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posted on 07 February 2016

How Much Debt Does The U.S. Government Owe?

from the Chicago Fed

-- this post authored by Rebecca A. Friedman and Mark L. J. Wright

All measures agree that the U.S. government has accumulated liabilities at a rate faster than the rate of economic growth over the past decade and a half, with the increase being especially notable after the financial crisis of 2008.

The U.S. government is often referred to as the world's biggest debtor. But how much debt does it owe? A visit to the website of the U.S. Department of the Treasury yields a bewildering array of different measures of U.S. federal government debt. Although the gross debt of the U.S. federal government is approaching $18 trillion, the debt that is subject to the debt limit is a few billion dollars smaller, while debt in the hands of the public is less than $13 trillion.

How do these measures differ from one another? Is one of them more useful than the others? Or are there better measures available of the financial strength of the U.S. government? In this Chicago Fed Letter, we provide a guide to the range of data available on U.S. government debt, explaining each measure's strengths and weaknesses. We also explore some alternative measures that examine a government's entire fiscal position, including some liabilities that do not appear on the government's balance sheet.

Equipped with an understanding of these different measures, we show that the U.S. federal government has been relatively more indebted in the past than it is today, although current debt levels are remarkably high, and that the government sector as a whole has more liabilities, relative to the size of the economy, than most other advanced economies.

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