceed on multiple tracks—the Paris Club, the Chinese government, China’s state banks and state-controlled commercial banks, and Western fund managers and money-center banks.

Some creditors question the true nature of the debt restructuring now on offer. For example, private sector lenders and analysts say privately it is not clear whether, in Zambia’s case, China has negotiated bilateral conditions that have been concealed from other lenders. They say that this could cast doubt on assurances that government creditors have provided to the IMF about restructuring arrangements. In addition, China’s insistence on extending debt repayments for decades conflicts with the Paris Club’s track record of providing relief in the form of reductions in principal owed. That could become an issue if China pursues its approach in countries where other governments are major creditors—for example, India and Japan in Sri Lanka. In that case, the model of the Zambia agreement could quickly become a muddle.

The private sector has arguably made significant strides in recognizing their loan losses, as the situation in Ghana illustrates. Lenders such as the big four South African banks are writing off as much as $270 million of their loan exposures, which equates to a haircut of almost 60 percent. And Standard Chartered Bank has set aside some $160 million for Ghanaian write-downs. This loan-loss recognition serves two purposes. First, it is an effort to inform shareholders about the banks’ overall sovereign exposure and the steps they are taking to reduce it. Second, by setting a floor on the losses they are prepared to absorb, they have a better negotiating hand in the restructuring conversations.

Meanwhile, bondholders are likely to face increasing pressure to restructure Eurobond issues—and accept haircuts—as the repayment schedule accelerates in the next two years.

A looming issue may be the response of Western banks and bondholders to China’s success in having some of its loans by state-controlled banks exempted from the Zambia agreement and classified as commercial lending. How those Chinese loans are treated—in Zambia and elsewhere—while the real private-sector creditors negotiate settlements will be a test of China’s willingness to accept the principle of “comparability of treatment” for all creditors, a key principle that Beijing publicly insisted upon as recently as April.

There are real-world ramifications to these nuts-and-bolts issues that extend beyond the politics of the restructuring process. The human cost of the debt crisis for poor countries has been severe. The UN estimated last year that fifty-four countries with severe debt problems represented about three percent of global gross domestic product, but accounted for more than one-half of the 600 million people worldwide living in extreme poverty. That number has risen sharply since the pandemic hit in 2020.

Debt payments by these countries siphon off resources that are desperately needed for health, education, and other social programs. Defaults and restructuring only make this scarcity worse. That points to the need for new sources of funding. The World Bank is under pressure to free up more money for grants and lending. Meanwhile, the IMF has increased funding for two trusts designed to meet the needs of low-income countries, including one created to help developing countries meet the immediate and long-term challenge of climate change and pandemics. About $100 billion of new resources come, in part, from the 2021 allocation of $650 billion of Special Drawing Rights to IMF member countries.

But demand for help is rising faster than the available resources, especially for the Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust, a perpetually underfunded IMF vehicle that subsidizes zero-interest loans to the poorest countries. As new lending to these nations from China and private creditors dries up, the World Bank and IMF will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack. Debt restructuring that merely extends repayment for decades without any forgiveness will only entrench the imbalance between needy borrowers and lenders whose priority is to recoup their capital.

Jeremy Mark is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Geoeconomics Center. He previously worked for the IMF and the Asian Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @JedMark888.

Vasuki Shastry, formerly with the IMF, Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Standard Chartered Bank, is the author of Has Asia Lost It? Dynamic Past, Turbulent Future. Follow him on Twitter: @vshastry.

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: A man walks past a model of G20 logo outside the finance ministry in New Delhi, India, March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis