Visualizing $65 Trillion in Hidden Dollar Debt
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Visualizing $65 Trillion in Hidden Dollar Debt

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Visualizing $65 Trillion in Hidden Dollar Debt

Visualizing $65 Trillion in Hidden Dollar Debt

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The scale of hidden dollar debt around the world is huge.

No less than $65 trillion in unrecorded dollar debt circulates across the global financial system in non-U.S. banks and shadow banks. To put in perspective, global GDP sits at $104 trillion.

This dollar debt is in the form of foreign-exchange swaps, which have exploded over the last decade due to years of monetary easing and ultra-low interest rates, as investors searched for higher yields. Today, unrecorded debt from these foreign-exchange swaps is worth more than double the dollar debt officially recorded on balance sheets across these institutions.

Based on analysis from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), the above infographic charts the rise in hidden dollar debt across non-U.S. financial institutions and examines the wider implications of its growth.

Dollar Debt: A Beginners Guide

To start, we will briefly look at the role of foreign-exchange (forex) swaps in the global economy. The forex market is the largest in the world by a long stretch, with trillions traded daily.

Some of the key players that use foreign-exchange swaps are:

  • Corporations
  • Financial institutions
  • Central banks

To understand forex swaps is to look at the role of currency risk. As we have seen in 2022, the U.S. dollar has been on a tear. When this happens, it hurts company earnings that generate revenue across borders. That’s because they earn revenue in foreign currencies (which have likely declined in value against the dollar) but end up converting earnings to U.S. dollars.

In order to reduce currency risk, market participants will buy forex swaps. Here, two parties agree to exchange one currency for another. In short, this helps protect the company from unfavorable foreign exchange rates.

What’s more, due to accounting rules, forex swaps are often unrecorded on balance sheets, and as a result are quite opaque.

A Mountain of Debt

Since 2008, the value of this opaque, unrecorded dollar debt has nearly doubled.

Date
Non-U.S. Bank
Unrecorded Debt
Non-U.S. Shadow Bank
Unrecorded Debt
2022*$39.4T$26.0T
2021$37.1T$25.0T
2020$34.5T$22.9T
2019$32.9T$21.5T
2018$32.4T$20.1T
2017$31.2T$18.8T
2016$27.9T$17.0T
2015$25.1T$15.6T
2014$30.0T$17.0T
2013$30.8T$15.7T
2012$28.9T$15.9T
2011$27.5T$14.7T
2010$24.8T$15.0T
2009$21.4T$12.1T
2008$21.9T$12.4T

*As of June 30, 2022

Driving its rise in part was an era of rock-bottom interest rates globally. As investors sought out higher returns, they took on greater leverage—and forex swaps are one example of this.

Now, as interest rates have been rising, forex swaps have increased amid higher market volatility as investors look to hedge currency risk. This appears in both non-U.S. banks and non-U.S. shadow banks, which are unregulated financial intermediaries.

Overall, the value of unrecorded debt is staggering. An estimated $39 trillion is held by non-U.S. banks along with $26 trillion in overseas shadow banks around the world.

Past Case Studies

Why does the massive growth in dollar debt present risks?

During the market crashes of 2008 and 2020, forex swaps faced a funding squeeze. To borrow U.S. dollars, market participants had to pay high rates. A lot of this hinged on the impact of extreme volatility on these swaps, putting pressure on funding rates.

Here are two examples of how volatility can heighten risk in the forex market:

  • Exchange-rate volatility: Sharp swings in USD can spur a liquidity crunch
  • U.S. interest-rate volatility: Sudden rate fluctuations can mean much higher costs for these trades

In both cases, the U.S. central bank had to step in to provide liquidity in the market and prevent dollar shortages. This was done through pumping cash into the system and creating swap lines with other non-U.S. banks such as the Bank of Canada or the Bank of Japan. These were designed to protect from declining currency values and a liquidity crunch.

