Who Holds the Federal Debt

July 11, 2011

See the history of the debt limit since 1980.

As of the end of March, the federal government owed $14.27 trillion to a wide variety of holders of U.S. Treasury securities. This graphic depicts who those creditors are and the amount they have bought in treasuries. Click on the arrows next to a category to expand its subcategories.

All amounts are in billions of dollars.

Background

Treasury securities are the most sought-after in the world because the assumption that United States would always be able to repay its debts has generally gone unquestioned. That is why officials are negotiating to increase the government’s borrowing limit and avoid a default.

More than $9 trillion of the total debt is held by “the public” — a broad category that includes individual investors in the United States and overseas, the Federal Reserve system, and foreign governments and central banks. The remaining debt is held by government accounts, mostly trust funds established to collect dedicated revenue to pay for such programs as Social Security, Medicare and highway construction.

Almost all of the debt held by the public is “marketable,” meaning that those securities are bought and sold in financial markets. The debt held by the Fed is part of those marketable holdings. So is the debt held by China, the largest foreign creditor at $1.1 trillion. Japan is a close second at $900 billion. Domestic investors — from mutual funds to institutions, such as pensions, to individuals — hold $3.2 trillion in marketable debt and a small share of the non-marketable debt, particularly savings bonds.

Notes

Countries listed under "foreign investors" indicate where Treasury securities are held. That does not mean that citizens, governments or central banks of that country own the securities. They may actually be owned by citizens or institutions from third countries that used the listed country for the purchase transaction.

Source: Treasury Bulletin, June 2011 issue
Credits: Research/editing: Sarah Vanderbilt; Interactive: Thomas Wilburn, Jessica Smith