Japan takes No. 1 spot with the most debt.

People in the United States have spent a lot of time worrying about our national debt lately. But while the U.S. owes plenty of money, we may not be in nearly as bad of shape as some of our peers.


When gross public debt is considered as a percentage of a nation’s gross domestic product, it turns out Japan takes the No. 1 spot. Japan’s debt is more than double its annual gross domestic product, according to many estimates.

By contrast the United States’ gross national debt is closer to 100 percent of gross domestic product, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

That still puts the U.S. in better shape than other industrialized nations including Greece, Italy and Ireland, according to the OECD estimates. Of course, those are among the European countries whose high debt levels have raised concerns in recent months.

Here are the 10 developed countries with the most gross debt, compared to GDP, based on the OECD’s projections for 2011:

  1. Japan – 213 percent of GDP
  2. Greece – 157 percent
  3. Italy – 129 percent
  4. Iceland – 121 percent
  5. Ireland – 120 percent
  6. Portugal – 111 percent
  7. United States – 101 percent
  8. Belgium – 101 percent
  9. France – 97 percent
  10. United Kingdom – 89 percent

Worries about the growing U.S. debt, combined with concerns about the uncertain strategy for dealing with that debt, played into Standard & Poor’s recent decision to cut the rating on the nation’s long-term debt securities one notch to AA+ from the highest AAA rating.

In Japan, debt slowly ballooned beginning in the 1990s as the Japanese government tried to pump more money in the economy to stimulate its growth, said Matthias Rumpf, media officer with the OECD. The period is sometimes referred to as the “lost decade” because economic growth was so anemic.

Japan’s long-term debt rating currently stands at AA-, a couple notches below the U.S. rating, according to Standard & Poor’s.

Although Japan carries a lot of debt, some experts don’t see their debt as nearly as risky as many other countries. That’s because not all debt is created equal.

In Japan, much of the nation’s debt is held domestically, said Jan Randolph, director of sovereign risk for economic research firm IHS Global Insight. By contrast, much of the United States’ debt is held by other countries, such as China.

“(Japan) is not subject to the same dramas because most of their debt is domestically financed,” Randolph said.

The U.S. also is different in that its debt levels rose quickly in the past few years as the country tried to deal with the financial, housing and credit crises, and shake off the Great Recession.

“The United States has traditionally been quite low in debt compared to other advanced countries,” Randolph said. “The problem is the financial crisis hit.”

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