Dollar Debt: The Wider Implications

The risk from growing dollar debt and these swap lines arises when a non-U.S. bank or shadow bank may not be able to hold up their end of the agreement. In fact, on a daily basis, there is an estimated $2.2 trillion in forex swaps exposed to settlement risk.

Given its vast scale, this dollar debt could have greater systemic spillover effects. If participants fail to pay it could undermine financial market stability. Because demand for U.S. dollars increases during market uncertainty, a worsening economic climate could potentially expose the forex market to more vulnerabilities.

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Economy

The $16 Trillion European Union Economy

This chart shows the contributors to the EU economy through a percentage-wise distribution of country-level GDP.

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The $16 Trillion European Union Economy

The European Union has the third-largest economy in the world, accounting for one-sixth of global trade. All together, 27 member countries make up one internal market allowing free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

But how did this sui generis (a class by itself) political entity come into being?

A Brief History of the EU

After the devastating aftermath of the World War II, Western Europe saw a concerted move towards regional peace and security by promoting democracy and protecting human rights.

Crucially, the Schuman Declaration was presented in 1950. The coal and steel industries of Western Europe were integrated under common management, preventing countries from turning on each other and creating weapons of war. Six countries signed on — the eventual founders of the EU.

Here’s a list of all 27 members of the EU and the year they joined.

CountryYear of entry
🇧🇪 Belgium1958
🇫🇷 France1958
🇩🇪 Germany1958
🇮🇹 Italy1958
🇱🇺 Luxembourg1958
🇳🇱 Netherlands1958
🇩🇰 Denmark1973
🇮🇪 Ireland1973
🇬🇷 Greece1981
🇵🇹 Portugal1986
🇪🇸 Spain1986
🇦🇹 Austria1995
🇫🇮 Finland1995
🇸🇪 Sweden1995
🇨🇾 Cyprus2004
🇨🇿 Czechia2004
🇪🇪 Estonia2004
🇭🇺 Hungary2004
🇱🇻 Latvia2004
🇱🇹 Lithuania2004
🇲🇹 Malta2004
🇵🇱 Poland2004
🇸🇰 Slovakia2004
🇸🇮 Slovenia2004
🇧🇬 Bulgaria2007
🇷🇴 Romania2007
🇭🇷 Croatia2013

Greater economic and security cooperation followed over the next four decades, along with the addition of new members. These tighter relationships disincentivized conflict, and Western Europe—after centuries of constant war—has seen unprecedented peace for the last 80 years.

The modern version of the EU can trace its origin to 1993, with the adoption of the name, ‘the European Union,’ the birth of a single market, and the promise to use a single currency—the euro.

Since then the EU has become an economic and political force to reckon with. Its combined gross domestic product (GDP) stood at $16.6 trillion in 2022, after the U.S. ($26 trillion) and China ($19 trillion.)

ℹ️ GDP is a broad indicator of the economic activity within a country. It measures the total value of economic output—goods and services—produced within a given time frame by both the private and public sectors.

Front Loading the EU Economy

For the impressive numbers it shows however, the European Union’s economic might is held up by three economic giants, per data from the International Monetary Fund. Put together, the GDPs of Germany ($4 trillion), France ($2.7 trillion) and Italy ($1.9 trillion) make up more than half of the EU’s entire economic output.

These three countries are also the most populous in the EU, and together with Spain and Poland, account for 66% of the total population of the EU.

Here’s a table of all 27 member states and the percentage they contribute to the EU’s gross domestic product.

