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How to Prevent the Looming Sovereign-Debt Crisis

From Latin America’s lost decade in the 1980s to the more recent Greek crisis, there are plenty of painful reminders of what happens when countries cannot service their debts. A global debt crisis today would likely push millions of people into unemployment and fuel instability and violence around the world.

NEW YORK – While the COVID-19 pandemic rages, more than 100 low- and middle-income countries will still have to pay a combined $130 billion in debt service this year – around half of which is owed to private creditors. With much economic activity suspended and fiscal revenues in free fall, many countries will be forced to default. Others will cobble together scarce resources to pay creditors, cutting back on much-needed health and social expenditures. Still others will resort to additional borrowing, kicking the proverbial can down the road, seemingly easier now because of the flood of liquidity from central banks around the world.

From Latin America’s lost decade in the 1980s to the more recent Greek crisis, there are plenty of painful reminders of what happens when countries cannot service their debts. A global debt crisis today will push millions of people into unemployment and fuel instability and violence around the world. Many will seek jobs abroad, potentially overwhelming border-control and immigration systems in Europe and North America. Another costly migration crisis will divert attention away from the urgent need to address climate change. Such humanitarian emergencies are becoming the new norm.

This nightmare scenario is avoidable if we act now. The origins of today’s looming debt crisis are easy to understand. Owing to quantitative easing, the public debt (mostly sovereign bonds) of low- and middle-income countries has more than tripled since the 2008 global financial crisis. Sovereign bonds are riskier than “official” debt from multilateral institutions and developed-country aid agencies because creditors can dump them on a whim, triggering a sharp currency depreciation and other far-reaching economic disruptions.

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