Total public debt stands at an alarming 50-year high in low- and middle-income economies, the equivalent of more than 200 percent of government revenues.
—the fastest accumulation since World War II. The fiscal impact of high debt levels is substantial, at a moment when rising poverty rates and high commodity prices are draining government coffers for development priorities, such as clean water, nutrition, electricity, health, education, and climate. As a result, the World Bank’s twin goals of eradicating extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity are further out of reach.
Despite the unprecedented debt burden many governments are facing, the true extent of their public debt liabilities is often hard to quantify. In fact, many low- and middle-income countries do not disclose timely debt data or publish incomplete data that understate the true level of liabilities. Global surveillance is also hampered by the opacity of several domestic debt markets, the increased use of central bank repurchase agreements or currency swaps that are not included in government debt statistics, and a proliferation of borrowing by state-owned and private sector entities with explicit or implicit government guarantee (“hidden debt”).
Comprehensive debt data enhance the international community’s ability to help avoid debt crises or support countries when they occur. Finally, debt transparency is also essential to avoid disorderly and protracted debt restructuring, as only the maximum level of disclosure can generate the trust that creditors need to agree on the appropriate level of debt relief and burden sharing. The need for change is urgent in the wake of COVID-19 when wider deficits have increased the risk that unreported liabilities will emerge.
“Raising the Bar on Debt Data Transparency” was the subject of a recent panel discussion, co-hosted by the World Bank Group Chief Economist and the Executive Director for Japan at the World Bank. The event brought together a panel of experts from borrower and creditor countries, academia, and the World Bank, who discussed ongoing efforts and concrete actions to support debt data transparency.
The World Bank’s International Debt Statistics provide the most granular breakdown and the broadest coverage for external debt. The database follows international statistical standards and is widely used by policymakers and academia. It now includes information on what each borrowing country owes to each official and private creditor, as well as the average maturity and interest rate on which loans were extended. To keep up with recent borrowing trends, the World Bank is working to expand the coverage of the database to domestic debt, and to close information gaps related to contingent and collateralized liabilities.
The international community’s support is indispensable, and development partners need to multiply their efforts in three areas to raise the bar on debt data transparency:
- Continuing to support capacity development in debtor countries: debt is often not recorded or reported transparently due to a shortage of skills and knowledge, absence of a legal framework, or lack of institutional arrangements or performing IT systems. Technical assistance programs, such as the Debt Management Facility - jointly managed by the World Bank and the IMF - are therefore critical to address the lack of ability to disclose information. The new World Bank Global Data Facility, which the government of Japan is supporting through a $5 million contribution, will also prioritize addressing capacity constraints in debt recording and reporting through technical assistance.
- Fostering clarity on financing arrangements and contracts: borrowing and/or lending countries may have an incentive to withhold information on their financing activities. Confidentiality clauses and overly complex financing instruments - such as some resource-backed loans contracted by low-income countries - are a barrier to transparency. This makes the Bank’s analytical work and other efforts around debt data transparency, including the expansion of the International Debt Statistics database, even more critical.
- Ensuring data consistency between creditor and debtor records: debt data quality can be significantly improved through data verification and reconciliation with information provided by creditors. This requires continuous collaboration between borrowers and creditors, not only during crisis but also in normal times. As presented during the event, for instance, the US Treasury discloses its exposure on a loan-by-loan basis, setting an example to other bilateral lenders.
These measures require collective efforts from all players—debtors, official and private creditors, and international financial institutions—to achieve a greater good. The time to act is now.