Global debt hits record $208 trillion

IMF warns of high private debt levels, but urges countries able to afford it to spend more

WASHINGTON • The world is swimming in a record US$152 trillion (S$208 trillion) in debt, the International Monetary Fund said, even as the institution encourages some countries to spend more to boost flagging growth if they can afford it.

Global debt, both public and private, reached 225 per cent of global economic output last year, up from about 200 per cent in 2002, the IMF said in its new Fiscal Monitor report released late on Wednesday.

The IMF said that about two-thirds of last year's total or about US$100 billion is owed by private sector borrowers, and noted that rapid increases in private debt often lead to financial crises.

While debt profiles vary by country, the report said that the sheer size of the debt could set the stage for an unprecedented private deleveraging that could thwart a still-fragile economic recovery.

"Excessive private debt is a major headwind against the global recovery and a risk to financial stability," IMF fiscal affairs director Vitor Gaspar told a news conference. "Financial recessions are longer and deeper than normal recessions."

While the United States has deleveraged since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the report cited the buildup of private debt in China and Brazil as a significant concern, fuelled in part by a long era of low interest rates.

THREAT TO RECOVERY

Excessive private debt is a major headwind against the global recovery and a risk to financial stability. Financial recessions are longer and deeper than normal recessions.

IMF FISCAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR VITOR GASPAR

The report comes as IMF managing director Christine Lagarde is urging the fund's 189 member governments that have "fiscal space" - the ability to sustainably borrow and spend more - to do so to boost persistently weak growth.

The fund's call for targeted fiscal support for consumer demand is accompanied by calls for continued accommodative monetary policy and accelerated structural reforms aimed at boosting countries' economic efficiency.

If a major deleveraging of private debt were to occur, the IMF report recommends that fiscal policy should include targeted interventions to restructure private debt or repair bank balance sheets to minimise damage to the overall economy.

These could be similar to the mortgage restructuring programmes undertaken by the US during the crisis or the Obama administration's auto industry restructuring, Mr Gaspar said.

"These types of policies could be particularly useful in China," he said. "But in order to work, they need to be adequately designed and subject to strong governance principles."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline 'Global debt hits record $208 trillion'. Print Edition | Subscribe