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Drowning In Debt: Global Figures, Silver Linings - Lombard Odier

Stéphane Monier, 18 December 2020

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In October, the G20 suspended debt repayments for another six months to the world’s poorest economies. This includes China, which accounts for two-thirds of the poorest nations’ debt to G20 countries. Below a look at the global debt balance sheet at the end of 2020 and what's in store for 2021.

Lombard Odier's CIO Stéphane Monier looks at what the current economic rescue is doing for global debt, running at more than three times global GDP. Right now loose monetary policy and rock-bottom interest rates is keeping it affordable. But current accumulations are fundamentally unsustainable. Monier examines where the debt burden is falling hardest as $7 trillion globally falls due in the next 12 months, with around $1 trillion of that US dollar-denominated, and China on the hook for a third. For investors, "the crucial question is not whether debt is affordable but how the money will be spent," Monier says, suggesting a constructive start to 2021. We welcome outside commentary, where the usual disclaimers apply, and invite feedback. Email tom.burroughes@wealthbriefing.com and jackie.bennion@clearviewpublishing.com

CIO Viewpoint: Drowning in pandemic debt?
Global debt reached more than $272 trillion at the end of the third quarter of 2020, a record, or 363 per cent of world gross domestic product (GDP). As a share of GDP, total debt has risen by more than 42 per cent this year, compared with 2019, as governments around the world fought to support their pandemic-stricken economies. Of the total, government debt rose by more than 16 percentage points. Private debt, consisting of household and non-financial corporate debt increased by 16 points, while financial corporate debt gained 10 points.

Is this the correct perspective? Looking at debt as a share of GDP exaggerates the increases, because economies’ revenues have fallen as the pandemic shut sectors. The global figures also obscure important regional differences. Debt in developed countries has increased by $12.7 trillion to $196.3 trillion since the end of 2019, equivalent to 432 per cent of their GDP.

However, the US accounted for almost half of the overall increase, and will record a rise in total debt from $71 trillion at the end of 2019 to $80 trillion this year, according to forecasts by the Institute of International Finance. US lawmakers, as we publish, are still negotiating a new $908 billion economic support package. Eurozone total debt has increased through September to $53.4 trillion equivalent. Historically, the eurozone’s record level of total debt reached more than $55 trillion in the second quarter of 2014.

Emerging markets also registered an increase in their overall debt-to-GDP ratios from 222 per cent to 248 per cent at the end of September. In absolute terms, this is a rise of $2.4 trillion, and entirely the result of non-financial corporate debt in China. Removing China from the data reverses this trend, thanks to a weaker dollar, with overall emerging market debt falling to $29.3 trillion from $31 trillion at the end of 2019.

However, the IIF says that the growth in debt levels this year is already slowing and should stabilize in 2021 as economic recoveries kick-in. Much of 2020’s increase is in general government and non-financial corporate sectors, as fiscal authorities responded to the pandemic.
 
Servicing the burden
These debt levels may be entirely justifiable, even unavoidable, as governments try to compensate firms and citizens for the challenges of the pandemic. Thankfully, the debt is mostly currently affordable because of the exceptionally loose monetary policy and the associated rock-bottom interest rates. However, this unprecedented debt accumulation is still fundamentally unsustainable. Clearly, governments will want to slow their borrowing as soon as the crisis is past, and may be forced to raise taxes.

Despite low interest rates in emerging markets, the debt service burden has increased due to falling revenues. But as a whole, emerging markets should cope, even as they manage slowing economic growth.

Indeed, $7 trillion of global debt falls due over the next 12 months and around $1 trillion of that total is US dollar-denominated. China, which accounts for one-third of this total, is able to service this debt, as can the next four most-exposed countries to dollar-denominated debt: the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Countries facing challenging debt repayments in the near term include Turkey and South Africa, and we are monitoring Latin American nations such as Colombia and Brazil.

Debt in the world’s very poorest economies may prove more damaging. In October, the Group of 20 agreed to suspend debt repayments for another six months. The agreement includes China, which accounted for 63 per cent of the poorest nations’ $178 billion debt owed to G20 countries in 2019.

Absolute debt levels of course also miss the issue of financing conditions. Much of the debt held is public and so subject to central banks’ control of interest rates, who are widely committed to keeping them low.

More debt, smarter investments?
The great financial crisis of a decade ago was the result of weaknesses in the financial system. That is not the case for the current COVID-triggered crisis. The pandemic has underlined the fragility of sectors from healthcare to logistics, communications to education, sparking a widespread determination to rethink spending priorities. Countries recognize that they need better infrastructure and narrow inequalities. This can be partially achieved through investments in innovation.

Many economies, including China and the US, are now committing themselves to climate change targets that imply fundamental overhauls to their post-COVID economic models.

In a world of low interest rates, the crucial question is not whether debt is affordable, but how the money will be spent.

As the world’s economies recover from the pandemic, in line with mass vaccination programs, focus will turn to the spending incurred over 2020. Investors will inevitably begin to pay more attention to which governments can afford these long-term investments, and their implications for the global financial system.

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