Category Archives: national debt

January 2021 Snapshot of Who Owns the U.S. National Debt

As Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States on 20 January 2021, the U.S. national debt reached $27.6 trillion. To whom did the U.S. government owe all that money on that date?

The following chart reveals the major lenders who have fed the U.S. government's spending appetites up through President Biden's inauguration day and shows the estimated share of the U.S. government's total public debt outstanding owed to each.

20 January 2021: To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?

The U.S. Federal Reserve is Uncle Sam's largest single entity creditor, having overtaken the Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund operated by the U.S. government by a wide margin. The U.S. government owes one out of every six dollars of the U.S. national debt to the U.S.' central bank, which is overseen by an agency of the federal government.

Two other trust funds operated by the U.S. government account loaned a combined 7% of the U.S. national debt. The U.S. Civil Service Retirement Fund and the U.S. Military Retirement Fund have respectively lent 3.6% and 3.4% of the U.S. national debt to the federal government.

A diverse range of U.S. institutions, such as banks, insurance companies, independent corporations, investment firms and individuals combine to hold the largest share of money owed by the U.S. government, accounting for 40% of the total.

Foreign entities hold 25.4% of the total debt liabilities issued by the U.S. government. Of the portion of the national debt owed to foreign-based institutions, China (with Hong Kong) holds the greatest share at 4.9% of the U.S. national debt. Japan comes in second with 4.7%, followed by the international banking centers of Belgium, Ireland, and Luxembourg with a combined 3.0%. The United Kingdom holds 1.6%, while Brazil is owed 1.0% of the U.S. national debt. All the remaining nations of the world combine to hold 11.0%.

About the Data

These figures represent the most current information available as of 20 January 2021, which for the total public debt outstanding and the Federal Reserve's holdings is fully current through 20 January 2020, data on U.S. government entity holdings is current through December 2020, and data for foreign holdings is based on estimates through November 2020 that were published on 19 January 2020.

To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?

As of the end of its 2020 fiscal year on 30 September 2020, U.S. government's total public debt outstanding stood at $27,026,921,935,432.41 ($27.027 trillion). One year earlier, it stood at $22,622,684,674,364.43 ($22.623 trillion). During the year in between, the total U.S. national debt rose by $4.404 trillion.

Earlier this year, we found the U.S. Federal Reserve had become the U.S. government's new sugar daddy. As of 30 September 2020, we find that the Federal Reserve directly holds over $4.445 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities, up $2.338 trillion from the $2.108 trillion it held a year earlier. Uncle Sam's new friendly neighborhood loan shark lent 47% of all the dollars the government borrowed during its 2020 fiscal year.

As a result, the Fed's share of all the money borrowed by the U.S. government increased from 1 out of every 8 dollars the government has borrowed to 1 out of every 6 dollars. If we just focused on the publicly-held portion of the national debt, the Fed's share would increase to 1 out of every 5 dollars borrowed.

In becoming the U.S. government's primary creditor, the Fed has widened its margin over Uncle Sam's former top lender, Social Security's Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which has only loaned the U.S. government 1 out every 10 dollars it has borrowed.

The following chart tallies the shares of money the U.S. government has borrowed from its major worldwide creditors. Please click here to access the full size version of the chart.

FY 2020: To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money? (Preliminary Estimate)

With the Fed having taken such a dominant lender role in financing the U.S. government's spending, the relative share of money borrowed from foreign entities has decreased. That share has fallen from 30% of the total public debt outstanding in 2019 to 26% in 2020. Japan has become the largest foreign creditor to the U.S. government, as China seeks to reduce its holdings of U.S. government-issued debt.

We had to wait until the U.S. Treasury Department issued its September 2020 monthly treasury statement some four days late on 16 October 2020 to get the latest debt holdings for Social Security and other trust funds operated by the U.S. government. The data for major foreign holders of U.S. government-issued debt is preliminary (or rather, only up-to-date through August 2020) and will be subject to revision over many months ahead.

Who’s Loaning Money to the U.S. Government?

