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The Anatomy of Global Debt

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.

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