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Foreign holdings of federal debt.

June 16, 2014


This report presents current data on estimated ownership of U.S. Treasury securities and major holders of federal debt by country. Federal debt represents the accumulated balance of borrowing by the federal government. To finance federal borrowing, U.S. Treasury securities are sold to investors. Treasury securities may be purchased directly from the Treasury or on the secondary market by individual private investors, financial institutions in the United States or overseas, and foreign, state, or local governments. Foreign investment in federal debt has grown in recent years, prompting questions on the location of the foreign holders and how much debt they hold.

This report will be updated annually or as events warrant.

Selected Statistics on Foreign Holdings of Federal Debt
Foreign Investment in U.S. Federal Debt: Why Is It an Issue of


Figure 1. Breakdown of Official vs. Private Foreign Holdings of U.S.
Federal Debt


Table 1. Estimated Ownership of U.S. Treasury Securities

Table 2. The Top 10 Foreign Holders of Federal Debt, by Country


Author Contact Information


Selected Statistics on Foreign Holdings of Federal Debt

Federal debt represents, in large measure, the accumulated balance of federal borrowing of the U.S. government. The portion of gross federal debt held by the public consists primarily of investment in marketable U.S. Treasury securities. (1) Investors in the United States and abroad include official institutions, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve; financial institutions, such as public banks; and private individual investors.

Table 1 provides December 2013 data, available as of June 2014, on estimated ownership of U.S. Treasury securities by type of investment and the percentage of that investment attributable to foreign investors. (2)

As the table shows, during the five years from December 2009 to December 2013, foreign holdings of debt increased by $2.1 trillion to approximately $5.8 trillion. During the same period, total publicly held debt increased by approximately $4.5 trillion to $12.3 trillion.

From the end of 2008 to the end of 2009, the share of the federal debt held by foreigners fell from slightly over half to slightly less than half of the publicly held debt because the overall debt grew more quickly than foreign holdings. Since then, the share has been relatively steady. In December 2013, foreigners held 47.1% of the publicly held debt. (3)

Data on major foreign holders of federal debt by country are provided in Table 2. According to the data, the top three estimated foreign holders of federal debt by country, ranked in descending order as of December 2013, are China ($1,270.0 billion), Japan ($1,182.5 billion), and Caribbean Banking Centers ($295.3 billion). Based on these estimates, China holds approximately 21.9% of all foreign investment in U.S. privately held federal debt; Japan holds approximately 20.4%; and Caribbean Banking Centers hold approximately 5.1%. (4)

Foreign holdings as estimated by the Treasury Department can be divided into official (governmental investment) and private sources. Figure 1 provides data on the current breakdown of estimated foreign holdings in U.S. federal debt. As the figure shows, 70.0% ($4,054.5 billion) of foreign holdings in U.S. federal debt are held by governmental sources. Private investors hold the other 30.0% ($1,747.5 billion).

Foreign Investment in U.S. Federal Debt: Why Is It an Issue of Concern?

From an economic perspective, foreign holdings of federal debt can be viewed in the broader context of U.S. saving, investment, and borrowing from abroad. For decades, the United States has saved less than it invests. Domestic saving is composed of saving by U.S. households, businesses, and governments; by accounting identity,5 when government runs budget deficits, it reduces domestic saving. By the same accounting identity, the shortfall between U.S. saving and physical investment is met by borrowing from abroad. When the deficit rises (i.e., public saving falls), U.S. investment must fall (referred to as the deficit "crowding out" investment) or borrowing from abroad must rise. If capital were fully mobile and unlimited, a larger deficit would be fully matched by greater borrowing from abroad, and there would be no crowding out of domestic investment. To be a net borrower from abroad, the United States must run a trade deficit (it must buy more imports from foreigners than it sells in exports to foreigners). Since 2000, U.S. borrowing from abroad and the trade deficit each have exceeded $300 billion each year. Borrowing from abroad peaked at $800 billion in 2006 and was $380 billion in 2013. Borrowing from abroad has occurred through foreign purchases of both U.S. government and U.S. private securities and other assets.

