Low-income countries face fewer debt challenges today than they did 25 years ago, thanks in particular to the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, which slashed unmanageable debt burdens across sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. But although debt ratios are lower than in the mid-1990s, debt has been creeping up for the past decade and the changing composition of creditors will make restructurings more complex.
Improvements to the Group of Twenty Common Framework for Debt Treatments—from which the 73 countries that were eligible for the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) in 2020-21 can now benefit—could clear a path through this increasing creditor complexity.
So far only a handful of countries have requested to use the common framework, which was launched in November 2020, underscoring the need for change to build confidence and encourage participation at a pivotal moment for heavily indebted low-income countries.
Rising risks of debt distress
Spurred by low interest rates, high investment needs, limited progress raising additional domestic revenue and stretched systems for managing public finances, the debt ratios of DSSI countries have increased, partly reversing a decline seen in the early 2000s.
Now, the economic shocks from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine are adding to the debt challenges faced by low-income countries, even as central banks start to raise interest rates.
About 60% of DSSI countries are at high risk of debt distress or already in debt distress—when a country has started, or is about to start, a debt restructuring, or when a country is accumulating arrears.
Among the 41 DSSI countries at high risk of or in debt distress, Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia (under the HIPC framework) and Zambia have already requested a debt treatment. Around 20 others exhibit significant breaches of applicable high-risk thresholds, half of which also have low reserves, rising gross financing needs, or a combination of the two in 2022.
On the domestic side, difficult trade-offs will exist between the need to restructure sovereign debt owed to domestic banks, in some cases, and the impact of such restructurings on financial sector stability and the capacity of domestic banks to finance growth.
Local currency debt for the median DSSI country doubled from 7% of gross domestic product in 2010 to 15% in 2021. For those DSSI countries with market access, the share more than tripled from 8% to 28% in 2021.
Many of these DSSI countries have also experienced a tightening of sovereign-bank links, with larger holdings of domestic sovereign debt at domestic banks.
On the external side, increased diversity of creditors raises important coordination challenges.
In past decades, DSSI countries borrowed mainly from Paris Club official creditor nations and private banks, alongside multilateral institutions. Today, China and private bondholders play a much larger lending role.
The share of DSSI countries’ external debt owed to Paris Club creditors fell from 28% in 2006 to 11% in 2020. Over the same period, the share owed to China rose from 2% to 18% and the share of Eurobonds sold to private creditors increased from 3% to 11%.
The situation differs significantly across countries, however. Averages conceal a diversity of debt composition, from the shares of bilateral, multilateral and private creditors, to the composition of official bilateral creditors themselves.
China is now the largest official bilateral creditor in more than half of DSSI countries, including when counting all 22 Paris Club creditors as a single pool. China would therefore play a key role in most DSSI countries’ debt restructurings that would involve official bilateral creditors.
While the diversity of creditor compositions calls for greater attention to country specificities, appropriate coordination mechanisms will be key in all cases.
Putting in place mechanisms that ensure coordination and confidence among creditors and debtors has become urgent. Improvements to the G20 Common Framework could play an important role by ensuring broad participation of creditors with fairer burden sharing.
Experience so far shows that greater clarity on restructuring steps, earlier engagement of official creditors with the debtor and with private creditors, a standstill in debt service payments during negotiations, and specifying the mechanics of comparability of treatment is still needed.
Strengthening debt management and debt transparency should also be priorities. This would help countries manage debt risks, reduce the need for debt restructurings, and facilitate more efficient and durable resolution if debt becomes unsustainable.
It is in the interest of debtor countries as well as their creditors that debt restructurings, where necessary, are accomplished speedily, smoothly, and efficiently. This would support global stability and prosperity, too.
Guillaume Chabert embarked in 2000 on his career at the Directorate General for Local Government at the French Ministry of the Interior, before joining in 2004 the Directorate General of the Treasury at the French Ministry of Finance (“French Treasury”). In 2010, Guillaume Chabert was appointed G20 Project Manager heading up the team coordinating the 2011 French Presidency of the G20 (and G7/G8) at the French Treasury. Following two years in Stockholm, where he managed the Regional Department of Economic Affairs for the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland), he was assigned in September 2013 Adviser to the French Prime Minister, in charge of the Economy, Finance and Business, and then appointed in May 2014 Deputy Chief of Staff of the French Minister of Finance. He became in April 2015 Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs, Trade and Development Policies at the French Treasury, and co-chair of the Paris Club and G20/G7 Financial Sous-Sherpa for France. In January 2021, Guillaume Chabert took up his present position as deputy director in the Strategy, Policy and Review Department of the International Monetary Fund.
Martin Cerisola is an Assistant Director and Chief of the Debt Policy Division in the Strategy and Policy review department. In this capacity, he leads the work on the design and implementation of Fund policies related to debt sustainability, debt conditionality, and sovereign debt restructuring, as well as on operational guidance and review support for countries where these issues are active, including on crisis program cases.
Dalia Hakura is a Deputy Division Chief in the IMF’s Strategy, Policy, and Review Department. She is currently working on issues pertaining to debt analysis and debt policy. Since joining the IMF she has worked on a range of emerging market and low-income countries and was the mission chief for Burkina Faso and the Republic of Congo. She has published extensively on various macroeconomic issues, including in various IMF sub-Saharan Africa Regional Economic Outlook and World Economic Outlook publications.