Acommon proposal designed to deal with the developing countries’ debt problem is that there be set up an “international debt facility” that would buy debt at a discount and then mark down its contractual value, hence providing debt relief. This facility could be envisaged either as a major scheme that would, over a period, deal with most or all outstanding commercial debt owed or guaranteed by governments, or as a more modest arrangement dealing with only small portions of debt, possibly only that which is owed by the governments of particular countries.


Acommon proposal designed to deal with the developing countries’ debt problem is that there be set up an “international debt facility” that would buy debt at a discount and then mark down its contractual value, hence providing debt relief. This facility could be envisaged either as a major scheme that would, over a period, deal with most or all outstanding commercial debt owed or guaranteed by governments, or as a more modest arrangement dealing with only small portions of debt, possibly only that which is owed by the governments of particular countries.

Acommon proposal designed to deal with the developing countries’ debt problem is that there be set up an “international debt facility” that would buy debt at a discount and then mark down its contractual value, hence providing debt relief. This facility could be envisaged either as a major scheme that would, over a period, deal with most or all outstanding commercial debt owed or guaranteed by governments, or as a more modest arrangement dealing with only small portions of debt, possibly only that which is owed by the governments of particular countries.

Many such proposals have been advanced. They vary in their details,1 and there are many difficulties, some major. Nevertheless, the frequency with which such proposals are made makes it worth examining them carefully in their many permutations.

I. Main Issues

There are three principal parties to the proposed transaction—the debtor governments, the creditor banks, and the “owners” of the facility. The central question is how the costs and benefits would accrue to various parties. Is there an element of “foreign aid” or of a “bank bail-out”? Alternatively, would the banks give up something? Could all three parties gain or, at least, could some gain without the others losing significantly, if at all? In other words, is there some systemic benefit?

The proximate redistributive effects—and possibly also the systemic effects—will depend crucially on three prices: the price at which the debt is bought, the price or value to which it is marked down, and the price or perceived value to which remaining debt that is retained in the private sector moves as a result of the whole operation. The full economic effects will depend, of course, on how the various parties react to or deal with the proximate gains or losses.

In considering the details of such a scheme there are many choices to be made.

  • The debt might be bought by the facility at the minimum price required for the banks to part with it voluntarily; it might be bought at current market prices; it might be bought at the market prices that existed at some earlier “cut-off” date; or it might be bought at some other set of prices representing discounts on the contractual value. Conceivably it might even be bought at its contractual value.

  • Purchased debt might be marked down to the cost at which the facility bought it, or to a higher or lower value than cost.

  • The debt that is not sold by banks might maintain its present contractual status; it might be subordinated to the debt that the debtor countries will now incur to the facility; or it might be marked down by the debtors to an extent that would force the banks to sell all their debt to the facility.

A crucial question is how the facility would be financed. Here, also, there are differences among the various proposals, and the possibilities will be discussed shortly.

II. A Simple Scheme

Let us suppose that the scheme applies to any one debtor country. The facility goes into the market and offers to buy given amounts of debt. In the detailed example spelled out below, it will be assumed that the facility offers to buy half the stock of debt. Of course debt is not homogeneous, so that various decisions would have to be made on which debt to buy. It is quite likely that the facility would have to pay more than the initial market price, but one can assume that the facility would buy debt at a discount from the contractual value. The important question of what would determine the price, and in which direction it would move, will be taken up later.

The facility pays for the purchased debt with new bonds guaranteed by its owners. The banks are thus able to dispose of debt with the original contractual value that is subject to default risk in exchange for debt of a lower contractual value that is subject to much lower, possibly zero, default risk. One’s first thought is that those that sell could not be worse off as a result. After all, selling is voluntary; there is no compulsion in this scheme. This conclusion is not necessarily true, and will have to be looked at again in Section IV.

The facility would then mark down the contractual value of the debtor country’s debt that it has acquired. It marks the debt down to the cost price to it—that is, the contractual value of the new bonds it has issued to the banks. No funds are thus required from the owners of the facility—that is, the governments that have underwritten the facility. But, of course, the facility’s new assets are somewhat risky and, because of the guarantees on the bonds it has issued, this risk has been taken over by the facility’s owners. Given this risk, there will be a potential need for funds from the owners, who may actually wish to finance contingency reserves specifically to allow for the risk. A major, and possibly overwhelming, obstacle to the establishment of a facility is the reluctance of governments to assume such risks. A question to be discussed below is whether this risk can be reduced or eliminated.

The debtor country apparently benefits because the contractual value of its debt has been reduced. But the gain to it wilt not necessarily be as great as it might seem at first. One possible view is that the market’s perception of default risk, which led to the initial discount, was justified in the sense that this represented the true probability of default. In other words, there was a good chance in any case that the country would not repay the full contractual value of its debt. Reducing the contractual value as a result of the operation of the facility would not necessarily reduce actual payments (or the probability of actual payments expected to be made) to the same extent. Indeed, one might ask whether there is likely to be any gain to the debtor country at all.

