Sovereign debt crises occur regularly and often violently. Yet there is no legally and politically recognized procedure for restructuring the debt of bankrupt sovereigns. Procedures of this type have been periodically debated, but so far been rejected, for two main reasons. First, countries have been reluctant to give up power to supranational rules or institutions, and creditors and debtors have felt that there were sufficient instruments for addressing debt crises at hoc. Second, fears that making debt easier to restructure would raise the costs and reduce the amounts of sovereign borrowing in many countries. This was perceived to be against the interests of both the providers of both creditors and major borrowers.
This report argues that both the nature and our understanding of sovereign debt problems have changed, over the course of the last decade, in a direction that creates a much stronger case for an orderly sovereign bankruptcy regime today than ten years ago. Pre-crisis policy mistakes are now recognized to be a much more severe problem for borrowing countries than the costs or limited availability of private financing. Recent court rulings – particularly a recent U.S. ruling that gives "holdout creditors" that decline a restructuring offer the right to interfere with payments to the creditors that accept such an offer. This will complicate efforts to resolve future debt crises on an ad hoc basis. Finally, sovereign debt crises are no longer just a problem in emerging markets, but a core concern in advanced countries as well – particularly in the Euro area. If the Euro is to survive, this will require both better ways to resolve debt crises and stronger, market-based incentives that prevent debt problems from occurring in the first place.
To address these problems, policy proposals are presented at two levels: for the Euro area, and globally. A Euro area sovereign debt restructuring regime could be developed by amending the Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). This would both restrict the scope for lending to highly indebted countries without also restructuring their debts, and protect Euro area members receiving ESM financial assistance from legal action by holdout creditors. At the global level, a number of proposals are discussed, ranging from a coordinated introduction of "aggregate collective action clauses" that would allow a supermajority of bondholders across all bonds to amend bond payment terms to an amendment of the IMF articles that would limit the legal remedies of holdouts when a debt restructuring proposal has been accepted both by a majority of creditors and endorsed by the IMF.
Lee C. Buchheit et al, Revisiting Sovereign Bankruptcy (Brookings, 2013)
Library of Congress Subject Headings
Debt relief, Default (Finance), International Monetary Fund, Government bonds, Eurozone, Public debts, Debtor and creditor