Uncle Sam & IRS Debt - Worst Bank Seized Home - Local Records Office
It's not just Greece, Puerto Rico and China. Debt is piling up around the world — stifling global economic growth and heightening the risk of more defaults and market turmoil.
World leaders are caught in a trap: More debt in the form of government and private spending is needed to stimulate today's sluggish economies. Yet the higher the debt, the greater the danger that a pullback by creditors will trigger another financial crisis like the one in 2008.
"The post-crisis world is a world of high debt, and it doesn't take much. It just takes a bad shock for the debt dynamics to go wrong," warned Olivier Blanchard.
"We have to be ready to see other episodes of this kind," he said, referring to the recent Greek default that shut down the country's banks and intensified fears of a Eurozone breakup until a new bailout was negotiated.
Europe has largely slashed spending to get a control on government budgets, but the result so far has been minimal growth and high unemployment in Greece and some other countries.
The second approach, adopted by the U.S. and China, pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into all kinds of public projects. But growth in these economies, while better, has hardly been spectacular.
Meanwhile, central banks around the world have cut interest rates and issued unprecedented amounts of bonds to spur borrowing and spending.
The rising leverage, particularly in developed economies, is all the more striking given the extensive fiscal belt-tightening, write-offs by creditors and stricter lending conditions imposed since 2008.
So despite its inability as yet to pull out of its long economic doldrums, the Japanese government isn't operating in fear that investors will suddenly get nervous and run for the exits.
The U.S. debt picture looks stable, at least for now. Though public debt as a share of GDP rose to 89% last year, the government's budget deficit has been shrinking and is now at a seven-year low, thanks largely to the continuous job and economic growth.
U.S. banks and other corporate balance sheets are the strongest they've been in years. And consumers aren't nearly as strained as before, in part, because of the foreclosures and write-offs of the last decade. Household debt-service — the share of after-tax incomes needed to pay interest and principal — is now down to the levels of the 1980s.
To be sure, America's budget pressures will build as healthcare and Social Security obligations increase with the nation's aging population.
And debt burdens can be expected to rise as the Federal Reserve moves to gradually lift interest rates in the months and years ahead. That means money won't be as cheap, and governments, businesses, and households around the world will need to boost incomes or cut spending to manage their debts.
At the same time, U.S. growth prospects look generally sound, especially compared with most other advanced economies. And Uncle Sam isn't likely to have trouble finding investors to buy its bonds.
"When there are global problems, the U.S. often profits because there's a flight to credit quality," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics.
Zandi's biggest long-term concern over debt involves China, the world's second-largest economy.
The nation's debt is fairly concentrated and has little exposure to risks from outside investors. Plus, China has more capacity than most to deal with its debt load, given the country's unusually high saving rate of about 50%.
"It's not just about debt level, but whether a borrower can service it," said Andy Rothman, a China expert at Matthews Asia, the San Francisco investment firm.
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