Outstanding External Debt Numbers: Greece Doesn't Look So Bad

by: Tim Iacono

There's an interesting piece up over at CNBC that ranks the world's biggest debtor nations in order of outstanding external debt (as a percent of GDP) rather than the more common budget deficit (again, as a percent of GDP) and the results are rather surprising.

While the U.S. is number 20 on the list and Greece comes in at a respectable 16th place, the winner by a wide margin is Ireland where external debt totals 1,267 percent of GDP, a figure that converts to a whopping $567,805 per person.
IMAGE How is this even possible? They make the U.S. look like penny pinchers.

Instead of total external debt, normally you hear the financial media talking about the current year budget deficit and, lately, how badly Greece and Portugal are doing with their finances here in 2010. But, you'd think that maybe the grand total of all prior budget deficits along with the current one might be of equal concern.

The Economist magazine tallies the budget deficit data in this handy table and, there, you'll see that Ireland's current budget gap is 12 percent of GDP, just one percentage point less than in Greece where, in recent weeks, the shortfall has caused rampant speculation about the breakup of the euro currency block (well, the Greeks lying about it didn't help).

When looking at total external debt, it's not even close - Ireland at 1,267%, Greece at 161%.

Here's a table with the complete list of 20 nations from the CNBC data:
IMAGE However you look at it, that's a lot of money owed by a lot of governments and you have to wonder how you get from the current figures above to anything that seems reasonable.

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