III. How Debtor and Banks May Gain

This matter of the possible gain to the debtor, and also to the banks, can be analyzed more precisely if the concept of the debtor’s “capacity to pay” is introduced. This is defined as the ability to make resource transfers abroad to cover interest payments and repayment of principal. It depends on the country’s output over a period of time, on its minimum consumption level, and on its ability to transform output into tradables (exports and import-competing products) required to generate the transfer. It also depends on the terms of trade.

It will be supposed at this stage that capacity to pay can vary as the result of various exogenous, uncertain events—such as terms of trade developments—but does not vary because of changes in the policies of the debtor country itself, which are simply taken as given. This is the assumption of “exogeneity.” It will also be assumed for the moment that expectations about capacity to pay are the same among market participants, debtor countries, and the decision makers of the facility. This is the assumption of “uniformity of expectations.” These two simplifying assumptions are important for the analysis of gains and losses from the establishment of a facility and therefore will be reconsidered in Section VII.

There are two steps in the analysis. First I show why the banks might gain at the expense of the facility, and then I show why the debtor might gain. The second effect depends crucially on uncertainty.

Gain to the Banks

To begin with, there is the “market price effect.”2 It can be shown that the banks will gain at the expense of the facility, provided that the debt that they retain is not subordinated to the marked-down debt the facility now holds. The reason is that the market price of the debt will rise (the discount will fall). The argument is quite simple when there is complete certainty about the capacity to pay (or repay).

Let us suppose that the contractual debt is US$1,000 and the capacity to pay is $600. Assume at this stage that the latter is fixed. Hence the debtor country will neither gain nor lose; whatever happens, it pays $600. This is thought of as a single sum paid in a single future period, the sum consisting of principal and interest combined. Given the initial contractual debt, default or debt relief is then inevitable. The “default ratio” would be 40 percent.

The facility then offers to buy a proportion of the $1,000 in contractual debt from the banks at a discounted price. Here it will be assumed that it buys half the debt ($500) and that the price it pays is 80 cents to the dollar. Hence the facility pays $400 and marks the debt it has acquired down to its cost price. The contractual value of the total debt owed by the debtor country is thus reduced to $900. With the same capacity to pay as before, the default ratio becomes 33.3 percent. The facility will finally get 66.7 percent repayment of the debt it holds, thus making a loss of $133. The banks will get $333 for the debt they have retained (with a contractual value of $500), and when this is combined with the $400 they received from the facility they end up with $733, which is an improvement of $133 on what they would have received if the facility had not bought and marked down some of the debt. The discount on debt held by the banks has fallen from 40 percent to 33.3 percent.

In this example the facility’s purchase price is 80 cents but the market price has risen only from 60 cents to 67 cents. The purchase price could therefore be reduced, leading to a bigger decline in the contractual value and, hence, to a further rise in the market price. The equilibrium price (where purchase and market prices are equal) would actually be 70½ cents when the facility buys half the debt. If it bought a greater proportion, the price would be higher. These results can be derived as follows:



  • C1 = initial contractual value

  • C2 = contractual value after debt relief

  • q = proportion of debt bought by facility

  • R = capacity to pay

  • p = purchase price (equal to market price after purchase) as proportion of initial contractual price.

From equations (1) and (2),


From equation (3),


There has been a pure transfer from the facility to the banks. All this will be reflected in the market price rising (discount falling) when the facility enters the market. It has to pay a higher price than the initial price to induce the banks to sell any debt to it. The banks will foresee that debt not sold would rise in value when some marking down takes place, and hence they will only sell at a sufficiently higher price. The price would not necessarily rise to its equilibrium value immediately, and could also overshoot, since banks and others in the market would not be able to predict this equilibrium in advance. The account given here, with its impression of precision, merely indicates likely tendencies.

The essential point can be restated as follows. When the contractual value of the total debt is reduced while total capacity to pay stays constant, each dollar’s worth of contractual debt must be worth more in the market than before, provided that all dollars of contractual debt would be treated equally if there were some default.

Gain to the Debtor

Uncertainty about capacity to pay and the “ceiling effect” can now be introduced.3 The mean expected repayment might be $600, but it could also be greater, up to a ceiling of complete repayment of $1,000, and it could be less, with a floor of zero. There is thus both upside and downside risk, and this will be taken into account in the market price. If the contractual value of the debt is reduced, say, to $900, the ceiling will be lowered to $900. If the terms of trade, for example, turn out to be quite favorable, so that capacity to pay is actually $950, the actual payment will be $50 less than if the contractual value had stayed at its initial level. Thus the debtor gains at the expense of creditors from a markdown of the contractual value because the downside risk remains as before, whereas the offsetting upside risk (or gain) becomes less.4

IV. Subordination: Can a Gain to the Banks Be Avoided?

An interesting question is whether a gain to the banks at the expense of the facility—that is, a “bank bail-out”—can be avoided. The key here is subordination of the debt retained by the banks relative to the debt now owned by the facility.

