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Restructuring Sovereign Debt During Economic Crises in Developing Nations

By Spodek Law Group | February 20, 2024

Restructuring Sovereign Debt During Economic Crises in Developing Nations

Developing nations often face economic crises that make it difficult for them to meet their sovereign debt obligations. When this happens, they may need to restructure their debt to avoid defaulting. Debt restructuring involves changing the terms of the debt, often by reducing payments or extending maturities. This can help give countries fiscal breathing room during periods of crisis.

Why Developing Nations are Vulnerable to Debt Crises

Developing nations tend to be more vulnerable to debt crises for several reasons:

  • Narrow export base – Many developing economies rely heavily on a few key exports like commodities. This leaves them exposed to price fluctuations that can quickly lead to economic turmoil. For example, when oil prices collapsed in 2014, many oil-exporting nations fell into recession.
  • Over-reliance on external financing – Developing nations often depend on external sources like foreign aid, remittances, and investment to finance growth. If these inflows slow, it can cause liquidity issues and an inability to service debt.
  • Weak institutions – Poor governance, corruption, and weak bankruptcy regimes can exacerbate debt crises in developing countries. This makes restructuring more complex.
  • Limited monetary policy options – Many developing nations have fixed exchange rates or lack independent central banks. This limits their ability to use monetary policy tools to manage economic shocks.

The Process of Restructuring Sovereign Debt

When a developing nation can no longer meet its debt obligations, restructuring becomes necessary. This usually involves three key steps:

1. Opening restructuring negotiations

The first step is for the distressed nation to open restructuring talks with major creditors like banks, hedge funds, China, the Paris Club, and multilateral institutions. This can be initiated by either the debtor nation or its creditors.

2. Reaching agreement on terms

The key parties must then negotiate new terms for the debt. This often involves:

  • Reduced payments – Lowering interest rates or principal owed. This reduces the annual cash flow needed for debt service.
  • Extended maturities – Pushing back repayment deadlines by years or even decades. This reduces near-term liquidity pressures.
  • Debt buybacks – Allowing the distressed nation to repurchase debt at a discount on secondary markets. This reduces overall debt burdens.

Reaching agreement can be complex given the competing interests of different creditors. Coordination between creditors is thus critical.

3. Implementation

Once new terms are agreed, they must be implemented across the various debt instruments like bonds, bank loans, bilateral loans, etc. Collective action clauses allow terms to be changed with approval of a supermajority of creditors. Exit consents can also incentivize acceptance of new terms.

Challenges in Restructuring Developing Country Debt

While restructuring sovereign debt is sometimes necessary to avoid default, it faces several challenges unique to developing country debtors:

  • Holdout creditors – Some creditors may refuse to participate in a restructuring in hopes of full repayment later. Recent court rulings have reduced this risk.
  • Complex creditor coordination – Developing nations often owe debts to a complex web of creditors like China, hedge funds, and multilateral institutions. Coordinating them can be extremely difficult.
  • Limited financing options – Many developing economies lose market access during crises and cannot easily secure new financing to stay afloat while negotiating debt relief.
  • Political hurdlesDebt restructuring is always politically contentious. Populist regimes may even refuse necessary restructuring for ideological reasons.

To address these issues, the IMF and other organizations have proposed various sovereign debt restructuring mechanisms and enhanced collective action clauses.

Case Study: Argentina’s 2001 Debt Restructuring

Argentina’s 2001 debt restructuring following its severe economic crisis highlights both the challenges and successes possible in developing country debt restructurings.

In 2001, Argentina experienced a major recession and currency crisis. With over $80 billion in sovereign debt and facing a severe liquidity crunch, Argentina announced the largest sovereign default in history. Over the next 15 years, Argentina engaged in complex restructuring negotiations with various creditor groups:

  • The Paris Club – Government creditors agreed to a series of repayment extensions and a final 59% debt write-down in 2014.
  • Foreign bondholders – After initial disagreements, 76% of creditors approved a debt swap that provided $0.30 on the dollar in 2005. Another deal in 2010 brought acceptance to 93%.
  • Holdout creditors – Over $6 billion in debt remained held by litigious holdout creditors like Elliott Management and Aurelius Capital. After a lengthy US court battle, most accepted a $0.75 on the dollar settlement in 2016.

While the process was long and complex, Argentina’s restructuring helped cut its debt from 166% to 57% of GDP between 2002 and 2013. This restored market access and enabled Argentina’s robust recovery in subsequent decades.


As developing countries progress, economic crises that strain repayment capacity will remain a reality. While politically difficult, restructuring sovereign debt during such periods can play a critical role in restoring economic and financial stability. With enhanced mechanisms for coordination and crisis financing, as well as responsible borrowing and lending practices, developing nations can manage future debt challenges more smoothly. The alternative of refusing needed restructuring is seldom viable.


Oil price shocks and developing countries – IMF research on impact of oil price declines

External financing vulnerabilities in developing countries – World Bank report

Weak institutions and debt crises – Academic paper on link between institutions and financial crises

Limited monetary policy options in developing countries – IMF paper on constraints

Opening restructuring negotiations – UNCTAD guidelines on starting sovereign debt restructurings

Debt buybacks as a restructuring tool – CGD brief on use of buybacks in debt crises

Exit consents in sovereign debt restructuring – Academic overview

Recent court rulings have reduced risks from holdout creditors. Analysis

IMF and enhanced collective action clauses

Paris Club deal cancels large portion of Argentine debt

2005 Argentina bond restructuring acceptance

Settlement with holdout creditors

Debt reduction after restructuring

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