July 17th, 2007
This essay takes an in-depth look at the magnitude and consequences of the large debt levels within the United States. Topics discussed include: composition of foreign and domestic holders of U.S. debt, consequences of the government borrowing from the Federal Reserve, and a look at the current U.S. housing market.
The National Debt
The national debt (also known as public debt) is money owed by the federal government. As the government represents the people, government debt can be seen as an indirect debt of the taxpayers. The U.S. government incurs debt by issuing treasuries (bills, notes and bonds).
These securities are either sold on the open market or directly to the Federal Reserve. The U.S. national debt, as of July 17, 2007 stood at $8.887 trillion. In addition to the national debt, the State and Local debt at the end of 2006 stood at just over $2 trillion.
Some consider that all government liabilities, including those that the government has contracted for but not yet paid, should also be included in the national debt. Corporations must report such liabilities in their annual financial statements under GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles).
These "off-balance sheet" items include future payments for federal pensions, Medicare and Social Security. Inclusion of these obligations would dramatically increase the U.S. national debt to $59.1 trillion or 403% of GDP! On a per capita basis this amounts to $516,348 for every U.S. household! By means of comparison, the average American household owes $112,043 for mortgages, car loans, credit cards and all other debt combined.
To Whom Do We Owe the National Debt?
The Department of the Treasury publishes The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It. This up-to-date information divides the debt into two sections - Public and Intergovernmental Holdings. The former grouping includes domestic and foreign owned portions of the debt. The U.S. Treasury publishes Ownership of Federal Securities which is another break-down of the composition. Through combining these two data sets, as of December 2006, the composition of the U.S. National debt was:
The breakdown of the domestic owned portion of the national debt is as follows:
The U.S. Treasury publishes a listing of the Major Foreign Holders of the national debt.
Of the U.S. debt owned by foreigners, central banks own 64% with private investors owning nearly all the rest (Analytical Perspectives - Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2006 p. 257). As of the end of 2006, U.S. treasuries made up 33% of Mainland China's official foreign exchange reserves and 68% of Japan's!
The magnitude of the foreign-owned portion of the national debt is nearly three times the total amount of currency in circulation! Official numbers released by the Federal Reserve for June 2007 show the volume of currency at US$755 billion.
The Federal Reserve
The Intergovernmental Holdings sect
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Posted in Monetary Commentary, Housing Bust, Mike Hewitt