United States Public Debt

The United States public debt is the money borrowed by the federal government of the United States through the issue of securities by the Treasury and other federal government agencies. US public debt consists of two components:

  • Debt held by the public includes Treasury securities held by investors outside the federal government, including that held by individuals, corporations, the Federal Reserve System and foreign, state and local governments.
  • Debt held by government accounts or intragovernmental debt includes non-marketable Treasury securities held in accounts administered by the federal government that are owed to program beneficiaries, such as the Social Security Trust Fund. Debt held by government accounts represents the cumulative surpluses, including interest earnings, of these accounts that have been invested in Treasury securities.

Public debt increases or decreases as a result of the annual unified budget deficit or surplus. The federal government budget deficit or surplus is the difference between government receipts and spending, ignoring intra-governmental transfers. However, some spending that is excluded from the deficit (supplemental appropriations) also adds to the debt.

Historically, the US public debt increased during wars and recessions, and subsequently declined. For example, debt held by the public as a share of GDP peaked just after World War II (113% of GDP in 1945), but then fell over the following 30 years. In recent decades, however, large budget deficits and the resulting increases in debt have led to concern about the long-term sustainability of the federal government's fiscal policies.

During June 2011, the Congressional Budget Office called for "...large and rapid policy changes to put the nation on a sustainable fiscal course." On August 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the Budget Control Act of 2011, averting a possible financial default.

On 23 November 2012, debt held by the public was approximately $11.474 trillion or about 72% of GDP. Intra-governmental holdings stood at $4.833 trillion, giving a combined total public debt of $16.307 trillion. As of July 2012, $5.3 trillion or approximately 48% of the debt held by the public was owned by foreign investors, the largest of which were China and Japan at just over $1.1 trillion each.

Read more about United States Public DebtHistory, Debt Ceiling, Debt Holdings, Forecasting, Risks and Obstacles, Debates

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