When one talks about a gain to the banks, one means a gain relative to the initial situation when there was already a discount in the market. Earlier, of course, the banks incurred a loss once the probability of some default or forced debt relief was perceived by them or the market. Presumably, as long as the banks get less than $1,000 they will have incurred some loss as normally defined, even though the margin above the London interbank offered rate (LIBOR) they charged originally must have taken into account the possibility of some default or of heavy pressure to provide some relief.

Suppose that, again, the facility buys half the debt and marks it down to cost. It buys it at 80 cents per dollar and so pays $400, total contractual debt being thus marked down to $900 as before. One now proceeds in two stages. First, let us assume that there is no doubt at all that the capacity to pay will be at least $400.

If it could be firmly established that, whatever is the capacity-to-pay outcome above $400, the debt held by the facility would always be paid first—that is, would be “senior” debt—then the facility would not make a loss, and its owners would run no risk. But the banks would lose potentially, and the debtors gain, because the “ceiling payment” has been reduced. Previously the maximum payment the banks could have received was $1,000, whereas now it is $500 for the debt they have retained plus the $400 they have already received from the facility. If capacity to pay turned out to be $950, previously the banks would have received $950, but now they can only receive $900. In contrast, the minimum they can receive remains $400.

Subordinating debt retained by the banks to facility-held debt thus ensures that the facility neither loses nor gains, taking on no risk, while the debtor countries gain potentially at the expense of the banks because of the ceiling effect. The expected loss to the banks would be reflected in a decline in the market price.5

If it were desired for some of the loss to the banks to be shared with the facility, the latter could mark down the debt by more than the discounted purchase price, hence making a clear loss now. Alternatively, only part of its debt might be given seniority. Here there is scope for many variations in the details of such a scheme, and these may have significant effects on the gains or losses for the banks and the facility. The key point is that the banks and the facility combined must make a potential loss—that is, forgoing the benefits of a very favorable capacity-to-pay outcome. The risk of an unfavorable outcome has not been eliminated, but the possibility of a very favorable return (above $900) has.

The second stage of the analysis is to assume that capacity to pay could be less than $400. In that case there would be some possibility that even debt given senior status would not be fully repaid. Hence risk for the facility would not be completely eliminated. The conclusion that sub-dination of debt retained by the banks to the debt owned by the facility would eliminate all risk for the facility hinges completely on the assumption that some minimum total payment—equal to the value of the debt that the facility has bought ($400 in the example)—is utterly assured. But the larger the proportion of the initial total debt that the facility takes over and marks down, the less likely it is that all risk for the facility would be eliminated by giving the debt it holds senior status. If the facility had bought up all the debt, no one but the facility could assume the risk.

There can never be utter certainty about prospective capacity to pay, so that some risk for the facility is inherent in the scheme. This implicit risk is particularly relevant for proposals that would have the facility take over a large part of the foreign debt of a country. The inevitable risk helps to explain the reluctance of governments of creditor countries to support proposals for such a facility.

V. Reduction of Uncertainty

Another possibility, worth exploring carefully because it is implicit in some proposals, can now be considered. The suggestion is that the Fund or World Bank may be able to increase or ensure certainty of payment at the new, marked-down value of the debt. The assumption maintained so far—that the actual repayment outcome depends only on exogenously determined capacity to pay, subject to the “ceiling” imposed by the contractual value—is relaxed. Repayment can also depend on policies.

Suppose that initially the mean expected capacity to pay was $600, with a probability of creditors getting more or less. If the total debt were marked down to $600, there would then be a $600 ceiling to the repayment. In addition, suppose that the Fund or World Bank were able to ensure that $600 also became the minimum repayment. This assurance might have been obtained with the aid of conditionally. Given this arrangement, there is no longer a necessary loss to the banks and the facility combined from the imposition of a reduced ceiling because that ceiling is associated with the imposition of a raised floor. Upside and downside risk have both been eliminated. Certainty has been obtained— or at least uncertainty has been reduced.

Certainty represents a net gain for the banks and the facility combined, given that they are risk averse. With subordination, the whole of this gain from certainty would go to the banks in the first case just discussed, in which a minimum repayment sufficient to cover the debt held by the facility was in any case ensured. But in the more general case, in which the facility has carried some of the risk previously (whether because no minimum was ensured or because there was no subordination), the gain would go partially to the facility.

