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Economists split over state insolvency mechanism

Global resolution of debt crises is needed

Possible mechanisms for coping with debt crises and preventing them from occurring need global scope and a careful balancing of issues related to sovereignty and the functioning of the international financial order, experts said at a seminar. The seminar, titled “The Resolution of Debt Crises: The Policy and Research Agenda”, took place on 11 February. It was co-hosted by UNCTAD and Columbia University’s Initiative for Policy Dialogue (IPD). A UNCTAD information note


UNCTAD Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi and IPD co-President José Antionio Ocampo opened the debate with a careful review of the current situation relating to sovereign debt, which has seen many developing countries face renewed debt difficulties in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Senior academics, policymakers, diplomats, and representatives of the private sector and civil society participated. Speakers and panelists included Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, Patrick Bolton, Lee Buchheit, Guillermo Calvo, Otaviano Canuto, Dominique Desruelle, Ricardo Hausmann, Anne Krueger, Yuefen Li, Fridrik Mar Baldursson, Nouriel Roubini, Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Jeromin Zettelmeyer. Some of the panelists and participants also serve on an expert group formed under the UNCTAD Initiative on Promoting Responsible Sovereign Lending and Borrowing, which held a related meeting 10 February.

* Diverging views

Three views emerged at the seminar on the issue of a possible sovereign insolvency mechanism:

* The first holds that the current “non-system” is inefficient and inequitable, and that a well-designed mechanism for dealing with sovereign insolvency could help in reducing the costs of debt crises and minimize any negative consequence in terms of access and cost of financing.

* The second view argues that, rather than being characterized as a non-system, the current situation should be described as a fragmented system which, even if it is not perfect, generally has the necessary instruments for dealing with most sovereign-insolvency cases.

* The third view acknowledges that, while there are many theoretical arguments in favour of creating mechanisms for dealing with sovereign insolvency, the implementation of such a system could face challenges, including issues related to national sovereignty and the difficulty of differentiating liquidity from solvency problems.

While there was no agreement on the desirability of creating a new mechanism of resolution of debt crises, many participants agreed with the idea that if such a mechanism were to be created, it should have a global rather than a regional reach.

* Many open issues

Participants and panellists also discussed the role of credit default swaps (CDS) and debt buybacks in the field of sovereign debt. There was agreement that, whatever other merits they may have or problems they may generate, the presence of an active market for credit default swaps is not a serious obstacle to restructuring sovereign debt.

Overall, panellists and participants emphasized that any discussion on resolution of debt crises should be linked with discussions on how to avoid such crises. On this subject, there are many open issues. The first has to do with contingent liabilities. Many debt crises originate from problems in the banking system. Policymakers should find ways to isolate the credit of the sovereign from the sometimes reckless behaviour of the financial sector, speakers said.

A second issue relates to the link between the behaviour of capital flows and financial crises. Time and again, debt crises are preceded by international lending booms (either to the private or public sectors) and large misalignments of the real exchange rate, participants said.

Some argued that the “non-system” now in effect relates not only to the resolution of debt crises but to the overall international financial order. Having a system aimed at avoiding excessive capital flows, large current account imbalances and exchange-rate misalignments is a necessary condition for avoiding future crises, these speakers contended. The current solution in which each country tries to deal with these problems on its own is clearly inefficient and a global solution is needed, participants said.

Posted: 20 Feb 2011

Recommended citation: UNCTAD information note (2011) 'Economists split over state insolvency mechanism', World Economy & Development In Brief, 21 Feb 2011, Luxembourg (www.wdev.eu)

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