Why dealing with the huge debt overhang is so hard

How much debt is too much? Nobody knows. But the governments of highly indebted high-income economies – such as the US and UK – think they know the answer: more than today. They want even more credit to flow to their struggling private sectors. Is that an attainable ambition and, if so, how might it be achieved?

Let us start with some facts. The ratio of US public and private debt to gross domestic product reached 358 per cent in the third quarter of 2008. This was much the highest in US history (see charts). The previous peak of 300 per cent was reached in 1933, during the Great Depression.

Nearly all of this debt is private. That reached an all-time high of 294 per cent of GDP in 2007, a rise of 105 percentage points over the previous decade. The same thing happened to the UK, on a yet more impressive scale. This has been a gigantic debt and credit expansion.

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