Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt in 2021
As we approach the second half of 2021, many countries around the world are beginning to relax their COVID-19 restrictions.
And while this signals a return to normalcy for much of the global economy, there’s one subject that’s likely to remain controversial: government debt.
To see how each country is faring in the aftermath of an unprecedented global borrowing spree, this graphic from HowMuch.net visualizes debt-to-GDP ratios using April 2021 data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Ranking the Top 10 in Government Debt
Government debt is often analyzed through the debt-to-GDP metric because it contextualizes an otherwise massive number.
Take for example the U.S. national debt, which currently sits at over $27 trillion. In isolation this figure sounds daunting, but when expressed as a % of U.S. GDP, it works out to a more relatable 133%. This format also allows us to make a better comparison between countries, especially when their economies differ in size.
With that being said, here are the top 10 countries in terms of debt-to-GDP. For further context, we’ve included their 2019 and 2020 values as well.
|Rank (2021)||Country||Debt-to-GDP (2019)||Debt-to-GDP (2020)||Debt-to-GDP (April 2021)|
|#9||🇨🇻 Cape Verde||125%||139%||138%|
Japan tops the list with a ratio of 257%, though this isn’t really a surprise—the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio first surpassed 100% in the 1990s, and in 2010, it became the first advanced economy to reach 200%.
Such significant debt burdens are the result of non-traditional monetary policies, many of which were first implemented by Japan, then adopted by others. In the late 1990s, for instance, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) set interest rates at 0% to counter deflation and promote economic growth.
This low cost of borrowing enables businesses and governments to accumulate debt much more freely, and has seen widespread use among other developed nations post-2008.
What are the Risks?
Given that a majority of countries in this visual are red (meaning their debt-to-GDP ratios are over 50%), it’s safe to say that government borrowing is common practice.
But are large government debts a cause for concern?
Some believe that excessive borrowing will lead to higher interest costs in the long run, which could detract from economic growth and public sector investment. This theory is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon, however.
A recent report by RBC Wealth Management reported that the cost of servicing U.S. federal debt actually decreased in 2020, thanks to the low borrowing costs mentioned previously.
Perhaps a more prescient question would be: how long can the world’s central banks keep interest rates at near-zero levels?
Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond
Which risks are top of mind in 2021? We visualize the World Economic Forum’s risk assessment for top global risks by impact and livelihood.
Visualized: A Global Risk Assessment of 2021 And Beyond
Risk is all around us. After the events of 2020, it’s not surprising that the level and variety of risks we face have become more pronounced than ever.
Every year, the World Economic Forum analyzes the top risks in the world in its Global Risks Report. Risks were identified based on 800+ responses of surveyed leaders across various levels of expertise, organizations, and regional distribution.
Which risks are top of mind in 2021?
The World’s Top Risks by Likelihood and Impact
According to WEF’s risk assessment methodology, all the global risks in 2021 fall into the following broad categories:
- 🔵 Economic
- 🟢 Environmental
- 🟠 Geopolitical
- 🔴 Societal
- 🟣 Technological
It goes without saying that infectious diseases have now become one of the top societal risks on both metrics of likelihood and impact.
That said, environmental risks continue to dominate the leaderboard, accounting for five of the top 10 risks by impact, especially when it comes to climate action failure.
Several countries are off-track in meeting emissions goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, while the pandemic has also delayed progress in the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy. Meanwhile, biodiversity loss is occurring at unprecedented rates.
|Rank||Top Risks by Likelihood||Top Risks by Impact|
|#1||🟢Extreme weather||🔴Infectious diseases|
|#2||🟢Climate action failure||🟢Climate action failure|
|#3||🟢Human environmental damage||🟠Weapons of mass destruction|
|#4||🔴Infectious diseases||🟢Biodiversity loss|
|#5||🟢Biodiversity loss||🟢Natural resource crises|
|#6||🟣Digital power concentration||🟢Human environmental damage|
|#7||🟣Digital inequality||🔴Livelihood crises|
|#8||🟠Interstate relations fracture||🟢Extreme weather|
|#9||🟣Cybersecurity failure||🔵Debt crises|
|#10||🔴Livelihood crises||🟣IT Infrastructure breakdown|
As for other risks, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction ranks in third place for potential impact. In the global arms race, a single misstep would trigger severe consequences on civil and political stability.
