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?
The IMF has just published its six-monthly World Economic Outlook. This provides an assessment of trends in the global economy and gives forecasts for a range of macroeconomic indicators by country, by groups of countries and for the whole world.
This latest report is upbeat for the short term. Global economic growth is expected to be around 3.9% this year and next. This represents 2.3% this year and 2.5% next for advanced countries and 4.8% this year and 4.9% next for emerging and developing countries. For large advanced countries such rates are above potential economic growth rates of around 1.6% and thus represent a rise in the positive output gap or fall in the negative one.
But while the near future for economic growth seems positive, the IMF is less optimistic beyond that for advanced countries, where growth rates are forecast to decline to 2.2% in 2019, 1.7% in 2020 and 1.5% by 2023. Emerging and developing countries, however, are expected to see growth rates of around 5% being maintained.
For most countries, current favorable growth rates will not last. Policymakers should seize this opportunity to bolster growth, make it more durable, and equip their governments better to counter the next downturn.
By comparison with other countries, the UK’s growth prospects look poor. The IMF forecasts that its growth rate will slow from 1.8% in 2017 to 1.6% in 2018 and 1.5% in 2019, eventually rising to around 1.6% by 2023. The short-term figures are lower than in the USA, France and Germany and reflect ‘the anticipated higher barriers to trade and lower foreign direct investment following Brexit’.
The report sounds some alarm bells for the global economy.
The first is a possible growth in trade barriers as a trade war looms between the USA and China and as Russia faces growing trade sanctions. As Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF told an audience in Hong Kong:
Governments need to steer clear of protectionism in all its forms. …Remember: the multilateral trade system has transformed our world over the past generation. It helped reduce by half the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty. It has reduced the cost of living, and has created millions of new jobs with higher wages. …But that system of rules and shared responsibility is now in danger of being torn apart. This would be an inexcusable, collective policy failure. So let us redouble our efforts to reduce trade barriers and resolve disagreements without using exceptional measures.
The second danger is a growth in world government and private debt levels, which at 225% of global GDP are now higher than before the financial crisis of 2007–9. With Trump’s policies of tax cuts and increased government expenditure, the resulting rise in US government debt levels could see some fiscal tightening ahead, which could act as a brake on the world economy. As Maurice Obstfeld , Economic Counsellor and Director of the Research Department, said at the Press Conference launching the latest World Economic Outlook:
Debts throughout the world are very high, and a lot of debts are denominated in dollars. And if dollar funding costs rise, this could be a strain on countries’ sovereign financial institutions.
In China, there has been a massive rise in corporate debt, which may become unsustainable if the Chinese economy slows. Other countries too have seen a surge in private-sector debt. If optimism is replaced by pessimism, there could be a ‘Minsky moment’, where people start to claw down on debt and banks become less generous in lending. This could lead to another crisis and a global recession. A trigger could be rising interest rates, with people finding it hard to service their debts and so cut down on spending.
The third danger is the slow growth in labour productivity combined with aging populations in developed countries. This acts as a brake on growth. The rise in AI and robotics (see the post Rage against the machine) could help to increase potential growth rates, but this could cost jobs in the short term and the benefits could be very unevenly distributed.
This brings us to a final issue and this is the long-term trend to greater inequality, especially in developed economies. Growth has been skewed to the top end of the income distribution. As the April 2017 WEO reported, “technological advances have contributed the most to the recent rise in inequality, but increased financial globalization – and foreign direct investment in particular – has also played a role.”
And the policy of quantitative easing has also tended to benefit the rich, as its main effect has been to push up asset prices, such as share and house prices. Although this has indirectly stimulated the economy, it has mainly benefited asset owners, many of whom have seen their wealth soar. People further down the income scale have seen little or no growth in their real incomes since the financial crisis.
- Clouds gather over global economy, casting long shadow on Europe
Politico, Pierre Briançon (18/4/18)
- IMF warns rising trade tensions threaten to derail global growth
Reuters, David Lawder (17/4/18)
- IMF outlook contains cause for celebration but a horrendous hangover is looming
The Guardian, Greg Jericho (18/4/18)
- World trade system in danger of being torn apart, warns IMF
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/4/18)
- IMF Warns of Rising Threats to Global Financial System
Bloomberg, Andrew Mayeda (18/4/18)
- IMF issues warning on global debt
BBC News, Andrew Walker (18/4/18)
- The IMF has a simple message: the global recovery will peter out
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/4/18)
- Global growth is built, alas, on shaky foundations
The Irish Times, Martin Wolf (18/4/18)
- Government debt
The Economist (19/4/18)
- This Is How Much Money the World Owes
- For what reasons may the IMF forecasts turn out to be incorrect?
- Why are emerging and developing countries likely to experience faster rates of economic growth than advanced countries?
- What are meant by a ‘positive output gap’ and a ‘negative output gap’? What are the consequences of each for various macroeconomic indicators?
