The policy choices and decisions countries face as they emerge from the worst economic crisis in 80 years have a lot to do with their past habits. And to make good decisions, they need good data.
The IMF staff has built a comprehensive and dynamic new database on public debt. The data covers 174 countries over a period of 120 years, and will help policymakers understand the past and chart a future course to sustainable economic growth.
The data shows how government debt has risen and fallen over the years as important events, such as wars and stock market crashes, affect a country's decisions about when to save and when to spend.
It turns out the relationship between debt and economic growth has changed over time; historically, fast growing countries had low debt ratios, while slow growers struggled under higher debt. In the past 30 years that relationship has altered as advanced economies' debt levels have risen and their economies have grown.
The data also debunks some old clichés, for example that African countries have the highest debt levels. In fact, low income countries in Africa today have lower debt ratios than do advanced economies in Europe and North America.