Register For Our Mailing List

Register to receive our free weekly newsletter including editorials.

Home / 380

Are debt and its servicing cost serious worries?

The world is swimming in debt, as high as it had been before the GFC in 2008, with government debt-bingeing establishing all-time records due to the mishandling of COVID-19 health-wise.

The world is heading for a debt level of 300% of GDP or more, Japan is nudging 400%, and four other countries are heading over 300% in 2020. Among the big 10 economies, our nearest neighbour - Indonesia - is the least indebted with less than 100% of GDP.

Australia joins the debt party

Until March 2020, Australia was relatively well-behaved, with a total debt of less than 250% of GDP. Our government debt, at 37% of GDP in 2019, was only bested in the developed world by Switzerland at 26%. The main risk was our household debt (mostly mortgage debt) at 120% of GDP.

All that changed with the announcement in the first half of 2020 that we would be spending $360 billion to fight COVID-19, despite there being less deaths from the pandemic than normal respiratory deaths (mainly the over-70s age group) in previous years.

On the Budget night, the cheque book came out again. Now we have prospects of a government debt of $1.7 trillion by end 2024, or over 80% of GDP. That would put Australia’s total debt closer to the 275% of GDP mark.

Is this serious? Yes, but not debilitating.

The economy will almost surely suffer more from the shutdowns, and general deprivation of commerce and liberty, including the controversial border closure of 2020. Around 1-in-7 businesses shut down in good years, or some 280,000 businesses of the total 2.3 million. That share may rise to 1-in-5 or 6 for a year or two.

Debt versus servicing costs

Debt is always less of an issue than its servicing cost be it as a share of government revenues, business revenues or household disposable incomes.

So, interest rates are just as important as the debt levels. The chart below provides perspective on government debt servicing costs via the 10-year government bond rates across various countries.

Australia’s bond rate means that, even if it climbed back to 2% by 2024, it would only account for 5% or less of all government revenue (taxes and other income).

The next chart shows the long history of 10-year bond interest rates, which have averaged 5.5% over the past 150 years, but are now less than 1% and seemingly at a record low.

But when converted to real interest rates, by deducting inflation, we are far from a record low. Indeed, there have been at least 15 years when the real interest rates were lower than in 2020.


Register here to receive the Firstlinks weekly newsletter for free

What all this means is that the debt and its servicing is probably less of a problem than repairing and re-building the wrecked economy, especially in Victoria.

We can service the debt. But of course, if and when bond rates go back to 5% (a long way off it would seem), governments will pray for higher inflation for several years to dilute the debt mountain. That’s what happened in the 1950s, when inflation (including one year at 25.25% in 1953) diluted the WWII national debt of 110% of GDP to a very manageable share of GDP.

More serious than debt

The more serious problems for the next 5-10 years are:

  • How to get the economy back on its feet and restore our standard of living (GDP/capita) back to the March 2020 level before 2025.
  • What to do differently with the next pandemic, bound to arrive well before the end of this decade.
  • How to restore our international trade in the huge and fast-growing Asia region with the problems and tensions there, from COVID-19 (closed borders), trade wars and hegemony.

We need better long-term vision, innovation, reforms (I have covered the subjects of parliamentary, labour market, taxation and commerce reform previously), statesmanship and management than we have had over the past 10-15 years or more. And that goes for corporate Australia too: we are lagging well behind world best practice (WBP) innovation, performance and profitability.

That said, who of us would prefer to live elsewhere in this extraordinary and turbulent world of the third decade of this 21st century?

 

Phil Ruthven AO is Founder of the Ruthven Institute, Founder of IBISWorld and widely recognised as Australia’s leading futurist.

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Australia’s default: who do you rescue?

Rising bond yields complicate the COVID recovery

Biden is stimulating an economy already enjoying a sugar hit

banner

Most viewed in recent weeks

10 little-known pension traps prove the value of advice

Most people entering retirement do not see a financial adviser, mainly due to cost. It's a major problem because there are small mistakes a retiree can make which are expensive and avoidable if a few tips were known.

Check eligibility for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card

Eligibility for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card has no asset test and a relatively high income test. It's worth checking eligibility and the benefits of qualifying to save on the cost of medications.

Hamish Douglass on why the movie hasn’t ended yet

The focus is on Magellan for its investment performance and departure of the CEO, but Douglass says the pandemic, inflation, rising rates and Middle East tensions have not played out. Vindication is always long term.

Start the year right with the 2022 Retiree Checklist

This is our annual checklist of what retirees need to be aware of in 2022. It is a long list of 25 items and not everything will apply to your situation. Run your eye over the benefits and entitlements.

At 98-years-old, Charlie Munger still delivers the one-liners

The Warren Buffett/Charlie Munger partnership is the stuff of legends, but even Charlie admits it is coming to an end ("I'm nearly dead"). He is one of the few people in investing prepared to say what he thinks.

Should I pay off the mortgage or top up my superannuation?

Depending on personal circumstances, it may be time to rethink the bias to paying down housing debt over wealth accumulation in super. Do the sums and ask these four questions to plan for your future.

Latest Updates

Investment strategies

Gullible travels, or are Aussies more sceptical?

Businesses exploit the psychological processes that people go through when they decide to buy something, but does the US research work when faced with "traditional hard-bitten, no-bullshit Australian scepticism"?

Retirement

Start the year right with the 2022 Retiree Checklist

This is our annual checklist of what retirees need to be aware of in 2022. It is a long list of 25 items and not everything will apply to your situation. Run your eye over the benefits and entitlements.

Retirement

Global survey shows Australians least confident about retiring

Australians are generally optimistic about retiring comfortably but their confidence lags retirement savers in other countries. They are also the most unsure about future returns and withdrawal rates in retirement.

Financial planning

Should I pay off the mortgage or top up my superannuation?

Depending on personal circumstances, it may be time to rethink the bias to paying down housing debt over wealth accumulation in super. Do the sums and ask these four questions to plan for your future.

Investment strategies

Morningstar asset class performance, 2021 and historical

As we enter a new year, we dive into the Morningstar database to see which asset classes have performed well over various time periods, with the related risks and largest historical drawdowns.

Investment strategies

At 98-years-old, Charlie Munger still delivers the one-liners

The Warren Buffett/Charlie Munger partnership is the stuff of legends, but even Charlie admits it is coming to an end ("I'm nearly dead"). He is one of the few people in investing prepared to say what he thinks.

Using past performance is a risky way to invest

We often assign quality in investment choice by historical returns, backed up when we see fund flows directed towards such historically well-performing funds. This is a mistake made by investors and regulators.

Sponsors

Alliances

© 2022 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer
The data, research and opinions provided here are for information purposes; are not an offer to buy or sell a security; and are not warranted to be correct, complete or accurate. Morningstar, its affiliates, and third-party content providers are not responsible for any investment decisions, damages or losses resulting from, or related to, the data and analyses or their use. Any general advice or ‘regulated financial advice’ under New Zealand law has been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892) and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. For more information refer to our Financial Services Guide (AU) and Financial Advice Provider Disclosure Statement (NZ). You should consider the advice in light of these matters and if applicable, the relevant Product Disclosure Statement before making any decision to invest. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product’s future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a professional financial adviser. Articles are current as at date of publication.
This website contains information and opinions provided by third parties. Inclusion of this information does not necessarily represent Morningstar’s positions, strategies or opinions and should not be considered an endorsement by Morningstar.

Website Development by Master Publisher.