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The United States government debt, commonly called the "public debt" or the "national debt", is the amount of money owed by the Federal government of the United States to holders of U.S. debt instruments. Gross Debt is the national debt plus intragovernmental debt obligations or debt held by trust funds like the Social Security Trust Fund. Types of securities sold by the government include, but are not limited to, Treasury Bills, Notes, Bonds, TIPS, United States Savings Bonds, and State and Local Government Series securities.

The annual government deficit refers to the difference between government receipts and spending. Logically, the deficit is equal to annual increase in the debt. However, there is certain spending (supplemental appropriations and the surplus tax receipts in the Social Security program) that add to the debt but are excluded from the deficit. For example, during 2008 the budget deficit was $455 billion but the national debt increased by $1 trillion, the first time it has done so in a single year. The total debt has increased over $500 billion each year since FY 2003, considering both budgeted and non-budgeted spending.


The US Federal Debt from 1800 to 1999

The United States has had public debt since its inception. Debts incurred during the American Revolutionary War and under the Articles of Confederation led to the first yearly reported value of $75,463,476.52 on January 1, 1791. Over the following 45 years, the debt grew, briefly contracted to zero on January 8, 1835 under President Andrew Jackson but then quickly grew into the millions again.

The first dramatic growth spurt of the debt occurred because of the Civil War. The debt was just $65 million in 1860, but passed $1 billion in 1863 and had reached $2.7 billion following the war. The debt slowly fluctuated for the rest of the century, finally growing steadily in the 1910s and early 1920s to roughly $22 billion as the country paid for involvement in World War I.

The buildup and involvement in World War II plus other social programs during the F.D. Roosevelt and Truman presidencies in the 1930s and 40's caused a sixteen-fold increase in the debt from $16 billion in 1930 to $260 billion in 1950. After this period, the debt's growth closely matched the rate of inflation where it tripled in size from $260 billion in 1950 to around $909 billion in 1980. Public debt in dollars quadrupled during the Reagan and Bush presidencies from 1980 to 1992, and remained at about the same level by the end of the Clinton presidency in 2000. During the administration of President George W. Bush, the total debt increased from $5.6 trillion in January 2001 to $10.7 trillion by December 2008, rising from 54% of GDP to 75% of GDP. During March 2009, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that public debt will rise from 40.8% of GDP in 2008 to 70.2% in 2012. The total debt is projected to continue increasing significantly during President Obama's administration to nearly 100% of GDP, its highest level since World War II.
Year Gross Debt in Billions as % of GDP
1910 2.6 n/a
1920 25.9 n/a
1930 16.2 n/a
1940 43.0 52.4
1950 257.4 94.1
1960 290.5 56.1
1970 380.9 37.6
1980 909.0 33.3
1990 3,206.3 55.9
2000 5,628.7 58.0
2001 5,769.9 57.4
2002 6,198.4 59.7
2003 6,760.0 62.6
2004 7,354.7 63.9
2005 7,905.3 64.6
2006 8,451.4 65.0
2007 8,950.7 65.6
2008 9,985.8 70.2
2009 (est.) 12,867.5 90.4
2010 (est.) 14,456.3 98.1
2011 (est.) 15,673.9 101.0
2012 (est.) 16,565.7 100.6
2013 (est.) 17,440.2 99.7
2014 (est.) 18,350.0 99.8

As of 2008, the public debt of the United States ranked as the 61st-largest in the world as a percentage of GDP.

Debt ceiling

The Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 established a statutory limit on federal debt. Congress had previously approved each debt issuance separately. The debt limit provided the U.S. Treasury with more leeway in the administration of debt, allowing for modern management techniques in government finance.

The U.S. Treasury Department now conducts more than 200 sales of debt by auction every year. The Treasury has been granted authority by Congress to issue such debt as was needed to fund government operations as long as the total debt (excepting some small special classes) does not exceed a stated ceiling.

The United States Congress has raised the debt limit several times in recent years. The debt limit was most recently raised to $12.104 trillion by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R.1), which was signed into law on February 17, 2009 (P.L. 111-5).


Public and government accounts

The national debt is broken down into 2 main categories: Back Issues: Treasury Bulletin: Publications & Guidance: Financial Management Service
  1. Securities held by the public
  2. :*Marketable securities
  3. :*Non-marketable securities
  4. Securities held by government accounts

The values for fiscal years 1999-2008 are published by the treasury and about 60% of the debt is held by the public.
Detailed breakdown of government holders of treasury debt and debt instruments used of the public portion.
As of 2008, Social Security Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund holds about half of the government held portion of the debt at 2.2 trillion dollars, with other large holders including the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Savings and Loan Corporation's Resolution Fund and the Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. Most of the public debt is in notes and bills with only about one trillion bonds and inflation protected bonds.

