What factors drove the rise in euro zone public debt from 1999 to 2019?

by Pierre Aldama

Between 1999 and 2019, the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, the public debts of the 11 oldest euro zone members had risen by an average of 20 percentage points of GDP. This increase in public debt is commonly attributed to structural budget deficits, particularly those in the pre-crisis period and in the “South”. But how much of the stock of public debt in 2019 can be attributed to structural deficits, and how much to GDP growth, interest payments or cyclical deficits? In this post, we use the December 2020 edition of the OECD’s Economic Outlook to break down the changes in public debt into its main factors: structural and cyclical primary balances, the interest burden, nominal GDP growth and stock-flow adjustments. This shows that the structural deficits generally contributed less than is commonly assumed, and that the increase in public debt over the period was largely the result of the direct and indirect consequences of the double-dip recession in the euro zone.

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Public debt: Central banks to the rescue?

By Christophe Blot and Paul Hubert

In response to the health and economic crisis, governments have implemented numerous emergency measures that have pushed public debt up steeply. They have nevertheless not experienced any real difficulty in financing these massive new issues: despite record levels of public debt, the cost has fallen sharply (see Plus ou moins de dette publique en France ?, by Xavier Ragot). This trend is the result of structural factors related to an abundance of savings globally and to strong demand for secure liquid assets, characteristics that are generally met by government securities. The trend is also related to the securities purchasing programmes of the central banks, which have been stepped up since the outbreak of the pandemic. For the year 2020 as a whole, the European Central Bank acquired nearly 800 billion euros worth of securities issued by the governments of the euro zone countries. In these circumstances, the central banks are holding an increasingly high fraction of the debt stock, leading to a de facto coordination of monetary and fiscal policies.

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