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:
|#5||Cape Verde 🇨🇻||161%|
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.
Animated: Global Debt Projections (2005-2027P)
The surge in global debt poses significant risks to government balance sheets. Here’s where it’s projected to reach over the next five years.
Animated Chart: Global Debt Projections
Total global debt stands at nearly $305 trillion as of the first quarter of 2023.
Over the next five years, it is projected to jump even further—raising concerns about government leverage in a high interest rate and slower growth environment.
As global debt continues to climb, this animated graphic shows data and projections for public debt-to-GDP ratios using the World Economic Outlook (April 2023 update) from the IMF.
Growing Global Debt Projections
After rising steadily for years, government debt first ballooned to almost 100% of GDP in 2020. While this ratio has fallen amid an economic rebound and high inflation in 2021 and 2022, it is projected to regain ground and continue climbing.
World government debt is now projected to rise to 99.5% of GDP by 2027. Here’s data going back to 2005, as well as the forecast for global public debt-to-GDP:
|Year||🇺🇸 U.S.||🇨🇳 China||🌎 Global Average|
Debt sharply increased in both 2020 and 2009 in conjunction with economic downturns. Historically, debt levels compared to GDP tend to increase as little as 4% and much as 15% in the five years after a global recession has ended.
In the U.S., public debt-to-GDP is set to reach a record 134% by 2027. The sharp rise in interest rates is increasing net debt servicing costs, which stood at $475 billion last year. Over the next 10 years, net interest costs on U.S. debt are projected to total $10.6 trillion.
China’s debt has also risen rapidly, and is projected to eclipse 100% by 2026. Public debt as a percentage of GDP is forecast to jump fourfold between 2005 and 2027. This year alone, new government debt issuance is projected to hit record levels. A large portion of this debt consists of infrastructure bonds that are focused on boosting the economy.
Comparing Trends Across Global Economies
Below, we show how the public debt-to-GDP ratios for advanced economies compare with emerging markets and low-income countries. Both the U.S. and China are excluded here:
|Year||Advanced Economies||Emerging Markets||Low-Income
In a retreat from 2020 highs, public debt is projected to fall meaningfully compared to GDP by 2027 for advanced economies excluding America. Emerging markets are also projected to see this leverage ratio decline.
Low-income countries have smaller debt levels compared to output, which is expected to continue over the next five years. Despite this, 39 of these countries are in debt distress—or are close to it—as high interest rates add pressure to government balance sheets.
Are High Global Debt Levels Sustainable?
The good news is that 60% of economies are forecast to see their public debt-to-GDP ratios fall below COVID-19 peaks by 2027.
On the other hand, many large advanced and emerging economies, including China, Brazil, Japan, and Türkiye are projected to face steeper debt. In the U.S., payments on public debt have soared to record levels due to rising interest rates.
This comes as aging populations, slower economic growth, and healthcare costs are straining government spending, a trend seen across many advanced economies.
Countries with economic growth rising faster than real interest rates may be more likely to sustain high debt levels. But sticky inflation, prompting higher interest rates, will likely make these debt piles even more fragile.
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