Looking Back at 150 Years of U.S. Debt
The total U.S. national debt reached an all-time high of $28 trillion* in March 2021, the largest amount ever recorded.
Recent increases to the debt have been fueled by massive fiscal stimulus bills like the CARES Act ($2.2 trillion in March 2020), the Consolidated Appropriations Act ($2.3 trillion in December 2020), and most recently, the American Rescue Plan ($1.9 trillion in March 2021).
To see how America’s debt has gotten to its current point, we’ve created an interactive timeline using data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It’s crucial to note that the data set uses U.S. national debt held by the public, which excludes intergovernmental holdings.
*Editor’s note: This top level figure includes intragovernmental holdings, or the roughly $6 trillion of debt owed within the government to itself.
What Influences U.S. Debt?
It’s worth pointing out that the national debt hasn’t always been this large.
Looking back 150 years, we can see that its size relative to GDP has fluctuated greatly, hitting multiple peaks and troughs. These movements generally correspond with events such as wars and recessions.
|Decade||Gross debt at start |
|Avg. Debt Held By Public|
(% of GDP)
|1910||-||10.0%||World War I|
|1920||-||22.9%||The Great Depression|
|1930||$16||36.4%||President Roosevelt's New Deal|
|1940||$40||75.1%||World War II|
|1970||$371||26.1%||Stagflation (inflation + high unemployment)|
|1980||$908||33.7%||President Reagan's tax cuts|
|2000||$5,674||36.6%||9/11 attacks & Global Financial Crisis|
|2010||$13,562||72.4%||Debt ceiling is raised by Congress|
Source: CBO, The Balance
To gain further insight into the history of the U.S. national debt, let’s review some key economic events in America’s history.
The Great Depression
After its WWI victory, the U.S. enjoyed a period of post-war prosperity commonly referred to as the Roaring Twenties.
This led to the creation of a stock market bubble which would eventually burst in 1929, causing massive damage to the U.S. economy. The country’s GDP was cut in half (partially due to deflation), while the unemployment rate rose to 25%.
Government revenues dipped as a result, pushing debt held by the public as a % of GDP from its low of 15% in 1929, to a high of 44% in 1934.
World War II
WWII quickly brought the U.S. back to full employment, but it was an incredibly expensive endeavor. The total cost of the war is estimated to be over $4 trillion in today’s dollars.
To finance its efforts, the U.S. relied heavily on war bonds, a type of bond that is marketed to citizens during armed conflicts. These bonds were sold in various denominations ranging from $25-$10,000 and had a 2.9% interest rate compounded semiannually.
Over 85 million Americans purchased these bonds, helping the U.S. government to raise $186 billion (not adjusted for inflation). This pushed debt above 100% of GDP for the first time ever, but was also enough to cover 63% of the war’s total cost.
The Postwar Period
Following World War II, the U.S. experienced robust economic growth.
Despite involvement in the Korea and Vietnam wars, debt-to-GDP declined to a low of 23% in 1974—largely because these wars were financed by raising taxes rather than borrowing.
The economy eventually slowed in the early 1980s, prompting President Reagan to slash taxes on corporations and high earning individuals. Income taxes on the top bracket, for example, fell from 70% to 50%.
2008 Global Financial Crisis
The Global Financial Crisis served as a precursor for today’s debt landscape.
Interest rates were reduced to near-zero levels to speed up the economic recovery, enabling the government to borrow with relative ease. Rates remained at these suppressed levels from 2008 to 2015, and debt-to-GDP grew from 39% to 73%.
It’s important to note that even before 2008, the U.S. government had been consistently running annual budget deficits. This means that the government spends more than it earns each year through taxes.
The National Debt Today
The COVID-19 pandemic damaged many areas of the global economy, forcing governments to drastically increase their spending. At the same time, many central banks once again reduced interest rates to zero.
This has resulted in a growing snowball of government debt that shows little signs of shrinking, even though the worst of the pandemic is already behind us.
In the U.S., federal debt has reached or surpassed WWII levels. When excluding intragovernmental holdings, it now sits at 104% of GDP—and including those holdings, it sits at 128% of GDP. But while the debt is expected to grow even further, the cost of servicing this debt has actually decreased in recent years.
