The Foreign Countries Holding the Most U.S. Debt
In the international finance system, U.S. debt can be bought and held by virtually anyone.
In fact, if you hold a U.S. Treasury bond or a T-Bill in your portfolio right now, you are already a creditor to the United States government.
And as you can see in today’s chart from HowMuch.net, foreign countries like China and Japan can also accumulate large positions in U.S. Treasurys, making them significant players in the overall United States debt pie.
U.S. Debt: The Big Picture
The United States federal debt currently sits at $22 trillion, and it’s held by a range of domestic and foreign investors.
|Entity||Debt Holdings||Share of Total|
|U.S. Government and Federal Reserve||$8.1 trillion||36.8%|
|Foreign and international||$6.3 trillion||28.5%|
|Mutual funds||$2.06 trillion||9.4%|
|Pension funds||$0.92 trillion||4.2%|
|State and local governments||$0.69 trillion||3.1%|
|Other investors||$3.18 trillion||14.5%|
As you can see, about $8.1 trillion of debt is held by departments of the U.S. government or the Federal Reserve. This number would include securities sitting in retirement accounts of federal employees, social security trust funds, or any of the Treasurys sitting on the Fed’s balance sheet.
Next, another $7.6 trillion of debt is held by domestic investors. These are marketable securities held by banks, mutual funds, pension funds, insurance companies, and other investors.
While debt held domestically is mostly uninteresting, a bigger question mark is the $6.3 trillion of debt that is owned by foreign countries. After all, couldn’t a country like China “weaponize” its large holdings of Treasury securities as a form of retaliation in the ongoing trade war?
Foreign Owners of the Debt
Internationally, the biggest owners of debt include China and Japan, each with over $1 trillion.
|Rank||Country||U.S. Debt Holdings||Percentage of Foreign U.S. Debt Held (%)|
|#1||🇨🇳 China||$1.11 trillion||17.3%|
|#2||🇯🇵 Japan||$1.06 trillion||16.5%|
|#3||🇧🇷 Brazil||$307 billion||4.8%|
|#4||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$301 billion||4.7%|
|#5||🇮🇪 Ireland||$270 billion||4.2%|
|#6||🇨🇭 Switzerland||$227 billion||3.5%|
|#7||🇱🇺 Luxembourg||$224 billion||3.5%|
|#8||🇰🇾 Cayman Islands||$217 billion||3.4%|
|#9||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$206 billion||3.2%|
|#10||🇧🇪 Belgium||$180 billion||2.8%|
|#11||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||$177 billion||2.8%|
|#12||🇹🇼 Taiwan||$171 billion||2.7%|
Why does China hold so much of the foreign-owned U.S. debt?
China has accumulated Treasury securities over decades, as part of its strategy to keep its domestic currency from strengthening. Interestingly, the export-heavy nation has reduced its swath of Treasurys in recent months, selling off close to $200 billion of them.
Although China has $1.11 trillion of Treasurys left in reserve, the general consensus is that dumping all of them at once would destabilize the global financial system, having an equally negative effect on China as well.
That said, with foreign nations holding U.S. debt, such a risk will always exist.
While it’s not surprising to see countries like China, Japan, or Brazil on the list of top foreign debt holders, what are places like the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, or Ireland doing on the list?
Two simple facts help to explain these anomalies.
Firstly, despite having a population of just 60,000 people, the Cayman Islands is a hedge fund capital with over 10,000 funds domiciled there. Luxembourg makes the list for similar reasons, given that it is the European-based tax shelter equivalent.
Ireland, on the other hand, is the overseas headquarters for many U.S.-based tech giants like Facebook or Alphabet. Apparently, these corporations like to hold their overseas profits in highly-liquid Treasurys, rather than paying a repatriation tax to bring the cash back to American soil.
How China Overtook the U.S. as the World’s Major Trading Partner
China has become the world’s major trading partner – and now, 128 of 190 countries trade more with China than they do with the United States.
How China Overtook the U.S. As the World’s Trade Partner
In 2018, trade accounted for 59% of global GDP, up nearly 1.5 times since 1980.
Over this timeframe, international trade has transformed significantly—not just in terms of volume and composition, but also in terms of the countries that the rest of the world leans on for their most important trade relationships.
Now, a critical shift is occurring in the landscape, and it may surprise you to learn that China has already usurped the U.S. as the world’s most dominant trading partner.
Trading Places: A Global Shift
Today’s animation comes from the Lowy Institute, and it pulls data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) database on bilateral trade flows, to determine whether the U.S. or China is a bigger trading partner for each country from 1980 to 2018.
The results are stark: before 2000, the U.S. was at the helm of global trade, as over 80% of countries traded with the U.S. more than they did with China. By 2018, that number had dropped sharply to just 30%, as China swiftly took top position in 128 of 190 countries.
