Tag Archives: US government debt

Does The US Have A Lot Of Government Debt?

By Simon Johnson

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

To think about the current size of our debt, start at the beginning of the American Republic.  (For a very short history of US government debt, listen to my conversation with NPR’s Guy Raz from this weekend; we cover more than 200 years in about 3 minutes; if you want more detail, look up the annual debt numbers for yourself at Treasury Direct). Continue reading

Should We Fear China?

By Simon Johnson.  This post is taken from testimony submitted to U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission hearing on “US Debt to China: Implications and Repercussions” – Panel I: China’s Lending Activities and the US Debt, Thursday, February 25, 2010.  (Caution: this is a long post, around 1500 words; a summary of some key points will appear on the NYT’s Economix this morning.)

China is the largest holder of official foreign currency reserves in the world, currently estimated to be worth around $2.4 trillion – an increase of nearly $500 billion in the course of 2009 (on the back of a current account surplus of just under $300 billion, i.e., 5.8 percent of China’s GDP, and a capital account surplus of around $100 billion).  These reserves are accumulated through arguably the largest ever sustained intervention in a foreign exchange market – i.e., through The People’s Bank of China buying dollars and selling renminbi, and thus keeping the renminbi-dollar exchange rate more depreciated than it would be otherwise. 

China is also currently the second largest holder of US Treasury Securities – at the end of December 2009, it held $755.4 billion – just behind Japan (which had $768.8 billion).

The US Treasury data almost certainly understate Chinese holdings of our government debt because they do not reveal the ultimate country of ownership when instruments are held through an intermediary in another jurisdiction.

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