It is often implied in debt relief proposals that the marked-down value of debt would have no more risk attached to it (or very little risk) because it would be close to the expected capacity to pay. It is doubtful whether this assumption is realistic. The implication is that willingness to repay— and the resolve to make the necessary adjustments—is not exogenous but rather can be made more “certain” in return for debt relief. Perhaps a commitment that would successfully reduce perceived default risk could be obtained from the debtor country in some way or other. Debtor governments could make certain policy commitments. No doubt the Fund’s conditionality procedures can play a role here. Conditionality can conceivably reduce uncertainty and default risk, although it can surely not eliminate them.

A reduction in uncertainty of repayment without necessarily any net change in the mean expected repayment is clearly a gain to the banks and the facility. But it is not necessarily a gain for the system as a whole. If uncertainty in the capacity to pay—for example, uncertainty in terms of trade movements—could be reduced, that would be a net gain. But if uncertainty in capacity to pay continues while repayment becomes more certain owing to conditionality, there has simply been a transfer in the burden of uncertainty toward the debtor country. For example, if the terms of trade turned out to be particularly adverse, the country would have to bear the whole burden instead of sharing it with the banks or the facility through some degree of default or debt relief.

This approach assumes that the mean expected capacity or willingness to pay stays unchanged but that the floor is raised and the ceiling lowered. There are also two other possibilities.

The first is rather similar to the one just discussed. Conditionality may raise the mean without raising the floor: it may raise expected capacity to pay through bringing about an improvement in policies. Although the banks lose through the ceiling effect, they may then nevertheless gain.

The other, quite contrary possibility is that the probability of repayment is actually reduced when the facility takes over debt. As just noted, it is usually argued that, through associating conditionality with the establishment of a facility, the certainty of repayment can be improved. But a contrary view is that a facility that is subject to political pressure and that has no strong penalties available to it may be a less effective debt collector than private banks, which can threaten the withdrawal of trade credit as a potential penalty.

VI. Interests of the Debtor Countries and Moral Hazard

There are several ways in which the debtor country might gain from the arrangement. Some have already been referred to, but they will now be brought together.

Reducing the Default Ratio

A gain that seems obvious at first sight but turns out to be primarily cosmetic is the reduction in the default ratio. The default ratio, D, equals 1 – R/C, where R is the actual debt repayment made—that is, the resource transfer—and C is the contractual value of the debt, D is reduced when the contractual value is marked down, even though the actual payment (which has been assumed to be exogenous so far) does not change.

Does it really matter if this default ratio falls, possibly to zero, when the resource transfer remains unchanged? One might say that the effect is purely cosmetic. If an emperor has few clothes, is it really necessary to proclaim the fact? Against this it can be argued convincingly that debt relief voluntarily provided by the creditors is always better than default.

There would clearly be a preference on the part of the debtor country for debt relief over default if penalties were associated with default. Even in the absence of current penalties, reputation—and hence future creditworthiness—may be influenced by whether there has been formal default rather than debt relief. Note that it has been assumed here that default depends purely on exogenous capacity to pay; hence penalties related to the default ratio would seem less likely or reasonable. Because capacity to pay completely determines actual repayments, there would be no point in the creditors imposing penalties.

Lowering the Ceiling

The debtor country gains owing to the “ceiling effect.” As has been pointed out, if capacity to pay turns out to be particularly favorable–above the new contractual value—the gain would go to the debtor rather than to the creditors because the ceiling for potential repayments has been lowered. This benefit to the debtor might disappear (and could even turn into a loss) if conditionality manages also to raise the floor for the repayment, shifting more of the risk toward the debtor country.6

Marking Debt Down Below Cost

The facility might mark the debt down by more than the cost price to it—possibly by much more—and the contractual value might then fall below the capacity to pay, even when the capacity to pay turns out to be quite low. At the limit, the debt might be marked down to zero. This would represent a straightforward transfer from the owners of the facility to the debtor countries—a case of foreign assistance. It is equivalent to the owner countries donating funds to the debtor country to buy back its debt.

Asymmetric Expectations

A fourth kind of gain has not been referred to so far but is implicit in much advocacy of debt relief and could be important. The markets, specifically the banks, may be pessimistic and believe that there is some probability of default. Hence there is a market discount on the debt. But the government of the debtor country may have no intention of defaulting. There are “asymmetric expectations.” Capacity to pay, after all, is not something clear-cut. The government foresees difficulties and adjustment problems and seeks debt relief but—possibly for fear of penalties—does not intend ever to default, even though it has not succeeded in convincing the market of this. The issue of asymmetric expectations will be discussed further below. Here it can be noted that, if the government of the debtor country has no intention at all of defaulting, the whole of the fall in the contractual value of the debt brought about by debt relief through the operation of the facility or in some other way would represent a clear-cut gain to the debtor country in reduced prospective resource transfers.7

The creditors, however, having different expectations, do not perceive this reduction in the contractual value—or all of it—as a loss to them. They may expect to lose through the ceiling effect but also see some virtue in an explicit recognition of what they believe to be realities—that the country has limited capacity or willingness to pay, that the emperor has fewer clothes than the initial contract specified.

