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?
Ranking the Credit Ratings of Major Economies
This graphic visualizes 30 country’s credit ratings, using data from the 2023 Sustainable Trade Index.
Ranking the Credit Ratings of Major Economies
Country credit ratings assess the likelihood that a country will default on its debts, and are determined by international rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s (S&P), Moody’s, and Fitch Ratings.
Generally speaking, a higher rating results in lower borrowing costs for the country, while lower ratings can increase costs or even limit access to capital.
This graphic from The Hinrich Foundation shows the credit worthiness of 28 major economies, using an index of ratings from the three agencies mentioned above (S&P, Moody’s, Fitch).
The analysis comes from the 2023 Sustainable Trade Index (STI), which the Hinrich Foundation produced in collaboration with the IMD World Competitiveness Center.
To produce the STI’s credit rating metric, ratings from S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch were converted to a numerical score and averaged for each economy, with a range of 0-60 (60 being the highest). All data are as of 2022.
|3||🇺🇸 United States||59|
|5||🇳🇿 New Zealand||57|
|7||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||53|
|7||🇰🇷 South Korea||53|
|9||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||52|
|23||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||17|
|27||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||4|
Countries with advanced economies and stable political structures typically receive the highest credit ratings, but this is always subject to change. For example, in August 2023, Fitch Ratings announced it had downgraded the U.S. to an AA+ from AAA (the highest possible).
From Fitch’s press release:
The rating downgrade of the U.S. reflects the expected fiscal deterioration over the next three years, a high and growing general government debt burden, and the erosion of governance relative to ‘AA’ and ‘AAA’ rated peers over the last two decades that has manifested in repeated debt limit standoffs and last-minute resolutions.
Speaking of downgrades, one country that has received numerous in recent years is Russia, due to sanctions it faces as a result of the prolonged invasion of Ukraine. For example, S&P reduced Russia’s sovereign credit rating to a CCC-, which implies a default is imminent in the near future.
Explore the Sustainable Trade Index
This infographic was just a preview of what the Sustainable Trade Index has to offer. To learn more, visit The Hinrich Foundation, where you can download additional resources including the entire report for free.
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