ATM Closed for Coronavirus Recession - Source: Hello I'm Nik via Unsplash - https://unsplash.com/photos/QtTKfb23nBc

The U.S. government has gone on a borrowing binge since the global coronavirus pandemic reached the nation's shores and the number of known cases began increasing relentlessly at the end of February 2020, just over two months ago. From 26 February 2020 through 29 April 2020, the U.S. government's total public debt outstanding has increased by $1.427 trillion, from $23.427 trillion to $24.854 trillion.

That's a lot of money to borrow, and for all practical purposes, all of it was loaned to the U.S. government by its new Number One creditor, the U.S. Federal Reserve, to whom the U.S. government now owes more money than it does to its previous largest single creditor, Social Security. According to the Federal Reserve's H.4.1 statistical release for 29 April 2020, the Fed holds $3.945 trillion worth of U.S. Treasury securities, up from $2.465 trillion back on 26 February 2020, shortly before the number of known coronavirus cases in the U.S. began their rapid rise, which triggered the government actions that crashed the economy.

Our sharp eyed readers who do the math will catch that the Federal Reserve's holdings of U.S. government-issued debt securities increased by $1.480 trillion, more than the amount by which the federal government's total public debt outstanding increased over the same period of time.

How is that possible? Under current law, the Federal Reserve is prohibited from directly loaning money to the U.S. government, so it is actually acquiring debt securities that were originally issued by the U.S. Treasury when it borrowed money from banks and other financial institutions. The Federal Reserve can then pay them for their holdings of U.S. treasuries through its open market operations, much like how the lender you might have originally gotten your mortgage through might sell it to another financial institution. The money that was borrowed is still owed under the same terms as before, but now it's paid back to a different entity.

Doing that gives the original creditor more money to be able to go out and loan even more money to the U.S. government, which in the current environment, the Fed will then pay to acquire it from them. That process will repeat until the Fed decides it has had enough and tries to stop. Like it has before, which didn't really work out all that well for it.

In any case, that's how the Fed went from holding less than one in ten of all the dollars the U.S. government has borrowed to about one in six, making it the new single largest creditor to Uncle Sam.

April 2020 Rough Estimate: To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?

So to answer the question of how the Fed's holdings of U.S. treasuries is increasing faster than the rate at which the U.S. government is borrowing money, it's because the Fed's holdings are being tapped out of the larger pool of treasuries held by U.S. individuals and institutions, which is then quickly replenished.

We're calling this a rough estimate because not all the data in the chart is synced together. The data for the amount of debt held by the U.S. government's major foreign creditors is preliminary and is only current through February 2020, while data for Social Security and the civil and military retirement trust funds is from March 2020. It's as close as we can estimate with the data that's available.

How do you suppose the Fed will want to be paid back? And where do you suppose the U.S. government will get the cash to do that?

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Who Loans Money to the U.S. Government?

Who loans money to the U.S. government?

We've developed the following chart to answer that question, which is a companion to the 'donut' national debt ownership chart we've featured in the latest update to our "To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?" series.

FY 2018: To Whom Does the U.S. Government Owe Money?

For this chart, we've used a bar chart format to present the actual amounts owed to the U.S. government's major creditors, where we've also simplified the foreign-held portion of the data by splitting it up according to the type of creditor rather than by country.

In doing that, we find that private institutions (such as banks, insurance companies, mutual funds, etc.) and individuals make up the single largest category of lenders to the U.S. government with a combined total of $9,053 billion owed to U.S. and foreign holders of U.S. government-issued debt securities, such as Treasury bonds, short term debt, and federal agency bonds. Combined, these lenders own 42% of the $21,516 billion U.S. national debt recorded at the end of September 2018.

The second largest category is central banks, which for the U.S. means the Federal Reserve, and for the foreign category, refers to "foreign official" institutions. Together, the world's central banks account for $6,708 billion of all money owed by the U.S. government to its creditors, or 31% of the total public debt outstanding, with the Federal Reserve accounting for 12.5% of that amount.

