The IMF's new Global Debt Database is an impressive piece of work. And the numbers suggest that the so-called debt intensity of growth has increased: we seem to need higher levels of debt to support a given rate of economic than we did before.
LONDON – At the end of May, the International Monetary Fund launched its new Global Debt Database. For the first time, IMF statisticians have compiled a comprehensive set of calculations of both public and private debt, country by country, constructing a time series stretching back to the end of World War II. It is an impressive piece of work.
The headline figure is striking. Global debt has hit a new high of 225% of world GDP, exceeding the previous record of 213% in 2009. So, as the IMF points out, there has been no deleveraging at all at the global level since the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In some countries, the composition of debt changed, as public debt replaced private debt in the post-crisis recession, but that shift has now mostly stopped.Are these large figures alarming? In aggregate terms, perhaps not. At a time when economic growth is robust almost everywhere, financial markets are relaxed about debt sustainability. Long-term interest rates remain remarkably low. But the numbers do tend to support the hypothesis that the so-called debt intensity of growth has increased: we seem to need higher levels of debt to support a given rate of economic growth than we did before.Perhaps that is partly because the growth in income and wealth inequality in developed countries has distributed spending power to those with a propensity to spend less than their income. That trend has leveled off recently, but the implications are still with us. It also seems that productivity growth has slowed, so a given quantum of investment generates less output than it used to do.1The IMF’s recommendation to governments is that they should fix the roof while the sun is shining: accumulate a fiscal surplus, or at least reduce deficits, in good times so that they are better prepared for the next downturn, which will surely come before too long. The current upturn is now quite mature. That puts the IMF on a collision course with the tax-cutting United States administration and now with Italy’s new government. If the Italians’ grandiose plans for a minimum income and more public investment are implemented, they might soon find themselves in difficult discussions with the Fund. The team that has been in Athens for the past few years might soon be booked on a flight to Rome.MORE