Just as individuals or companies may make purchases on credit or take out a loan to boost their finances, national governments often borrow money to further their country's growth or well-being. When this happens, the money borrowed becomes part of that country's national debt. Stated simply, national debt is the combined debt a country's government owes one or more lenders, such as other governments, various corporations, or even private individuals (such as with treasury bonds). But which countries have the world's highest national debt? The answer to that question merits a bit of explanation.
In terms of raw dollars, the country with the highest debt in the world is unquestionably the United States, whose national debt is more than twice that of any other country. However, the dollar amount of a country's debt is usually considered not by itself, but in relation to the country's overall gross domestic product (GDP)—which represents the country's ability to pay back the debt. Measuring by debt to GDP ratio, Japan's debt is the highest in the world and the United States—which has the world's largest economy and highest GDP—drops to 14th place.
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Japan has the highest percentage of national debt in the world at 259.43% of its annual GDP. The Japanese economy experienced stagnation during the 1990s, which led to the government launching several initiatives, such as selling bonds and bailing out banks and insurance companies with low-interest credit, to help reboot the struggling economy in the 2000s. Banking institutions had to be audited, consolidated, or even nationalized.
While these actions arguably salvaged Japan's economy, they also added greatly to the country's national debt. Since that time, additional concerns such as the Great Recession of 2008, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the COVID-19 pandemic have complicated efforts to combat the country's debt.
The United States boasts both the world's biggest national debt in terms of dollar amount and its largest economy, which resolves to a debt-to GDP ratio of approximately 128.13%. The United States' government's spending exceeds its income most years, and the US has not had a budget surplus since 2001. Perhaps surprisingly, the countries to which the US is most in debt are Japan, which itself has significant debt, and China, which is often viewed as the United States' greatest economic competitor.
China’s national debt is currently over 10 trillion USD—however, because of China's massive economy, the country's debt is only 68.06% of its GDP. China's current debt level is a significant increase from 2014, when the national debt was 41.54% of the country's GDP. An International Monetary Fund report from 2015 stated that China’s debt was relatively low, and many economists have dismissed worries over the size of the debt both in its overall size and relative to China’s GDP. China currently has the world’s second-largest economy and the largest population, with approximately 1,425,821,667 people.
Russia’s debt ratio was one of the lowest in the world at 16.99% of its GDP in 2021—though the country's war with Ukraine, which began in early 2022, will likely have some effect on this ratio. Russia is usually one of the ten least-indebted countries in the world. Russia’s debt is currently at a total of just over 302 billion USD. Most of Russia’s external debt is private.
The United States has the highest national debt. However, Japan has the highest national debt relative to its GDP of any developed economy in the world.
Japan, China, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Luxembourg own the most US debt, in that order.