Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt in 2021 – Visual Capitalist
With vaccines slowly obtaining approval in various countries, the world may finally be on the path to overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic.
The economic situation, on the other hand, is unlikely to improve anytime soon. Falling revenues combined with costly pandemic relief measures have increased global debt by $20 trillion since the third quarter of 2019. By the end of 2020, economists expect global debt to reach $277 trillion, or 365% of world GDP.
Developed economies represent four of the five countries seeing the largest increases in debt-to-GDP, but looking from a more macro angle reveals that debt levels are rising at a similar pace around the world.
Q3 2019 ($ trillions)
Q3 2020 ($ trillions)
Source: IIF, BIS, IMF, Haver, National Sources
To put these figures into perspective, economists often use the debt-to-GDP metric, which compares a country’s debt to its economic output. As the name implies, it’s calculated by taking a country’s total debts and dividing them by its annual GDP. Having a low debt-to-GDP ratio suggests that a country will have little issues paying off its debts, while a high ratio can be interpreted as a sign of higher default risk.
The actual definition of a “low” or “high” ratio is quite loose, though the World Bank believes there is a threshold for government debt at 77% of GDP. Every percentage point beyond this threshold has been found to detract 0.017 percentage points from annual growth.
Comparing Debt-to-GDP by Sector
To see how COVID-19 has affected the global economy since Q3 2019, let’s take a look at each sector’s debt as a percentage of GDP.
Households (Q3 ’19)
Households (Q3 ’20)
Non-financials* (Q3 ’19)
Non-financials* (Q3 ’20)
Government (Q3 ’19)
Government (Q3 ’20)
Developed markets average
Emerging markets average
*Corporations that are not in the financial industry.
Source: IIF, BIS, Haver, National Sources
Within developed markets, government debt-to-GDP grew by 21 percentage points compared to 11 for non-financial corporates, and 6 for households. This is unsurprising as governments have supplied billions (or in some cases, trillions) of economic stimulus while also pulling in less tax revenue.
The story in emerging markets is slightly different, with non-financial corporates experiencing the largest increase at 11 percentage points. The sector’s debt is now at 104% of GDP, making it the most highly-leveraged in the region.
Highlights from Today’s Chart
Today’s chart boils this data down to the individual country level, allowing us to identify two outliers: Canada and Australia.
Excluding the financial sector, Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio increased by nearly 80%, the highest of any developed country. Government borrowing surged as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided struggling Canadians with roughly $1,500 a month, rang up a bill of $60 billion over 7 months.
An increase in debt wasn’t the only reason for the country’s worsening debt-to-GDP ratios. In Q2 2020, Canada’s GDP declined at an annualized rate of 38%, its worst three-month performance on record.
Australia was another outlier, but for a different reason; the country’s household debt decreased by almost 5% relative to GDP. This was likely due to an early-access scheme that allowed millions of Australians to make withdrawals from their superannuation, a social security fund similar to America’s 401(k).
We know that almost 60 per cent of those accessing their [superannuation] early have used it…to meet essential day-to-day expenses, including paying down debts.
—Josh Frydenberg, Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia
Officials have exercised caution around the prolonged use of these programs, as superannuation funds are meant to support people through retirement. Of the 2.6 million Australians that accessed their superannuations early, 500,000 are believed to have completely emptied their accounts.
Debt-to-GDP is Set to Fall…Or is it?
A global roll out of COVID-19 vaccines is likely to end the ongoing health crisis and allow the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels, though delays are to be expected.
Regardless, this spells good news for governments and financial institutions around the world—economic output will recover, shrinking debt-to-GDP ratios. Whether or not borrowing will also slow down, however, is much harder to predict.
Government borrowing has been relied on to stimulate growth since 2008, and with 75% of Americans in favor of a second COVID-19 relief bill, public debt is likely to accumulate further. Private sector debt is following a similar trend, with non-financial U.S. corporations owing $10.9 trillion as of Q2 2020, up from $6.4 trillion at the start of 2008.
These growing debts have been manageable thanks to an extended period of low interest rates and loose monetary policy, but whether or not this is sustainable remains to be seen.