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New Study: Failing Global Debt System Costs Lives

New York, June 22, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — New research supported by the Open Society Foundations shows that increasing delays in resolving sovereign debt crises in some of the world’s poorest countries are significantly adding to the human cost of defaults—cutting economic growth, reducing life-expectancy, and worsening child mortality rates.

The analysis, The Human Costs of the Failing Global Debt System, builds on research published last year that showed how going into default leads to economic and human damage that worsens over subsequent years.

Sovereign debt defaults occur when countries fail to pay their debts on time. This can be interest or principal payments to domestic or international creditors. This typically forces a renegotiation of lending terms. The research looked at data from 131 sovereign debt defaults around the world since 1900.

The new paper’s authors, economists Clemens Graf von Luckner and Juan P. Farah-Yacoub, conclude that, in addition, the longer it takes a country to reach a new agreement with its creditors, the greater the increase in human costs:

  • When a country’s debt crisis is resolved in less than three years, infant mortality ten years after a default is declared as 2.2 percentage points higher than would have been expected. But when the default continues for more than three years, the difference rises to a staggering 11.4 percentage points higher.
  • For the countries studied, on average, life expectancy ten years after default drops by more than one year relative to where it would have been without the default.
  • In addition, the shortfall in the rate of increase in real economic output per capita (against what it could have been without default), jumps by 2.5 percentage points in the first year of default, against what it would have been had there been no default. It then continues to grow by 1.5 percentage point on average each year thereafter. Over a decade the gap grows to roughly 14.5 percentage points.

The findings underline the grave damage being caused by the failure of the existing global financial system to deliver prompt resolution to countries in default due in part to the involvement of an increasingly complex mix of creditors—including international financial institutions such as development banks, commercial banks, sovereign lenders including China, and private commercial creditors.

The report also highlights the case of Zambia, which defaulted on its external debt in November 2020 under the economic strains of the Covid pandemic. It has yet to secure a comprehensive debt agreement among all of its public and private creditors and the International Monetary Fund, with its total debt now estimated at over $18 billion.

The authors of this new report calculated that, based on a calculation using Zambia’s birth rates in 2016, the country’s current debt default would result in an additional 3,079 annual deaths of infants before their first birthdays by the year 2030, if the default is prolonged further.

Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, said: “The findings here starkly illustrate how a dysfunctional global financial system is causing tragic but entirely avoidable human suffering. The leaders meeting in Paris need to commit to the urgent reforms the world needs to face both deepening poverty and the worsening climate crisis.”

The Open Society Foundations, together with a broad range of civil society groups, are pushing for the leaders gathered at the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris to commit to policies that will significantly reform the international debt restructuring process to allow for a just and sustainable resolution to a country’s default delivered in a timely manner. These steps include:

  1. States establishing a clear process with firm timetables for getting agreement to “cure” defaults—no more three years in limbo like Zambia.
  2. The IMF must more aggressively use its authority to “lend into arrears”—which means they can launch their funding support program to indebted countries even if some creditors refuse to accept new debt relief terms. These hold out creditors loans would not get paid, but everyone else participating does.
  3. Private creditors (including sovereign bond holders) should not be allowed to refuse to accept debt settlements that creditor countries agree to, and then expect to be paid with the benefits of that relief, or to use the courts to get full repayment. In the United States, the New York State legislature has before it legislation that would end this practice.
  4. The International Financial Institutions need significantly more funding from the Global North to give them the resources needed to properly fund recovery from defaults and allow the economic growth needed to avoid defaults in the future.
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