The US government owes trillions of dollars in debt to foreign entities, including governments, central banks, companies, and individual investors.
This debt includes US Treasury bonds and other securities, which are popular as they are considered safe investments.
Many nations buy US Treasury securities (also called “Treasuries”) because they are considered one of the safest investment options available.
As of January 2023, foreign countries own $7.4 trillion in Treasuries — or roughly 24% of total US debt. Over the past two decades, central banks and other government entities have owned 50-75% of foreign-owned debt over the past two decades. Independent investors and companies held the rest.
In 2000, $1.7 trillion or 18% of total debt was foreign-owned. This grew to $7.7 trillion in 2014, or 34% — the highest percentage in US history.
Early in the pandemic, foreign ownership of US debt fell as countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Brazil sold their shares of US Treasuries for short-term capital. Though foreign countries resumed buying foreign debt by the end of 2020, total foreign-owned debt has fallen since.
Over the past 20 years, Japan and China have owned more US Treasuries than any other foreign nation.
Between 2000 and 2022, Japan grew from owning $534 billion to just over $1 trillion, while China’s ownership grew from $101 billion to $855 billion.
Japan and China held almost 50% of all foreign-owned US debt between 2004 and 2006. However, this has declined over time, and as of 2022 they controlled approximately 25% of foreign-owned debt.
As of January 2023, the five countries owning the most US debt are Japan ($1.1 trillion), China ($859 billion), the United Kingdom ($668 billion), Belgium ($331 billion), and Luxembourg ($318 billion).
Investors from Russia, China, and Indonesia had sharp drops in US Treasuries over the last several years due to sanctions and short-term capital needs, among other reasons.
Today, most foreign investors own more US debt than they did a decade ago.
One of the main reasons foreign investors buy US Treasury securities is they are one of the most secure assets in the world. The US government is committed to repaying debts in a timely manner, which can be especially attractive in times of economic uncertainty. In fact, owning US dollars in the form of Treasuries is a part of many foreign monetary policies.
Holding a significant amount of US dollars can be advantageous because it is a widely accepted currency in international trade and transactions. Owning US Treasury securities can provide further benefits such as portfolio diversification, as well as a higher rate of return compared to other government bonds available worldwide
For a full picture of the US economy, read more about the nation’s rising national debt and the strength of the dollar. Get the data directly in your inbox by signing up for our newsletter.
Keep up with the latest data and most popular content.