New Risks in 2021
While many of the risks included in the Global Risks Report 2021 are familiar to those who have read the editions of years past, there are a flurry of new entries to the list this year.
Here are some of the most interesting ones in the risk assessment, sorted by category:
COVID-19 has resulted in a myriad of knock-on societal risks, from youth disillusionment and mental health deterioration to livelihood crises. The first two risks in particular go hand-in-hand, as “pandemials” (youth aged 15-24) are staring down a turbulent future. This generation is more likely to report high distress from disrupted educational and economic prospects.
At the same time, as countries prepare for widespread immunization against COVID-19, another related societal risk is the backlash against science. The WEF identifies vaccines and immunization as subjects susceptible to disinformation and denial of scientific evidence.
As monetary stimulus was kicked into high gear to prop up markets and support many closed businesses and quarantined families, the economic outlook seems more fragile than ever. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise across advanced economies—if GDP growth stagnates for too long, a potential debt crisis could see many businesses and major nations default on their debt.
With greater stress accumulating on a range of major industries such as travel and hospitality, the economy risks a build-up of “zombie” firms that drag down overall productivity. Despite this, market valuations and asset prices continue to rise, with equity markets rewarding investors betting on a swift recovery so far.
Last but not least, COVID-19 has raised the alert on various technological risks. Despite the accelerated shift towards remote work and digitalization of entire industries, the reality is that digital inequality leaves those with lower digital literacy behind—worsening existing inequalities.
Big Tech is also bloating even further, growing its digital power concentration. The market share some companies hold in their respective sectors, such as Amazon in online retail, threatens to erode the agency of other players.
Assessing the Top 10 Risks On the Horizon
Back in mid-2020, the WEF attempted to quantify the biggest risks over an 18-month period, with a prolonged economic recession emerging on top.
In this report’s risk assessment, global risks are further classified by how soon their resulting threats are expected to occur. Weapons of mass destruction remain the top risk, though on a much longer scale of up to 10 years in the future.
|#1||🟠Weapons of mass destruction||62.7||Long-term (5-10 years)|
|#2||🔴Infectious diseases||58||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#3||🔴Livelihood crises||55.1||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#4||🔵Asset bubble burst||53.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#5||🟣 IT infrastructure breakdown||53.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#6||🔵Price instability||52.9||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#7||🟢Extreme weather events||52.7||Short-term risks (0-2 years)|
|#8||🔵Commodity shocks||52.7||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#9||🔵Debt crises||52.3||Medium-term risks (3-5 years)|
|#10||🟠State collapse||51.8||Long-term (5-10 years)|
Through this perspective, COVID-19 (and its variants) remains high in the next two years as the world scrambles to return to normal.
It’s also clear that more economic risks are taking center stage, from an asset bubble burst to price instability that could have a profound effect over the next five years.
Chart: Debt-to-GDP Continues to Rise Around the World
The battle against the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in heightened debt-to-GDP levels across all sectors and countries.
Chart: Debt-to-GDP Continues to Rise Around the World
With vaccines slowly obtaining approval in various countries, the world may finally be on the path to overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic.
The economic situation, on the other hand, is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Falling revenues combined with costly pandemic relief measures have increased global debt by $20 trillion since the third quarter of 2019. By the end of 2020, economists expect global debt to reach $277 trillion, or 365% of world GDP.
Today’s chart uses data from the Institute of International Finance (IIF) to provide an overview of where debt, relative to GDP, has increased the most.