Estimated ownership

Estimated ownership of US public debt in 2008
Estimated ownership each year through time.

Because there is a large variety of people who own the notes, bills, and bonds in the "public" portion of the debt, the U.S. Treasury also publishes data which groups the types of holders by a few, general categories to get a good picture of who owns United States debt. In this data set, some of the public portion is moved and combined with the total government portion because this amount is owned by the Federal Reserve as part of United States monetary policy. (See Federal Reserve System) As is apparent from the chart, a little more than half of the total national debt is owed to the "Federal Reserve and intragovernmental holdings". The foreign and international holders of the debt are also put together from the notes, bills, and bonds sections. Below is a chart for the data as of June 2008:

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac obligations excluded

Although not included in the figures reported by the government, the U.S. government has moved to more explicitly support the soundness of obligations of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, starting in July via the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, and the September 7, 2008 Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) conservatorship of both government sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The on- or off-balance sheet obligations of those two independent GSEs is just over $5 trillion.The government accounts for these corporations as if they are unconnected to its balance sheet. The U.S. Treasury contracted at the inception of the conservatorship to receive US$1 billion in senior preferred shares, and a warrant for 79.9% of the common shares from each GSE, as a fee to fund, as needed, up to US$100 billion total for each GSE (in exchange for more senior preferred stock), in order to maintain solvency and adequate capital ratios at the GSEs, thereby supporting all senior (normal) liabilities, subordinated indebtedness, and guarantees of the two firms. Some observers see this as an effective nationalization of the companies that ultimately places taxpayers at risk for all their liabilitiesThe net exposure to taxpayers is difficult to determine at the time of the takeover and depends on several factors, such as declines in housing prices and losses on mortgage assets in the future. The Congressional Budget Office has recommended incorporating the assets and liabilities of the two companies into the federal budget due to the degree of government control over the entities.The 5-year credit default swap spread for U.S. treasuries had risen to 18 basis points per annum as of 9 September 2008 as a result of market perception regarding the increased debt load of the government.

On January 8, 2009, Moody's said that only 4 of the 12 Federal Home Loan Banks (FHLB) may be able to maintain minimum required capital levels and the U.S. government may need to put some of them into conservatorship. [40696] According to Bloomberg, the FHLB is the largest U.S. borrower after the federal government. [40697]

Guaranteed obligations excluded

Starting in late 2008, the U.S. federal government is guaranteeing large amounts of obligations relating to mutual funds, banks, and corporations under several new programs designed to deal with the problems initiated by the Liquidity crisis of September 2008. Guarantees are off-balance sheet and therefore excluded in the calculation of federal debt. The funding of direct investments made in response to the crisis, such as those made under the Troubled Assets Relief Program, are captured by the debt totals.

Foreign ownership

Major foreign holders of United States Treasury Securities.
The US debt in the hands of foreign governments was 25% of the total in 2007, virtually double the 1988 figure of 13%. Despite the declining willingness of foreign investors to continue investing in US dollar denominated instruments as the US dollar fell in 2007, the U.S. Treasury statistics indicate that, at the end of 2006, non-US citizens and institutions held 44% of federal debt held by the public. About 66% of that 44% was held by the central banks of other countries, in particular the central banks of Japanmarker and China. In May 2009, the US owed China $772 billion. In total, lenders from Japan and China held 44% of the foreign-owned debt. This exposure to potential financial or political risk should foreign banks stop buying Treasury securities or start selling them heavily was addressed in a recent report issued by the Bank of International Settlementsmarker which stated, "'Foreign investors in U.S. dollar assets have seen big losses measured in dollars, and still bigger ones measured in their own currency. While unlikely, indeed highly improbable for public sector investors, a sudden rush for the exits cannot be ruled out completely."

On May 20, 2007, Kuwait discontinued pegging its currency exclusively to the dollar, preferring to use the dollar in a basket of currencies. Syria made a similar announcement on June 4, 2007. In September 2009 China, India and Russia said they were interested in buying IMFmarker gold to diversify their dollar-denominated securities.

