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US debt: how big is it and who owns it?

how big is us deficit

US federal debt is still a record high. This week it passed a milestone: the fourth straight year the deficit has passed the $1tn mark. As of today, the national debt stands at $16,066,241,407,385.80 (just over $16 trillion).

It's an issue that's sure to come up in the first presidential debate this Wednesday.

So, how does the US borrow money? Treasury bonds are how the US - and all governments for that matter - borrow hard cash: they issue government securities, which other countries and institutions buy. So, the US national debt is owned mostly in the US - but the $5.4tn foreign-owned debt is owned predominantly by Asian economies.

Under President Obama's first term, that figure has gone up from $3tn, a rise of 74.1%. Under George W Bush, it went up too - by 85% over the whole two terms - and 64% in his second term alone.

The US Treasury releases the figures on this every quarter - we have made them more useable. So, who has the most?

The key findings are:

• As of July this year, US Treasury bonds owned overseas accounted for $5.4tn

of the national debt - up 14.6% on last year. That's not everything - the US now owes over $16tn.

• China is the biggest owner of US Treasury bonds - over $1.14tn. But it's down 12.6% on last year, backing up reports that China is selling off its US treasury bonds

• Bonds bought in the UK (mainly private investors and pension funds) make it the eighth country on the list at $140.9bn - up 13.5% on January 2009 when Obama took over

It reflects a US national debt which has grown starkly, from $7.8tn in 2005 to busting through the US debt ceiling of $14.294tn last year - according to these day by day figures.

Bad as that number is, using the bald total figure is not as representative as using a measure which compares the debt to the size of the economy. That is, debt as a percentage of gross domestic product - GDP. And, looking at that figure up to the end of 2010 (using OECD data), Britain is actually worse off than the US.

The full data is below. What can you do with it?

Category: Bank

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