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Governments pile on debt in good times and bad. 2013 no different

A Greek bondholder take part in a protest outside the Central Bank of Greece in Athens October 31, 2012. Bondholders protested against their inclusion in a debt swap that they said wiped out much of the savings which they had invested in Greek government bonds.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

In good times and bad, governments continue to pile up debt.

And they'll do it again in 2013, according to the latest sovereign borrowing survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The 34 member countries of the OECD – generally the world's wealthiest – will add another $2-trillion (U.S.) of debt this year, bringing the total to $38-trillion.

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Outstanding OECD debt has increased steadily for several years, rising from $23-trillion before the global financial crisis hit in 2007 to $36-trillion in 2012.

The OECD said the ratio of general government debt to GDP among member countries will reach 111.4 per cent this year as euro zone countries continue to face financial pressures.

The "legacy" of excessive public debt exposes countries to shifts in investor confidence, according to the report released Wednesday.

"Raising large volumes of funds at lowest cost to refinance their debt obligations will therefore remain a major challenge for many governments," the report said.

"Most OECD debt managers will continue rebalancing their portfolios by issuing more long-term bonds and cutting back on issuance of short-term bills."

The OECD also urged borrowers to pay close attention to downgrades by rating agencies, such as last week's loss by Britain of its triple-A credit score.

"Given their poor track record of sovereign risk pricing over the past 20 years … any downgrades should be carefully scrutinized, and not taken at face value," the OECD warned.

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The share of sovereign debt that's rated below investment grade is expected to reach 5.4 per cent this year, up from 1.4 per cent in 2007.

If there's a sliver of good news it is that debt ratios are growing more slowly now. The overall debt ratio is projected to increase 1.1 per cent this year, compared to 11.5 per in 2008-09.

Deficits have also begun to shrink. The general government deficit for the OECD area is expected to fall to 4.6 per cent of GDP this year, down from 5.5 per cent of GDP in 2012.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More


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