The researchers pinpoint China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization as a major turning point in China’s international trade relationships. The dramatic shift that followed is clearly demonstrated in the visualization above—between 2005 and 2010, a number of countries tipped towards Chinese influence, especially in Africa and Asia.
Over time, China’s dominance has grown dramatically. It’s no wonder then, that China and the U.S. have a contentious trade relationship themselves, as both nations battle it out for first place.
A Tale of Two Economies
The United States and China are competitors in many ways, but to be successful they must rely on each other for mutually beneficial trade. However, it’s also the major issue on which they are struggling to reach a common ground.
The U.S. has been vocal about negotiating more balanced trade agreements with China. In fact, a mid-2018 poll shows that 62% of Americans consider their trade relationship with China to be unfair.
Since 2018, both parties have faced a fraught relationship, imposing major tariffs on consumer and industrial goods—and retaliations are reaching greater and greater heights:
While a delicate truce has been reached at the moment, the trade war has caused a significant drag on global growth, and the World Bank estimates it will continue to have an effect into 2021.
At the same time, China’s sphere of influence continues to grow.
One Belt, One Road, One Trade Direction?
China seems to have a finger in every pie. The nation is financing a flurry of megaprojects across Asia and Africa—but one broader initiative stands above the rest.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) Initiative, planned for a 2049 completion, is advancing at a furious pace. In 2019 alone, Chinese companies signed contracts worth up to $128 billion to start Chinese large-scale infrastructure projects in various countries.
While building new highways and ports abroad is beneficial for Chinese financiers, OBOR is also about creating new markets and trade routes for Chinese goods in Asia. Recent research found that the OBOR program’s infrastructure expansion and logistics performance improvements led to positive effects on China’s exports.
Nevertheless, it’s clear the new infrastructure network is already transforming global trade, possibly cementing China’s position as the world’s major trading partner for years to come.
Visualizing the Expanse of the ETF Universe
The global ETF universe has grown to be worth $5.75 trillion — here’s how the assets break down by type, sector, and investment focus.
Visualizing the Expanse of the ETF Universe
View the high resolution version of this infographic by clicking here.
Under the right circumstances, an innovation can scale and flourish.
Within the financial realm, there is perhaps no better example of this than the introduction of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), a new financial technology that emerged out of the index investing phenomenon of the early 1990s.
Since the establishment of the first U.S. ETF in 1993, the financial instrument has gained broad traction — and today, the ETF universe has an astonishing $5.75 trillion in assets under management (AUM), covering almost every niche imaginable.
Navigating the ETF Universe
Today’s data visualization comes to us from iShares by BlackRock, and it visualizes the wide scope of assets covered by the ETF universe.
To start, let’s look at a macro breakdown of the “galaxies” that can be found in the universe:
|Global ETFs (AUM, $USD)||Share of Global Total|
|All ETFs||$5.75 trillion||100.00%|
|Money market||$0.04 trillion||0.6%|
As you can see, equities are by far the largest galaxy in the ETF universe, making up 76.4% of all assets. These clusters likely comprise the ETFs you are most familiar with — for example, funds that track the S&P 500 index or foreign markets.
That said, it’s worth noting that the fastest expanding galaxy is bond ETFs, tracking indices related to the debt issued by governments and corporations. The first bond ETFs were introduced in 2002, and since then the category has grown into a market that exceeds $1 trillion in AUM. Bond ETFs are expected to surpass the $2 trillion mark by 2024.
Everything Under the Sun
While the sheer scale of the ETF universe is captivating, it’s the variety that shows you how ubiquitous the instrument has become.
Today, there are over 8,000 ETFs globally, covering nearly every asset class imaginable. Here are some of the lesser-known and more peculiar corners in the ETF universe:
Thematic ETFs: Gaining popularity in recent years, thematic ETFs are built around long-term trends such as climate change or rapid urbanization. By having more tangible focus points, these funds can also appeal to younger generations of investors.
Contrarian ETFs: In a healthy market, there can be a variety of different positions being taken by investors. Contrarian ETFs help to make this possible, allowing investors to bet against the “herd”.
Factor-based ETFs: This approach uses a rules-based system for selecting investments in the fund portfolio, based on factors typically associated with higher returns such as value, small-caps, momentum, low volatility, quality, or yield.
Global Macro ETFs: Some ETFs are designed to mimic strategies used by hedge fund managers. One example of such a strategy is global macro, which aims to analyze the macroeconomic environment, while taking corresponding long and short positions in various equity, fixed income, currency, commodities, and futures markets.
Commodity ETFs: There are ETFs that track gold or oil, sometimes even storing physical inventories. Interestingly, however, there are commodity ETFs for even more obscure metals and agricultural products, such as zinc, lean hogs, tin, or cocoa beans.
Whether your investments track popular market indices or you are more surgical about your portfolio exposure, the ETF universe is impressively vast — and it’s projected to keep expanding in size and diversity for years to come.
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