- Explain what is meant by a ‘Minsky moment’. When are such moments likely to occur? Explain why or why not such a moment is likely to occur in the next two or three years?
- For every debt owed, someone is owed that debt. So does it matter if global public and/or private debts rise? Explain.
- What have been the positive and negative effects of the policy of quantitative easing?
- What are the arguments for and against using tariffs and other forms of trade restrictions as a means of boosting a country’s domestic economy?
After Syriza’s dramatic victory in the Greek election, it is now seeking to pursue its manifesto promises of renegotiating the terms of Greece’s bailout and bringing an end to austerity policies.
The bailout of €240bn largely involved debt restructuring to give Greeks more time to pay. A ‘haircut’ (reduction) on privately held bonds, estimated to be somewhere between €50bn and €110bn, was more than offset by an increase of €130bn in loans granted by official creditors.
The terms of the bailout negotiated with the ‘Troika’ of the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF, had forced the previous Greek government to make substantial fiscal adjustments. These have included large-scale cuts in government expenditure (including public-sector wages), increases in taxes, charges and fares, and selling state assets through an extensive programme of privatisation.
Although Greece is now regarded as having achieved a structural budget surplus (a surplus when the economy is operating at potential output: i.e. with a zero output gap), the austerity policies and a decline in inward investment have dampened the economy so much that, until last year, the actual budget deficit and public-sector debt continued to rise as tax revenues plummeted.
Since 2007, GDP has fallen by nearly 27% and the unemployment rate is around 26%. The fall in GDP has made the achievement of a reduction in the debt/GDP ratio that much harder. General government debt has risen from 103% of GDP in 2007 to 176% in 2014, and the budget deficit, although having peaked at 12.2% of GDP in 2013, has only been brought down through huge cuts.
As a report to the European Parliament from the Economic Governance Support Unit argues on page 27:
With less front-loaded fiscal adjustment, the EU-IMF financing envelope for Greece would have needed to expand, in what is already the largest financial assistance programme in percent of GDP in recent global history. On the other hand, a less rapid fiscal adjustment may have helped to preserve some of the productive capacity that, in the course of the adjustment, was destroyed.
The new government, although pledging not to default on debt, is insistent on renegotiating the debt and wants to achieve a high level of rescheduling and debt forgiveness. As the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, says:
On existing loans, we demand repayment terms that do not cause recession and do not push the people to more despair and poverty. We are not asking for new loans; we cannot keep adding debt to the mountain.
But, just as the Greek government is insistent on renegotiating its debt, so the German government and others in the EU are insisting that Greece sticks to the terms of the bailout and carries on with its current programme of debt reduction. Another haircut, they maintain, is out of the question.
We must wait to see how the negotiations play out. We are in the realms of game theory with various possible threats and promises on either side. It will be interesting to how these threats and promises are deployed.
New Leader in Greece Now Faces Creditors New York Times, Liz Alderman (26/1/15)
Syriza’s historic win puts Greece on collision course with Europe The Guardian, Ian Traynor and Helena Smith (26/1/15)
Greece Q&A: what now for Syriza and EU austerity? The Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/1/15)
Greek elections: Syriza gives eurozone economic headache BBC News, Prof Dimitri Mardas (26/1/15)
How a Syriza government would approach the eurozone The Telegraph, Andrew Lilico (19/1/15)
Australian economists urge Greek debt forgiveness as Syriza election win looks likely ABC News, Michael Janda (26/1/15)
Will Syriza win rock the global economy? CBS News, Nick Barnets (26/1/15)
Syriza should ignore calls to be responsible Irish Times. Paul Krugman (27/1/15)
Syriza Victory in Greek Election Roils European Debate Over Austerity Wall Street Journal, Marcus Walker (25/1/14)
Greece markets hit by debt default fears BBC News (28/1/15)
Why Europe Will Cave to Greece Bloomberg, Clive Crook (29/1/15)
Greece and the euro: Take the money and run The Economist, Buttonwood (28/1/15)
Tanking markets send dire warning to Greece’s new government Fortune, Geoffrey Smith (28/1/15)
The biggest debt write-offs in the history of the world The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (2/2/15)
- Why has Greek debt continued to rise despite extremely tight fiscal policy?
- How is the structural deficit defined? What difficulties arise in trying to measure its size?
- Would there have been any way of substantially reducing the Greek budget deficit without driving Greece into a deep recession?
- What are the arguments for and against cancelling a large proportion of Greek debt? Is there a moral hazard involved here?
- Will the recently announced ECB quantitative easing programme help to reduce Greece’s debt?
- Are negotiations about debt forgiveness a zero sum game? Explain.
- What are the likely impacts of the Syriza victory on the global economy?
‘Deflation could be replacing debt as the main problem – and there’s nothing to suggest the ECB is up to the job.’ So begins the linked article below by Barry Eichengreen, Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
The good news in this is that worries about debt in eurozone countries are gradually receding. Indeed, this week Ireland officially ended its reliance on a bailout (of €67.5 billion) from the EU and IMF and regained financial sovereignty (see also).