Comparing Developed and Emerging Markets
Developed economies represent four of the five countries seeing the largest increases in debt-to-GDP, but looking from a more macro angle reveals that debt levels are rising at a similar pace around the world.
|Q3 2019 ($ trillions)||Q3 2020 ($ trillions)||% Increase|
Source: IIF, BIS, IMF, Haver, National Sources
To put these figures into perspective, economists often use the debt-to-GDP metric, which compares a country’s debt to its economic output. As the name implies, it’s calculated by taking a country’s total debts and dividing them by its annual GDP. Having a low debt-to-GDP ratio suggests that a country will have little issues paying off its debts, while a high ratio can be interpreted as a sign of higher default risk.
The actual definition of a “low” or “high” ratio is quite loose, though the World Bank believes there is a threshold for government debt at 77% of GDP. Every percentage point beyond this threshold has been found to detract 0.017 percentage points from annual growth.
Comparing Debt-to-GDP by Sector
To see how COVID-19 has affected the global economy since Q3 2019, let’s take a look at each sector’s debt as a percentage of GDP.
|Households (Q3 '19)||Households (Q3 '20)||Non-financials* (Q3 '19)||Non-financials* (Q3 '20)||Government (Q3 '19)||Government (Q3 '20)|
|Developed markets average||72%||78%||91%||102%||110%||131%|
|Emerging markets average||40%||44%||93%||104%||53%||60%|
*Corporations that are not in the financial industry.
Source: IIF, BIS, Haver, National Sources
Within developed markets, government debt-to-GDP grew by 21 percentage points compared to 11 for non-financial corporates, and 6 for households. This is unsurprising as governments have supplied billions (or in some cases, trillions) of economic stimulus while also pulling in less tax revenue.
The story in emerging markets is slightly different, with non-financial corporates experiencing the largest increase at 11 percentage points. The sector’s debt is now at 104% of GDP, making it the most highly-leveraged in the region.
Highlights from Today’s Chart
Today’s chart boils this data down to the individual country level, allowing us to identify two outliers: Canada and Australia.
Excluding the financial sector, Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio increased by nearly 80%, the highest of any developed country. Government borrowing surged as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided struggling Canadians with roughly $1,500 a month, rang up a bill of $60 billion over 7 months.
An increase in debt wasn’t the only reason for the country’s worsening debt-to-GDP ratios. In Q2 2020, Canada’s GDP declined at an annualized rate of 38%, its worst three-month performance on record.
Australia was another outlier, but for a different reason; the country’s household debt decreased by almost 5% relative to GDP. This was likely due to an early-access scheme that allowed millions of Australians to make withdrawals from their superannuation, a social security fund similar to America’s 401(k).
We know that almost 60 per cent of those accessing their [superannuation] early have used it…to meet essential day-to-day expenses, including paying down debts.
—Josh Frydenberg, Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia
Officials have exercised caution around the prolonged use of these programs, as superannuation funds are meant to support people through retirement. Of the 2.6 million Australians that accessed their superannuations early, 500,000 are believed to have completely emptied their accounts.
Debt-to-GDP is Set to Fall…Or is it?
A global roll out of COVID-19 vaccines is likely to end the ongoing health crisis and allow the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels, though delays are to be expected.
Regardless, this spells good news for governments and financial institutions around the world—economic output will recover, shrinking debt-to-GDP ratios. Whether or not borrowing will also slow down, however, is much harder to predict.
Government borrowing has been relied on to stimulate growth since 2008, and with 75% of Americans in favor of a second COVID-19 relief bill, public debt is likely to accumulate further. Private sector debt is following a similar trend, with non-financial U.S. corporations owing $10.9 trillion as of Q2 2020, up from $6.4 trillion at the start of 2008.
These growing debts have been manageable thanks to an extended period of low interest rates and loose monetary policy, but whether or not this is sustainable remains to be seen.
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