Israel's Debt Grew Only 3% Despite Global Crisis

As other countries flailed amid the international economic crisis, Israel's debt-to-GDP ratio increased by a very low 3%, ending the year at 78%. Most countries saw their debt-to-GDP ratios increase significantly in 2009, due to the crisis.

This speaks well of the Israeli economy's strength. The debt-to-GDP ratio is a major factor for rating companies in rating government bonds. A high, stable rating enables a country to set lower interest rates for its bonds, and thus obtain cheaper credit. In 2008, for example, Israel spent NIS 30 billion on interest for its bonds.

Other factors affecting countries' debt ratings include deficit-to-GDP ratios and inflation rates. Israel is also doing well in terms of its deficit: While the International Monetary Fund predicted in October that Israel would have a budget deficit of 6.2% of GDP in 2010, last month the Finance Ministry predicted the deficit would be only 5.5%. The budget deficit was 5.2% in 2009.

Moreover, Israel did not assist corporations and maintained a rather healthy budgetary balance sheet - which makes the numbers even more impressive.

The economic stability evinced by Israel's stable debt-to-GDP ratio is particularly noteworthy when other countries are brought for comparison. Many countries increased their debt-to-GDP ratios by tens of percentage points over the past year. Worst performers include Iceland, whose debt-to-GDP ratio has increased by 55% since 2007; the United States, whose ratio increased by 35%; and France, at 24%. On average, the OECD nations registered increases of 20% since 2007, to 77%.

All this has implications for the government's fund-raising plans for 2010. Israel is expected to issue NIS 104 billion in bonds, a new record. Of that sum, NIS 65 billion will be to refinance debt coming due this year, while NIS 39 billion will be used to cover the expected deficit of 5.5%. The latter will be adjusted over the course of the year in keeping with the actual deficit.

In 2009, Israel raised NIS 102 billion through bonds - its current record. In addition, Israel paid off a record NIS 61 billion in debt, meaning the net increase in bonds was NIS 41 billion, according to data from the Finance Ministry's accountant general.

Of the NIS 102 billion issued in 2009, 49% was in fixed-interest shekel bonds, 32% was in inflation-linked bonds, 7% was in variable-interest bonds, and 12% was tied to foreign currencies.