The remaining categories we've broken out are covered by the U.S. government's "intragovernmental holdings" of the U.S. national debt, which includes the trust funds for Social Security and for Federal Hospital Insurance, as well as federal government operated pension funds for its civil service and military employees. These make up the "Big 4" holders of the U.S. national debt within the U.S. government, and with all other U.S. government holdings as of the end of the 2018 fiscal year, add up to $5,755 billion.

This latter category has begun to shrink because Social Security is now running an operating deficit, taking in less money than it spends, which means it has to cash in the U.S. debt securities it holds to make up the difference for paying out retirement pension benefits at promised levels to retired Americans.

References

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Treasury International Capital (TIC) System. Securities (B): Portfolio Holdings of U.S. and Foreign Securities. [Data Resources]. Accessed 27 August 2019.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Treasury International Capital (TIC) System. Monthly Holdings of U.S. Long-term Securities at Current Market Value by Foreign Residents. [CSV Data]. June 2019.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Debt to the Penny. [Online Application]. 28 September 2018.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Treasury International Capital (TIC) System. Historical Liabilities to Foreigners by Type and Holder. Short-term securities. Historical Data. [CSV Data]. June 2019.

U.S. Department of the Treasury. Final Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government for Fiscal Year 2018 Through September 30, 2018, and Other Periods. [PDF Document]. 12 October 2019.

The Fed’s Balance Sheet

How big is the U.S. Federal Reserve's balance sheet? What kind of assets does it hold? What is the value of those assets?

Three questions, the answers for which we've presented in the following two interactive charts! In the first chart below, we show the value of the major asset categories the U.S. Federal Reserve has held on its balance sheet in each week from 18 December 2002 through 14 August 2019, which provides the data needed to answer all three questions. [If you're accessing this article that republishes our RSS news feed, you might consider clicking through to our site to access a working version of the interactive chart, or if you prefer, you can click here for a static version.]

Our second chart presents the same data, but this time in a stacked area format, which makes it easier to find the answer to the first question of how big the Fed's balance sheet has been from 18 December 2002 through 14 August 2019. [Click here for a static version of this second chart.]

Starting at 18 December 2002, the Fed's balance sheet consisted mainly of U.S. Treasuries, which grew from $629 billion at that time to roughly $800 billion in late 2007. The onset of the Great Recession saw the Fed's balance sheet crash to a level of roughly $450 billion by mid-2008, after which the size of the Fed's balance sheet inflated in three major phases through its quantitative easing monetary policy, in which it sought to prop up government supported agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by buying bonds these entities issued to support their operations (Federal Agency Debt), while also buying up the Mortgage Backed Securities these institutions issued to prop up the U.S. housing market. At the same time, the Fed also funded the U.S. government's deficit spending by buying copious amounts of U.S. Treasuries.

By January 2015, the combined amount of all these assets averaged roughly $4.25 trillion, which the Fed held stable at this level until late 2017, when the Fed began actively reducing the amount of its balance sheet holdings through its quantitative tightening monetary policy. Through 14 August 2019, the combined total of these three major asset categories fell to $3.6 trillion, $625 billion less than the average level it held from 2015 through most of 2017.

If we use Morgan Stanley's estimate that each $200 billion reduction in the Fed's balance sheet has the equivalent effect of a 0.25% hike in the Federal Funds Rate, the Fed's active balance sheet reduction quantitative tightening program since late 2017 has had the equivalent effect of increasing the Federal Funds Rate by an additional 0.8% over its official target range of 2.25-2.50% through the end of July 2019.

On 31 July 2019, the Fed acted to cut its target range for the Federal Funds Rate by a quarter percentage point and to suspend its balance sheet reduction program, effective 1 August 2019.

References

U.S. Federal Reserve. U.S. Treasury Securities Held by the Federal Reserve: All Maturities. [Online Database]. Accessed 17 August 2019.

U.S. Federal Reserve. Federal Agency Debt Securities Held by the Federal Reserve: All Maturities. [Online Database]. Accessed 17 August 2019.

U.S. Federal Reserve. Assets: Securities Held Outright: Mortgage-Backed Securities. [Online Database]. Accessed 17 August 2019.