The following is a list of the Foreign Owners of U.S. Treasury Securities as listed by the U.S. Treasury:

Foreign owners of US Treasury Securities (September 2009)
Nation billions of dollars percentage
People's Republic of Chinamarker 798.9 23.35%
Japanmarker 751.5 21.13%
United Kingdommarker 249.3 6.42%
Oil exporters 185.3 5.52%
Caribbean banking centers 171.7 5.64%
Brazilmarker 144.9 4.03%
Russiamarker 118.0 3.44%
Hong Kongmarker 115.3 3.36%
Luxembourgmarker 92.2 2.69%
Taiwan R.O.C.marker 77.4 2.26%
Switzerlandmarker 68.1 1.99%
Germanymarker 56.3 1.64%
Singaporemarker 42.4 1.24%
Indiamarker 38.9 1.13%
Republic of Irelandmarker 38.6 1.13%
Koreamarker 37.6 1.10%
Thailandmarker 31.4 0.92%
Norwaymarker 28.9 0.84%
Mexicomarker 27.7 0.81%
Turkeymarker 27.3 0.80%
Francemarker 24.6 0.72%
Netherlandsmarker 21.5 0.63%
Canadamarker 20.2 0.59%
Egyptmarker 18.6 0.54%
Italymarker 17.4 0.51%
Israelmarker 16.9 0.49%
Swedenmarker 16.5 0.48%
Belgiummarker 15.7 0.46%
Colombiamarker 14.8 0.43%
Chilemarker 13.5 0.39%
Malaysiamarker 11.9 0.35%
Philippinesmarker 11.4 0.33%
Malaysiamarker 11.3 0.32%
Australia 10.2 0.31%
All other 156.8 4.03%
Grand Total 3428.0

Statistics and comparables

  • The national debt equates to $30,400 per person U.S. population, or $60,100 per head of the U.S. working population, as of February 2008.
  • In 2003 $318 billion was spent on interest payments servicing the debt, out of a total tax revenue of $1.95 trillion—that is, 16.3% of total tax revenue.
  • Total U.S. household debt, including mortgage loan and consumer debt, was $11.4 trillion in 2005. By comparison, total U.S. household assets, including real estate, equipment, and financial instruments such as mutual funds, was $62.5 trillion in 2005.
  • Total U.S Consumer Credit Card revolving credit debt was $931.0 billion in April 2009.
  • Total third world debt was estimated to be $1.3 trillion in 1990.
  • The U.S. balance of trade deficit in goods and services was $725.8 billion in 2005.
  • The global market capitalization for all stock markets was $40 trillion in September 2008.

Risks and obstacles

Risks to the U.S. dollar

A variety of factors are placing increasing pressure on the value of the U.S. dollar, increasing the risk of devaluation or inflation and encouraging challenges to dollar's role as the world's reserve currency. If another currency or basket of currencies replaced the dollar as the reserve currency, the U.S. would face higher interest rates to attract capital, reducing economic growth for the long-term. The Economist wrote in May 2009: "Having spent a fortune bailing out their banks, Western governments will have to pay a price in terms of higher taxes to meet the interest on that debt. In the case of countries (like Britain and America) that have trade as well as budget deficits, those higher taxes will be needed to meet the claims of foreign creditors. Given the political implications of such austerity, the temptation will be to default by stealth, by letting their currencies depreciate. Investors are increasingly alive to this danger..."

Key drivers of these risks relate to the unwillingness of the U.S. to live within its means, both from a budget deficit and trade deficit standpoint. For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Federal Government's auditor, argues that the U.S. is on a fiscally "unsustainable" path and that politicians and the electorate have been unwilling to change this path. The 2010 U.S. budget indicates annual debt increases of nearly $1 trillion annually through 2019, with an unprecedented $1.0 trillion debt increase in 2009. By 2019 the U.S. national debt will be $18.4 trillion, approximately 148% of GDP, up from its approximately 80% level in April 2009. Further, the subprime mortgage crisis has significantly increased the financial burden on the U.S. government, with over $10 trillion in commitments or guarantees and $2.6 trillion in investments or expenditures as of May 2009, only some of which are included in the budget document.

The U.S. also has a large trade deficit, meaning imports exceed exports. Financing these deficits requires the USA to borrow large sums from abroad, much of it from countries running trade surpluses, mainly the emerging economies in Asia and oil-exporting nations. The balance of payments identity requires that a country (such as the USA) running a current account deficit also have a capital account (investment) surplus of the same amount. In 2005, Ben Bernanke addressed the implications of the USA's high and rising current account (trade) deficit, resulting from USA imports exceeding its exports. Between 1996 and 2004, the USA current account deficit increased by $650 billion, from 1.5% to 5.8% of GDP.

