In this article, Rodolphe Chollat-Namy (ESSEC Business School, Master in Management, 2019-2023) introduces you to government debt.
A government debt is a debt issued and guaranteed by a government. It is then owed in the form of bonds bought by investors (institutional investors, individual investors, other governments, etc.).
According to the OECD: “Debt is calculated as the sum of the following liability categories (as applicable): currency and deposits; debt securities, loans; insurance, pensions and standardized guarantee schemes, and other accounts payable.”
Before the Covid-19 crisis, the government debt of all countries in the world was estimated at $53 trillion. According to the IMF, it is expected to rise from 83% to 96% of world GDP as a result of the crisis.
In order to better understand debt, it is necessary to go back to several points. How does a government issue debt? Who holds government debt? How is government debt measured?
How does a government issue debt?
There are two principal ways to issue bonds: syndication and auction.
Syndication is the most common way to issue debt. It is when several financial institutions join together to ensure the placement of a bond with investors in order to reduce their risk exposure. However, since the 1980’s, governments tend to use the auction method.
The auction can be “open”, i.e. all direct participants in public securities auctions (credit institutions, management and intermediation companies, etc.) have the possibility of acquiring part of the security put up for auction. It can also be “targeted”, i.e. the issue is reserved only for the primary dealers – banks or other financial institutions that has been approved to trade securities – of the issuing State.
A few days before the planned date of an auction, the State makes an announcement, confirming, postponing or cancelling the operation. It also gives the characteristics of the securities to be issued, i.e. the type of securities, the maturity and the amount it wishes to raise. Buyers can then submit several bids, each specifying the desired quantity and price. The issue lines are then auctioned to the highest bidders. The higher the demand is, the lower the issue rate is.
Auction is used because it provides investors, among other things, with transparency and free competition on an investment product with an attractive benefit in relation to a low risk level.
Each country that issues bonds uses different terms for them. UK government bonds, for example, are referred to as gilts. In the US, they are referred to as treasuries: T-bills (that expire in less than one year), T-notes (that expire in one to ten years) and T-bonds (that expire in more than ten years). In France, the government issues short-term liabilities (“Bons du Trésor”) and long-term liabilities (“OAT for “Obligations Assimilables du Trésor”) with maturity between 2 and 50 years.
Who holds government debt?
Government debt can be broken down into domestic and external debt depending on whether the creditors are residents or non-residents.
Domestic debt refers to all claims held by economic agents (households, companies, financial institutions) resident in a sovereign state on that state. It is mostly denominated in the national currency. A government can call for savings, but savings used to finance the deficit can no longer be used to finance private activity and in particular productive investment. This is known as the crowding-out effect. A government must therefore deal with this limit.
External debt refers to all debts owed to foreign lenders. A distinction must be made between gross external debt (what a country borrows from abroad) and net external debt (the difference between what a country borrows from abroad and what it lends abroad). A level of debt that is too high can be dangerous for a country. In the event of fluctuations in the national currency, the interest and principal amounts of the external debt, if denominated in foreign currency, can quickly become a burden leading to default.
The case of France
In France, non-residents are the main holders of French public debt. They hold 64% of the bonds issued by the government. They are institutional investors, but also sovereign investment funds, banks and even hedge funds. In addition, as regards domestic debt, French insurance companies hold nearly 20% of French securities. They are used for life insurance investments. Finally, French banks and French mutual funds hold 10% and 2% respectively.
How to measure government debt?
While the French debt has risen from 2000 billion euros in 2014 to 2700 billion in 2021, the debt burden has fallen from 40 billion to 30 billion. What do these two ways of looking at a country’s debt mean?
In the European Union, the current measure of public debt is the one adopted by the Maastricht Treaty. It takes into account the nominal amount borrowed. This is a relevant criterion for measuring the government’s budgetary misalignments, i.e. its financing needs. It also makes it possible to introduce debt rules: the debt must be less than 60% of GDP.
Another way of measuring debt is to take into account the interest charges on public debt. This criterion makes it possible to account for the cost of the debt and not its amount. It is this criterion that must be considered in order to anticipate future financing needs, to plan taxes and interest charges in the government budget.
About the author
Article written in June 2021 by Rodolphe Chollat-Namy (ESSEC Business School, Master in Management, 2019-2023).