COVID response drives $24 trillion surge in global debt

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A new study has shown that the COVID pandemic has added $24 trillion to the global debt mountain over the last year leaving it at a record $281 trillion and the worldwide debt-to-GDP ratio at over 355%.

The Institute of International Finance’s global debt monitor estimated government support programmes had accounted for half of the rise, while global firms, banks and households added $5.4 trillion, 3.9 trillion and $2.6 trillion respectively.

It has meant that debt as a ratio of world economic output known as gross domestic product surged by 35 percentage points to over 355% of GDP.

That upswing is well beyond the rise seen during the global financial crisis, when 2008 and 2009 saw 10 percentage points and 15 percentage points respective debt-to-GDP jumps.

There is also little sign of a near-term stablisation.

Borrowing levels are expected to run well above pre-COVID levels in many countries and sectors again this year, supported by still low interest rates, although a reopening of economies should help on the GDP side of the equation.

Debt rises were particularly sharp in Europe, with non-financial sector debt-to-GDP ratios in France, Spain, and Greece increasing some 50 percentage points.

The rapid build-up was mostly driven by governments, particularly in Greece, Spain, Britain and Canada. Switzerland was the only mature market economy in the IIF’s 61-country analysis to record a decline in its debt ratio.

In emerging markets, China saw the biggest rise in debt ratios excluding banks, followed by Turkey, Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. South Africa and India recorded the largest increases just in terms of government debt ratios.

However, sustained reliance on government support could pose “systemic risks” as well by encouraging so-called ‘zombie’ firms – the weakest and most indebted corporates – to take on even more debt.

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