As a result of foreign purchases of Treasury securities, the federal government must send U.S. income abroad to foreigners. If the overall economy is larger as a result of federal borrowing (because the borrowing stimulated economic recovery (6) or was used to productively add to the U.S. capital stock, for example), then this outcome may leave the United States better off overall on net despite the transfer of income abroad. In other words, without foreign borrowing, U.S. income would be lower than it currently is net of foreign interest payments in this scenario. Since 2008, the output gap (the difference between actual gross domestic product [GDP] and potential GDP) has been large, making the potential for government budget deficits to stimulate the economy, putting idle capital and labor resources back to work, and increase total income greater than usual. Because the federal government has run deficits almost every year since the 1960s, the mainstream economic view is that these budget deficits have not led to a larger economy on net over the long run for two reasons. First, the government has run deficits in many years when the economy was near or at full employment, precluding the role of deficit stimulus. Second, federal spending on capital is small (7) relative to the overall budget.

It can be argued that the underlying long-term economic problem is the budget deficit itself, and not that the deficit is financed in part by foreigners. This can be illustrated by the counterfactual--assume the same budget deficits and U.S. saving rates without the possibility of foreign borrowing. In this case, budget deficits would have had a much greater "crowding out" effect on U.S. private investment, because only domestic saving would have been available to finance both. The pressures the deficit has placed on domestic saving would have pushed up interest rates throughout the economy and caused fewer private investment projects to be profitably undertaken. With fewer private investment projects, overall GDP would have been lower over time relative to what it would have been. The ability to borrow from foreigners avoids the deleterious effects on U.S. interest rates, private investment, and GDP, to an extent, even if it means that the returns on some of this investment now flow to foreigners instead of Americans. In other words, all else equal, foreign purchases of Treasury securities reduce the federal government's borrowing costs and reduce the costs the deficit imposes on the broader economy.

The burden of a foreign-financed deficit is borne by exporters and import-competing businesses, because borrowing from abroad necessitates a trade deficit. It is also borne by future generations, because future interest payments will require income transfers to foreigners. (8) To the extent that the deficit crowds out private investment rather than is financed through foreign borrowing, its burden is also borne by future generations through an otherwise smaller GDP. Because interest rates are at historically low levels, this burden has not grown significantly given the increase in borrowing. Were rates to rise, however, the burden would rise with some lag as new borrowing was made at the new higher rates and old borrowing matured and "rolled over" into new debt instruments with higher rates. (9)

Thus far, this report has considered the U.S. determinants of the market for U.S. Treasury securities, namely the government's budget deficit and the low U.S. saving rate, but not investor demand. Since interest rates fell to historic lows at a time when the supply of Treasury securities rose to historic heights, it follows that Treasury rates have been driven mainly by increased investor demand in recent years. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, investor demand for Treasury securities increased as investors undertook a "flight to safety." Treasury securities are perceived as a "safe haven" compared with other assets because of low perceived default risk and greater liquidity (i.e., the ability to sell quickly and at low cost) than virtually any alternative asset. For foreign investors, their behavior also implies that they view the risk from exchange rate changes of holding dollar-denominated assets to be lower than alternative assets denominated in other currencies. The reasons for this flight to safety are varied. For example, investors who had previously held more risky assets may now be more averse to risk and are seeking to minimize their loss exposure; investors may not currently see profitable private investment opportunities and are holding their wealth in Treasury securities as a "store of value" until those opportunities arise; or investors may now need Treasury securities to post as collateral for certain types of transactions (such as repurchase agreements) where previously other types of collateral could be used (or used at low cost). Flight-to-safety considerations are likely to subside if economic conditions continue to normalize, reducing the incentive for foreigners to buy Treasuries and raising their yields, all else equal. More normal economic conditions would also be expected to increase domestic investment demand, which would either push up domestic interest rates or lead to more foreign borrowing.

Finally, any discussion of foreign holdings of Treasuries would be incomplete without a discussion of the large holdings of foreign governments (referred to as "foreign official holdings" in Figure 1). (10) Foreign official holdings are motivated primarily by a desire for a liquid and stable store of value for foreign reserves; relatively few assets besides U.S. Treasury securities fill this role well. Depending on the country, foreign reserves may be accumulated as a result of a country's exchange rate policy, the desire to reinvest export proceeds, or the desire to build a "war chest" to fend off speculation against the country's exchange rate and securities. If motivated by any of these factors, rate of return may be a lesser consideration for foreign governments than it is for a private investor.

