Explore what’s moving the global economy in the new season of the Stephanomics podcast. Subscribe via Apple Podcast, Spotify or Pocket Cast.
Zombie companies in China. Crippling student bills in America. Sky-high mortgages in Australia. Another default scare in Argentina.
A decade of easy money has left the world with a record $250 trillion of government, corporate and household debt. That’s almost three times global economic output and equates to about $32,500 for every man, woman and child on earth.
Much of that legacy stems from policy makers’ deliberate efforts to use borrowing to keep the global economy afloat in the wake of the financial crisis. Rock bottom interest rates in the years since has kept the burden manageable for most, allowing the debt mountain to keep growing.
Now, as policy makers grapple with the slowest growth since that era, a suite of options on how to revive their economies share a common denominator: yet more debt. From Green New Deals to Modern Monetary Theory, proponents of deficit spending argue central banks are exhausted and that massive fiscal spending is needed to yank companies and households out of their funk.
Fiscal hawks argue such proposals will merely sow the seeds for more trouble. But the needle seems to be shifting on how much debt an economy can safely carry.
Central bankers and policy makers from European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde to the International Monetary Fund have been urging governments to do more, arguing it’s a good time to borrow for projects that will reap economic dividends.
“Previous conventional wisdom about advanced economy speed limits regarding debt to GDP ratios may be changing,” said Mark Sobel, a former U.S. Treasury and International Monetary Fund official. “Given lower interest bills and markets’ pent-up demand for safe assets, major advanced economies may well be able to sustain higher debt loads.”
Rising expectations of fiscal stimulus measures across the globe have contributed to a pick-up in bond yields, spurred by signs of a bottoming in the world’s economic slowdown. Ten-year Treasury yields climbed back above 1.80% Monday, while their Japanese counterparts edged up closer to zero.
A constraint for policy makers, though, is the legacy of past spending as pockets of credit stress litter the globe.
At the sovereign level, Argentina’s newly elected government has promised to renegotiate a record $56 billion credit line with the IMF, stoking memories of the nation’s economic collapse and debt default in 2001. Turkey, South Africa and others have also had scares.