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Debt in low-income countries: A rising vulnerability

Patrick Kirby's picture
Download the January 2019 Global Economic Prospects report.

Since 2013, median government debt in low-income countries has risen by 20 percentage points of GDP and increasingly comes from non-concessional and private sources. As a result, interest payments are absorbing an increasing proportion of government revenues in these countries.

This increase in public debt exposes low-income countries to greater currency, interest rate, and refinancing risks. At present 11 low-income economies are in debt distress or at a high risk of debt distress, up from six in 2015. Even those low-income countries that are at low or moderate risk of debt distress face eroding safety margins.

To shield themselves from the risks associated with high debt, low-income countries urgently need to strengthen the effectiveness of domestic resource mobilization, public investment and other spending, and debt management.
 
Debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) helped to reduce public debt among low-income countries from a median debt-to-GDP ratio of close to 100 percent in the early 2000s to a median of just over 30 percent in 2013. This downward trend reversed sharply thereafter, with the median debt ratio rising to above 50 percent by 2017. The rise was especially sharp for commodity exporters.

Rising debt raises fewer concerns about debt sustainability if it is used to finance investment that raises countries’ potential output, and therefore their ability to repay loans in the future. In some low-income countries, wider fiscal deficits were matched by higher public investment. For most low-income countries, however, a substantial part of the borrowing has been used to finance a rise in current consumption.
 
Gross low-income countries (LIC) government debt

The Middle East and North Africa outlook in five charts: Recovery after a weak 2017

Lei Sandy Ye's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
Growth in the Middle East and North Africa region is estimated to have slowed sharply in 2017 and is forecast to recover to 3 percent in 2018. Regional activity is anticipated to strengthen gradually over the medium term in response to policy reforms and easing fiscal adjustments. A number of downside risks continue to cloud the outlook for the region, including geopolitical tensions and conflict, weakness in oil prices, and obstacles to reform progress. These are only partly offset by the possibility of stronger-than-expected Euro Area activity.
 
Regional growth tumbled last year, led by oil exporters

Growth in the Middle East and North Africa is estimated to have slowed sharply to 1.8 percent in 2017 from 5 percent the year before, driven by decline in growth among oil exporters. Growth declined among Gulf Cooperation Council and non-GCC oil exporters, with oil production cuts and continued geopolitical tensions contributing to the fall-off.
Growth

Are capital flows fickle? And does the answer still depend on type?

Poonam Gupta's picture

According to conventional wisdom, capital flows are fickle. They are fickle more or less independent of time and place. But different flows exhibit different degrees of volatility: FDI is least volatile, while bank-intermediated flows are most volatile.  Other portfolio capital flows rank in between, and within this intermediate category debt flows are more volatile than equity-based flows. 

Relative risk ratings and shadow sovereign ratings for 120+ countries

Dilip Ratha's picture

Sovereign credit ratings assigned by the major rating agencies (such as Fitch, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s) play a major role in determining the government’s access to international capital markets. Although sovereign ratings relate to debt and creditworthiness of the central government, in effect they serve as a barometer of confidence and a ceiling for creditworthiness for the private sector as well. They influence the borrowing costs of private entities and in a wider sense overall investment flows. The sovereign rating is often a benchmark and sub-sovereign entities, such as companies and banks, rarely get a rating higher than the sovereign’s.

Microcredit Borrowers in Bangladesh Are Not Necessarily Trapped in Poverty and Debt as many contended in recent years

Shahid Khandker's picture

With spectacular growth of microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Bangladesh, there is a growing concern that borrowers might be borrowing from multiple sources and more than they are able to repay, and hence, they are trapped in poverty and debt.  Microfinance programs, operating in Bangladesh for more than two decades, have reached more than 10 million households in 2008, nearly half the rural population, with an annual disbursement close to US$1.8 billion and an outstanding balance of US$1.5 billion.  Multiple program membership has increased over the years: it was nonexistent in 1991/92, 11.9 percent in 1998/99 and 36 percent in 2010/11. 

However, a recent study shows that increased borrowing, even from multiple sources, has not lowered loan recovery rates. 

Also, another recent study observes that microcredit borrowers are not necessarily trapped in poverty and debt. This study analyzes data from a long panel survey over a 20-year period, and finds that although many participants have been with microcredit programs for many years they are not necessarily trapped in debt as the accrued assets due to borrowing outweigh accumulated debt for many borrowers.

Bears, boots and long-run growth

Justin Yifu Lin's picture

Photo: istockphoto.comJackson Hole was abuzz last week as top economists rubbed shoulders with central bankers, but the stuffed bears in the lobby of the venue seemed symbolic of the angst permeating world markets.

In spite of this, the participants got down to business and I was not alone in thinking that today’s financial market turmoil and the anxiety over high unemployment in the United States and over European debt should be treated by the economics profession as an opportunity to think differently about solutions for kick-starting growth. 

Today’s uncertainty should spur policymakers to take new economic ideas and build a social consensus for action. An ambitious, innovative approach is needed otherwise the crisis will likely be with us for some years. Indeed, the US and EU could face a Japan-style scenario, with prolonged recession and a high level of public debt.

How Advanced Economies Can Tackle Their Debt Woes

Vamsee Kanchi's picture

Given the urgent need for policymakers in Europe and other advanced economies to tackle current debt challenges, there is a frantic scramble for suitable policy tools that will help resolve the Greek conundrum. 

One policy tool – a form of debt restructuring known as ‘financial repression’ that focuses on establishing a tighter relationship between government and the financial industry by setting caps on interest rates and regulating cross-border money flows – has largely been overlooked.  The Petersen Insitute’s Carmen Reinhart recently delivered a

International capital flows: Final picture from 2009

Shahrokh Fardoust's picture
 Photo: Istockphoto.com

As snow covers ground in Washington, D.C., debt markets swoon, and another year comes to a close, it seems like a good time to look at what actually happened to international capital flows to developing countries last year and what that might portend for flows in 2010, as this year’s numbers will be finalized in coming months.

At a time when the global economy has seen the most severe slowdown since the end of WWII, capital flows to the developing world—including private flows (debt and equity) and official capital flows (loans and grants from all sources)—are in an overall slump, well below their level in 2007 ($1.1 trillion). According to the just-published Global Development Finance: External Debt of Developing Countries, which contains detailed data on the external debt of 128 developing countries for 2009, net capital flows to these countries fell by 20 percent from $744 billion in 2008 to $598 billion in 2009. 

Open Data and Public Sector Debt

Shaida Badiee's picture

The volume of public domestic debt issued in developing countries has grown substantially in recent years, but consistent data on the domestic debt of developing countries have not been generally available until now. As part of the Open Data Initiative, the World Bank is launching an online, quarterly, Public Sector Debt database developed in partnership with the IMF, which will allow researchers and policymakers to explore questions about debt management in a comprehensive manner. The database promotes consistency and comparability across countries by standardizing the treatment of public sector debt, valuation methods, and debt instruments, and by identifying, where possible, the debt of central, state, and local governments as well as extra-budgetary agencies and funds.