Since 1986, the United States has had a net foreign debt, and that debt grew to $4.6 trillion in 2013. The growth in net foreign debt is unsustainable in the long run, meaning that it cannot continuously grow faster than GDP, as it has generally done in recent decades. This net foreign debt has not imposed any burden on Americans thus far, however, because the United States has 9 10 9 10 consistently earned more income on its foreign assets than it has paid on its foreign debt, even though foreigners owned more U.S. assets than Americans owned foreign assets. Although it is likely that the United States would begin to make net debt payments to foreigners at some point if the net foreign debt were to continue to grow, it has not been a cause for concern yet. To date, the primary drawback is the risk that its unsustainable growth poses, albeit slight in the short run. Unsustainable growth in the net foreign debt could lead to foreigners at some point reevaluating and reducing their U.S. asset holdings. If this happened suddenly, it could lead to financial instability and a sharp decline in the value of the dollar. Alternatively, were the growth in the debt to decline gradually, it is unlikely to be destabilizing. (11)

A related concern is whether the major role of foreigners in Treasury markets adds more risk to financial stability. In other words, would financial stability be less at risk if the United States borrowed the same amount from foreigners, but foreigners invested exclusively in private securities instead of U.S. Treasury securities? Empirical evidence does not shed much light on this question, although the fact that some foreign crisis countries, such as Ireland, had accumulated mainly private, not government, debt might suggest that avoiding foreign ownership of government debt is not a panacea. Although countries like Greece with large foreign holdings of government debt have experienced financing problems, a large share of Italy's large government debt was held domestically, and it has nevertheless faced financing problems. The major role of foreign governments as holders of U.S. Treasuries could reduce financial instability if foreign governments are less motivated by rate of return concerns because that implies they would be less likely to sell their holdings if prices started to fall. Finally, foreign official holdings of U.S. debt may have foreign policy (as opposed to economic) implications that are beyond the scope of this report.

What policy options exist if policymakers decided foreign ownership of federal debt was undesirable? Absent strict capital controls, it is unlikely that foreigners could effectively be prevented from buying Treasury securities. After Treasury securities are initially auctioned by Treasury, they are traded on diffused and international secondary markets, and turnover is much higher on secondary markets than initial auctions. A foreign ban on secondary markets would be hard to enforce because secondary market activity could shift overseas, and even if it could be enforced, the U.S. saving-investment imbalance would likely shift foreign investment into other U.S. securities--perhaps even newly created financial products that allowed foreigners to indirectly invest in Treasury securities. Thus, a ban would not address the underlying economic factors driving foreign purchases. Economically, the only way government could reduce its reliance on foreign borrowing is by raising the U.S. saving rate, which could be done most directly by reducing budget deficits.


Previous versions of this report were coauthored by Justin Murray, information research specialist.

Author Contact Information

Marc Labonte

Specialist in Macroeconomic Policy, 7-0640

Jared C. Nagel

Information Research Specialist, 7-2468

(1) Figures on federal debt held by the public are available on the Department of Treasury Bureau of Public Debt website, "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It," at

(2) This report discusses foreign holdings of U.S. federal debt. Foreign investors also hold U.S. private securities. For data on foreign holdings of U.S. private securities, see "Foreign Portfolio Holdings of U.S. Securities," at, produced by the Treasury Department International Capital System.

(3) Data are excerpted from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors Flow of Funds data, Table L209. State, local, and foreign holdings include special issues of nonmarketable securities to municipal entities and foreign official accounts. They also include municipal, foreign official, and private holdings of marketable Treasury securities.

(4) Foreign holdings are estimated by the Treasury Department based on the location of the holdings, not the nationality of the holder. For certain countries, such as the Caribbean Banking Centers, many of the holdings are likely owned by third country citizens.

(5) The accounting identity is (household saving + business saving + government saving) + (borrowing from abroad lending to abroad) = (public investment + private investment).

(6) For a discussion of how government deficits can stimulate the economy, see CRS Report R41578, Unemployment: Issues in the 113th Congress, by Jane G. Gravelle.

(7) In 2013, non-defense capital investment was $46 billion and grants for capital investment were $78 billion. Source: Office of Management and Budget, FY 2015 Budget of the United States Government, Historical Tables, March 2014, Table 9.2.

