I noted back in January that the IMF had started to do its own “lessons learned” on its European financial crisis response and had begun to admit it had made some fairly terrible mistakes in its assessment of the debt sustainability of a number of nations, including Greece, under its current programs.
Late last week the IMF released another discussion paper ( available below ) that covers recent developments in sovereign debt restructures and their effect on IMF policy. The paper concludes that:
First, debt restructurings have often been too little and too late, thus failing to re- establish debt sustainability and market access in a durable way. Overcoming these problems likely requires action on several fronts, including
(i) increased rigor and transparency of debt sustainability and market access assessments,
(ii) exploring ways to prevent the use of Fund resources to simply bail out private creditors, and
(iii) measures to alleviate the costs associated with restructurings
Second, while creditor participation has been adequate in recent restructurings, the current contractual, market-based approach to debt restructuring is becoming less potent in overcoming collective action problems, especially in pre-default cases. In response, consideration could be given to making the contractual framework more effective, including through the introduction of more robust aggregation clauses into international sovereign bonds bearing in mind the inter-creditor equity issues that such an approach may raise. The Fund may also consider ways to condition use of its financing more tightly to the resolution of collective action problems;
Third, the growing role and changing composition of official lending call for a clearer framework for official sector involvement, especially with regard to non-Paris Club creditors, for which the modality for securing program financing commitments could be tightened; and
Fourth, although the collaborative, good-faith approach to resolving external private arrears embedded in the lending into arrears (LIA) policy remains the most promising way to regain market access post-default, a review of the effectiveness of the LIA policy is in order in light of recent experience and the increased complexity of the creditor base. Consideration could also be given to extending the LIA policy to official arrears.
In short, the assessments of debt sustainability have been woeful, there aren’t strong enough binding terms (read CACS) in sovereign securities, the official sector, but not the IMF itself, need to play a part in defaults and the IMF should investigate the optimal debt resolution mechanisms available for negotiating between creditors and debtors.
The paper discusses the implication of the ongoing litigation against Argentina as well as the experience of the fund in the recent case of Greece. Of note is the admission by the fund that it was forced to lower its assessment of the country due to contagion worries from the official sector in Europe:
Accordingly, when a member’s sovereign debt is unsustainable and there are concerns regarding the contagion effects of a restructuring, providing large-scale financing without debt relief would only postpone the need to address the debt problem.
Instead, the appropriate response would be to deal with the contagion effects of restructuring head-on by, for example, requiring that currency union authorities establish adequate safeguards promptly and decisively to cushion the effect of spillovers to other countries (via, e.g., proactive recapitalization of creditor banks, establishment of firewalls, and provision of liquidity support). In the context of the first Greece program, financial assistance was delayed until Greece had lost market access. In response to concerns about possible spillovers from debt restructuring, the Fund lowered the bar for exceptional access (second criterion) by creating an exception to the requirement for achieving debt sustainability with a high probability in the presence of systemic inter national spillover effects. In light of these issues, the modification of the exceptional access policy could usefully be reviewed
In other words, Europe, and its banks, weren’t prepared for a Greek default so the IMF was forced to pretend that the countries position was better than it actually was. That was obviously a mistake and the country, like many before it, was forced to take a second bailout followed by a re-structure that should have occurred up front. As noted by the paper:
A review of the recent experience suggests that unsustainable debt situations often fester before they are resolved and, when restructurings do occur, they do not always restore sustainability and market access in a durable manner, leading to repeated restructurings. While the costs of delaying a restructuring are well recognized, pressures to delay can still arise due to the authorities’ concerns about financial stability and contagion. Delays were also sometimes facilitated by parallel incentives on the part of official creditors, who accordingly may have an interest in accepting, and pressuring the Fund to accept, sanguine assessments of debt sustainability and market reaccess.
In hindsight, the Fund’s assessments of debt sustainability and market access may sometimes have been too sanguine.
The existing DSA framework does not specify the period over which debt sustainability or market access is supposed to be achieved (although it is generally understood that debt would be sustainable within a five-year horizon) or how maximum sustainable debt ranges should be derived, leaving this mostly to Fund staff judgment. Sustainability was generally assessed on the basis of an eventual decline in the debt-to-GDP ratio—Argentina, Seychelles and St. Kitts and Nevis were the only three cases that provided for a quick and sizable reduction in the debt-to-GDP levels post-restructuring. St. Kitts and Nevis also targeted an explicit debt threshold, i.e., the ECCU debt target of 60 percent of GDP by 2020. Most other cases allowed more than five years for the debt level to fall significantly below safe levels.
For example, in Greece the debt-to-GDP ratio in the most recent program projections is not expected to be reduced substantially below 110 percent before 2022, while in the forthcoming Fund-supported program with Jamaica, debt is still projected to remain close to 120 percent of GDP in five years’ time. In Grenada, the debt ratio at the end of the five-year horizon actually turned out much higher than staff projections at the time of the restructuring. Also, in Greece, Jamaica (2010) and Seychelles, staff medium-term debt projections have been revised upward substantially within only a few years compared to projections made at the time of the restructurings.
