U.S. Government Debt

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On March 30, 2011, I went looking for data on total U.S. federal government indebtedness.  In the not-too-distant past you could find this information pretty easily on the U.S. Treasury Department website.  No more.  It took me the better part of two hours to find and assemble the data I was looking for.  And the editing basically involved converting a text table (which was not formatted as a table even though it was displayed on a website) into an Excel workbook.  Tedious, boring, and requires a pretty good attention to detail.  You think maybe Treasury has something to hide?

This all stems from an incident in one of my classes yesterday.  I was looking around the Treasury site searching for debt information.  One of my students went to TreasuryDirect.gov and reported the debt as $14 trillion.  “That can’t be,” I exclaimed.  “That’s about 100 percent of GDP.”

Well, there’s debt and then there’s debt.  It turns out the total U.S. government debt is, indeed, $13.561 trillion (as of Sept. 30, 2010, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year).  But $4.539 trillion is intragovernment debt — government debt issued by one agency but owned by another branch of government.  It seems to me that intragovernment debt should not be counted as part of the government’s net indebtedness.  So I’ve pulled together data from several sources.  (See below for details.)

Total Debt

As of September 30, 2010, total U.S. federal government debt was $13,561,623,030,891.70.  That’s a pretty big number.  In 2010, U.S. gross domestic product was $14,660,400,000,000.  Total debt was 92.51% of GDP.  The chart below shows how total debt has grown since 1998.

U.S. Total Government Debt

U.S. Total Government Debt

Debt Held By the Public

By contrast, debt held by the public (excluding intragovernment holdings) at the end of 2010 was $9,022,808,423,453.08.  Well, that’s comforting — “only” 61.55% of GDP.  The chart below shows the growth of privately-held government debt.

U.S. Government Debt Held By Public

U.S. Government Debt Held By Public

Boring Stuff: Data Sources and Formats

End of year debt, 2000 – 2010: http://treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt_histo5.htm

End of year debt, 1950 – 1999: http://treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt_histo4.htm

Both are text files only.  Also this is total debt (privately held plus intragovernment).  The only source I could find that separated privately held from intragovernment holdings was daily data from http://treasurydirect.gov/NP/NPGateway .  The screen capture below shows part of the data.  Considerable editing was necessary to compile the annual end-of-fiscal-year data I used.

Format of Daily U.S. Government Debt Table

Format of Daily U.S. Government Debt Table




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About Tony Lima

Retired after teaching economics at California State Univ., East Bay (Hayward, CA). Ph.D., economics, Stanford. Also taught MBA finance at the California University of Management and Technology. Occasionally take on a consulting project if it's interesting. Other interests include wine and technology.