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The Kiwi Debt We’re Not Talking About

By Tim Wilson April 27, 2021

One of the biggest financial impacts of COVID-19 has been debt. 2020 alone added $US24 trillion to the global debt abyss, as calculated by the Washington-headquartered Institute of International Finance. The world debt to GDP ratio surged by 35 percentage points during the year of COVID to 355%.

Much of this is sovereign debt. In response to the pandemic, governments turned on the money pump: borrowing it, loaning it, printing it. The New Zealand Government’s net core crown debt has ballooned from 19% of GDP to 30%. By 2025, it’s expected to be up around half our GDP, but in the current global context we are relatively prudent borrowers.

The world debt to GDP ratio surged by 35 percentage points during the year of COVID to 355%

Unfortunately, the real risk in New Zealand is our very high levels of private debt and almost no-one is talking about it. Private debt here includes household debt like mortgages, student loans, credit card, hire purchases, to buying a car in instalments. Compared to our relatively low levels of public debt our current household debt stands at 95% of GDP.

To put that in context, this is not far from double Singapore’s rate, and much worse than ex-economic basket case Spain, which is a mere 61%. Such numbers may help explain some of the topsy-turvy aspects of the COVID economic picture: a galloping local housing market, sales records for luxury cars shattered, and the best year for spa pool sales ever. One Nelson company grew by 400% during the past year.

But runaway private debt is often an indicator that asset bubbles are forming. When these bubbles pop bad economic times ensue. For example, increasing private debt in the US foreshadowed the collapse of the housing market, and the GFC. Private debt also grew massively before the 1997 crisis in Asia, and Japan’s 1991 crash.  

A compounding problem with private debt is that unlike our growing public debt (that’s largely held by the New Zealand Reserve Bank through its Large Scale Asset Purchase Program) our personal debt is often owed to overseas financial institutions. Should the bubble burst, these institutions are unlikely to be sympathetic to overleveraged New Zealand borrowers.

Think of it like a car seatbelt, slightly uncomfortable and most of the time you are fine without one. But when a crash happens it could save you.

Collectively we need to become more financially literate and wise to the risk we are taking on. Many banks have financial literacy programs in schools, and the numbers are encouraging but these numbers show us that adults might need a refresher course. This is especially so if we have become used to borrowing to increase our consumption of stuff. The government’s decision to slash funding for budgeting services in 2016 was potentially short-sighted. Budgeting services help adults make wise choices around their financial futures.

We would all do well to think about our spending priorities and create a rainy day financial buffer of savings. In an economy awash with low interest loans it is easy to feel like personal savings are boring and unnecessary. Think of it like a car seatbelt, slightly uncomfortable and most of the time you are fine without one. But when a crash happens it could save you.

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