(8) See CRS Report RL30520, The National Debt: Who Bears Its Burden?, by Marc Labonte. Income transfers to domestic debt holders have no net cost on the United States because they transfer income from one group of Americans (taxpayers) to another (bond holders).

(9) The average maturity length of the outstanding debt is about five years.

(10) U.S. Treasury, Major Foreign Holders of Treasury Securities, chartcenter/tic/Documents/mfh.txt.

(11) The "safe haven" role of Treasuries and "reserve currency" role of the dollar have led to counterintuitive outcomes--lower Treasury yields in response to U.S. events with systemic risk potential, such as the subprime mortgage crisis and the federal debt downgrade. These counterintuitive outcomes make it even harder to accurately predict when the debt might become unsustainable and perhaps make a destabilizing reversal of capital flows less likely compared with other countries.
Table 1. Estimated Ownership of U.S. Treasury Securities

(in billions of dollars)

End of         Total        Foreign        Foreign
Month         Publicly    Holdings of    Holdings as
             Held Debt      Publicly      a Shore of
                                          Held Debt

Dec. 2013    $12,328.3      $5,803.8        47.1%
Dec. 2012    $11,568.9      $5,573.8        48.2%
Dec. 2011    $10,428.3      $5,006.9        48.0%
Dec. 2010     $9,361.5      $4,458.8        47.6%
Dec. 2009     $7,781.9      $3,670.6        47.2%
Dec. 2008     $6,338.2      $3,253.0        51.3%

Source: Federal Reserve Board of Governors Flow of Funds,
Table L.209 T reasury Securities, June 5, 2014 available at

Table 2. The Top 10 Foreign Holders of Federal Debt,
by Country

(data current as of June 6, 2014)

Country                          As of December 2013

                                  Amount Held         Percentage
                                  ($ billions)          of all
                                                      holdings in
                                                     federal debt

Mainland China                      $1,270.0             21.9%
Japan                               $1,182.5             20.4%
Caribbean Banking Centers            $295.3              5.1%
Belgium                              $256.8              4.4%
Brazil                               $245.4              4.2%
Oil Exporters                        $238.3              4.1%
Taiwan                               $182.2              3.1%
Switzerland                          $176.7              3.1%
United Kingdom                       $163.7              2.8%
Hong Kong                            $158.8              2.7%
Total Top 10 Countries of           $4,169.7             71.9%
  Foreign Investors in
  Federal Debt
Total All Foreign Investment         $5,802              100%
  in Federal Debt

Country                          As of December 2009

                                  Amount Held         Percentage
                                  ($ billions)          of all
                                                      holdings in
                                                     federal debt

Mainland China                      $ 894.8              24.3%
Japan                               $ 765.7              20.8%
Oil Exporters                       $ 201.1              5.5%
United Kingdom                      $ 180.3              4.9%
Brazil                              $ 169.2              4.0%
Hong Kong                           $ 148.7              4.0%
Russia                              $ 141.8              3.9%
Caribbean Banking Centers           $ 128.2              3.5%
Taiwan                              $ 116.5              3.2%
Switzerland                          $ 89.7              2.4%
Total Top 10 Countries of           $2,836.0             77.0%
  Foreign Investors in
  Federal Debt
Total All Foreign Investment        $3685.1              100%
  in Federal Debt

Source: Treasury Department International Capital System
(TIC), at

Notes: Data, including estimated foreign holders of federal
debt historically by month, in these Treasury Department
tables are periodically adjusted.Current monthly estimates
are available at

Figure 1. Breakdown of Official vs. Private Foreign Holdings of U.S.
Federal Debt

Debt Attributed           30.0%
to Private
$1,747.5 billion

Debt Held by              70.0%
Official Foreign
$4,054.5 billion

Source: Treasury Department International Capital System,

Notes: Data in the chart represent estimated December 2013 figures and
are current as of June 5, 2014. Figures are in billions of dollars.
Data in the Treasury Department tables are periodically adjusted. For
the most current estimates, click on the URL address listed above.
The estimated combined total of all foreign holdings for December 2013
was $5802 billion. Data consist of reported December 2013 figures from
the TIC table listed above. The breakdown between estimated official
and private holdings is not publicly available on a country-by-country
basis. Approximate percentages calculated by CRS.

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Author:Labonte, Marc; Nagel, Jared C.
Publication:Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and Issue Briefs
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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