By This Measure, the U.S. has the 2nd Highest National Debt
USA is #7 in debt to gdp, but #2 in debt to revenue
In absolute terms, the United States is the most indebted country in the world, accounting for 29% of the world’s $60 trillion of sovereign debt.
However, this is not really a fair comparison in some ways because it does not account for the relative wealth of the country in contrast to poorer economies. That’s why it is standard practice to measure sovereign debt in a ratio comparing it directly to the economic productivity, measured by gross domestic product (GDP).
Using this ratio in comparison with other OECD countries, the United States is a modest 7th place (out of 34) in the rankings in terms of its debt load. However, as Jeffrey Dorfman writes in Forbes, comparing debt and GDP has some considerable problems.
The major issue is that economic production cannot be converted directly to dollars that a government can spend. If this were true, a government could claim everyone’s income as taxes and use it to pay down the debt. However, in reality, a 100% tax rate would make everyone would quit their jobs or leave the country. That’s why it makes more sense to compare a government’s debt to the actual tax revenue collected, as this creates a clearer picture of the country’s debt burden and the capacity to pay.
We pulled the latest data from the OECD to compare three ways of measuring the amount of debt that a country has accumulated. The first is the standard Debt to GDP ratio. In addition, we looked at Debt to Revenue (this includes all federal, state, and municipal tax revenues) as well as Debt to Central Government Revenue (this excludes state and municipal tax revenue). The data from the OECD database is from 2013.
When tabulated using all three measures, the world debt picture changes significantly. The United States is 7th in Debt to GDP with a ratio of 103%, but it jumps to 4th place (406%) in terms of Debt to Revenue, and then 2nd place (979%) in terms of Debt to Central Government Revenue. In other words, when it comes to the actual capacity to pay down this debt, the United States is the second most indebted country in the world. Even if the federal government theoretically used all tax revenue to pay down debt, it would take 10 years (not including any interest).
Of course, the United States also has the world’s reserve currency for now, which gives it more flexibility with its debt and monetary policy. This is less true for a country like Greece, where the currency cannot be devalued at all so long as the country is a part of the EU.
How do other major countries do when comparing the regular measure to the new one using revenue? Canada jumps five spots to 5th place with 695%, and Germany jumps nine spots to 6th place. The UK drops five spots down to 16th overall with 351%. Australia rises two spots from 30th to 28th.
Visualizing the Rise of the U.S. Dollar Since the 19th Century
This animated graphic shows the U.S. dollar, the world’s primary reserve currency, as a share of foreign reserves since 1900.
Visualizing the Rise of the U.S. Dollar Since the 19th Century
As the world’s reserve currency, the U.S. dollar made up 58.4% of foreign reserves held by central banks in 2022, falling near 25-year lows.
Today, emerging countries are slowly decoupling from the greenback, with foreign reserves shifting to currencies like the Chinese yuan.
At the same time, the steep appreciation of the U.S. dollar is leading countries to sell their U.S. foreign reserves to help prop up their currencies, in turn buying currencies such as the Australian and Canadian dollars to help generate higher yields.
The above animated graphic from James Eagle shows the rapid ascent of the U.S. dollar over the last century, and its gradual decline in recent years.
Dollar Dominance: A Brief History
In 1944, the U.S. dollar became the world’s reserve currency under the Bretton Woods Agreement. Over the first half of the century, the U.S. ran budget surpluses while increasing trade and economic ties with war-torn countries, expanding its influence as the world’s store of value.
Later through the 1960s, the U.S. dollar share of global foreign reserves rapidly increased as political allies stockpiled the dollar.
By 2000, dollar dominance hit a peak of 71% of global reserves. With the creation of the European Union a year earlier, countries such as China began increasing the share of euros in reserves. Between 2000 and 2005, the share of the dollar in China’s foreign exchange reserves fell by an estimated 15 percentage points.
The dollar began a long rally after the global financial crisis, which drove central banks to cut their dollar reserves to help bolster their currencies.
Fast-forward to today, and dollar reserves have fallen roughly 13 percentage points from their historical peak.
The State of the World’s Reserve Currency
In 2022, 16% of Russia’s export transactions were in yuan, up from almost nothing before the war. Brazil and Argentina have also begun adopting the Chinese currency for trade or reserve purposes. Still, the U.S. dollar makes up 80% of Brazil’s reserves.
Yet while the U.S. dollar has decreased in share of foreign reserves, it still has an immense influence in the world economy.
The majority of trade is invoiced in the U.S. dollar globally, a trend that has stayed fairly consistent over many decades. Between 1999-2019, 74% of trade in Asia was invoiced in dollars and in the Americas, it made up 96% of all invoicing.
Furthermore, almost 90% of foreign exchange transactions involve the U.S. dollar thanks to its liquidity.
However, countries are increasingly finding alternative options than the dollar. Today, Western businesses have begun settling trade with China in renminbi. Looking further ahead, digital currencies could provide options that don’t include the U.S. dollar.
Even more so, if the U.S. share of global GDP continues to shrink, the shift to a multipolar system could progress over this century.
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