Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt
Over the last five years, markets have pushed concerns about debt under the rug.
While economic growth and record-low interest rates have made it easy to service existing government debt, it’s also created a situation where government debt has grown in to over $63 trillion in absolute terms.
The global economic tide can change fast, and in the event of a recession or rapidly rising interest rates, debt levels could come back into the spotlight very quickly.
The Debt Snowball
Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net and it rolls the world’s countries into a “snowball” of government debt, colored and arranged by debt-to-GDP ratios. The data itself comes from the IMF’s most recent October 2018 update.
The structure of the visualization is apt, because debt can accumulate in an unsustainable way if governments are not proactive. This situation can create a vicious cycle, where mounting debt can start hampering growth, making the debt ultimately harder to pay off.
Here are the countries with the most debt on the books:
|Rank||Country||Debt-to-GDP Ratio (2017)|
Note: Small economies (GDP under $10 billion) are excluded in this table, such as Cabo Verde and Barbados
Japan and Greece are the most indebted countries in the world, with debt-to-GDP ratios of 237.6% and 181.8% respectively. Meanwhile, the United States sits in the #8 spot with a 105.2% ratio, and recent Treasury estimates putting the national debt at $22 trillion.
On the opposite spectrum, here are the 10 jurisdictions that have incurred less debt relative to the size of their economies:
|Rank||Country||Debt-to-GDP Ratio (2017)|
|#2||Hong Kong (SAR)||0.1%|
Note: Small economies (GDP under $10 billion) are excluded in this table, such as Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands
Macao and Hong Kong – both special administrative regions (SARs) in China – have virtually zero debt on the books, while the official country with the lowest debt is Brunei (2.8%).
Chart: The Downward Spiral in Interest Rates
As interest rates continue their historic spiral downwards, the world’s central banks are running out of conventional tools to settle markets.
During the onset of an economic crisis, national governments are thought to have two chief policy tools at their disposal:
- Fiscal Policy
How the central government collects money through taxation, and how it spends that money
- Monetary Policy
How central banks choose to manage the supply of money and interest rates
Major fiscal policy changes can take time to be implemented — but since central banks can make moves unilaterally, monetary policy is often the first line of defense in settling markets.
As the ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, central banks have been quick to act in slashing interest rates. However, with rates already sitting at historic lows before the crisis, it is possible that banks may be forced to employ more unconventional and controversial techniques to try and calm the economy as time goes on.
The Fed: Firing at Will
The most meaningful rate cuts happened on March 3rd and March 15th after emergency meetings in the United States.
First, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) cut the target rate from 1.5% to 1.0% — and then on Sunday (March 15th) the rate got chopped by an entire percentage point to rub up against the lower bound of zero.
As you can see on the chart, this puts us back into familiar territory: a policy environment analogous to that seen during the recovery from the financial crisis.
ZIRP or NIRP?
It’s been awhile, but with interest rates again bumping up against the lower bound, you’ll begin to see discussions pop up again about the effectiveness of zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) and even negative interest rate policy (NIRP).
Although the latter has been used by some European banks in recent years, NIRP has never been experimented with in the United States or Canada.
Here’s a quick primer on both:
With rates sitting at zero, it’s not impossible for the Fed and other central banks to begin toying more seriously with the idea of negative rates. Such a move would be bold, but also seen as highly experimental and risky with unforeseen consequences.
Global Rate Slashing
Since only the beginning of March, the world’s central banks have cut interest rates on 37 separate occasions.
The only exception to this rule was the National Bank of Kazakhstan, which raised its key rate by 2.75% to support its currency in light of current oil prices. Even so, the Kazakhstani tenge has lost roughly 15% of its value against the U.S. dollar since February.
Here’s a look at cumulative interest rate cuts by some of the world’s most important central banks, from January 1, 2020 until today:
Going into the year, rates in developed economies were already between 0% and 2%.
Despite not having much room to work with, banks have slashed rates where they can — and now out of major developed economies, Canada has the “highest” interest rate at just 0.75%.