Moral Hazard

For three of the four reasons given here (other than the third, marking debt down below cost), the debtor country would want the price at which the facility buys debt from the banks to be as low as possible. The lower the price, the greater is the decline in the contractual value; hence, the lower the default ratio, the lower is the ceiling applying when events turn out favorably, and the lower are actual repayments if default is never intended.

If this purchase price is equal to or closely related to the market price, the debtor country therefore has an incentive to get the market price down. This can be done by making “default noises”—just a hint here, a threat there—and the banks will be glad to sell at a low price, in the extreme case at any price above zero. This is the familiar “moral hazard” problem.

A possible solution from the point of view of creditors seems to be for the facility’s purchase price not to be determined by the market price, or at least by the market price ruling once the likelihood of such a facility being established has become serious. Market prices at some earlier “cut-off” date might be taken. If the banks are to sell voluntarily, the purchase price will have to be no lower than the current market price. But it could be higher.

The problem is to fix a price that does not give a gain, or an undue gain, to the banks; otherwise there would be a bail-out. But what is a gain? Given the expectations created by their anticipation of the debtor country’s capacity to pay, combined with the default noises made by the debtor government or others in that country, a sale of the debt to the facility at a very low price may still seem to be a gain to the banks. This is true even though the price is likely to represent a loss relative to the expectations at the time the loans were originally made. Presumably the facility should aim to avoid either gain or loss to the banks relative to the situation at some “pre-discussion-of-facility” date—that is, an appropriately early cut-off date.

Most proposals for a facility do not pursue in detail the critical question of how the price at which debt is to be purchased is to be determined, given that there is a moral hazard problem and that there must presumably be a separate price (discount) for each country. It is at this point that the greatest practical problems arise. Sometimes elaborate calculations, which are essentially estimates of capacity to pay, are proposed, but the political difficulties such estimates would involve cannot be ignored. Given the thinness of existing markets, actual market prices, whether current or at some earlier cut-off date, may not be adequate guides.

VII. Two Assumptions Reconsidered

At the beginning of this paper two crucial assumptions were made: that the debtor’s capacity to pay was exogenously determined—for example, by the terms of trade—and that expectations about the capacity to pay were the same among all the relevant parties. Given these assumptions, a fairly straightforward analysis followed that showed that a facility would yield a gain to the banks because of the market price effect and a gain to the debtor because of the ceiling effect. These gains would be at the expense of the facility, which would be taking over a risk. It was further assumed that debt owed to the facility would not be given seniority over debt retained by the banks. If the latter were subordinated, a gain to the banks and loss to the facility might be avoided.

Subsequently, the two initial assumptions have been removed in particular ways. In Section V, the possibility was explored that the facility (or the World Bank or Fund acting on its behalf) could actually affect the debtor’s policies so that capacity to pay would be improved to ensure certainty of repayment of the marked-down value of the debt. In other words, capacity to pay might no longer be exogenous. In Section VI, one case of asymmetric expectations was noted. The debtor government may have no intention of defaulting, but the market may not be convinced of this. In addition, moral hazard was introduced. Prospective repayment may depend not only on capacity to pay but also on willingness to pay (for given capacity), and threats of reduced willingness would affect the market price.

These complications to the initial approach are really special cases, but there are further cases that analysts of these issues sometimes have in mind. A more systematic approach is therefore needed.

First of all, the concept of expected capacity to pay determined by exogenous factors could be redefined as “expected total repayment” determined both by expected capacity to pay and by expected willingness to pay.8 Both would be influenced, or even determined, by policies. When the original concept of capacity to pay is broadened in this way, it becomes more plausible. If the redefined concept is to apply to the initial analysis in this paper, it has to be assumed that expected policies are exogenous in the sense of not being expected to change as a result of the establishment of the facility or its activities.

The next step is to allow for endogenous policies affecting capacity and willingness to pay. The endogeneity of policies is central to many debt-strategy proposals. As noted in Section V, the basic idea is that the benefit to the debtor from debt relief provided through the intermediation of the facility would be reciprocated by improvements in the debtor’s policies, and that some kind of assurance about these policies can be obtained, perhaps with the help of conditionality. In this way more certainty of repayment can be ensured.

With regard to endogenous willingness to pay, two points are usually made. The first, as noted above, is the moral hazard problem: threats of reduced willingness to pay can get the market price down. A second idea not mentioned so far is that, when the contractual value of the debt is partially forgiven so that it is brought down to a more realistic level, the debtor government may have a greater willingness to repay the remainder. If the contractual debt was $1,000 and capacity to pay was $600, some default would be inevitable. It has then been argued that a large default is as bad—and incurs similar penalties—as a more modest default, so that willingness to pay in that case might fall to zero. But if the contractual debt were marked down to $600, there would be a good chance that default could be avoided, and willingness to pay might become 100 percent.

