LONDON: The COVID-19 pandemic has added US$24 trillion to the global debt mountain over the last year a new study has shown, leaving it at a record US$281 trillion and the worldwide debt-to-GDP ratio at over 355 per cent.
The Institute of International Finance's global debt monitor estimated government support programmes had accounted for half of the rise, while global firms, banks and households added US$5.4 trillion, 3.9 trillion and US$2.6 trillion respectively.
It has meant that debt as a ratio of world economic output known as gross domestic product surged by 35 percentage points to over 355 per cent of GDP.
That upswing is well beyond the rise seen during the global financial crisis, when 2008 and 2009 saw 10 percentage points and 15 percentage points respective debt-to-GDP jumps.
There is also little sign of a near-term stabilisation.
Borrowing levels are expected to run well above pre-COVID levels in many countries and sectors again this year, supported by still low interest rates, although a reopening of economies should help on the GDP side of the equation.
"We expect global government debt to increase by another US$10 trillion this year and surpass US$92 trillion," the IIF report said, adding that winding down support could also prove even more challenging than it was after the financial crisis.
"Political and social pressure could limit governments' efforts to reduce deficits and debt, jeopardising their ability to cope with future crises."
"This could also constrain policy responses to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change and natural capital loss," it added.
Debt rises were particularly sharp in Europe, with non-financial sector debt-to-GDP ratios in France, Spain, and Greece increasing some 50 percentage points.
The rapid build-up was mostly driven by governments, particularly in Greece, Spain, Britain and Canada. Switzerland was the only mature market economy in the IIF's 61-country analysis to record a decline in its debt ratio.
In emerging markets, China saw the biggest rise in debt ratios excluding banks, followed by Turkey, Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. South Africa and India recorded the largest increases just in terms of government debt ratios.
"Premature withdrawal of supportive government measures could mean a surge in bankruptcies and a new wave of non-performing loans," the IIF said.
However, sustained reliance on government support could pose "systemic risks" as well by encouraging so-called 'zombie' firms - the weakest and most indebted corporates - to take on even more debt.