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One common method for examining a country's government net debt is to calculate the amount in relation to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Calculated on an annual basis, GDP is the total value of all of the goods and services generated by a country, so GDP is a reasonable choice for a figure against which to evaluate the nation's total debt. When looking at the countries of the world and their respective debt in relation to GDP, Greece comes in at number one. Its government net debt is approximately 173% of the country's GDP. Coming in second by the GDP calculation is Japan, with a debt that is 140% of its GDP. The United States rounds out the top three; its federal debt stands at 97% of GDP. Also near the top of the list are Spain, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy and France.

However, when looking at national debt in absolute dollar amounts, the list shapes up differently. While the U.S. comes in third in when its debt is expressed as a percentage of GDP, it takes first place by a wide margin when debt is looked at simply in terms of absolute dollars. The current U.S. debt is more than $15 trillion, more than double the amount of debt owed by any other nation. In absolute dollar terms, Japan again comes in at second place, despite still having the world's third largest economy, behind China and the U.S.

Nations with growing economies emerging into the developed world generally have significantly lower levels of debt than developed nations often carry. Unlike nations such as the U.S. and China, they cannot obtain the kind of seemingly bottomless financing that more developed nations can. An example is Brazil, whose powerful emerging market economy ranks seventh in size worldwide but carries a total debt that is only 34% of its GDP.

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