Many developing countries are facing a renewed debt crisis. This is directly related to Covid-19, which is now sweeping across many poor countries in a new wave.
Between 2016 and 2020, debt service as a percentage of GDP rose from an average of 7.1% to 27.1% for South Asian countries, from 8.1% to 14.1% for Sub-Saharan African countries, from 13.1% to 42.3% for North African and Middle Eastern countries, and from 5.6% to 14.7% for East Asian and Pacific countries. These percentages are expected to climb again in 2021 by around 10% of GDP.
Incomes have fallen in developing countries with illness, lockdowns and business failures. This has been compounded by a fall in their exports as the world economy has contracted and by a 19% fall in aid in 2020. The fall in incomes has led to a decline in tax revenues and demands for increased government expenditure on healthcare and social support. Public-sector deficits have thus risen steeply.
And the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. Vaccination roll-outs in most developing countries are slow, with only a tiny fraction of the population having received just one jab. With the economic damage already caused, growth is likely to be subdued for some time.
This has put developing countries in a ‘trilemma’, as the IMF calls it. Governments must balance the objectives of:
- meeting increased spending needs from the emergency and its aftermath;
- limiting the substantial increase in public debt;
- trying to contain rises in taxes.
Developing countries are faced with a difficult trade-off between these objectives, as addressing one objective is likely to come at the expense of the other two. For example, higher spending would require higher deficits and debt or higher taxes.
The poorest countries have little scope for increased domestic borrowing and have been forced to borrow on international markets. But such debt is costly. Although international interest rates are generally low, many developing countries have had to take on increasing levels of borrowing from private lenders at much higher rates of interest, substantially adding to the servicing costs of their debt.
International agencies and groups, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and the G20, have all advocated increased help to tackle this debt crisis. The IMF has allocated $100bn in lending through the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI) and the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) and nearly $500m in debt service relief grants through the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). The World Bank is increasing operations to $160bn.
The IMF is also considering an increase in special drawing rights (SDRs) from the current level of 204.2bn ($293.3bn) to 452.6bn ($650bn) – a rise of 121.6%. This would be the first such expansion since 2009. It has received the support of both the G7 and the G20. SDRs are reserves created by the IMF whose value is a weighted average of five currencies – the US dollar (41.73%), the euro (30.93%), the Chinese yuan (10.92%), the Japanese yen (8.33%) and the pound sterling (8.09%).
Normally an increase in SDRs would be allocated to countries according their IMF quotas, which largely depend on the size of their GDP and their openness. Any new allocation under this formula would therefore go mainly to developed countries, with developing economies getting only around $60bn of the extra $357bn. It has thus been proposed that developed countries give much of their allocation to developing countries. These could then be used to cancel debts. This proposal has been backed by Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, who said she would “strongly encourage G20 members to channel excess SDRs in support of recovery efforts in low-income countries, alongside continued bilateral financing”.
The G20 countries, with the support of the IMF and World Bank, have committed to suspend debt service payments by eligible countries which request to participate in its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). There are 73 eligible countries. The scheme, now extended to 31 December 2021, provides a suspension of debt-service payments owed to official bilateral creditors. In return, borrowers commit to use freed-up resources to increase social, health or economic spending in response to the crisis. As of April 2021, 45 countries had requested to participate, with savings totalling more than $10bn. The G20 has also called on private creditors to join the DSSI, but so far without success.
Despite these initiatives, the scale of debt relief (as opposed to extra or deferred lending) remains small in comparison to earlier initiatives. Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC, launched 1996) and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI, launched 2005) more than $100bn of debt was cancelled.
Since the start of the pandemic, major developed countries have spent between $10 000 and $20 000 per head in stimulus and social support programmes. Sub-Saharan African countries on average are seeking only $365 per head in support.
Articles and blogs
- Imagine you are an economic advisor to a developing country attempting to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. How would you advise it to proceed, given the ‘trilemma’ described above?
- How does the News24 article define ‘smart debt relief’. Do you agree with the definition and the means of achieving smart debt relief?
- To what extent is it in the interests of the developed world to provide additional debt relief to poor countries whose economies have been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
- Research ‘debt-for-nature swaps’. To what extent can debt relief for countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic be linked to tackling climate change?
With the UK parliament in Brexit gridlock, the Labour opposition is calling for a general election. Although its policy over Brexit and a second referendum is causing splits in the party, the Labour party is generally agreed that pubic expenditure on health, education and transport infrastructure needs to increase – that there needs to be an end to fiscal austerity. However, to fund extra public expenditure would require an increase in taxes and/or an increase in government borrowing.
One of the arguments against increasing government borrowing is that it will increase public-sector debt. The desire to get public-sector debt down as a percentage of GDP has been central to both the Coalition and Conservative governments’ economic strategy. Austerity policies have been based on this desire.
But, in the annual presidential address to the American Economics Association, former chief economist at the IMF, Olivier Blanchard, criticised this position. He has argued for several years that cutting government deficits may weaken already weak economies and that this may significantly reduce tax revenues and potential national income, thereby harming recovery and doing long-term economic damage. Indeed, the IMF has criticised excessively tight fiscal policies for this reason.
