Debt and (not much) deleveraging

By Richard Dobbs, Susan Lund, Jonathan Woetzel, and Mina Mutafchieva

Global debt has grown by $57 trillion and no major economy has decreased its debt-to-GDP ratio since 2007. High government debt in advanced economies, mounting household debt, and the rapid rise of China’s debt are areas of potential concern.

Seven years after the bursting of a global credit bubble resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, debt continues to grow. In fact, rather than reducing indebtedness, or deleveraging, all major economies today have higher levels of borrowing relative to GDP than they did in 2007. Global debt in these years has grown by $57 trillion, raising the ratio of debt to GDP by 17 percentage points (Exhibit 1). That poses new risks to financial stability and may undermine global economic growth.

A new McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, Debt and (not much) deleveraging, examines the evolution of debt across 47 countries—22 advanced and 25 developing—and assesses the implications of higher leverage in the global economy and in specific sectors and countries. The analysis, which follows our July 2011 report Debt and deleveraging: The global credit bubble and its economic consequences and our January 2012 report Debt and deleveraging: Uneven progress on the path to growth, focuses on the debt of the "real economy": governments, nonfinancial corporations, and households. It finds that debt-to-GDP ratios have risen in all 22 advanced economies in the sample, by more than 50 percentage points in many cases (Exhibit 2).

In our study, we pinpoint three areas of emerging risk: the rise of government debt, which in some countries has reached such high levels that new ways will be needed to reduce it; the continued rise in household debt—and housing prices—to new peaks in Northern Europe and some Asian countries; and the quadrupling of China's debt, fueled by real estate and shadow banking, in just seven years.

Global economy has more debt after financial crisis, not less
MGI’s Richard Dobbs and Susan Lund discuss the implications of higher leverage in the global economy, as well as innovations that could help countries avoid future crises.

Here's a closer look at those challenges, as well as some innovations that could help global economies to live safely with their current levels of debt and to avoid future crises:

Government debt is unsustainably high in some countries. Since 2007, government debt has grown by $25 trillion. It will continue to rise in many countries, given current economic fundamentals. Some of this debt, incurred with the encouragement of world leaders to finance bailouts and stimulus programs, stems from the crisis. Debt also rose as a result of the recession and the weak recovery. For six of the most highly indebted countries, starting the process of deleveraging would require implausibly large increases in real-GDP growth or extremely deep fiscal adjustments. To reduce government debt, countries may need to consider new approaches, such as more extensive asset sales, one-time taxes on wealth, and more efficient debt-restructuring programs.

Household debt is reaching new peaks. Only in the core crisis countries—Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have households deleveraged. In many others, household debt-to-income ratios have continued to rise. They exceed the peak levels in the crisis countries before 2008 in some cases, including such advanced economies as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, as well as Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand. These countries want to avoid property-related debt crises like those of 2008. To manage high levels of household debt safely, they need more flexible mortgage contracts, clearer personal-bankruptcy rules, and tighter lending standards and macroprudential rules.

China's debt has quadrupled since 2007. Fueled by real estate and shadow banking, China's total debt has nearly quadrupled, rising to $28 trillion by mid-2014, from $7 trillion in 2007. At 282 percent of GDP, China's debt as a share of GDP, while manageable, is larger than that of the United States or Germany. Three developments are potentially worrisome: half of all loans are linked, directly or indirectly, to China's overheated real-estate market; unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending; and the debt of many local governments is probably unsustainable. However, MGI calculates that China's government has the capacity to bail out the financial sector should a property-related debt crisis develop. The challenge will be to contain future debt increases and reduce the risks of such a crisis, without putting the brakes on economic growth.

These challenges need to be addressed. Yet if, as it appears, economies need ever-larger amounts of debt to grow, and deleveraging is rare and increasingly difficult, they may also need to learn to live more safely with high debt. That will require new approaches to manage and monitor it, to reduce the risk of crises, and to resolve private-sector defaults efficiently. Policy makers will need to consider more ways to reduce government debt, and it may be time to reevaluate how incentives in the tax system encourage the amassing of debt. When there are signs of credit bubbles, regulators can seek to cool markets with countercyclical measures, such as tighter loan-to-value rules and higher capital requirements for banks. Debt undoubtedly remains an essential tool for financing economic growth. But how it is created, used, monitored, and (when necessary) discharged still needs improvement.

This is the third of three McKinsey Global Institute reports on this issue. The others are Debt and deleveraging: The global credit bubble and its economic consequences (July 2011) and Debt and deleveraging: Uneven progress on the path to growth (January 2012).

About the author(s)

Richard Dobbs and Jonathan Woetzel are directors of the McKinsey Global Institute, where Susan Lund is a partner; Mina Mutafchieva is a consultant in McKinsey's Antwerp office.

A previous version of this report included incorrect data for Sweden's government and corporate debt. The report was updated on February 5 and now correctly shows Sweden's government debt as 42 percent of GDP and corporate debt as 165 percent of GDP as of Q2 2014.

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