What Lies Beneath: Issues in Debt Statistics

Robert Dippelsman

October 15, 2012

Posted by Robert Dippelsman

Most key macroeconomic indicators such as GDP, the consumer price index (CPI), data on monetary aggregates, or balance of payments follow internationally accepted definitions. In contrast, public debt data can have different meanings. This problem is discussed in the recently released Staff Discussion Note What Lies Beneath: Statistical Definitions of Public Debt by Robert Dippelsman, Claudia Dziobek, and Carlos Gutiérrez Mangas of the IMF Statistics Department.  

The discussion note shows that the failure to adopt global standards can lead to important misunderstandings because of the potentially large magnitudes involved. However, international guidelines on the compilation of public sector debt are well established and set out in the recently published Public Sector Debt Statistics Guide: Guide for Compilers and Users (Debt Guide). The note identifies some key dimensions of public sector debt that need to be considered:

Many data users are not aware of the extent to which differences in concepts and methods matter. The table below shows a range of values for Canada’s 2010 government debt, depending on the level of government and range of financial instruments covered. The paper develops a nomenclature to help users navigate through the various concepts. For institutional coverage, the terms go from GL1 (Government Level 1, for the narrow coverage of budgetary central government) to GL5 (the broadest coverage including all levels of government as well as government-owned corporations). For coverage of financial instruments, the terms go from D1 (debt securities and loans) to D4 (widest range of debt instruments). In this vein, we can say that Canada’s GL1 D1 was 38 percent of GDP in 2010, while its GL3 D4 was 104 percent. 

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