In his presidential address, he expanded the argument to consider whether an increase in government borrowing will necessarily increase the cost of servicing government debt. When the (nominal) interest rate (r) on government borrowing is below the nominal rate of economic growth (gn), (r < gn), then even if total debt is not reduced, it is likely that the growth in tax revenues will exceed the growth in the cost of servicing the debt. Debt as a proportion of GDP will fall. The forecast nominal growth rate exceeds the 10-year nominal rate on government bonds by 1.3% in the USA, 2.2% in the UK and 1.8% in the eurozone. In fact, with the exception of a short period in the 1980s, nominal growth (gn) has typically exceeded the nominal interest rate on government borrowing (r) for decades.
When r < gn, this then gives scope for increasing government borrowing to fund additional government spending without increasing the debt/GDP ratio. Indeed, if that fiscal expansion increases both actual and potential income, then growth over time could increase, giving even more scope for public investment.
But, of course, that scope is not unlimited.
- What do you understand by ‘fiscal illusion’?
- What is the justification for reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- What are the arguments against reducing government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Explain the significance of the relationship between r and gn for fiscal policy and the levels of government debt, government borrowing and the government debt/GDP ratio.
- Under what circumstances would a rise in the budget deficit not lead to a rise in government debt as a proportion of GDP?
- Does Blanchard’s analysis suggest that a combination of both loose monetary policy and loose fiscal policy is desirable?
- Under Blanchard’s analysis, what would limit the amount that governments should increase spending?
Household borrowing on credit cards and through overdrafts and loans has been growing rapidly. This ‘unsecured’ borrowing is now rising at rates not seen since well before the credit crunch of 2008 (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart below). Should this be a cause for concern?
Household confidence is generally high and, as a result, people continue to take out more loans and so household debt continues to increase. Saving rates are falling and, at 5.1% of household disposable income, are the lowest rate since 2008, mirroring the high levels of spending and borrowing.
But as long as the economy keeps growing and as long as interest rates stay at record low levels, people should be able to continue servicing this rising debt. Indeed, with generous balance transfer offers between credit cards and many people paying off their full balance each month, only 56.6% are paying any interest at all on credit card debt, the lowest level on record.
But there could be trouble ahead! Secured borrowing (i.e. on mortgages) is at record highs as house prices have soared, limiting the amount people have to left to spend, even with ultra low interest rates. Student debt is growing, putting a brake on graduate spending.
With economic growth set to slow and inflation set to rise as the effects of the lower pound filter through into retail prices, this could initially boost borrowing further as people seek to maintain levels of consumption. But then, if unemployment starts to rise and consumer confidence starts to fall, real spending could decline, putting further downward pressure on the economy.
Confidence could then fall further and we could witness a repeat of 2008–9, when people became worried about their levels of borrowing and cut back on consumption in an attempt to claw down their debt. The economy was pushed into recession.
The Bank of England is well aware of this scenario and wants banks to ensure that their customers can afford loans before offering them.
Bank governor Mark Carney warns on household debt BBC News, Brian Milligan (30/11/16)
Credit crunch: Household debt is rising just as the economy’s future is uncertain The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/12/16)
Bank of England publication
Financial Stability Report, November 2016 Bank of England (30/11/16)
Money and lending Bank of England Interactive Database
United Kingdom Households Debt To GDP Trading Economics
Household debt OECD Data
- What determines the amount people borrow?
- What would cause people to cut back on the amount of debt they have?
- Distinguish between secured and unsecured borrowing and debt.
- Why has secured borrowing risen? Does this matter?
- What is meant by the term ‘re-leveraging’? What is its significance in terms of household borrowing?
- Find out what the affordability tests are for anyone wanting to take out a mortgage.
- What are the greatest risks to UK financial stability?
Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, is also an economist and an expert in game theory and co-author of Game Theory: a critical text. He is now putting theory into practice.
He wishes to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt repayments. He argues not that some of the debt should be written off, but that the terms of the repayment are far too tough.
Greece’s problem, he argues, was wrongly seen as one of a lack of liquidity and hence the Troika (of the EU, the ECB and the IMF) provided a large amount of loans to enable Greece to keep servicing its debts. These loans were conditional on Greece following austerity policies of higher taxes and reduced government expenditure. But this just compounded the problem as seen by Yanis Varoufakis. With a shrinking economy, it has been even more difficult to repay the loans granted by the Troika.
The problem, he argues, is essentially one of insolvency. The solution is to renegotiate the terms of the debt to make it possible to pay. This means reducing the size of the budget surplus that Greece is required to achieve. The Troika is currently demanding a surplus equal to 3% of GDP in 2015 and 4.5% of GDP in 2016.