As regards asymmetric expectations about the capacity and willingness to pay, there are several possibilities worth noting. First, as already mentioned, the debtor may not intend, and hence not expect, to default while the market contrarily believes that there is a positive probability of default, thus explaining the market discount. In that case the debtor government will believe it would gain from any debt relief, whereas the creditors—selling their debt voluntarily on the market (and assuming no subordination)—will not expect to lose. If the facility paid the banks a price above the initial market price—still with a discount—the banks may believe that they would actually gain, even though, if the debtor government’s expectations were correct, the banks would actually have lost by selling.

A scheme could conceivably be worked out whereby the facility pays, for example, $400 for debt with a contractual value of $500 and marks that debt down to only $450, with the margin of $50 adequately compensating the facility for the risk it incurs so that it neither gains nor loses. In this case the creditors believe that they gain through the market price effect, the debtor government believes that it gains because there is some reduction in the contractual price, and the facility neither gains nor loses.

This scheme leads into the second possibility, whereby the facility actually makes a profit or at least is expected to do so by its owners or managers. The market may have an unduly pessimistic view of the debtor’s prospects, and hence there may be a large market discount. But the facility only marks the debt down by a little, so that the contractual value of the marked-down debt it holds stays well above the cost price and there is a high degree of certainty that there will be low or zero default. All this depends on confidence in the ability to get the debtor’s policies improved sufficiently to disprove the market’s pessimistic expectations.

Finally, it has been argued in the main analysis here that the market price effect represents a benefit for the banks, at least relative to the situation after the debt crisis and the discount developed. But there may be some holders of debt who do not sell to the facility because—contrary to the expectations of marginal holders—they do not believe that the probability of default is high at all. They may value the debt they hold at the contractual value, not near the market price. They may have made a more optimistic assessment of capacity or willingness to pay. If they feel assured that there will be full repayment in any case, it would make no difference to them if the total contractual claims are reduced through the operation of the facility. But if they really believed that the debt is worth more than its market price, the question then arises why they did not buy up the debt held by others and so bring the price up to their optimistic expectations. The argument assumes that the market is, in some sense, imperfect.

VIII. Would New Investment Increase as a Result of the Facility?

There are three parts to the answer to this question. If the debt of the facility is given senior rights the answer is not clear; it is possible that new investment would actually be discouraged.

First, the analysis has shown that for various reasons there may be an actual reduction in resource transfer from the debtor country as a result of the facility—that is, the debtor country may actually gain something. Indeed, in the view of some this is the primary objective of the exercise. An expectation of such a gain would lead also to an expectation of lower taxation than otherwise—including taxation of profits and capital—and this may well encourage new investment.

Second, if the debt held by the facility does not acquire senior rights, so that the discount in the market falls as described earlier, there should indeed be a tendency for investment inflows to resume or to increase. The facility will have assumed some of the burden of potential default on the existing debt, and new investors will have a lesser burden to bear than before.

Finally, the matter is not so simple if the existing debt is subordinated to the facility’s debt. The question then is whether new debt incurred in the market would also be subordinated, or whether it would acquire seniority over the facility’s debt. The reasonable assumption is that the facility would enjoy complete seniority. As noted above, in the absence of increased certainty, subordination would actually reduce the market price (raise the discount) owing to the “ceiling effect”; hence new investment would be further discouraged. If ail old debt had been sold to the facility, in effect new debt would then be subordinated to old debt completely.

IX. Is There Really Need for an International Facility?

A central question remains. One might grant the desirability of a reduction in the contractual value of the debt but still wonder why an intermediary in the form of a facility along the lines proposed would be needed.

Although banks can sell the developing countries’ debts in the market at a discount, bank managements may not feel free to grant outright relief in the form of reduction of the contractual value, possibly because of legal obstacles. In practice, however, relief in the form of long-term debt rescheduling and various debt transformations can be and has been granted—although such arrangements are different from reducing contractual value. One could also argue that there is no incentive for any private holder to grant relief because of the ceiling effect. There is always the possibility that the full contractual value will be repaid, so why forgo this possibility? Incentive for relief may, however, be created by the threat of more severe default.

One can think of three arguments in favor of the establishment of a facility from the points of view of the banks and the debtor countries involved.

A Channel for Resource Transfer

The most obvious argument from the point of view of both parties is that the facility could act as a channel for the transfer of current resources (that is, aid) from the countries that underwrite it, or for the possible transfer of future resources if some default risk is perceived. This, of course, is also an argument against a facility from the point of view of its potential owners if they are not interested in providing aid either in general or specifically to the debtor countries. This point will be taken up again below.

