IMF reforms lending rules to heavily indebted countries

Washington, January 30

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Friday it had overhauled its lending rules for heavily indebted countries, including a rule created in 2010 to allow it to aid Greece.

Last week, the IMF abandoned the ‘systemic exemption’ rule which it used to justify giving Greece a massive bailout despite doubts about the sustainability of the country’s sovereign debt.

At the time, the crisis lender decided that a Greek debt restructuring could pose severe negative spillovers on the rest of the eurozone, thus the need for the exemption.

In a report published on Friday, the IMF acknowledged that this controversial rule ‘did not prove reliable in mitigating contagion’ and posed ‘substantial’ costs and risks for the IMF and member countries.

In addition, it could encourage creditors to overlend to a country on easier terms because they believe the country would likely receive a public bailout in a crisis, it said.

The measure had stirred criticism, notably from some emerging-market countries that saw it as giving favourable treatment to European states, but it was also under fire from US Republican lawmakers who called for its end.

The new rules drop that exemption and focus on a ‘grey’ zone in which a country’s debt has not been deemed sustainable with ‘high probability’ — one of the IMF’s core lending rules — and restructuring of its sovereign debt is considered too risky.

In this case, the IMF can offer financing on the condition that the country receives in parallel, from public or private creditors, sufficient funds to allow it to return to debt sustainability and ensure the crisis lender will be repaid.

The new policy does not ‘automatically presume’ a restructuring of sovereign debt at the outset of aid when debt is in the grey zone.

If the country loses access to financial markets, a ‘re-profiling’ of debt would typically be appropriate and would give the country more breathing room in adjusting to conditions of the IMF loan.

In cases where debt restructuring would be too risky for financial stability, the IMF could lend under the condition that other public creditors ease their conditions for repayment.

This last measure reflects current negotiations on the European Union’s third bailout for Greece, under which the IMF will only participate financially if the Europeans ease Greece’s debt burden.

Some member states of the 28-nation EU have rejected that option, arguing that European treaties prevent them from erasing debt.