Mapped: Foreign Direct Investment by Country
Map: Foreign Direct Investment by Country
For many of the world’s companies, the best investment opportunities aren’t always located within their own domestic borders.
Whether it is building a new Starbucks store in Abu Dhabi or Tata Motors acquiring Land Rover, foreign direct investment (FDI) is a measure of how much business capital is flowing in and out of countries.
In 2017, total foreign direct investment was $1.43 trillion globally, and today’s map from HowMuch.net breaks down where this money went by country.
The Countries Getting FDI
The following data comes from a recent report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
At a high level, here is where foreign direct investment flows went, based on the type of economy:
|FDI Inflows||FDI Outflows|
|Developed economies||$712.4 billion||$1,009.2 billion|
|Developing economies||$670.7 billion||$380.8 billion|
Most money flows out of wealthier countries, and it flows into both developed and developing nations.
Foreign direct investment is often considered a win-win that brings new capital and jobs to developing nations, while simultaneously creating opportunities for corporations and investors.
Now, let’s look at the top 15 countries and jurisdictions receiving FDI inflows:
|#1||United States||$275.4 billion|
|#3||Hong Kong (SAR)||$104.3 billion|
|#11||British Virgin Islands||$38.4 billion|
|#12||Cayman Islands||$37.4 billion|
At the top of the list are the United States ($275.4 billion) as well as China and Hong Kong ($240.6 billion), which is not surprising to see.
Further down the list, things become more interesting. Tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands rank higher than developed economies like Canada, United Kingdom, and Japan, which don’t even come close to cracking the top 15.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s ranking in fourth place is also quite impressive with $62.7 billion of foreign direct investment inflows in 2017 – this is not a one-time thing either, since the economy had $58 billion of inflows in 2016 as well.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt?
Foreign investors hold $7.3 trillion of the national U.S. debt. These holdings declined 6% in 2022 amid a strong U.S. dollar and rising rates.
Which Countries Hold the Most U.S. Debt in 2022?
Today, America owes foreign investors of its national debt $7.3 trillion.
These are in the form of Treasury securities, some of the most liquid assets worldwide. Central banks use them for foreign exchange reserves and private investors flock to them during flights to safety thanks to their perceived low default risk.
Beyond these reasons, foreign investors may buy Treasuries as a store of value. They are often used as collateral during certain international trade transactions, or countries can use them to help manage exchange rate policy. For example, countries may buy Treasuries to protect their currency’s exchange rate from speculation.
In the above graphic, we show the foreign holders of the U.S. national debt using data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Top Foreign Holders of U.S. Debt
With $1.1 trillion in Treasury holdings, Japan is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Japan surpassed China as the top holder in 2019 as China shed over $250 billion, or 30% of its holdings in four years.
This bond offloading by China is the one way the country can manage the yuan’s exchange rate. This is because if it sells dollars, it can buy the yuan when the currency falls. At the same time, China doesn’t solely use the dollar to manage its currency—it now uses a basket of currencies.
Here are the countries that hold the most U.S. debt:
|Rank||Country||U.S. Treasury Holdings||Share of Total|
|3||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||$655B||8.9%|
|6||🇰🇾 Cayman Islands||$284B||3.9%|
|11||🇭🇰 Hong Kong||$221B||3.0%|
|16||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||$120B||1.6%|
|17||🇰🇷 South Korea||$103B||1.4%|
As the above table shows, the United Kingdom is the third highest holder, at over $655 billion in Treasuries. Across Europe, 13 countries are notable holders of these securities, the highest in any region, followed by Asia-Pacific at 11 different holders.
A handful of small nations own a surprising amount of U.S. debt. With a population of 70,000, the Cayman Islands own a towering amount of Treasury bonds to the tune of $284 billion. There are more hedge funds domiciled in the Cayman Islands per capita than any other nation worldwide.
In fact, the four smallest nations in the visualization above—Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Bahamas, and Luxembourg—have a combined population of just 1.2 million people, but own a staggering $741 billion in Treasuries.
Interest Rates and Treasury Market Dynamics
Over 2022, foreign demand for Treasuries sank 6% as higher interest rates and a strong U.S. dollar made owning these bonds less profitable.
This is because rising interest rates on U.S. debt makes the present value of their future income payments lower. Meanwhile, their prices also fall.
As the chart below shows, this drop in demand is a sharp reversal from 2018-2020, when demand jumped as interest rates hovered at historic lows. A similar trend took place in the decade after the 2008-09 financial crisis when U.S. debt holdings effectively tripled from $2 to $6 trillion.
Driving this trend was China’s rapid purchase of Treasuries, which ballooned from $100 billion in 2002 to a peak of $1.3 trillion in 2013. As the country’s exports and output expanded, it sold yuan and bought dollars to help alleviate exchange rate pressure on its currency.
Fast-forward to today, and global interest-rate uncertainty—which in turn can impact national currency valuations and therefore demand for Treasuries—continues to be a factor impacting the future direction of foreign U.S. debt holdings.
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