Discussion paper

DP15347 The History and Politics of Public Debt Accounting

A country's public debt figures vary considerably in any given year, depending on the definitions used. It creates difficulties in constructing and interpreting long-term statistical series. We examine why and discuss the policy issues behind the definition and accounting of public debt in history. Based on a critical analysis of widely used historical sources, as well as case studies, this chapter discusses how to interpret historical public debt statistics. We examine general trends in the historical development of comparability of public debt statistics since the nineteenth century and distinguish three perspectives on debt accounting that have framed the construction of statistics over time: “financial”, “circuitist” and “benchmarking”. Since public debt accounting and policy depend on the way in which public debt is issued and traded and on the identity of creditors, each of these ideal types roughly corresponds to a historical period of capitalism.


Monnet, E and B Truong-Loï (eds) (2020), “DP15347 The History and Politics of Public Debt Accounting”, CEPR Press Discussion Paper No. 15347. https://cepr.org/publications/dp15347