Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt in 2021
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Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt

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Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt in 2021

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)CountryDebt-to-GDP (2019)Debt-to-GDP (2020)Debt-to-GDP (April 2021)
#1🇯🇵 Japan235%256%257%
#2🇸🇩 Sudan200%262%212%
#3🇬🇷 Greece185%213%210%
#4🇪🇷 Eritrea189%185%176%
#5🇸🇷 Suriname93%166%157%
#6🇮🇹 Italy135%156%157%
#7🇧🇧 Barbados127%149%143%
#8🇲🇻 Maldives78%143%140%
#9🇨🇻 Cape Verde125%139%138%
#10🇧🇿 Belize98%127%135%

Source: IMF

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?

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Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion

Robust growth in mortgages has pushed U.S. consumer debt to nearly $16 trillion. Click to gain further insight into the situation.

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Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion

According to the Federal Reserve (Fed), U.S. consumer debt is approaching a record-breaking $16 trillion. Critically, the rate of increase in consumer debt for the fourth quarter of 2021 was also the highest seen since 2007.

This graphic provides context into the consumer debt situation using data from the end of 2021.

Housing Vs. Non-Housing Debt

The following table includes the data used in the above graphic. Housing debt covers mortgages, while non-housing debt covers auto loans, student loans, and credit card balances.

DateHousing Debt
(USD trillions)
Non-Housing Debt
(USD trillions)
Total Consumer Debt
(USD trillions)
Q1 20035.182.057.23
Q2 20035.342.047.38
Q3 20035.452.107.55
Q4 20035.962.108.06
Q1 20046.172.138.30
Q2 20046.342.128.46
Q3 20046.642.208.84
Q4 20046.832.229.05
Q1 20057.012.199.20
Q2 20057.232.269.49
Q3 20057.452.359.80
Q4 20057.672.3410.01
Q1 20068.022.3610.38
Q2 20068.352.4010.75
Q3 20068.652.4611.11
Q4 20068.832.4811.31
Q1 20079.032.4611.49
Q2 20079.332.5311.86
Q3 20079.562.5812.14
Q4 20079.752.6312.38
Q1 20089.892.6512.54
Q2 20089.952.6512.60
Q3 20089.982.6912.67
Q4 20089.972.7112.68
Q1 20099.852.6812.53
Q2 20099.772.6312.40
Q3 20099.652.6212.27
Q4 20099.552.6212.17
Q1 20109.532.5812.11
Q2 20109.382.5511.93
Q3 20109.282.5611.84
Q4 20109.122.5911.71
Q1 20119.182.5811.76
Q2 20119.142.5811.72
Q3 20119.042.6211.66
Q4 20118.902.6311.53
Q1 20128.802.6411.44
Q2 20128.742.6411.38
Q3 20128.602.7111.31
Q4 20128.592.7511.34
Q1 20138.482.7511.23
Q2 20138.382.7711.15
Q3 20138.442.8511.29
Q4 20138.582.9411.52
Q1 20148.702.9611.66
Q2 20148.623.0211.64
Q3 20148.643.0711.71
Q4 20148.683.1611.84
Q1 20158.683.1711.85
Q2 20158.623.2411.86
Q3 20158.753.3112.06
Q4 20158.743.3712.11
Q1 20168.863.3912.25
Q2 20168.843.4512.29
Q3 20168.823.5412.36
Q4 20168.953.6312.58
Q1 20179.093.6412.73
Q2 20179.143.6912.83
Q3 20179.193.7712.96
Q4 20179.323.8213.14
Q1 20189.383.8513.23
Q2 20189.433.8713.30
Q3 20189.563.9513.51
Q4 20189.534.0113.54
Q1 20199.654.0213.67
Q2 20199.814.0613.87
Q3 20199.844.1313.97
Q4 20199.954.2014.15
Q1 202010.104.2114.31
Q2 202010.154.1214.27
Q3 202010.224.1414.36
Q4 202010.394.1714.56
Q1 202110.504.1414.64
Q2 202110.764.2014.96
Q3 202110.994.2415.23
Q4 202111.254.3415.59

Source: Federal Reserve

Trends in Housing Debt

Home prices have experienced upward pressure since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is evidenced by the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which has increased by 34% since the start of the pandemic.

Driving this growth are various pandemic-related impacts. For example, the cost of materials such as lumber have seen enormous spikes. We’ve covered this story in a previous graphic, which showed how many homes could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. In most cases, these higher costs are passed on to the consumer.

Another key factor here is mortgage rates, which fell to all-time lows in 2020. When rates are low, consumers are able to borrow in larger quantities. This increases the demand for homes, which in turn inflates prices.

Ultimately, higher home prices translate to more mortgage debt being incurred by families.

No Need to Worry, Though

Economists believe that today’s housing debt isn’t a cause for concern. This is because the quality of borrowers is much stronger than it was between 2003 and 2007, in the years leading up to the financial crisis and subsequent housing crash.

In the chart below, subprime borrowers (those with a credit score of 620 and below) are represented by the red-shaded bars:

Mortgage originations by Credit Score

We can see that subprime borrowers represent very little (2%) of today’s total originations compared to the period between 2003 to 2007 (12%). This suggests that American homeowners are, on average, less likely to default on their mortgage.

Economists have also noted a decline in the household debt service ratio, which measures the percentage of disposable income that goes towards a mortgage. This is shown in the table below, along with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate.

YearMortgage Payments as a % of Disposable IncomeAverage 30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate
200012.0%8.2%
200412.2%5.4%
200812.8%5.8%
20129.8%3.9%
20169.9%3.7%
20209.4%3.5%
20219.3%3.2%

Source: Federal Reserve

While it’s true that Americans are less burdened by their mortgages, we must acknowledge the decrease in mortgage rates that took place over the same period.

With the Fed now increasing rates to calm inflation, Americans could see their mortgages begin to eat up a larger chunk of their paycheck. In fact, mortgage rates have already risen for seven consecutive weeks.

Trends in Non-Housing Consumer Debt

The key stories in non-housing consumer debt are student loans and auto loans.

The former category of debt has grown substantially over the past two decades, with growth tapering off during the pandemic. This can be attributed to COVID relief measures which have temporarily lowered the interest rate on direct federal student loans to 0%.

Additionally, these loans were placed into forbearance, meaning 37 million borrowers have not been required to make payments. As of April 2022, the value of these waived payments has reached $195 billion.

Over the course of the pandemic, very few direct federal borrowers have made voluntary payments to reduce their loan principal. When payments eventually resume, and the 0% interest rate is reverted, economists believe that delinquencies could rise significantly.

Auto loans, on the other hand, are following a similar trajectory as mortgages. Both new and used car prices have risen due to the global chip shortage, which is hampering production across the entire industry.

To put this in numbers, the average price of a new car has climbed from $35,600 in 2019, to over $47,000 today. Over a similar timeframe, the average price of a used car has grown from $19,800, to over $28,000.

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Visualizing the State of Global Debt, by Country

Global debt reached $226T by the end of 2020 – the biggest one-year jump since WWII. This graphic compares the debt-to-GDP ratio of various countries.

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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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