…as Boz Scaggs sang (as Duane Allman burned on guitar).
Debt as a Share of GDP
This graph (compiled by McKinsey) shows the levels of debt by sector across several significant countries as a percentage of their GDP. This is the relevant measure because it tells us how much bang countries are getting for their borrowed ‘buck’ (in their home currency).
An analogy would be if you were borrowing money on your household account that did not increase your income over time, but instead increased the burden of interest you had to pay on the debt, which would reduce the share of your income for other purchases, like vacations or retirement savings. It makes sense to borrow to earn a degree that will increase your earning potential; it makes less sense to borrow money to take a vacation or buy a car you can’t afford.
A rising debt to GDP ratio means the excessive borrowing is not paying off with increased income (national GDP). We can compare countries on the chart below and see that the US has greatly increased government debt, which according to the effects of our monetary policies, has been used to retire private debt. In other words, we’ve shifted private debt, much of it from the financial sector, to taxpayers. Japan is not included, but would show that just government debt as a share of GDP is well over 200%. All this debt has not bought Japanese citizens much in terms of real wealth. One could argue it has just prevented the Japanese economy from imploding.
Another risk factor not displayed here is the effect of financial repression on the service of this debt. US debt is being financed at historically low interest rates that do not reflect the time value of money or the risk premium of lending. When interest rates rise, as they must eventually, all this debt will need to be rolled over at higher rates, meaning the service on the debt will explode, driving out other spending priorities while driving balance sheets toward insolvency. (If we can’t pay, we won’t pay.)
All in all, this is not a pretty picture. Be afraid.