Long-term risks to financial health of federal government

Risks due to increasing entitlement spending, according to GAO's projections of future trends.

Several government agencies provide budget and debt data and analysis. These include the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the U.S.marker Treasury Departmentmarker. These agencies have reported that the federal government is facing a series of critical long-term financing challenges. This is because expenditures related to entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are growing considerably faster than the economy overall, as the population grows older. These agencies have indicated that under current law, sometime between 2030 and 2040, mandatory spending (primarily Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt) will exceed tax revenue. In other words, all discretionary spending (e.g., defense, homeland security, law enforcement, education, etc.) will require borrowing and related deficit spending. These agencies have used such language as "unsustainable" and "trainwreck" to describe such a future.

While there is significant debate about solutions, the significant long-term risk posed by the increase in entitlement spending is widely recognized, with health care costs (Medicare and Medicaid) the primary risk category. If significant reforms are not undertaken, benefits under entitlement programs will exceed government income by over $40 trillion over the next 75 years. According to the GAO, this will cause debt ratios relative to GDP to double by 2040 and double again by 2060, reaching 600 percent by 2080.

In 2006, Professor Laurence Kotlikoff argued the United States must eventually choose between "bankruptcy", raising taxes, or cutting payouts. He assumes there will be ever-growing payment obligations from Medicare and Medicaid. Others who have attempted to bring this issue to the fore of America's attention range from Ross Perot in his 1992 Presidential bid, to motivational speaker Robert Kiyosaki, and David Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office.

Thomas Friedman has argued that increasing dependence on foreign sources of funding will render the U.S. less able to act independently.

Unfunded obligations

The U.S. government is committed under current law to mandatory payments for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The GAO projects that payouts for these programs will significantly exceed tax revenues over the next 75 years. The Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) payouts already exceed program tax revenues and Social Security payroll taxes fully cover payouts only until 2017. These deficits require funding from other tax sources or borrowing. The present value of these deficits or unfunded obligations is an estimated $41 trillion. This is the amount that would have to be set aside during 2008 such that the principal and interest would pay for the unfunded commitments through 2082. Approximately $7 trillion relates to Social Security, while $34 trillion relates to Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, health care programs are nearly five times as serious a funding challenge as Social Security. Adding this to the national debt during September 2008 of nearly $10 trillion and other federal commitments brings the total obligations to nearly $53 trillion.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has indicated that: "Future growth in spending per beneficiary for Medicare and Medicaid—the federal government’s major health care programs—will be the most important determinant of long-term trends in federal spending. Changing those programs in ways that reduce the growth of costs—which will be difficult, in part because of the complexity of health policy choices—is ultimately the nation’s central long-term challenge in setting federal fiscal policy."

Recent additions to the public debt of the United States

Deficit and debt increases 2001-2009

Recent additions to U.S. public debt
Fiscal year (begins

10/01 of prev. year)
Value % of GDP
2001 $144.5 billion 1.4%
2002 $409.5 billion 3.9%
2003 $589.0 billion 5.5%
2004 $605.0 billion 5.3%
2005 $523.0 billion 4.3%
2006 $536.5 billion 4.1%
2007 $459.5 billion 3.4%
2008 $1017.0 billion (proj.) 7.4%

There is a significant difference between the reported budget deficit and the change in debt. The key differences are: 1) The Social Security surplus, which reduces the "off-budget" deficit often reported in the media; and 2) Non-budgeted spending, such as for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The debt increased by approximately $550 billion on average each year during the 2003-2007 period, but then increased over $1 trillion during FY 2008.

The cumulative debt of the United States in the past 8 completed fiscal years was approximately $4.3 trillion, or about 43% of the total national debt of ~$10.0 trillion as of September 2008.

Interest expense

Components of interest on the debt
Budgeted net interest on the public debt was approximately $240 billion in fiscal years 2007 and 2008. This represented approximately 9.5% of government spending. Interest was the fourth largest single budgeted disbursement category, after defense, Social Security, and Medicare.

During FY2008, the government also accrued a non-cash interest expense of $212 billion for intra-governmental debt, primarily the Social Security Trust Fund, for a total interest expense of $454 billion. This accrued interest is added to the Social Security Trust Fund and therefore the national debt each year and will be paid to Social Security recipients in the future.

Public debt owned by foreigners has increased to approximately 50% of the total or approximately $3.4 trillion. As a result, nearly 50% of the interest payments are now leaving the country, which is different from past years when interest was paid to U.S. citizens holding the public debt. Interest expenses are projected to grow dramatically as the U.S. debt increases and interest rates rise from very low levels in 2009 to more typical historical levels. CBO estimates that nearly half of the debt increases over the 2009-2019 period will be due to interest.

