Sharp rise in public debt: will the euro area resist?

COVID-19 is causing an abrupt increase in debt. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been a sudden, steep rise in public debt ratios which will reach almost unprecedented levels. Although sustainability is not in question there is certainly some trepidation, as well as medium-term concerns that a build-up of heavier debt could constrain economic performance.

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  • The COVID-19 crisis is causing a sharp increase in public debt. However, the sustained reduction in interest rates and the lengthening of maturities are offering European economies some cover and are easing the financial burden.
  • In 2021, general government funding needs will be supported by European funds and the ECB’s accommodative policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a sharp increase in debt. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, public debt ratios have risen suddenly and significantly to almost unprecedented levels (the historical precedents are closely linked to major wars). For instance, in Italy and Spain a jump of +25 pps of GDP is expected in just one year, whereas it took five and three years, respectively, to amass a similar increase after the financial crisis of 2007-2008 (and that was starting from a position of greater margin for fiscal manoeuvre).1

The rise in public debt is a necessary and effective reaction to soften the blow of an unprecedented fall in household and business incomes: borrowing entails cutting this exceptional decline up into smaller parts and distributing them over time. In many cases, however, public debt was already high to begin with. The sustainability of the debt is not in question,2 but the surge has generated concern, and in the medium term there are worries that a heavier debt burden will hold back economic performance.

One basic condition for managing the sharp increase in public debt, and for laying the groundwork in order to gradually reduce it in the future, is that the economic recovery must be underpinned by sustained growth. To this end, it is key that the crisis does not become entrenched (for instance, due to an overly timid economic policy or premature withdrawal of the stimulus), and that opportunities to boost underlying growth are taken advantage of (for instance, by improving the economy’s capacity to adapt to new technologies and to the energy and environmental transformations).

Furthermore, when assessing the consequences of the increase in debt, not only is it necessary to consider the level it reaches but also, in the short term, the financial burden it entails (debt payment flows relative to income flows). In an environment of low interest rates and with debt financed over long maturities, the financial burden should be manageable. Indeed, the current conditions in the euro area should allow for precisely this. In particular, the sustained reduction in interest rates over the past two decades (see first chart) and the lengthening of debt maturities (second chart) are offering European economies breathing space and easing their debt burden in terms of payment flows. In other words, as the third chart shows, the debt service ratio (formally defined as the interest and maturing principal payments as a percentage of GDP) has become much less stressed than the sharp increases in the debt-to-GDP ratios might suggest.

  • 1. See the article «The debt burden of the COVID-19 crisis» in the Dossier of the MR10/2020.
  • 2. See the Focus «Should we be concerned about the sustainability of public debt in the euro area?» in the MR05/2020.
Implicit interest rate of public debt
Average maturity of public debt
Debt service ratios estimates

In 2021, the more sustained revival of the economy should provide some relief for the debt burden, both because of the «denominator effect» of GDP on public debt or public deficit ratios, and because of the inherent cyclical impact of economic activity on the public accounts (with the recovery of tax revenues and reduced pressure from the automatic stabilisers on expenditure). On the other hand, while in this scenario the public accounts will not have such a large deficit in 2021 as they have had in 2020, the public balances will nevertheless remain in clearly negative territory. That said, government funding needs are well covered. Firstly, investors’ risk appetite has withstood the onslaught of the pandemic, as demonstrated by the success of the issues of debt by all national treasury departments in 2020. Secondly, in 2021 we will see the first disbursements of European funds under the Next Generation EU programme.3 Thirdly, the ECB’s accommodative monetary policy will continue to provide cover for the necessary action from fiscal policy. Indeed, the ECB’s asset-purchasing programmes are expected to remain highly active in the secondary markets throughout 2021. This activity generates considerable liquidity and favours private investors’ willingness to absorb public funding needs in the primary markets (see fourth chart).

  • 3. See «Everything you ever wanted to know about the European Recovery Plan but were afraid to ask» in the MR11/2020. In addition, Member States can also apply for loans from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).
Public funding needs in 2021

The importance of the ECB’s role is apparent not only when analysing the 2021 public deficits, but also when assessing the debt burden in terms of debt-to-GDP ratios. In fact, the public debt ratios are much less stressed when the role of the ECB is taken into account (see last chart). In other words, public debt as a whole has a more stable investment base, and this protects it from financial turbulence. However, it should not be forgotten that, at some point, the central bank will stop accumulating public debt on its balance sheet. It will be important for governments to have sufficiently cleaned up their accounts by then.

Public debt