The National Debt Just Hit $30 Trillion. Who Owns It?

On February 1, 2022, a headline in the Wall Street Journal noted that: “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $30 Trillion for the First Time.” The national debt—or, more formally, the federal government debt—is the value of all U.S. Treasury securities outstanding. Treasury securities include Treasury bills, which mature in one year or less; Treasury notes, which mature between 2 years and 10 years; Treasury bonds, which mature in 30 years; U.S. savings bonds purchased by individual investors; and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS), which, unlike other Treasury securities, have their principal amounts adjusted every six months to reflect changes in the consumer price index (CPI).  

With a value of $30 trillion, the federal government debt in early February is about 120 percent of GDP, a record that exceeds the ratio of government debt to GDP during World War II. In 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the ratio of government debt to GDP was only 35 percent. (We discuss the federal government debt in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.6 and in Economics, Chapter 26, Section 26.6.)

There are many important economic issues involved with the federal government debt, but in this blog post we’ll focus just on the question of who owns the debt.

The pie chart below shows the shares of the debt held by different groups. The largest slice shown is for “intragovernmental holdings,” which represent ownership of Treasury securities by government trust funds, notably the Social Security trust funds. The Social Security system makes payments to retired or disabled workers. The system operates on a pay-as-you-go basis, which means that the payroll taxes collected from today’s workers are used to make payments to retired workers. Because of slowing population growth, Congress authorized an increase in payroll taxes above the level necessary to make current payments. The Social Security system has invested the surplus in special Treasury securities that the Treasury redeems when the funds are necessary to make payments to retired workers. (In the Apply the Concept “Is Spending on Social Security and Medicare a Fiscal Time Bomb?” in Macroeconomics, Chapter 16, Section 16.1, we discuss the long-term funding problems of the Social Security and Medicare systems.)

Some economists argue that the value of these Treasury securities should not be counted as part of the federal government debt because the securities are not marketable in the way that Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are and because the securities represent a flow of funds from one federal agency to another federal agency. If we exclude the value of these securities, the national debt on February 1, 2022 was $23.5 trillion rather than $30.0 trillion. 

The Federal Reserve System holds about 19 percent of federal government debt. The Fed buys and sells Treasury securities as part of its normal conduct of monetary policy. In addition, the Fed accumulated large holdings of Treasury securities as part of its quantitative easing operations during and following the 2007–2009 financial crisis and from 2020 to 2022 during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (We discuss quantitative easing in Macroeconomics, Chapter 15, Section 15.3.)

About 27 percent of the debt is held by foreign central banks, foreign commercial banks, and foreign investors. The largest amount of Treasury debt is held by Japan, followed by China and the United Kingdom. All other countries combined hold about 16 percent of the debt.

U.S. commercial banks hold more than 15 percent of the debt. Banks hold Treasury securities partly because since the 2007–2009 financial crisis most interest rates, including those on loans and on corporate and municipal bonds, have been very low compared with historic averages. The interest rates on these assets are in some cases too low to compensate banks for the risk of owning the assets rather than default-risk free Treasury securities. In addition, large banks are required to meet a liquidity coverage ratio, which means that they have to hold sufficient liquid assets—those that can be easily converted into cash—to meet their need for funds in a financial crisis. Many banks meet their liquidity requirements, in part, by owning Treasury securities. 

The remaining Treasury securities—about 16.5 percent of the total federal government debt—are held by the U.S. nonbank public. The nonbank public includes financial firms—such as investment banks, insurance companies, and mutual funds—as well as individual investors.

Sources: Amara Omeokwe, “U.S. National Debt Exceeds $30 Trillion for First Time,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2022; “Debt to the Penny,” fiscaldata.treasury.gov; “Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities,” ticdata.treasury.gov; and Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

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