Global debt hasn't been this bad since the Napoleonic Wars, says World Economic Forum president



The massive volumes of debt piling up around the globe forced the president of the World Economic Forum to reach back more than 200 years for a comparable period.

In an interview Sunday with CNBC at a WEF conference in Saudi Arabia, Borge Brende warned overall debt is approaching the world’s total economic output.

“We haven’t seen this kind of debt since the Napoleonic Wars,” he said. “We’re getting close to 100% of global GDP in debt.”

According to the International Monetary Fund last year, global public debt hit $91 trillion, or 92% of GDP, by the end of 2022. That was actually a dip from pandemic-era debt levels but remained in line with a decades-long trend higher.

Data on global debt during the Napoleonic Wars, which took place in the early 1800s, is harder to come by. But for comparison, some estimates put British government debt at more than 200% of GDP by 1815.

Brende also told CNBC that governments need to take fiscal measures to reduce their debts without triggering a recession.

For now, global growth is about 3.2% annually, which isn’t bad, but it’s also below the 4% trend growth the world had seen for decades, he said earlier in the interview.

That risks a repeat of the 1970s, when growth was low for a decade, Brende added. But the world can avoid such an outcome if it continues to trade and doesn’t engage in more trade wars.

“Trade was the engine of growth for decades,” he said.

The WEF’s debt warning comes amid growing alarm over all the red ink that’s been spilled in recent years, especially from top economies like the U.S. and China.

The IMF said earlier this month that soaring U.S. government debt risks becoming a problem for the rest of the world. That’s because more debt could boost U.S. bond yields, which are a benchmark for borrowing costs across global markets.

“Loose fiscal policy in the United States exerts upward pressure on global interest rates and the dollar,” said Vitor Gaspar, director of the IMF’s fiscal affairs department, according to CNN. “It pushes up funding costs in the rest of the world, thereby exacerbating existing fragilities and risks.”

In fact, 2024 will mark the year that spending to service U.S. debt will exceed defense outlays, the Congressional Budget Office has said.

The CBO also estimated in a March report that U.S. public debt will soar to 166% of GDP, reaching $141.1 trillion, by 2054 from 99%, or $34 trillion debt, today.

This mounting debt, the CBO warned, “would slow economic growth, push up interest payments to foreign holders of U.S. debt, and pose significant risks to the fiscal and economic outlook; it could also cause lawmakers to feel more constrained in their policy choices.” 

Similarly, the Government Accountability Office said in a separate report released in February that the government is facing an “unsustainable” fiscal path that poses a “serious” threat to economic, security, and social issues if unaddressed.

The situation has also been getting more attention on Wall Street, with BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, among others, sounding the alarm.

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