This is because existing government bonds, which were originally issued at higher rates, are now maturing and being refinanced to take advantage of today’s lower borrowing costs.
The key takeaway from this is that the U.S. national debt will remain manageable for the foreseeable future. Longer term, however, interest expenses are expected to grow significantly—especially if interest rates begin to rise again.
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
Companies Gone Public in 2021: Visualizing IPO Valuations
Tracking the companies that have gone public in 2021, their valuation, and how they did it.
Companies Gone Public in 2021: Visualizing Valuations
Despite its many tumultuous turns, last year was a productive year for global markets, and companies going public in 2021 benefited.
From much-hyped tech initial public offerings (IPOs) to food and healthcare services, many companies with already large followings have gone public this year. Some were supposed to go public in 2020 but got delayed due to the pandemic, and others saw the opportunity to take advantage of a strong current market.
This graphic measures 68 companies that have gone public in 2021 — including IPOs, SPACs, and Direct Listings—as well as their subsequent valuations after listing.
Who’s Gone Public in 2021?
Historically, companies that wanted to go public employed one main method above others: the initial public offering (IPO).
But companies going public today readily choose from one of three different options, depending on market situations, associated costs, and shareholder preference:
- Initial Public Offering (IPO): A private company creates new shares which are underwritten by a financial organization and sold to the public.
- Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC): A separate company with no operations is created strictly to raise capital to acquire the company going public. SPACs are the fastest method of going public, and have become popular in recent years.
- Direct Listing: A private company enters a market with only existing, outstanding shares being traded and no new shares created. The cost is lower than that of an IPO, since no fees need to be paid for underwriting.
The majority of companies going public in 2021 chose the IPO route, but some of the biggest valuations resulted from direct listings.
|Listing Date||Company||Valuation ($B)||Listing Type|
|21-Jan-21||Hims and Hers Health||$1.6||SPAC|
|05-May-21||The Honest Company||$1.4||IPO|
|07-May-21||Blade Air Mobility||$0.83||SPAC|
|29-Sep-21||Warby Parker||$6.0||Direct Listing|
|27-Oct-21||Rent the Runway||$1.7||IPO|
Though there are many well-known names in the list, one of the biggest through lines continues to be the importance of tech.
A majority of 2021’s newly public companies have been in tech, including multiple mobile apps, websites, and online services. The two biggest IPOs so far were South Korea’s Coupang, an online marketplace valued at $60 billion after going public, and China’s ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing, the year’s largest post-IPO valuation at $73 billion.
And there were many apps and services going public through other means as well. Gaming company Roblox went public through a direct listing, earning a valuation of $30 billion, and cryptocurrency platform Coinbase has earned the year’s largest valuation so far, with an $86 billion valuation following its direct listing.
Big Companies Going Public in 2022
As with every year, some of the biggest companies going public were lined up for the later half.
Tech will continue to be the talk of the markets. Payment processing firm Stripe was setting up to be the year’s biggest IPO with an estimated valuation of $95 billion, but got delayed. Likewise, online grocery delivery platform InstaCart, which saw a big upswing in traction due to the pandemic, has been looking to go public at a valuation of at least $39 billion.
Of course, it’s common that potential public listings and offerings fall through. Whether they get delayed due to weak market conditions or cancelled at the last minute, anything can happen when it comes to public markets.
This post has been updated as of January 1, 2022.
Visualizing The World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds
To date, only two countries have sovereign wealth funds worth over $1 trillion. Learn more about them in this infographic.
Visualized: The World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Funds
Did you know that some of the world’s largest investment funds are owned by national governments?
Known as sovereign wealth funds (SWF), these vehicles are often established with seed money that is generated by government-owned industries. If managed responsibly and given a long enough timeframe, an SWF can accumulate an enormous amount of assets.
In this infographic, we’ve detailed the world’s 10 largest SWFs, along with the largest mutual fund and ETF for context.
The Big Picture
Data collected from SWFI in October 2021 ranks Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (also known as the Norwegian Oil Fund) as the world’s largest SWF.
