Who Owns the U.S. National Debt?

The Biggest Owner Is You!

Who owns the U.S. debt?
All of us will have to pay the nation's debt. Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

The U.S. debt is more than $19.9 trillion. Most headlines focus on how much the United States owes China, which is one of the largest foreign owners. What many people don’t know is that the Social Security Trust Fund, aka your retirement money, owns most of the national debt. How does that work, and what does it mean?

The Debt Is in Two Categories

The U.S. Treasury manages the U.S. debt through its Bureau of the Public Debt.

The debt falls into two broad categories: Intragovernmental Holdings and Debt Held by the Public. (Source: "Debt to the Penny," U.S. Treasury, January 26, 2017.)

Intragovernmental Holdings. This is the federal debt owed to 230 other federal agencies. It totals $5.554 trillion, almost 30 percent of the debt. Why would the government owe money to itself? Some agencies, like the Social Security Trust Fund, take in more revenue from taxes than they need. Rather than stick this cash under a giant mattress, they buy U.S. Treasurys with it.

By owning Treasuries, they transfer their excess cash to the general fund, where it is spent. Of course, one day they will redeem their Treasury notes for cash. The Federal government will either need to raise taxes or issue more debt, to give the agencies the money they will need. 

Which agencies own the most Treasuries? Social Security, by a long shot. Here's the detailed breakdown (as of December 31, 2016).

  • Social Security (Social Security Trust Fund and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund) - $2.801 trillion
  • Office of Personnel Management Retirement - $888 billion
  • Military Retirement Fund - $670 billion
  • Medicare (Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, Federal Supplementary Medical Insurance Trust Fund) - $294 billion

Debt Held by the Public. This is the rest of the national debt, totaling $14.403 trillion.  Foreign governments and investors hold nearly half of the nation's public debt. One-fourth is held by other governmental entities. These include the Federal Reserve, as well as state and local governments. Fifteen percent is held by mutual funds, private pension funds, savings bonds or individual Treasury notes. The remaining 10 percent is owned by businesses, like banks and insurance companies, and an assortment of trusts, companies, and investors. Here's the breakdown:

  • Foreign - $6.281 trillion
  • Federal Reserve - $2.463 trillion
  • Mutual funds - $1.379 trillion
  • State and local government, including their pension funds - $874 billion
  • Private pension funds - $544 billion
  • Banks - $570 billion
  • Insurance companies - $304 billion
  • U.S. savings bonds - $169 billion
  • Other (individuals, government-sponsored enterprises, brokers and dealers, bank personal trusts and estates, corporate and non-corporate businesses, and other investors) - $1.349 trillion. (Sources: “Factors Affecting Reserve Balance,” Federal Reserve, January 18, 2017. “Treasury Bulletin,” Table OFS-2, Ownership of Federal Securities, U.S. Department of the Treasury, June 2016.)

This debt is not only in Treasury bills, notes and bonds but also Treasury Inflation Protected Securities and special State and Local Government Series securities.

As you can see, if you add up the debt held by Social Security and all the retirement and pension funds, nearly half of the U.S. Treasury debt is held in trust for your retirement. If the United States defaults on its debt, foreign investors would be angry, but current and future retirees would be hurt the most.

Why Does the Federal Reserve Own Treasury Debt?

As the nation's central bank, the Federal Reserve is in charge of the country's credit. It doesn't have a financial reason to own Treasury notes. So why did it double its holdings between 2007 and 2014?

That's when it ramped up its open market operations, such as purchases of Treasuries. This quantitative easing stimulated the economy by keeping interest rates low. It helped us escape the grips of the recession.

Is the Fed simply monetizing the debt? Yes, that's one of the effects. The Fed purchases Treasurys from its member banks, using credit it created out of thin air. It has the same effect as printing money. By keeping interest rates low, the Fed helps the government avoid the high-interest rate penalty it would usually incur for excessive debt.

The Fed ended quantitative easing in October 2014. As a result, interest rates on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose from a 200-year low of 1.442 percent in June 2012 to around 2.17 percent by the end of 2014. For more, see Relationship Between Treasury Yields and Mortgage Rates.

What About Foreign Ownership of the Debt?

Japan owns $1.108 trillion in U.S. debt. As of November 2016, it was the largest foreign holder. China owns $1.049 trillion. Both Japan and China want to keep the value of the dollar higher than the value of their currencies. That helps keep their exports affordable for the United States, which helps their economies grow. That's why, despite China's occasional threats to sell its holdings, both countries are happy to be America's biggest foreign bankers. China replaced the United Kingdom as the second largest foreign holder on May 31, 2007. That's when it increased its holdings to $699 billion, outpacing the United Kingdom's $640 billion. 

Ireland is third, holding $275 billion.The Cayman Islands is fourth, at $260 billion. The Bureau of International Settlements believes it is a front for sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds whose owners don't want to reveal their positions. So are Luxembourg and Belgium. Luxembourg is seventh ($221 billion), and Belgium is twelfth ($113 billion).

Brazil is the fifth largest holder at $258 billion. The next largest holders are Switzerland, the UK, Hong Kong, Taiwan and India. They each hold between $118 and $229 billion each. (Source: “Foreign Holding of U.S. Treasury Securities,” January 18, 2016. "Petrodollars and Global Imbalances," U.S. Treasury, February 2006.) 

Data are from various reports that are released at different times. Therefore, the numbers in this article may not add up to $19.9 trillion.

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