IMF warns mounting debt by U.S., China a global liability

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AFPWASHINGTON (AFP-Jiji) — As world borrowing levels hit fresh records, the United States and China stand out among the biggest debtors, creating risks to the global economy, the International Monetary Fund said Wednesday.

Mounting government deficits and indebtedness leave countries vulnerable to shocks and hinder their ability to respond should their economies falter, the IMF said in a report.

China has been a “driving force” in pushing total world debt levels to a record $164 trillion by 2016 — 225 percent of global GDP — and accounted for 43 percent of the increase since 2007, according to the fund’s Fiscal Monitor report.

Meanwhile, the sweeping U.S. tax cuts enacted in December will push U.S. deficit spending to $1 trillion, or 5 percent of GDP, over the next three years, and boost U.S. debt to nearly 117 percent by 2023.

Unlike the United States, all other advanced economies are expected to see their debt-to-GDP levels decline moderately over the next five years, the report said.

“There is no room for complacency,” Vitor Gaspar, the IMF’s head of fiscal affairs, said in presentation of the report’s findings.

“Experience shows that successful governments are those that prepare ahead for storms looming on the horizon.”

High debt levels leave countries exposed to the fickle behavior of investors, who can demand higher risk premiums, and this can be exacerbated by negative shocks to the economy, according to the report.

Burdensome debts also leave economies with little room to maneuver in the event of a crisis and can drag down growth, the IMF said.

Debts in advanced economies have hit levels not seen in the post-war era, and more than a third owe more than 85 percent of GDP.

In emerging market and middle-income countries last year, debt-to-GDP ratios were almost 50 percent, levels not seen since the debt crisis of the 1980s.

Low-income and developing countries averaged more than 40 percent, having risen more than 10 percentage points in the last five years.

In China, borrowing by local governments also adds to the total, which is forecast to reach 90 percent of GDP by 2023, according to the report.

Chinese authorities have made “commendable” efforts to contain borrowing by local governments but there remains “uncertainty” as to whether these measures will curb “off-budget” borrowing, according to the report.

The IMF called on countries to put debt on a downward path while promoting growth and investment in human capital.

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Urges caution by central banks

Meanwhile, the IMF urged central banks to take a gradual and transparent approach to tightening monetary policy, warning that unexpected moves could shock the global economy.

The fund cautioned that investors and financial markets expect a steady approach to monetary tightening based on the belief inflation will remain relatively tame.

But the IMF pointed to some fragilities in global finance after a lengthy period of easy money policies and low interest rates, including a flood of high-risk bonds, record-high debt levels and lofty prices for risky assets.

If conditions change abruptly that could even derail the economic recovery, the fund warned.

“Financial vulnerabilities, which have accumulated during years of extremely low rates and volatility, could make the road ahead bumpy and could put growth at risk,” the IMF said in its Global Financial Stability Report, a twice-annual analysis that also called for global coordination to regulate cryptocurrencies.

A sudden acceleration of inflation in the United States could lead the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates more quickly than currently expected, the report said.

Tobias Adrian, director for the IMF’s monetary and capital markets department, acknowledged in a press briefing that uncertainty about inflation is currently “very low,” but warned that markets could have an outsized reaction to any spike.

“What we are flagging is that at some point markets see shocks in inflation that raise inflation uncertainty and when that happens, that is associated with a rise in long-term interest rates and that might lead to a tightening in financial conditions,” he said.

Emerging markets would be especially vulnerable to “spillovers” if that happens, the report cautioned.Speech

 

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