The world’s 10 largest sovereign wealth funds (with fund size benchmarks) are listed below:
|Country||Fund Name||Fund Type||Assets Under Management (AUM)|
|🇳🇴 Norway||Government Pension Fund Global||SWF||$1.3 trillion|
|🇺🇸 U.S.||Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund||Mutual fund||$1.3 trillion|
|🇨🇳 China||China Investment Corporation||SWF||$1.2 trillion|
|🇰🇼 Kuwait||Kuwait Investment Authority||SWF||$693 billion|
|🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||Abu Dhabi Investment Authority||SWF||$649 billion|
|🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR||Hong Kong Monetary Authority Investment Portfolio||SWF||$581 billion|
|🇸🇬 Singapore||Government of Singapore Investment Corporation||SWF||$545 billion|
|🇸🇬 Singapore||Temasek||SWF||$484 billion|
|🇨🇳 China||National Council for Social Security Fund||SWF||$447 billion|
|🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia||SWF||$430 billion|
|🇺🇸 U.S.||State Street SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust||ETF||$391 billion|
|🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||Investment Corporation of Dubai||SWF||$302 billion|
SWF AUM gathered on 10/08/2021. VTSAX and SPY AUM as of 09/30/2021.
So far, just two SWFs have surpassed the $1 trillion milestone. To put this in perspective, consider that the world’s largest mutual fund, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX), is a similar size, investing in U.S. large-, mid-, and small-cap equities.
The Trillion Dollar Club
The world’s two largest sovereign wealth funds have a combined $2.5 trillion in assets. Here’s a closer look at their underlying portfolios.
1. Government Pension Fund Global – $1.3 Trillion (Norway)
Norway’s SWF was established after the country discovered oil in the North Sea. The fund invests the revenue coming from this sector to safeguard the future of the national economy. Here’s a breakdown of its investments.
|Asset Class||% of Total Assets||Country Diversification||Number of Securities|
|Public Equities||72.8%||69 countries||9,123 companies|
|Fixed income||24.7%||45 countries||1,245 bonds|
|Real estate||2.5%||14 countries||867 properties|
As of 12/31/2020
Real estate may be a small part of the portfolio, but it’s an important component for diversification (real estate is less correlated to the stock market) and generating income. Here are some U.S. office towers that the fund has an ownership stake in.
|601 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY||45.0%|
|475 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY||49.9%|
|33 Arch Street, Boston, MA||49.9%|
|100 First Street, San Francisco, CA||44.0%|
As of 12/31/2020
Overall, the fund has investments in 462 properties in the U.S. for a total value of $14.9 billion.
2. China Investment Corporation (CIC) – $1.2 Trillion (China)
The CIC is the largest of several Chinese SWFs, and was established to diversify the country’s foreign exchange holdings.
Compared to the Norwegian fund, the CIC invests in a greater variety of alternatives. This includes real estate, of course, but also private equity, private credit, and hedge funds.
|Asset Class||% of Total Assets|
As of 12/31/2020
A primary focus of the CIC has been to increase its exposure to American infrastructure and manufacturing. By the end of 2020, 57% of the fund was invested in the United States.
“According to our estimate, the United States needs at least $8 trillion in infrastructure investments. There’s not sufficient capital from the U.S. government or private sector. It has to rely on foreign investments.”
– Ding Xuedong, Chairman, China Investment Corporation
This has drawn suspicion from U.S. regulators given the geopolitical tensions between the two countries. For further reading on the topic, consider this 2017 paper by the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Preparing for a Future Without Oil
Many of the countries associated with these SWFs are known for their robust fossil fuel industries. This includes Middle Eastern nations like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Oil has been an incredible source of wealth for these countries, but it’s unlikely to last forever. Some analysts believe that we could even see peak oil demand before 2030—though this doesn’t mean that oil will stop being an important resource.
Regardless, oil-producing countries are looking to hedge their reliance on fossil fuels. Their SWFs play an important role by taking oil revenue and investing it to generate returns and/or bolster other sectors of the economy.
An example of this is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which supports the country’s Vision 2030 framework by investing in clean energy and other promising sectors.
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