If foreign aid to the debtor countries is indeed intended, one alternative could be for the parties to negotiate debt relief contracts bilaterally and then for some or all of the industrial countries to guarantee the marked-down debts in part or in full. This arrangement would give particular industrial countries an opportunity to help those debtors that are of special interest to them. The familiar difficulty here is that the banks are not a single “party,” as the problems of organizing concerted lending have shown.

For the debtor countries the other alternative is to receive direct bilateral aid. The aid could be used by the debtor country to buy back some of its own debt. Again, there would be an opportunity for industrial countries to discriminate in favor of particular debtor countries. But the fundamental question is highlighted in that case: whether funds received in aid are best spent in buying back debt. They could perhaps be better used to finance extra investment.

A More Orderly Process

It could be argued that, if world economic conditions turned adverse, the alternative to the operation of such a facility would be a decentralized process of debt restructuring with relief. In that situation numerous bilateral arrangements—with the banks represented by committees that have difficulty in getting support from sufficient banks—could get rather disorderly. The facility could be an intermediary that would bring more orderliness to the process. An element of automaticity and consistency across countries and kinds of debt in the choice of purchase prices, the extent of relief, and so on, could smooth the restructuring and debt relief process. The facility might thus avoid default crises that could lead to political difficulties and disruption of trade flows.

Greater Realism and Certainty

A key feature of such proposals is that very uncertain obligations, with contractual values well above what is expected to be paid on a probability basis, would be replaced by more realistically valued debt that (in the view of its proponents) would be more certain to be repaid and, ideally, would be free of serious default risk.

It might be argued that the increase in certainty (if it could be obtained) is in general desirable even though it does, to an extent at least, shift the burden of exogenous uncertainty (for example, in the terms of trade) back toward the debtor countries. This is possibly a gain because some uncertainty is believed to be endogenous—a result of the lack of firm political will by debtor governments rather than capacity-to-pay uncertainty. Then there is a role for conditionality and, hence, for the Fund or the World Bank. This does not necessarily mean that the two institutions, or their owners, should, through the facility, take on the remaining risks.

One negative point is also important. It refers not to the actual operation of a facility but to the effects of expectations that it might come into operation. It concerns a moral hazard problem. If the banks and the debtor countries believe that there is some chance that an institution such as the facility might be established to take over some of the risks, they will have less incentive to arrive at debt relief agreements directly or without disruption. The threat of disruption, particularly of trade flows, could be an inducement leading the international community to establish such a facility. But if such an institution were never seen as being even a possibility, the parties directly involved would have an incentive to arrive at agreements. They would try to avoid prolonged uncertainty and disruption because it is damaging to them all.

X. Is Any Compulsion Involved?

To what extent would such a scheme be voluntary? I first consider the debtor country and then the creditors.

On the Debtor

On the one hand, if conditionality were not involved, a debtor country would have nothing to lose in the short run from debt relief through the medium of the facility. But in the long run it might lose some creditworthiness, since future creditors may well think that what has happened once can happen again. Therefore a debtor government, confident that it will be able to repay the full contractual value of its debt and wanting to take a long view, may benefit from staying out of the scheme. This is true even though there may be a market discount on its debt that suggests that, so far, the debtor country has not been able to convey its confidence to the market.

On the other hand, if conditionality were part of the scheme, then each debtor country could decide whether it preferred to accept the burdens of conditionality and get debt relief through the facility, or whether it preferred to stay out. There would not need to be any compulsion.

On the Creditor

Each bank could be free to sell or to keep as much as it liked of the debt it holds at present. Sales of debt need not be compulsory. As described here, the facility would operate in the market, even though this is not a feature of all proposals. But this freedom of the banks to sell or not to sell could be somewhat illusory. The willingness to sell will be influenced by the debtors’ actions. A decision by the debtor government to subordinate debt that is not sold would lower the market price—as would threats of, or actual, default. Furthermore, changes in bank regulations in creditor countries that reduced the attractiveness to banks of holding on to debt could also increase the willingness to sell to the facility.

XI. Concluding Remarks

From the viewpoint, first, of a debtor country, the availability of an international debt facility cannot be harmful to it because it cannot be compelled to participate and, if use of the facility is associated with conditionality, as is usually proposed, it may choose not to. But, for the reasons given in Section VI, a debtor country is quite likely to gain from participation.

From the viewpoint of creditors, the banks would gain if sales of debt to the facility were truly voluntary, if there were no subordination of debt that is not sold to the facility, and if the moral hazard problems discussed in Section VI were overcome. Otherwise the banks could lose. It has been noted that the moral hazard problem might be overcome by determining purchase prices of debt on some objective basis or on the basis of market prices at an early “cut-off” point. But this can present some of the most difficult practical problems involved with the establishment of a debt facility.

