In absolute terms, the United States is the most indebted country in the world, accounting for 29% of the world s $60 trillion of sovereign debt.
However, this is not really a fair comparison in some ways because it does not account for the relative wealth of the country in contrast to poorer economies. That s why it is standard practice to measure sovereign debt in a ratio comparing it directly to the economic productivity, measured by gross domestic product (GDP).
Using this ratio in comparison with other OECD countries, the United States is a modest 7th place (out of 34) in the rankings in terms of its debt load. However, as Jeffrey Dorfman writes in Forbes, comparing debt and GDP has some considerable problems.
The major issue is that economic production cannot be converted directly to dollars that a government can spend. If this were true, a government could claim everyone s income as taxes and use it to pay down the debt. However, in reality, a 100% tax rate would make everyone would quit their jobs or leave the country. That s why it makes more sense to compare a government s debt to the actual tax revenue collected, as this creates a clearer picture of the country s debt burden and the capacity to pay.
We pulled the latest data from the OECD to compare three ways of measuring the amount of debt that a country has accumulated. The first is the standard Debt to GDP ratio. In addition, we looked at Debt to Revenue (this includes all federal, state, and municipal tax revenues) as well as Debt to Central Government Revenue (this excludes state and municipal tax revenue). The data from the OECD database is from 2013.
When tabulated using all three measures, the world debt picture changes significantly. The United States is 7th in Debt to GDP with a ratio of 103%, but it jumps to 4th place (406%) in terms of Debt to Revenue, and then 2nd place (979%) in terms of Debt to Central Government Revenue. In other words, when it comes to the actual capacity to pay down this debt, the United States is the second most indebted country in the world. Even if the federal government theoretically used all tax revenue to pay down debt, it would take 10 years (not including any interest).
Of course, the United States also has the world s reserve currency for now, which gives it more flexibility with its debt and monetary policy. This is less true for a country like Greece, where the currency cannot be devalued at all so long as the country is a part of the EU.
How do other major countries do when comparing the regular measure to the new one using revenue? Canada jumps five spots to 5th place with 695%, and Germany jumps nine spots to 6th place. The UK drops five spots down to 16th overall with 351%. Australia rises two spots from 30th to 28th.