RankCountry GDP (Billion USD)% of the EU Economy
1.🇩🇪 Germany4,031.124.26%
2.🇫🇷 France2,778.116.72%
3.🇮🇹 Italy1,997.012.02%
4.🇪🇸 Spain1,390.08.37%
5.🇳🇱 Netherlands990.65.96%
6.🇵🇱 Poland716.34.31%
7.🇸🇪 Sweden603.93.64%
8.🇧🇪 Belgium589.53.55%
9.🇮🇪 Ireland519.83.13%
10.🇦🇹 Austria468.02.82%
11.🇩🇰 Denmark386.72.33%
12.🇷🇴 Romania299.91.81%
13.🇨🇿 Czechia295.61.78%
14.🇫🇮 Finland281.41.69%
15.🇵🇹 Portugal255.91.54%
16.🇬🇷 Greece222.01.34%
17.🇭🇺 Hungary184.71.11%
18.🇸🇰 Slovakia112.40.68%
19.🇧🇬 Bulgaria85.00.51%
20.🇱🇺 Luxembourg82.20.49%
21.🇭🇷 Croatia69.40.42%
22.🇱🇹 Lithuania68.00.41%
23.🇸🇮 Slovenia62.20.37%
24.🇱🇻 Latvia40.60.24%
25.🇪🇪 Estonia39.10.24%
26.🇨🇾 Cyprus26.70.16%
27.🇲🇹 Malta17.20.10%
Total16,613.1100%

The top-heaviness continues. By adding Spain ($1.3 trillion) and the Netherlands ($990 billion), the top five make up nearly 70% of the EU’s GDP. That goes up to 85% when the top 10 countries are included.

That means less than half of the 27 member states make up $14 trillion of the $16 trillion EU economy.

Older Members, Larger Share

Aside from the most populous members having bigger economies, another pattern emerges, with the time the country has spent in the EU.

Five of the six founders of the EU—Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium—are in the top 10 biggest economies of the EU. Ireland and Denmark, the next entrants into the union (1973) are ranked 9th and 11th respectively. The bottom 10 countries all joined the EU post-2004.

The UK—which joined the bloc in 1973 and formally left in 2020—would have been the second-largest economy in the region at $3.4 trillion.

Sectoral Analysis of the EU

The EU has four primary sectors of economic output: services, industry, construction, and agriculture (including fishing and forestry.) Below is an analysis of some of these sectors and the countries which contribute the most to it. All figures are from Eurostat.

Services and Tourism

The EU economy relies heavily on the services sector, accounting for more than 70% of the value added to the economy in 2020. It also is the sector with the highest share of employment in the EU, at 73%.

In Luxembourg, which has a large financial services sector, 87% of the country’s gross domestic product came from the services sector.

Tourism economies like Malta and Cyprus also had an above 80% share of services in their GDP.

Industry

Meanwhile 20% of the EU’s gross domestic product came from industry, with Ireland’s economy having the most share (40%) in its GDP. Czechia, Slovenia and Poland also had a significant share of industry output.

Mining coal and lignite in the EU saw a brief rebound in output in 2021, though levels continued to be subdued.

RankSector% of the EU Economy
1.Services72.4%
2.Industry20.1%
3.Construction5.6%
4.Agriculture, forestry and fishing1.8%

Agriculture

Less than 2% of the EU’s economy relies on agriculture, forestry and fishing. Romania, Latvia, and Greece feature as contributors to this sector, however the share in total output in each country is less than 5%. Bulgaria has the highest employment (16%) in this sector compared to other EU members.

Energy

The EU imports nearly 60% of its energy requirements. Until the end of 2021, Russia was the biggest exporter of petroleum and natural gas to the region. After the war in Ukraine that share has steadily decreased from nearly 25% to 15% for petroleum liquids and from nearly 40% to 15% for natural gas, per Eurostat.

Headwinds, High Seas

The IMF has a gloomy outlook for Europe heading into 2023. War in Ukraine, spiraling energy costs, high inflation, and stagnant wage growth means that EU leaders are facing “severe trade-offs and tough policy decisions.”

Reforms—to relieve supply constraints in the labor and energy markets—are key to increasing growth and relieving price pressures, according to the international body. The IMF projects that the EU will grow 0.7% in 2023.

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