Europe is sitting on a mountain of secret debt

Europe is sitting on a mountain of secret debt
The 28 member states of the European Union (EU) have a total debt burden of €12.5 trillion, which could be even bigger, according to the latest figures from the EU statistics office, Eurostat.

Data shows that in the third quarter of 2017 the EU’s debt-to-GDP ratio fell from 82.9 percent to 82.5 percent when compared with the same quarter of the previous year. Greece's general government-debt-to-GDP ratio was the highest in the eurozone, at 177.4 percent. It was followed by Italy (134.1 percent) and Portugal (130.8 percent).

Eurostat statistics are based on four broad categories of debt, which are guarantees issued by the state in relation to the liabilities of third parties. However, there are contingent liabilities which cannot be found in the official statistics. Those liabilities are not ‘hard’ debts but if even a small part of those guarantees was due to be repaid it would result in huge holes in the national budgets. This means there is accumulation of risks of which many are unaware.

“Under certain conditions, these contingent liabilities may become actual liabilities. Similarly, non-performing loans can mean a loss to the state if these loans are not repaid,” according to Eurostat.

“Thus, this data represents a further step towards greater transparency of public finances in the European Union, providing a more comprehensive picture of possible effects on Member States' public finances.”

In all EU member states, liabilities related to off-balance public-private partnerships (PPPs), which are long-term construction contracts where assets are not recorded in government accounts, were below 4 percent of GDP.

The level of liabilities of public corporations classified outside general government differs widely across the bloc, the report said.

The unrecorded debts of PPP projects stand out in Slovenia and Portugal. Slovenia has the highest stock of non-performing loans (asset) of general government, at 5.9 percent of GDP.

The Eurostat report also noted that “in general, financial institutions report high amounts of debt liabilities; however they also have, at the same time, significant level of assets which are not captured in this data collection.”

According to a German daily newspaper Die Welt, the largest chunk of that unaccounted debt relates to the liabilities of state companies, such as Deutsche Bahn railway company in Germany.

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