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Global Debt Balloons to Worst Ever, China to Blame for Much of It

Mounting government deficits and indebtedness leave countries vulnerable to shocks and hinder their ability to respond should their economies falter, the IMF said in a report.


Updated:April 19, 2018, 7:52 AM IST
Global Debt Balloons to Worst Ever, China to Blame for Much of It
The International Monetary Fund headquarters building in Washington. (Reuters)

Washington: As world borrowing levels hit fresh records, the United States and China stand out among the biggest debtors, creating risks to the global economy, the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday.

Mounting government deficits and indebtedness leave countries vulnerable to shocks and hinder their ability to respond should their economies falter, the IMF said in a report.

China has been a "driving force" in pushing total world debt levels to a record $164 trillion by 2016 — 225 percent of global GDP — and accounted for 43 percent of the increase since 2007, according to the fund's Fiscal Monitor report.

Meanwhile, the sweeping US tax cuts enacted in December will push US deficit spending to $1 trillion, or five percent of GDP, over the next three years, and boost US debt to nearly 117 percent by 2023.

Unlike the US, all other advanced economies are expected to see their debt-to-GDP levels decline moderately over the next five years, the report said.

"There is no room for complacency," Vitor Gaspar, the IMF's head of fiscal affairs, said in presentation of the report's findings.

"Experience shows that successful governments are those that prepare ahead for storms looming on the horizon."

High debt levels leave countries exposed to the fickle behavior of investors, who can demand higher risk premiums, and this can be exacerbated by negative shocks to the economy, according to the report.

Uncertainty remains

Burdensome debts also leave economies with little room to maneuver in the event of a crisis and can drag down growth, the IMF said.

Debts in advanced economies have hit levels not seen in the post-War era and more than a third owe more than 85 percent of GDP.

In emerging market and middle-income countries last year, debt-to-GDP ratios were almost 50 percent, levels not seen since the debt crisis of the 1980s.

Low-income and developing countries averaged more than 40 percent, having risen more than 10 percentage points in the last five years.

In China, borrowing by local governments also adds to the total, which is forecast to reach 90 percent of GDP by 2023, according to the report.

Chinese authorities have made "commendable" efforts to contain borrowing by local governments but there remains "uncertainty" as to whether these measures will curb "off-budget" borrowing, according to the report.

The IMF called on countries to put debt on a downward path while promoting growth and investment in human capital.

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