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Visualizing the State of Global Debt, by Country

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Global Debt

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Visualizing the State of Global Debt, by Country

Since COVID-19 started its spread around the world in 2020, the global economy has been put to the test with supply chain disruptions, price volatility for commodities, challenges in the job market, and declining income from tourism. The World Bank has estimated that almost 97 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic.

In order to help with this difficult situation, global governments have had to increase their expenditures to deal with higher healthcare costs, unemployment, food insecurity, and to help businesses to survive. Countries have taken on new debt to provide financial support for these measures, which has resulted in the highest global debt levels in half a century.

To analyze the extent of global debt, we’ve compiled debt-to-GDP data by country from the most recent World Economic Outlook report by the IMF.

Global Debt by Country: The Top 10 Most Indebted Nations

The debt-to-GDP ratio is a simple metric that compares a country’s public debt to its economic output. By comparing how much a country owes and how much it produces in a year, economists can measure a country’s theoretical ability to pay off its debt.

Let’s take a look at the top 10 countries in terms of debt-to-GDP:

RankCountryDebt-to-GDP (2021)
#1Japan 🇯🇵257%
#2Sudan 🇸🇩210%
#3Greece 🇬🇷207%
#4Eritrea 🇪🇷175%
#5Cape Verde 🇨🇻161%
#6Italy 🇮🇹155%
#7Suriname 🇸🇷141%
#8Barbados 🇧🇧138%
#9Singapore 🇸🇬138%
#10Maldives 🇲🇻137%

Source: World Economic Outlook Report (October 2021 Edition)

Japan, Sudan, and Greece top the list with debt-to-GDP ratios well above 200%, followed by Eritrea (175%), Cape Verde (160%), and Italy (154%).

Japan’s debt level won’t come as a surprise to most. In 2010, it became the first country to reach a debt-to-GDP ratio 200%, and it now sits at 257%. In order to finance new debt, the Japanese government issues bonds which get bought up primarily by the Bank of Japan.

By the end of 2020, the Bank of Japan owned 45% of government debt outstanding.

What is the main risk of a high debt-to-GDP ratio?

A rapid increase in government debt is a major cause for concern. Generally, the higher a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is, the higher chance that country could default on its debt, therefore creating a financial panic in the markets.

The World Bank published a study showing that countries that maintained a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 77% for prolonged periods of time experienced economic slowdowns.

COVID-19 has worsened a debt crisis that has been brewing since the 2008 global recession. A report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that at least 100 countries will have to reduce expenditures on health, education, and social protection. Also, 30 countries in the developing world have high levels of debt distress, meaning they’re experiencing great difficulties in servicing their debt.

This crisis is hitting poor and middle-income countries harder than rich countries. Wealthier countries are borrowing to launch fiscal stimulus packages while low and middle income countries cannot afford such measures, potentially resulting in wider global inequality.

The IMF Warns of Interest Rates

Global debt reached $226 trillion by the end of 2020, seeing the biggest one-year increase since World War II.

Borrowing by governments accounted for slightly over half of the $28 trillion increase, bringing global public debt ratio to a record of 99% of GDP. As interest rates rise, IMF officials warn that higher interest rates will diminish the impact of fiscal spending, and cause debt sustainability concerns to intensify. “The risks will be magnified if global interest rates rise faster than expected and growth falters,” the officials wrote.

“A significant tightening of financial conditions would heighten the pressure on the most highly indebted governments, households, and firms. If the public and private sectors are forced to deleverage simultaneously, growth prospects will suffer.”

Editor’s note: All data used in our visualization was extracted from the World Economic Outlook Report (October 2021 Edition) and The World Bank. We will update this data when the new report is available in April 2022.

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What History Reveals About Interest Rate Cuts

How have previous cycles of interest rate cuts in the U.S. impacted the economy and financial markets?

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Line chart showing the depth and duration of previous cycles of interest rate cuts.

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The following content is sponsored by New York Life Investments

What History Reveals About Interest Rate Cuts

The Federal Reserve has overseen seven cycles of interest rate cuts, averaging 26 months and 6.35 percentage points (ppts) each.

We’ve partnered with New York Life Investments to examine the impact of interest rate cut cycles on the economy and on the performance of financial assets in the U.S. to help keep investors informed. 

A Brief History of Interest Rate Cuts

Interest rates are a powerful tool that the central bank can use to spur economic activity. 

Typically, when the economy experiences a slowdown or a recession, the Federal Reserve will respond by cutting interest rates. As a result, each of the previous seven rate cut cycles—shown in the table below—occurred during or around U.S. recessions, according to data from the Federal Reserve. 

