Debt relief or debt cancellation is the partial or total forgiveness of debt, or the slowing or stopping of debt growth, owed by individuals, corporations, or nations.
From antiquity through the 19th century, it refers to domestic debts, in particular agricultural debts and freeing of debt slaves. In the late 20th century, it came to refer primarily to Third World debt, which started exploding with the Latin American debt crisis (Mexico 1982, etc.). In the early 21st century, it is of increased applicability to individuals in developed countries, due to credit bubbles and housing bubbles.
The HIPC programme has been subject to conditionalities similar to those often attached to International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank loans, requiring structural adjustment reforms, sometimes including the privatization of public utilities, including water and electricity. To qualify for irrevocable debt relief, countries must also maintain macroeconomic stability and implement a Poverty Reduction Strategy satisfactorily for at least one year. Under the goal of reducing inflation, some countries have been pressured to reduce spending in the health and education sectors. While the World Bank considers the HIPC Initiative a success, some scholars are more critical of it.
The Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) is an extension of HIPC. The MDRI was agreed following the G8's 31st G8 summit in July 2005. It offers 100% cancellation of multilateral debts owed by HIPC countries to the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank.
The increasing size of the non-housing personal debt market and ease with which one can obtain personal credit has led to some consumers falling behind on payments. As of Q3 2017, student loans have the highest rates of serious delinquency (90 or more days delinquent) with approximately 9.6% of all student loan debt falling into this bucket. Credit card debt and auto loan debt have serious delinquency rates of 4.6% and 2.4% respectively.
When consumers begin to fall behind on payments, they have several options to discharge the debt, either in full or in part. The first method is declaring bankruptcy, which has the immediate effect of stopping any payments made to creditors. In the United States, the two primary avenues of bankruptcy for an individual are Chapter 13, Title 11, United States Code bankruptcy and Chapter 7, Title 11, United States Code bankruptcy. Another option is to consolidate these debts into a single loan, commonly known as debt consolidation. Debt relief, on an individual level, refers mainly to the negotiation for a reduction of a debt by either the consumer or a debt settlement agency. Through this arrangement, consumers agree to pay the creditor a fixed amount of money (generally a discount on their outstanding debt) either in a lump sum or under a payment plan. The debt settlement industry has had significant regulatory scrutiny since its inception with changes implemented in 2010 by the FTC.
The primary mechanism of debt relief in modern societies is bankruptcy, where a debtor who cannot or chooses not to pay their debts files for bankruptcy and renegotiates their debts, or a creditor initiates this. As part of debt restructuring, the terms of the debt are modified, which may involve the debt owed being reduced. In case the debtor chooses bankruptcy despite being able to service the debt, this is called strategic bankruptcy.
Certain debts can be defaulted on without a general bankruptcy; these are non-recourse loans, most notably mortgages in common law jurisdictions such as the United States. Choosing to default on such a loan despite being able to service it is called strategic default.
Debt slavery can persist across generations, future generations being made to work to pay off debts incurred by past generations. Debt bondage is today considered a form of "modern day slavery" in international law,[http://journalism.berkeley.edu/projects/asiaproject/Gupta.html The Bondage of Debt: A Photo Essay], by Shilpi Gupta and banned as such, in Article 1(a) of the United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. Nevertheless, the practice continues in some nations. In most developed nations, debts cannot be inherited.
Debtors' prison has been largely abolished, but remains in some forms in the US, for example if one fails to make child support payments.
In modern times, the most common alternatives to debt relief in cases where debt cannot be paid are forbearance and debt restructuring. Forbearance meaning that interest payments (possibly including past due ones) are forgiven, so long as payments resume. No reduction of principal occurs, however.
In debt restructuring, an existing debt is replaced with a new debt. This may result in reduction of the principal (debt relief), or may simply change the terms of repayment, for instance by extending the term (replacing a debt repaid over 5 years with one repaid over 10 years), which allows the same principal to be amortized over a longer period, thus allowing smaller payments.
Personal debt that can be repaid from income but if it is not being repaid may be obtained via garnishment or attachment of earnings, which deduct debt service from wages.
Inflation has been a contentious political issue on this basis, with debasement of currency a form of or alternative to sovereign default, and the free silver in late 19th century America being seen as a conflict between debtor farmers and creditor bankers.
Inflation, in an economy that is growing, is caused by more money being introduced into circulation by the central bank. If the amount of tender remains constant, a currency ''grows or falls'' at the rate of the reserves that back it. The global prevalence of fractional reserve banking has caused most currencies to decline in value consistently. In a non-fractional (fully backed) reserve system, the growth of a currency is equal to the growth (or decline) of the assets backing it, fees are charged in an upfront manner, and money is worth by what it is backed.
Fractional reserve banking has resulted in a transfer of wealth from the holders of currency to investors. Under fractional reserve banking the money supply is allowed to be increased whenever new interest-bearing loans are issued and is often constrained by a reserve ratio, which mandates that banks hold a portion of the wealth they lend out at interest in the form of real reserves. Many nations are in the process of eliminating reserve ratios.