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: U.S. Corporate Bankruptcies On the Rise
In 2023, over 400 companies have folded. This graphic shows how corporate bankruptcies are growing at the second-fastest rate since 2010.
Visualized: U.S. Corporate Bankruptcies on the Rise
In March, Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, plunging its parent company SVB Financial Group into bankruptcy a week later.
While many expected a wave of bank failures to follow, much of this has since been averted—but cracks have begun to emerge with Moody’s recent downgrading of 10 small and mid-sized banks.
Across the wider corporate landscape, bankruptcies have begun to tick higher. Overstretched balance sheets coupled with 11 interest rate hikes since last year have added to mounting challenges for companies across many sectors.
This graphic shows the surge in corporate bankruptcies in 2023 based on data from S&P Global.
U.S. Corporate Bankruptcies Grow
So far in 2023, over 400 corporations have gone under. Corporate bankruptcies are rising at the fastest pace since 2010 (barring the pandemic), and are double the level seen this time last year.
Below, we show trends in corporate casualties with data as of July 31, 2023:
|Year of Filing||Bankruptcy Filings|
as of July
Represents public or private companies with public debt where either assets or liabilities are greater than or equal to $2 million, or private companies where assets or liabilities are greater than or equal to $10 million at time of bankruptcy.
Firms in the consumer discretionary and industrial sectors have seen the most bankruptcies, based on available data. Historically, both sectors carry significant debt on their balance sheets compared to other sectors, putting them at higher risk in a rising rate environment.
Overall, U.S. corporate interest costs have increased 22% annually compared to the first quarter of 2021. These additional costs, combined with higher wages, energy, and materials, among others, mean that companies may be under greater pressure to cut costs, restructure their debt, or in the worst case, fold.
This year, 16 companies with over $1 billion in liabilities have filed for bankruptcy. Among the most notable are retail chain Bed Bath & Beyond and the parent company of Silicon Valley Bank.
|Party City||Consumer Discretionary||Jan 2023|
|Serta Simmons Bedding||Consumer Discretionary||Jan 2023|
|Avaya||Information Technology||Feb 2023|
|Diamond Sports||Communication Services||Mar 2023|
|SVB Financial||Financials||Mar 2023|
|LTL Management||N/A||Apr 2023|
|Bed Bath & Beyond||Consumer Discretionary||Apr 2023|
|Whittaker, Clark & Daniels||N/A||Apr 2023|
|Kidde-Fenwal||Consumer Discretionary||May 2023|
|Envision Healthcare||Healthcare||May 2023|
|Wesco Aircraft||Industrials||Jun 2023|
|PGX Holdings||Industrials||Jun 2023|
|Cyxtera||Information Technology||Jun 2023|
|Voyager Aviation||Industrials||Jul 2023|
Mattress giant Serta Simmons filed for bankruptcy early this year. It once made up nearly 20% of bedding sales in America. With a vast share of debt coming due this year, the company was unable to make payments due to higher borrowing costs.
What Comes Next?
In many ways, U.S. corporations have been resilient despite the sharp rise in borrowing costs and economic uncertainty.
This can be explained in part by stronger than anticipated profits seen in 2022. While some companies have cut costs, others have hiked prices in an inflationary environment, creating buffers for rising interest payments. Still, S&P 500 earnings have begun to slow this year, falling over 5% in the second quarter compared to last year.
Secondly, the structure of corporate debt is much different than before the global financial crash. Many companies locked in fixed-rate debt over longer periods after the crisis. Today, roughly 72% of rated U.S. corporate debt has fixed rates.
At the same time, banks are getting more creative with their lending structures when companies get into trouble. There has been a record “extend and amend” activity for certain types of corporate bonds. This debt restructuring is enabling companies to keep operating.
The bad news is that corporate debt swelled during the pandemic, and eventually this debt will come due likely at much higher costs and with more severe consequences.
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