The Syriza government is also seeking to link repayments to economic growth, by the issue of growth-linked bonds, whose interest rate depends on the rate of economic growth, with a zero rate if there is no growth in real GDP. He is also seeking emergency humanitarian aid
At the centre of the negotiations is a high stake game. On the one hand, Germany and other countries do not want to reduce Greece’s debts or soften their terms. The fear is that this could unleash demands from other highly indebted countries in the eurozone, such as Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Already, Podemos, Spain’s anti-austerity party is rapidly gaining support in Spain. On the other hand, the new Greek government cannot back down in its fundamental demands for easing the terms of its debt repayments.
And the threats on both sides are powerful. The Troika could demand that the original terms are met. If they are not, and Greece defaults, there could be capital flight from Greece (even more than now) and Greece could be forced from the euro. The Greeks would suffer from further falls in income, which would now be denominated in a weak drachma, high inflation and financial chaos. But that could unleash a wave of speculation against other weaker eurozone members and cause a break-up of the currency union. This could seriously harm all members and have large-scale repercussions for the global economy.
So neither side wants Greece to leave the euro. But is it a game of chicken, where if neither side backs down, ‘Grexit’ (Greek exit from the euro) will be the result? Yanis Varoufakis understands the dimensions of the ‘game’ very well. He is well aware of the quote from Keynes, ‘If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has.’ He will no doubt bring all his gaming skills to play in attempting to reach the best deal for Greece.
Greece’s last minute offer to Brussels changes absolutely nothing The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (10/2/15)
The next card Yanis Varoufakis will play The Conversation, Partha Gangopadhyay (8/2/15)
Senior European official: ‘The Greeks are digging their own graves’ Business Insider, Mike Bird (10/2/15)
Greece: The Tie That Doesn’t Bind New York Times, Paul Krugman (9/2/15)
Greek finance minister says euro will collapse if Greece exits Reuters, Gavin Jones (8/2/15)
Greece is playing to lose the debt crisis poker game The Guardian, Project Syndicate and Anatole Kaletsky (9/2/15)
Greek markets find sliver of hope Financial Times, Elaine Moore, Kerin Hope and Daniel Dombey (10/2/15)
Greece: What are the options for its future? BBC News, Jamie Robertson (12/2/15)
‘If I weren’t scared, I’d be awfully dangerous’ The Guardian, Helena Smith (13/2/15)
Greek debt crisis: German MPs back bailout extension BBC News (27/2/15)
- Is a deal over the terms of repayment of Greek debt a zero sum game? Explain whether it is or not.
- What are Keynes Bisque bonds (or GDP-indexed bonds)? Do a Web search to find out whether they have been used and what their potential advantages and disadvantages are. Are they a good solution for both creditors and Greece in the current situation?
- What is meant by a ‘debt swap’? What forms can debt swaps take?
- Has Greece played its best cards too early?
- Should Greece insist on debt reduction and simply negotiate around the size and terms of that reduction?
- Are Greece’s new structural reform proposals likely to find favour with other EU countries and the Troika?
The linked article below from The Guardian paints a disturbing picture of the long-term problem of servicing both private-sector and public-sector debts.
With interest rates at historical lows, the problem has been masked for the time being. But with interest rates set to rise within a few months, and significantly over the coming years, the burden of debt servicing is likely to become severe. This could have profound effects both on long-term economic growth and on the distribution of income.
As the author, Phillip Inman states:
The funding gap is growing and with deficits on so many fronts, it is hard to see how promises to pensioners and health service users can be met without a dash for growth that is unsustainable, a switch to dramatic cost-cutting in other areas or higher taxes on those who came through the recession relatively unscathed.
You are probably facing the problem of growing debt yourself. How long, if ever, will it take you to repay your student loans? What impact will this have on your ability to spend and to have a ‘decent’ standard of living? Will you be able to afford a mortgage large enough to buy a reasonable house or flat? Will you be able to afford to do a masters degree or PhD without support from your parents or relatives or without a scholarship? And even if you manage to secure a well-paid job, will you be able to afford a reasonable pension for when you eventually retire?
The article looks at the nature of the problem and its causes. It concludes by saying:
Britain has become expert at putting off decisions and hoping for something to turn up. Without a return to ultra-cheap commodities, another technological/productivity revolution, or a return to more modest living and delayed gratification, it’s a plan that is running out of time.
Trouble in store: the grave future of British public and private debt The Guardian, Phillip Inman (20/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Executive summary Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Supplementary data series Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
- Why is public-sector debt likely to continue rising significantly over the coming years unless there is a concerted policy to make cuts in public expenditure?
- What factors are likely to lead to a rise in private-sector debt over the coming years?
- What factors have caused a redistribution from the younger to the older generation?
- How have ultra low interest rates affected the distribution of income?
- What is likely to happen to the gap in wages between ‘graduate’ jobs and ‘non-graduate’ jobs? Identify the factors likely to influence this gap?
- What is meant by ‘hire purchase’? Are leasing schemes for car purchase a form of ‘hire purchase? Are there similar schemes in the housing market?
- Does it matter if a country’s debts rise (either public or private) if the creditors are in the same country? Explain.