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 Infographic Breaks Down Careers In Finance, From Hedge Funds to M&A
Corporate finance oversees trillions of dollars and makes modern markets and economies possible, but who are the main players?
Careers In Corporate Finance, From Hedge Funds to M&A
Corporate finance is a key pillar on which modern markets and economies have been built. And this complex ecosystem consists of a number of important sectors, which can lead to lucrative career avenues.
From lending to investment banking, and private equity to hedge funds, the graphic above by Wall Street Prep breaks down the key finance careers and paths that people can take.
Let’s take a further look at the unique pieces of this finance ecosystem.
The Lending Business
Lending groups provide much needed capital to corporations, often in the form of term loans or revolvers. These can be part of short and long-term operations or for events less anticipated like the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in companies shoring up $222 billion in revolving lines of credit within the first month.
Next, is investment banking, which can split into three main areas:
- Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A): There’s a lot of preparation and paperwork involved whenever corporations merge or make acquisitions. For that reason, this is a crucial service that investment banks provide, and its importance is reflected in the enormous fees recognized. The top five U.S. investment banks collect $10.2 billion in M&A advisory fees, representing 40% of the $25 billion in global M&A fees per year.
- Loan Syndications: Some $16 billion in loan syndication fees are collected annually by investment banks. Loan syndications are when multiple lenders fund one borrower, which can occur when the loan amount is too large or risky for one party to take on. The loan syndication agent is the financial institution involved that acts as the third party to oversee the transaction.
- Capital Markets: Capital markets are financial markets that bring buyers and sellers together to engage in transactions on assets. They split into debt capital markets (DCM) like bonds or fixed income securities and equity capital markets (ECM) (i.e. stocks). Some $41 billion is collected globally for the services associated with structuring and distributing stock and bond offerings.
The top investment banks generally all come from the U.S. and Western Europe, and includes the likes of Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse.
Sell Side vs Buy Side
Thousands of analysts in corporate finance represent both the buy and sell-sides of the business, but what are the differences between them?
One important difference is in the groups they represent. Buy-side analysts usually work for institutions that buy securities directly, like hedge funds, while sell-side analysts represent institutions that make their money by selling or issuing securities, like investment banks.
According to Wall Street Prep, here’s how the assets of buy-side institutions compare:
|Buy side institution||Total assets|
|Mutual Funds, ETFs||$21 trillion|
|Private equity||$5 trillion|
|Hedge funds||$3 trillion|
|Venture capital||$0.5 trillion|
Also, buy-side jobs appear to be more sought after across financial career forums.
Breaking Down The Buy Side
Mutual funds, ETFs, and hedge funds all generally invest in public markets.
But between them, there are still some differentiating factors. For starters, mutual funds are the largest entity, and have been around since 1924. Hedge funds didn’t come to life until around 1950 and for ETFs, this stretched to the 1990s.
Furthermore, hedge funds are strict in the clients they take on, with a preference for high net worth investors, and they often engage in sophisticated investment strategies like short selling. In contrast, ETFs, and mutual funds are widely available to the public and the vast bulk of them only deploy long strategies, which are those that expect the asset to rise in value.
Private equity (PE) and venture capital (VC) are groups that invest in private companies. Venture capital is technically a form of PE but tends to invest in new startup companies while private equity goes for more stable and mature companies with predictable cash flow patterns.
Who funds the buy side? The source of capital roughly breaks down as follows:
|Source of capital||Capital amount|
|Pension funds||$34 trillion|
|Insurance Companies||$24 trillion|
Endowment funds are foundations that invest the assets of nonprofit institutions like hospitals or universities. The assets are typically accumulated through donations, and withdrawals are made frequently to fund various parts of operations, including critical ones like research.
The largest university endowment belongs to Harvard with some $74 billion in assets under management. However, the largest endowment fund overall belongs to Ensign Peak Advisors. They represent The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), with some $124 billion in assets.
Primary Market vs Secondary Market
One of the primary motivations for a company to enter the public markets is to raise capital, where a slice of the company’s ownership is sold via an allotment of shares to new investors. The actual capital itself is raised in the primary market, which represents the first and initial transaction.
The secondary market represents transactions after the first. These are considered stocks that are already issued, and shares now fluctuate based on market forces.
Tying It All Together
As the infographic above shows, corporate finance branches out far and wide, handles trillions of dollars, and plays a key part in making modern markets and economies possible.
For those exploring a career in finance, the possibilities and avenues one can take are practically endless.
Visualizing the $94 Trillion World Economy in One Chart
Which countries and regions contribute the most to the world economy? In this infographic, we break down all $94 trillion of global GDP by country.
The $94 Trillion World Economy in One Chart
View the expanded version of this infographic.