Helicopters on the Horizon
With central banks running out of ammo for the use of traditional measures, the conversation is quickly shifting to unconventional measures such as “helicopter money” and NIRP.
Life is already surreal as societal measures to defend against the spread of COVID-19 unfold; pretty soon, monetary measures taken around the globe may seem just as bizarre.
Put another way, unless something changes fast and miraculously, we could be moving into an unprecedented monetary environment where up is down, and down is up. At that point, it’s anybody’s guess as to how things will shake out going forward.
Visualizing the 700-Year Fall of Interest Rates
Could interest rates enter negative territory permanently? This chart plots trend data over 700 years, showing that it could be a possibility.
Visualizing the 700-Year Decline of Interest Rates
How far can interest rates fall?
Currently, many sovereign rates sit in negative territory, and there is an unprecedented $10 trillion in negative-yielding debt. This new interest rate climate has many observers wondering where the bottom truly lies.
Today’s graphic from Paul Schmelzing, visiting scholar at the Bank of England (BOE), shows how global real interest rates have experienced an average annual decline of -0.0196% (-1.96 basis points) throughout the past eight centuries.
The Evidence on Falling Rates
Collecting data from across 78% of total advanced economy GDP over the time frame, Schmelzing shows that real rates* have witnessed a negative historical slope spanning back to the 1300s.
Displayed across the graph is a series of personal nominal loans made to sovereign establishments, along with their nominal loan rates. Some from the 14th century, for example, had nominal rates of 35%. By contrast, key nominal loan rates had fallen to 6% by the mid 1800s.
Centennial Averages of Real Long-Term “Safe-Asset”† Rates From 1311-2018
*Real rates take inflation into account, and are calculated as follows: nominal rate – inflation = real rate.
†Safe assets are issued from global financial powers
Starting in 1311, data from the report shows how average real rates moved from 5.1% in the 1300s down to an average of 2% in the 1900s.
The average real rate between 2000-2018 stands at 1.3%.
Why have interest rates been trending downward for so long?
Here are the three prevailing theories as to why they’re dropping:
1. Productivity Growth
Since 1970, productivity growth has slowed. A nation’s productive capacity is determined by a number of factors, including labor force participation and economic output.
If total economic output shrinks, real rates will decline too, theory suggests. Lower productivity growth leads to lower wage growth expectations.
In addition, lower productivity growth means less business investment, therefore a lower demand for capital. This in turn causes the lower interest rates.
Demographics impact interest rates on a number of levels. The aging population—paired with declining fertility levels—result in higher savings rates, longer life expectancies, and lower labor force participation rates.
In the U.S., baby boomers are retiring at a pace of 10,000 people per day, and other advanced economies are also seeing comparable growth in retirees. Theory suggests that this creates downward pressure on real interest rates, as the number of people in the workforce declines.
3. Economic Growth
Dampened economic growth can also have a negative impact on future earnings, pushing down the real interest rate in the process. Since 1961, GDP growth among OECD countries has dropped from 4.3% to 3% in 2018.
Larry Summers referred to this sloping trend since the 1970s as “secular stagnation” during an International Monetary Fund conference in 2013.
Secular stagnation occurs when the economy is faced with persistently lagging economic health. One possible way to address a declining interest rate conundrum, Summers has suggested, is through expansionary government spending.
Bond Yields Declining
According to the report, another trend has coincided with falling interest rates: declining bond yields.
Since the 1300s, global nominal bonds yields have dropped from over 14% to around 2%.
The graph illustrates how real interest rates and bond yields appear to slope across a similar trend line. While it may seem remarkable that interest rates keep falling, this phenomenon shows that a broader trend may be occurring—across centuries, asset classes, and fiscal regimes.
In fact, the historical record would imply that we will see ever new record lows in real rates in future business cycles in the 2020s/30s
Although this may be fortunate for debt-seekers, it can create challenges for fixed income investors—who may seek alternatives strategies with higher yield potential instead.
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