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Expand chart
Data: Sovereign Default Database; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

For all the geopolitical chaos in the world, one thing has never been safer: Lending money to governments.

Why it matters: It’s been well over a decade since defaulted sovereign debt accounted for even 1% of total world debt. Mega-defaults by Argentina and Greece generated plenty of headlines, but ultimately were relatively small by historical standards. As sovereign debt burdens rise around the world, however, these golden days won’t last forever. Government debt that feels perfectly safe today could turn out to be plenty risky tomorrow.

  • The most recent data, which includes all sovereign defaults up to the end of 2017, shows that defaulted sovereign debt accounts for just 0.3% of all world public debt. That’s an all-time low, and is down sharply from the high point of 6.2% reached in both 1987 and 1990.
  • Puerto Rico is included in the 0.3% figure, as are the other big outstanding sovereign debtors — Sudan, Iraq, and Venezuela.
  • The total number of sovereigns in default is also hitting new lows. It now stands at 79, the lowest number since 1981.

Be smart: Sovereign debt won’t look this healthy forever. "Looking ahead, we expect sovereign defaults to pick up again over the next decade," write the banks' David Beers and Jamshid Mavalwalla.

  • The biggest risk on the horizon: Italy, which alone has $2.8 trillion in sovereign debt outstanding, or about 4.3% of total world public debt. That’s 11.5 times the $216 billion in default today.
  • The bad years in the late 1980s were dominated by defaulted bank loans. Today, countries borrow very little directly from banks. But Italy's banks have more than 10% of their assets — some $425 billion — invested in Italian government bonds.
  • The "doom loop," where the sovereign and its banks bring each other down, remains a very real worry.

Go deeper: The podcast I recently recorded with the doyen of sovereign debt restructuring, Lee Buchheit, was easily my favorite episode of 2018.

Go deeper

58 mins ago - World

Scoop: Iran preparing to enrich weapons-grade uranium, Israel warns U.S.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference. Photo: Presidency of Iran handout via Getty

Israel has shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the U.S. and several European allies suggesting that Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon, two U.S. sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: Enriching to 90% would bring Iran closer than ever to the nuclear threshold. The Israeli warnings come as nuclear talks resume in Vienna, with Iran returning to the negotiating table on Monday after a five-month hiatus.

Biden: Fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns"

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Monday said that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

Driving the news: Biden said later this week the administration will be releasing a strategy on how "we're going to fight COVID this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: WHO says Omicron poses "very high" risk — Fauci says Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S. — U.S. restricts air travel from 8 countries over Omicron concerns.
  2. Politics: Biden says fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns."
  3. States: New York declares state of emergency amid concerns over Omicron.
  4. World: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating worldWHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries — First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.