Generally, in growing economies the nominal level of debt rises over the years. This is mostly because of inflation and a steady growth in balance sheets. The long-term upward trend has accelerated sharply since 1980, coinciding with the sustained fall in short- and long-term interest rates and inflation rates. Since then, the steadily falling level of interest rates has allowed companies to take on significantly higher levels of debt than before. Despite record debt levels, interest payments have remained manageable.
To gain a better insight in the debt burden, we have graphed the level of credit market instruments outstanding relative to the GDP of the nonfinancial corporate sector. The second line shows the level of indebtedness in real terms, that is, after adjustment for the price deflator of the nonfinancial corporate sector. Both measures exhibit a cyclical pattern that is overlaid by a long-term uptrend. Usually indebtedness rises in the first stage of a recession and is cut back consequently at the end of each recession and the following years, reflecting the companies’ efforts to restructure their businesses and clean up their balance sheets. In the later years of an expansion top-line growth usually slows and companies tend to increase their leverage to boost return on equity and to finance future growth, for example, through acquisitions.