Developing countries need external finance on a large scale to meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and the COVID-19 pandemic has not only increased the amount they need but also made it harder to access private funding.
This makes public development banks more important than ever, especially to catalyse investments by pension funds and other institutions in socially productive assets.
But to achieve this, they urgently need to address a long-standing blind spot by giving much greater weight to helping developing countries access the risk management tools necessary to protect their finances against global shocks.
Climate change and the increased incidence of pandemics make shocks affecting critical economic sectors, such as commodities and tourism, or the availability of international finance, more likely.
IDA should take the lead
As one of the most important multilateral development lenders, the International Development Association (IDA) of the World Bank Group should lead the way.
It provides long-term financing on highly concessional terms to the world’s 74 poorest countries, currently lending about $25 billion per year. The upcoming replenishment of IDA’s financial resources due to be completed in December is a golden opportunity to focus attention on financial risk in development finance.
Progress has been made in widening the supply of insurance against specific risks linked to weather, earthquakes, and other natural disasters which cause significant economic and fiscal damage in poor countries. But these products are still limited in scale and scope.
Borrowers need to issue debt with a suitable mix of currencies, maturities, and fixed and floating interest rates to offset – as far as possible – the macro risks to their revenues and expenditures. However, most poor countries have limited – if any – access to hedging markets and lack the capacity to handle hedging instruments.
Five recommendations to adopt
There are five practical ways in which IDA, working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), other multilateral development banks, and development finance institutions can help low-income countries enhance their overall macro-financial resilience.
First, by ensuring borrowers are able to make a comprehensive assessment of the specific financial exposures they face arising from climate, health, and other global shocks, and can formulate effective risk management strategies to mitigate them.
Second, by boosting debt management capabilities in borrowing countries, specifically those aspects needed to access the more sophisticated instruments necessary to mitigate currency and interest rate market risk.
Recent discussions with treasuries and debt management offices in some of the poorest countries underlined that local capacity to manage currency risks borne by the government debt is limited, reflecting either a lack of financial resources or inability to recruit staff with the necessary expertise.
Responses could include expanding the risk management focus of the IMF/World Bank’s Debt Management Performance Assessment, supporting borrowers in strengthening their legislative and regulatory frameworks, and encouraging informed oversight of the debt management process, as well as transparent accounting and reporting procedures. Otherwise, the risk mitigation strategies developed locally may never actually be implemented.
Third, by offering a range of currency, interest rate and maturity choices to best suit borrowers’ needs. Dollar-denominated loans may be convenient for the lender but they all too often impose substantial risks on the borrower that may not be fully understood at the time.
In the short term, IDA should help catalyse risk hedging markets and expand financing choices for poor countries. For instance, it could offer local currency indexed loans, which provide hard currency resources to finance development but increase borrower protection against global shocks that cause exchange rate volatility.
Over the medium-term, public development banks should prioritize more radical options to help poor countries hedge emerging risks including GDP-linked and climate-linked loans and contractual debt standstills.
Fourth, by ensuring concessional terms incentivise prudent risk management. Today, IDA offers highly concessional and undifferentiated interest rates on hard-currency loans, together with long maturities and grace periods. This can result in borrowers taking on much higher currency risk than is desirable.
IDA would in part address this by also offering local currency instruments with concessional terms. But it could also link the availability of concessionality, in general, to borrowers pursuing stronger debt management strategies and management.
Fifth, by supporting more ambitious institutional reforms to broaden and deepen debt and currency markets that are critical to low-income countries. Current proposals, which link this goal to the re-distribution of surplus Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) following the recent IMF allocation, include the proposal by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) for a Liquidity and Sustainability Facility and the proposal for an International Currency Fund. Both deserve consideration.