Austerity, Debt Overhang, and the Design of International Standards on Sovereign,
Corporate, and Consumer Debt Restructuring
57 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2015
Date Written: August 27, 2015
Following the Asian Financial Crisis, sovereign debt defaults prompted calls by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a statutory Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM). In promoting the SDRM, IMF leaders argued that countries’ sovereign debt problems needed something like U.S. Chapter 11, which is to say that IMF leaders supported the SDRM proposal with reference to legal claims rather than relying on purely economic arguments about the welfare benefits of resolving debt overhang. Framing the debate in this way caught on, but by 2005 the IMF board of directors had rejected the SDRM proposal. The current Global Financial Crisis similarly has resulted in more than several sovereign borrowers’ defaults and has, in turn, renewed calls for revision of the process for restructuring sovereign indebtedness. This time, however, the rhetoric has shifted away from legal metaphor. Rather than comparing sovereign borrowers to corporations in financial distress, sovereign debt has been discussed in terms reminiscent of household debt. Countries should, we are told, practice financial austerity. This paper unpacks the differences among indebtedness owed by public and private, corporate and consumer, borrowers, and the distinct implications for restructuring these different sorts of debt. It argues that modern economic literature on sovereign debt has been chasing the wrong metaphor. The puzzle of sovereign debt shifts when sovereign borrowing is viewed through the lens of consumer (not corporate) borrowing. This shift in metaphor promises more than a new rhetoric.
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