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World Bank's Malpass hammers private sector to back debt reduction push

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - World Bank President David Malpass urged private sector creditors to finally step up and help poor countries deal with the economic and health crises unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and stop collecting funds urgently needed elsewhere.

Malpass told the Reuters Next conference on Wednesday that interest rate reductions could play a big role in some of the poor-country debt restructurings being done under a new G20 framework, noting that some developing countries were paying very high interest rates of 6% to 7% on official bilateral debt.

Malpass expressed continuing frustration about the lack of private sector support for the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), which allows the poorest countries to defer official bilateral payments through the end of June.

He said he hoped the debt moratorium could be extended but said he could not prejudge this decision.

“It’s been frustrating that the private sector has looked at the COVID crisis and said, ‘Let’s try to get as many payments from the poorer countries as we can during this crisis,’” said Malpass, a former chief economist for Bear Stearns and former senior U.S. Treasury official.

“From the standpoint of the private sector, they say, ‘A contract’s a contract,’ but I ... would push back and say, throughout history there have been occasions where there needs to be deep debt reduction, and this clearly is one of those occasions.”

Malpass said the G20, now under Italy’s leadership, had made good progress by adopting a common framework for debt treatments that effectively bound China, the world’s largest official bilateral creditor, into the Paris Club of official bilateral creditors, but private sector participation was critical.

“It can only work if the private sector begins to come up with techniques for participation,” he said, adding that the World Bank was pushing to use its own funding to help countries hire lawyers and buy back debt at a deep discount.

The World Bank was pushing the G7 advanced economies, the G20 and the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to exert new leadership on addressing too-high debt levels, and particularly on the commercial side of the issue, he said.

A major debt reduction initiative lowered debt burdens a decade ago, but since then lending had increased sharply by both China and through private sector bond markets.

“There hasn’t been a technique to address those debt burdens, and that’s what we’re struggling with,” he said.

Malpass said he expected to see some advances in individual countries, including potentially Chad, which is working with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to resolve its official and private sector debt problems.

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Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker

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