The bad news is that this does not mark the end of austerity. Indeed, many eurozone countries could get stuck in a deflationary trap, with austerity policies continuing to depress aggregate demand. Eurozone inflation is less than 1% and falling. Broad money supply growth is now below that of the US dollar, the yen and sterling (see chart: click here for a PowerPoint).
The ECB has been far more cautious than central banks in other countries in acting to prevent recession and deflation. Unlike the USA, Japan and the UK, which have all engaged in extensive quantitative easing, the ECB had been reluctant to do so for fear of upsetting German opinion and taking the pressure off southern European countries to reform.
But as Eichengreen points out, the dangers of inaction could be much greater. What is more, quantitative easing is not the only option. The ECB could copy the UK approach of ‘funding for lending’ – not for housing, but for business.
Europe’s economic crisis could be mutating again The Guardian, Barry Eichengreen (10/12/13)
- What problems are created by falling prices?
- What effect would deflation have on debt and the difficulties in repaying that debt?
- What measures have already been adopted by the ECB to stimulate the eurozone economy? (Search previous articles on this site.)
- Why have such measures proved inadequate?
- What alternative policies are open to the ECB?
- What are the arguments for the ECB being given a higher inflation target (such as 3 or 4%)?
- What are the arguments for and against relaxing fiscal austerity in the eurozone at the current time?
The ECB president, Mario Draghi, has announced a new programme of ‘Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs)’ to ease the difficulties of countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The idea is to push down interest rates for these countries’ bonds. If successful, this will make it more affordable for them to service their debts.
OMTs involve the ECB buying these countries’ bonds on the secondary market (i.e. existing bonds). This will be limited to bonds with no more than three years to maturity. Although restricting purchases to the secondary market would not involve the ECB lending directly to these countries, the bond purchases should push down interest rates on the secondary market and this, in turn, should allow the countries to issue new bonds at lower rates on the primary market.
The OMT programme replaces the previous Securities Markets Programme (SMP), which began in May 2010. This too involved purchasing bonds on the secondary market. By the time of the last actions under SMP in January 2012, €212 billion of purchases had been made. Unlike the SMP, however, OMTs are in principle unlimited, with the ECB president, Mario Draghi, saying that the ECB would do ‘whatever it takes’ to hold the single currency together. This means that it will buy as many bonds on the market as are necessary to bring interest rates down to sustainable levels.
Critics, however, argue that this will still not be enough to stimulate the eurozone economy and help bring countries out of recession. They give two reasons.
The first is that OMTs differ from the quantitative easing programmes used in the UK and USA. OMTs would not increase the eurozone money supply as the ECB would sell other assets to offset the bond purchases. This process is known as ‘sterilisation’, which is defined as actions taken by a central bank to offset the effects of foreign exchange flows or its own bond transactions so as to leave money supply unchanged.
The second reason is that OMTs will be conducted only if countries stick to previously agreed strong austerity measures. This is something that it looking increasingly unlikely as protests against the cuts mount in countries such as Greece and Spain.
Super Mario to the rescue Financial Standard, Benjamin Ong (7/9/12)
Outright monetary transactions: Lowdown on bond-buying scheme Irish Times, Dan O’Brien (7/9/12)
Draghi comments at ECB news conference Reuters (6/9/12)
ECB’s Mario Draghi unveils bond-buying euro debt plan BBC News (6/9/12)
ECB Market Intervention: Outright Monetary Transactions (“OMT”) – A Preliminary Assessment Place du Luxembourg (9/9/12)
Evaluating the OMT: OrlMost Too late? Social Europe Journal, Andrew Watt (7/9/12)
Mario Draghi speech: what the analysts said The Telegraph (6/9/12)
ECB challenges German concern over bond-buying Irish Times, Derek Scally (26/9/12)
Draghi: efforts helping to support stable future MarketWatch, Tom Fairless (25/9/12)
Mario and Mariano versus the man with the beard BBC News, Paul Mason (6/9/12)
Good week for the euro – but also a warning BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (12/9/12)
The price of saving the eurozone BBC News, Robert Peston (26/9/12)
Special Report – Inside Mario Draghi’s euro rescue plan Reuters, Paul Carrel, Noah Barkin and Annika Breidthardt (25/9/12)
ECB to face biggest test on euro gambit Financial Times, Michael Steen and Peter Spiegel (25/9/12)
ECB: Monetary policy decisions ECB Press Release, (6/9/12)
- What are the key features of the OMT programme? How does it differ from the former Securities Markets Programme (SMP)?
- In what ways does the OMT programme differ from the quantitative easing programmes in the USA and UK?
- How will the ECB’s buying bonds in the secondary market influence the primary bond market? What will influence the size of the effect?
- How does sterilisation work in (a) the bond market; (b) the foreign exchange market?
- Why is it claimed that the OMT programme is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving the crisis in the eurozone? What additional measures would you recommend and why?
- What are the risks associated with the OMT programme?