Net interest costs paid on the public debt declined from $260 billion in 2008 to $199 billion in 2009 because of lower interest rates. Should these rates return to historical averages, the interest cost would increase dramatically. Historian Niall Ferguson described the risk that foreign investors would demand higher interest rates as the U.S. debt levels increase over time in a November 2009 interview.

Debt clocks

In several cities around the United States, there are national debt clocks—electronic billboards which try to illustrate the amount of money owed by the government. Some also attempt to show the money owed per capita or per family. There is a significant level of fluctuation day-to-day, both up and down, so any "clocks" must be continually re-set with proper values.

The most famous debt clock, the National Debt Clockmarker located in Times Square in New York Citymarker, was created by real estate investor Seymour Durst. The clock is now owned by his son Douglas Durst. Although the total debt continued to increase, the Durst's clock was deactivated in 2000 when public debt began to decrease due to budget surpluses. However, following large increases in the debt (total and public) a few years later, the clock was reactivated in July 2002 , though it had to be moved to make way for One Bryant Parkmarker. Since September 30, 2008, when the debt surpassed $10 trillion, the clock's dollar sign has been replaced by the extra digit. A new clock, enabling the recording of a quadrillion dollars of debt, is expected early 2009.

Calculating and projecting the debt

2010 Budget: Projected deficits and debt increases in President Obama's 2010 Budget
2010 Budget: Total Debt $ and % to GDP
Tracking current levels of debt is a cumbersome but rather straightforward process. Making future projections is much more difficult for a number of reasons. For example, before the September 11, 2001 attacks, the George W. Bush administration projected in the 2002 budget that there would be a $1.288 trillion surplus from 2001 through 2004. In the 2005 Mid-Session Review, however, this had changed to a projected deficit of $850 billion, a swing of $2.138 trillion. The latter document states that 49 percent of this swing was due to "economic and technical re-estimates", 29 percent was due to "tax relief", (mainly the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts), and the remaining 22 percent was due to "war, homeland, and other enacted legislation" (mainly expenditures for the War on Terror, Iraq War, and homeland security).

Projections between different groups will sometimes differ because they make different assumptions. For example, in August 2003, a Congressional Budget Office report projected a $1.4 trillion deficit from 2004 through 2013.

However, a mid-term and long-term joint analysis a month later by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Concord Coalition stated that "In projecting deficits, CBO follows mechanical 'baseline' rules that do not allow it to account for the costs of any prospective tax or entitlement legislation, no matter how likely the enactment of such legislation may be." The analysis added in a proposed tax cut extension and Alternative Minimum Tax reform (enacted by a 2005 act), prescription drug plan (Medicare Part D, enacted in a 2003 act), and further increases in defense, homeland security, international, and domestic spending. According to the report, this "adjusts CBO's official ten-year projections for more realistic assumptions about the costs of budget policies", raising the projected deficit from $1.4 trillion to $5 trillion.

The 2010 Budget proposed by President Barack Obama projects significant debt increases, both in terms of dollars and relative to GDP. The debt is projected to nearly double to $20 trillion by 2015, but is expected to increase to nearly 100% of GDP by 2010 and remain at that level thereafter. These estimates assume real GDP growth (after inflation) ranging from 2.6% to 4.6% annually from 2010 through 2019, which exceeds Blue Chip consensus estimates. During FY 2008, approximately 76.6% of federal spending was in the following categories: Departments of Health and Human Services (19.8%), Defense (20.3%) and Veterans Affairs (11.8%); Social Security Administration (18.2%); interest on the public debt (6.6%). As of June 2009, Obama's policies enacted into law were only a minor influence on debt and deficit projections. However, Obama himself has been criticized for not having a realistic plan for addressing the increasing debt.

See also


  • Argues that America completely paid off its first national debt but is unlikely to do so again.
  • Argues that America is a world empire that uses credit in lieu of tribute and that history shows this to be unsustainable.
  • Argues that the US is in good economic condition and that talk of the consequences of its debt is unduly alarmist.
  • Argues that democracies eventually defeat autocracies because "countries with representative institutions are able to borrow more cheaply than those with autocratic governments" (p. 4). Bond markets also strengthen democracies internally by giving citizens some of the proverbial power of the purse and by aligning their interests with those of their governments.
  • Describes the process of debt monetization by a nation's central bank and it's unfortunate consequences on society.

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