Also of note is the emphasis on the broader guidelines of the IMF programs , supporting countries sustainable return to private capital markets in a specific time-frame , and what that means in terms of the types of restructures that should be used and how, and when, the IMF can support them:
There may be a case for exploring additional ways to limit the risk that Fund resources will simply be used to bail out private creditors.
For example, a presumption could be established that some form of a creditor bail-in measure would be implemented as a condition for Fund lending in cases where, although no clear-cut determination has been made that the debt is unsustainable, the member has lost market access and prospects for regaining market access are uncertain.
In such cases, the primary objective of creditor bail-in would be designed to ensure that creditors would not exit during the period while the Fund is providing financial assistance. This would also give more time for the Fund to determine whether the problem is one of liquidity or solvency. Accordingly, the measures would typically involve a rescheduling of debt, rather than the type of debt stock reduction that is normally required in circumstances where the debt is judged to be unsustainable.
Providing the member with a more comfortable debt profile would also have the additional benefit of enhancing market confidence
in the feasibility of the member’s adjustment efforts, thereby reducing the risk that the debt will, in fact, become unsustainable. While bail-in measures would be voluntary (ranging from rescheduling of loans to bond exchanges that result in long maturities), creditors would understand that the success of such measures would be a condition for continued Fund support for the adjustment measures. Such a strategy—debt rescheduling instead of debt reduction—would not be appropriate when it is clear that the problem is one of solvency in which case reducing debt upfront to address debt overhang and restore sustainability would be the preferred course of action.
In light of the ongoing litigation against Argentina the paper also appears to be pushing for two things, firstly the introduction of a standard across-the-board mechanism to support collective action clauses, and resolution, within the sovereign debt markets:
Recent experience indicates that the contractual, market-based approach has worked reasonably well in securing creditor participation and avoiding protracted negotiations. But these episodes have also foreshadowed potential collective action problems that could hamper future restructurings. These problems are most acute when a default has not yet occurred, large haircuts are needed to reestablish sustainability, and sovereign bond contracts do not include CACs. The ongoing Argentina litigation has exacerbated the collective action problem, by increasing leverage of holdout creditors. Assuming there continues to be lack of sufficient support within the membership for the type of statutory framework envisaged under the SDRM, avenues could be considered to strengthen the existing contractual framework.
These aspects of the Greek legislation resemble the aggregation features of the SDRM. The key differences between the framework envisaged under the SDRM and the Greek legislation is that the SDRM would be established through a universal treaty (rather than through domestic law),
apply to all debt instruments (and not just to bonds governed by domestic law), and be subject to the jurisdiction of an international forum (rather than the domestic courts of the member whose debt is being restructured). At this stage, there does not appear to be sufficient support within the membership to amend the Articles of Agreement to establish such a universal treaty.
Complementing efforts to revamp CACs, the Fund may consider conditioning the availability of its financing more tightly to the resolution of collective action problems.
For instance, the use of high minimum participation thresholds could be required in debt exchange operations launched under Fund-supported programs to ensure broad creditor participation. Fund policy encourages members to avoid default to the extent possible, even after restructuring. An expectation of eventually being paid out in full may encourage holdouts. The use of high minimum participation thresholds would help reduce such incentives. The Fund could also routinely issue statements alerting creditors that securing a critical participation mass in the debt exchange would be required for the restoration of external stability—the implication being that failure to meet the
established minimum participation threshold would block future program financing, leaving no other option but default and protracted arrears.
Also, in pre-default restructurings, where collective action problems are most acute, the Fund could consider setting a clearer expectation (already allowed under existing policy) that non-negotiated offers by the debtor—following informal consultations with creditors—rather than negotiated deals, would be the norm, as in these cases speed is of the essence to avoid a default. These ideas could be explored in future staff work.
And the second area, that is also “to be explored in future staff work”, is what to do about the risks caused by asymmetry in the treatment of private and official sector creditors, something that was very apparent in the recent Greek restructure:
… arrears to private and official creditors are currently treated asymmetrically under Fund policy.
Private external arrears are tolerated but arrears to official bilateral lenders are not. This subjects the Fund to the risk that it could not assist a member in need due to one or more holdout official bilateral creditors who seek favorable treatment of their claims. Consideration could be given to extend the LIA policy to official bilateral arrears and in that context clarify the modality through which assurances of debt relief are provided by (non-Paris Club) official lenders. Another possibility would be for the Paris Club to extend its membership to all major lenders, so as to allow the Fund to rely on the Paris Club conventions with respect to financing assurances and arrears.
However, it is uncertain whether the Club could achieve such an expansion.
All up it’s an interesting paper and well worth the read if you are interested in this type of thing. The paper also has some discussion on the European crisis-resolution mechanism ( discussed in more detail here ) , although given recent back-steps from Europe on the banking union this looks to still be something of a distant dream at this point.
It will be interesting to see if this paper has any effect on future programs, but it does appear, if only very slowly, that the IMF is learning from past mistakes and attempting to shift policy in a direction to address that issue. It would appear, at least from this paper, that the IMF will be demanding a more realistic assessment of the debt sustainability of target nations and a greater use of up-front restructuring as a per-requisite for program engagement. We’ll have to watch the next steps in Europe to determine if this is simply a talking point or something the IMF board will action.
Full paper below.