Finally, and most crucial, there are the interests of the potential owners or underwriters of the facility to consider. If the facility would purchase a significant part of the commercial debt of all the developing countries that currently have problems—as is suggested in many of the proposals—a large transfer of risk internationally from private banks to the underwriting governments or multilateral institutions would take place. The extent of the transfers would depend on the detailed arrangements that have been discussed here. Of course a facility could operate on a small scale, but then it would only make a small impact on the world debt situation.

The potential owners may see some benefit in increasing certainty (which might be brought about by the debt relief process combined with conditionality) and in avoiding a disorderly process of debt restructuring, default, and so on (as discussed in Section IX). Furthermore, the owners may wish to provide aid to particular debtors or assistance to particular banks, although a generalized facility is not the best way of doing this. But it is inevitable that, by underwriting the obligations that the facility issues, the owner governments would assume some risk even when the debt not sold to the facility is subordinated to that held by the facility, and even more so without subordination.


  • Dooley, Michael P., “Buy-Backs and Market Valuation of External Debt,” StaffPapers, International Monetary Fund (Washington), Vol. 35 (June 1988), pp. 215- 29.

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  • Feldstein, Martin, and others, “Restoring Growth in the Debt-Laden Third World: A Task Force Report to the Trilateral Commission,” Triangle Papers, Report 33 (New York: The Trilateral Commission, April 1987).

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  • Krugman, Paul R., “International Debt Strategies in an Uncertain World,” in International Debt and the Developing Countries, ed. by Gordon Smith and John Cuddington (Washington: World Bank, 1985), pp. 79- 100.

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  • Sachs, Jeffrey, and Harry Huizinga, “U.S. Commercial Banks and the Developing- Country Crisis,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity: 2 (1987), The Brookings Institution (Washington), pp. 555- 601.

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Mr. Corden is Senior Advisor in the Research Department, on leave from the Australian National University, where he is Professor of Economics. He is a graduate of the University of Melbourne and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has taught at Oxford University and at various Australian and U.S. universities. He thanks Ken Rogoff and colleagues in the Fund for helpful comments.


As far as I am aware, the first proposals of this general kind were advanced by Felix Rohatyn in Business Week (February 28, 1983) and by Peter Kenen in The New York Times (March 6,1983). The proposal has been made by Sachs and Huizinga (1987) and by Percy Mistry, formerly of the World Bank (in The Banker, September 1987). In 1988, proposals of this general nature have been made by Dr. Sengupta, an Executive Director of the Fund, and by James Robinson, Chairman of American Express. There is an analysis of this kind of proposal in Feldstein and others (1987). The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress, included a provision for the Secretary of the Treasury to “study the feasibility and advisability” of establishing an “International Debt Management Authority.”


This discussion builds on Dooley (1988).


In several papers Paul Krugman has discussed the uncertainty aspects; see especially Krugman (1985).


The example that has been used is quite simplified, although sufficient to make the main points. As noted earlier, repayment is thought of as a single sum ($600, when there is certainty) paid in a single future period, the sum consisting of principal and interest combined. The analysis could be elaborated to allow for a stream of interest and amortization payments over time, in which case the sum should be thought of as the present value. There is then scope for changes in the time profile of payments. In that case a distinction between interest and principal would have to be made. Debt relief may have an immediate effect in reducing interest payments, even though, if capacity to pay in total is really fixed, interest or amortization payments will increase later. Changes in the time profile of either interest or amortization payments that do not alter the present value leave the analysis presented above unchanged. The market discount is caused not only by the probability of default or forced debt relief as usually understood but also by the probability of forced rescheduling, pressures to participate in new money packages, and so on. These are all ways of changing the time profile and reducing the present value of repayments.


An issue that is clearly important for the various proposals is whether it would be legally possible for existing debt that is retained by the banks to be subordinated to that acquired by the facility. Of course there would be no difficulty in such subordination if it were done with the agreement of the banks.


There may be a touch of perversity in the ceiling effect brought about by debt relief. Whenever capacity to pay improves exogenously—owing, for example, to a terms of trade improvement—some of the gains inevitably go to the debtor even before debt relief (that is, when the ceiling is high). Similarly, some of the losses from a deterioration would be borne by the debtor, and not wholly by the creditors. In that case, lowering the ceiling as a result of debt relief increases the gains for the debtor when events, such as the terms of trade, turn out well but does not help when events turn out badly.


There is an important qualification to this argument. If the debtor country’s government takes the long view, it will realize that debt relief through the facility or otherwise—even though entirely voluntary on the part of the creditors and in no way associated with actual default—could still have an adverse effect on its country’s future creditworthiness. After all, when investors look back they will see that a $1,000 loan finally turned out to be worth less, for whatever reason. The government will never have the opportunity to show that it would have paid the full initial contractual value.


All this should be thought of in present-value terms. See footnote 4 in Section III.

IMF Staff papers: Volume 35 No. 3
Author: International Monetary Fund. Research Dept.