Public debt is the amount of money a central government owes to its creditors. Creditors can be foreign countries or businesses – external debt – or even lenders inside the country – that is, internal debt. Governments borrow this money for a variety of reasons including providing energy, improving infrastructure, investing abroad, dealing with disasters and financing the startling costs of military action.
A recent estimate of the world’s public debt stands at a crippling figure of $56.308 trillion, although this only equates to 64 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, all of the countries on this list have a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 100 percent. According to the latest information from the World Bank, the USA is not in the top 10; the 2013 estimate for the country has it in 36th place. Although the US owes in the region of $17.6 trillion, the public debt to GDP percentage is only (!) 71.80 percent. To get an idea of countries whose debt is truly huge in comparison to their wealth, we’ve ranked the size of a country’s public debt as a percentage of GDP, rather than the physical amount in dollars.
Other powerful economies that escape being in this maligned top 10 include the UK (91.10 percent, putting them in 20th place), Germany (79.90 percent, 26th place) and Brazil (59.20 percent, 48th place). There are some surprisingly big names much further down the public debt list; for example, India is in 63rd position with just 51.80 percent while China is in 114th position with 31.70 percent. Way down the table is Russia in 148th place with their public debt as a percentage of GDP standing at a paltry 7.90. Russia relied on macroeconomic policies during worldwide recessions to keep public spending under control and, crucially, it exports more than it imports.
Other oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia (12.20 percent), Kuwait (6.40 percent) and Libya (4.80 percent) also enjoy very low levels of public debt as percentages of GDP. There are some famously fragile economies among the top 10 most indebted countries in the world – many victims of the Eurozone crisis – but the country occupying the unfortunate top position will no doubt come as a surprise to many, especially as it’s considered one of the richest and most successful countries in the world.
10. Singapore: 113.60 percent
Knocking Cyprus (113.10 percent) down into 11th place is the city-state of Singapore. It is not surprising to find Cyprus so high up, as the Mediterranean island was in the news in 2013 after receiving a 10 billion Euro bailout from various international institutions. However Singapore, with its impressive financial center, low levels of perceived corruption and high trade rates is a surprising inclusion on this list. But the money the Singaporean government has been borrowing has been used for investment, not spending, so although the country does occupy a high position in this list, it is believed that the country’s balance sheet is actually healthy.
9. Lebanon: 120.00 percent
There was once a time when this Middle Eastern country enjoyed large tourist revenue due to its Mediterranean coastline and pleasant weather. But a destructive 15-year civil war ruined the country’s infrastructure and kept visitors away, naturally damaging the economy. Lebanon imports almost four times as much as it exports and the country has failed to attract foreign investment, compounded by the constant and often violent issues it has with its southern neighbor, Israel.
8. Jamaica: 123.60 percent
This former British colony nestled in the Caribbean enjoys paradise-like weather, a bounty of beautiful beaches and millions of visitors each year. However, the island imports much more than it exports and has suffered economically due to a weakening currency, bad weather affecting vital export crops of bananas and sugar and having to import crude petroleum from Venezuela to cover the country’s fuel needs.
7. Ireland: 124.20 percent
There was once a time when Ireland was the Celtic Tiger of the European Union, so called because of the impressive economic growth which was rampant throughout the nation between 1995 and the early 2000s. But the country has since fallen into a deep recession, with national debt increasing each year. This public debt here was not caused by government spending. Rather it’s a result of policies which guaranteed Irish banks speculating on a property bubble that went on to burst, losing the country over 100 billion Euros.
6. Portugal: 127.80 percent
Like Ireland and Cyprus, Portugal suffered deeply from the Eurozone crisis. That crisis had its roots in the US housing bubble of 2006 which ended up being one of the major causes of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. A collection of bad investments by Portuguese banks, inefficient public administration and the state having to pick up the bill after the collapse of huge financial institutions (nationalizing the bank BPN cost the government over 3 billion Euros) has left Portugal reeling in economic uncertainty over the last decade.
5. Iceland: 130.50 percent
This isolated island nation in the North Atlantic suffered its own financial crisis from 2008 to 2011. Major Icelandic banks collapsed, leaving international savers and investors from countries like the Netherlands and the UK looking to the Icelandic government to compensate them. A weakening currency has added to the amount of national debt with the country relying on its huge exports of fish and aluminum to help balance the books.
4. Italy: 133.00 percent
Italy is an economic powerhouse; it has one of the highest GDPs in the world (as high as 9th depending on the source). But the country was deeply affected by the late 2000s recession and was seen by many as a risky place to invest in. However, like Singapore, Italy’s high ranking seems to have a silver lining to it. Most of Italy’s government bonds are believed to be owned by Italians making the debt less vulnerable to the volatile nature of foreign investment.
3. Greece: 175.00 percent
Taking a major leap from Italy’s 133.00 percent is the troubled economy of the Southern European state of Greece. The country is suffering from an ongoing debt crisis and austerity measures introduced by the government have seen an increase in public protests and national unrest. Such is the anger in Greece – directed at the government and perceived international involvement (especially Germany) – that there has been a disturbing rise in support for the far-right Golden Dawn party, which has often been accused of being a fascist organization involved in criminal behavior.
2. Zimbabwe: 202.40 percent
This is the only African nation in this top 10, although both Sudan and Eritrea struggle with high debt to GDP ratios as well. Zimbabwe has been under the watchful eye of President Robert Mugabe since 1987 (although he was also Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987). In that time, the Zimbabwean dollar suffered from hyperinflation, to the extent that a 100 trillion dollar banknote was issued in 2008. By 2009, the Zimbabwean government had abandoned its currency altogether. Western sanctions on the nation, imposed because of Mugabe’s despotic rule, have crippled the country that could be enjoying the riches of its gold mines and diamond fields.
1. Japan: 226.10 percent
The shock country heading this list is Japan. The world’s third largest GDP, renowned for its technology and motor vehicles, you’d be forgiven for expecting Japan would be much further down this list.
The Asian country’s economy suffered immensely from the recent global recession and received further setbacks beyond its control: the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake cost over 15,000 lives and $235 billion in damages and led to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which in turn has the country’s population clamoring for a nuclear-free state that could cost $500 billion to plan and implement. Also putting a strain on Japan’s economy is the aging population, with social welfare spending increasing disproportionate in comparison to other developed nations. Japan does have over $14 trillion in private financial assets and a huge amount of foreign exchange reserves, but the future of the economy still looks uncertain for the Land of the Rising Sun.