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A Step Forward for Sovereign Debt

A Step Forward for Sovereign Debt

Every advanced country has a bankruptcy law, but there is no equivalent framework for sovereign borrowers. That legal vacuum matters, because, as we now see in Greece and Puerto Rico, it can suck the life out of economies.

In September, the United Nations took a big step toward filling the void, approving a set of principles for sovereign-debt restructuring. The nine precepts – namely, a sovereign’s right to initiate a debt restructuring, sovereign immunity, equitable treatment of creditors, (super) majority restructuring, transparency, impartiality, legitimacy, sustainability, and good faith in negotiations – form the rudiments of an effective international rule of law.

The overwhelming support for these principles, with 136 UN members voting in favor and only six against (led by the United States), shows the extent of global consensus on the need to resolve debt crises in a timely manner. But the next step – an international treaty establishing a global bankruptcy regime to which all countries are bound – may prove more difficult.

Recent events underscore the enormous risks posed by the lack of a framework for sovereign debt restructuring. Puerto Rico’s debt crisis cannot be resolved. Notably, US courts invalidated the domestic bankruptcy law, ruling that because the island is, in effect, a US colony, its government had no authority to enact its own legislation.

In the case of Argentina, another US court allowed a small minority of so-called vulture funds to jeopardize a restructuring process to which 92.4% of the country’s creditors had agreed. Similarly, in Greece, the absence of an international legal framework was an important reason why its creditors – the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – could impose policies that inflicted enormous harm.

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