Interest Rate Cut CycleMagnitude (ppts)
July 2019–April 2020-2.4
July 2007–December 2008-5.1
November 2000–July 2003-5.5
May 1989–December 1992-6.9
August 1984–October 1986-5.8
July 1981–February 1983-10.5
July 1974–January 1977-8.3
Average-6.4

Source: Federal Reserve 07/03/2024

Understanding past economic and financial impacts of interest rate cuts can help investors prepare for future monetary policy changes.

The Economic Response: Inflation

During past cycles, data from the Federal Reserve, shows that, on average, the inflation rate continued to decline throughout (-3.4 percentage points), largely due to the lagged effects of a slower economy that normally precedes interest rate declines. 

CycleStart to end change (ppts)End to one year later (ppts)
July 2019–April 2020-1.5+3.8
July 2007–December 2008-2.3+2.6
November 2000–July 2003-1.3+0.9
May 1989–December 1992-2.5-0.2
August 1984–October 1986-2.8+3.1
July 1981–February 1983-7.3+1.1
July 1974–January 1977-6.3+1.6
Average-3.4+1.9

Source: Federal Reserve 07/03/2024. Based on the effective federal funds rate. Calculations are based on the previous four rate cut cycles (2019-2020, 2007-2008, 2000-2003, 1989-1992, 1984-1986, 1981-1983, 1974-1977).

However, inflation played catch-up and rose by +1.9 percentage points one year after the final rate cut. With lower interest rates, consumers were incentivized to spend more and save less, which led to an uptick in the price of goods and services in six of the past seven cycles. 

The Economic Response: Real Consumer Spending Growth

Real consumer spending growth, as measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, typically reacted to rate cuts more quickly. 

On average, consumption growth rose slightly during the rate cut periods (+0.3 percentage points) and that increase accelerated one year later (+1.7 percentage points). 

CycleStart to end (ppts)End to one year later (ppts)
July 2019–April 2020-9.6+15.3
July 2007–December 2008-4.6+3.1
November 2000–July 2003+0.8-2.5
May 1989–December 1992+3.0-1.3
August 1984–October 1986+1.6-2.7
July 1981–February 1983+7.2-0.7
July 1974–January 1977+3.9+0.9
Average+0.3+1.7

Source: BEA 07/03/2024. Quarterly data. Consumer spending growth is based on the percent change from the preceding quarter in real personal consumption expenditures, seasonally adjusted at annual rates. Percent changes at annual rates were then used to calculate the change in growth over rate cut cycles. Data from the last full quarter before the date in question was used for calculations. Calculations are based on the previous four rate cut cycles (2019-2020, 2007-2008, 2000-2003, 1989-1992, 1984-1986, 1981-1983, 1974-1977).

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Global Financial Crisis were outliers. Spending continued to fall during the rate cut cycles but picked up one year later.

The Investment Response: Stocks, Bonds, and Real Estate

Historically, the trend in financial asset performance differed between stocks, bonds, and real estate both during and after interest rate declines.

Stocks and real estate posted negative returns during the cutting phases, with stocks taking the bigger hit. Conversely, bonds, a traditional safe haven, gained ground. 

AssetDuring (%)1 Quarter After (%)2 Quarters After (%)4 Quarters After (%)
Stocks-6.0+18.2+19.4+23.9
Bonds+6.3+15.3+15.1+10.9
Real Estate-4.8+25.5+15.6+25.5

Source: Yahoo Finance, Federal Reserve, NAREIT 09/04/2024. The S&P 500 total return index was used to track performance of stocks. The ICE Corporate Bonds total return index was used to track the performance of bonds. The NAREIT All Equity REITs total return index was used to track the performance of real estate. Calculations are based on the previous four rate cut cycles (2019-2020, 2007-2008, 2000-2003, 1989-1992). It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Index definitions can be found at the end of this piece.

However, in the quarters preceding the last rate cut, all three assets increased in value. One year later, real estate had the highest average performance, followed closely by stocks, with bonds coming in third.

What’s Next for Interest Rates

In March 2024, the Federal Reserve released its Summary of Economic Projections outlining its expectation that U.S. interest rates will fall steadily in 2024 and beyond.

YearRange (%)Median (%)
Current5.25-5.505.375
20244.50-4.754.625
20253.75-4.03.875
20263.00-3.253.125
Longer run2.50-2.752.625

Source: Federal Reserve 20/03/2024

Though the timing of interest rate cuts is uncertain, being armed with the knowledge of their impact on the economy and financial markets can provide valuable insight to investors. 

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