Just four countries—the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany—make up over half of the world’s economic output by gross domestic product (GDP) in nominal terms. In fact, the GDP of the U.S. alone is greater than the combined GDP of 170 countries.
How do the different economies of the world compare? In this visualization we look at GDP by country in 2021, using data and estimates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
An Overview of GDP
GDP serves as a broad indicator for a country’s economic output. It measures the total market value of final goods and services produced in a country in a specific timeframe, such as a quarter or year. In addition, GDP also takes into consideration the output of services provided by the government, such as money spent on defense, healthcare, or education.
Generally speaking, when GDP is increasing in a country, it is a sign of greater economic activity that benefits workers and businesses (while the reverse is true for a decline).
The World Economy: Top 50 Countries
Who are the biggest contributors to the global economy? Here is the ranking of the 50 largest countries by GDP in 2021:
|Rank||Country||GDP ($T)||% of Global GDP|
|19||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||$0.8||0.9%|
|33||🇿🇦 South Africa||$0.4||0.4%|
|40||🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR||$0.4||0.4%|
|47||🇨🇿 Czech Republic||$0.3||0.3%|
|50||🇳🇿 New Zealand||$0.2||0.3%|
*2020 GDP (latest available) used where IMF estimates for 2021 were unavailable.
At $22.9 trillion, the U.S. GDP accounts for roughly 25% of the global economy, a share that has actually changed significantly over the last 60 years. The finance, insurance, and real estate ($4.7 trillion) industries add the most to the country’s economy, followed by professional and business services ($2.7 trillion) and government ($2.6 trillion).
China’s economy is second in nominal terms, hovering at near $17 trillion in GDP. It remains the largest manufacturer worldwide based on output with extensive production of steel, electronics, and robotics, among others.
The largest economy in Europe is Germany, which exports roughly 20% of the world’s motor vehicles. In 2019, overall trade equaled nearly 90% of the country’s GDP.
The World Economy: 50 Smallest Countries
On the other end of the spectrum are the world’s smallest economies by GDP, primarily developing and island nations.
With a GDP of $70 million, Tuvalu is the smallest economy in the world. Situated between Hawaii and Australia, the largest industry of this volcanic archipelago relies on territorial fishing rights.
In addition, the country earns significant revenue from its “.tv” web domain. Between 2011 and 2019, it earned $5 million annually from companies—including Amazon-owned Twitch to license the Twitch.tv domain name—equivalent to roughly 7% of the country’s GDP.
|🇲🇭 Marshall Islands||Oceania||$0.2|
|🇨🇰 Cook Islands||Oceania||$0.4*|
|🇸🇹 São Tomé and Príncipe||Africa||$0.5|
|🇻🇨 St. Vincent and the Grenadines||Caribbean||$0.8|
|🇰🇳 St. Kitts and Nevis||Caribbean||$1.0|
|🇦🇬 Antigua and Barbuda||Caribbean||$1.4|
|🇸🇧 Solomon Islands||Oceania||$1.7|
|🇱🇨 St. Lucia||Caribbean||$1.7|
|🇸🇲 San Marino||Europe||$1.7|
|🇨🇻 Cabo Verde||Africa||$1.9|
|🇧🇿 Belize||Central America||$1.9|
|🇨🇫 Central African Republic||Africa||$2.6|
|🇸🇷 Suriname||South America||$2.8|
|🇸🇸 South Sudan||Africa||$3.3|
|🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||Africa||$4.4|
|🇬🇾 Guyana||South America||$7.4|
|🇰🇬 Kyrgyz Republic||Asia||$8.2|
*2019 GDP (latest available) used where IMF estimates for 2021 were unavailable.
Like Tuvalu, many of the world’s smallest economies are in Oceania, including Nauru, Palau, and Kiribati. Additionally, several countries above rely on the tourism industry for over one-third of their employment.
The Fastest Growing Economies in the World in 2021
With 123% projected GDP growth, Libya’s economy is estimated to have the sharpest rise.
Oil is propelling its growth, with 1.2 million barrels being pumped in the country daily. Along with this, exports and a depressed currency are among the primary factors behind its recovery.
2021 Real GDP Growth (Annual % Change)
|2||🇬🇾 Guyana||South America||20.4%|
|7||🇵🇦 Panama||Central America||12.0%|
|8||🇨🇱 Chile||South America||11.0%|
|9||🇵🇪 Peru||South America||10.0%|
|10||🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||Caribbean||9.5%|
Ireland’s economy, with a projected 13% real GDP growth, is being supported by the largest multinational corporations in the world. Facebook, TikTok, Google, Apple, and Pfizer all have their European headquarters in the country, which has a 12.5% corporate tax rate—or about half the global average. But these rates are set to change soon, as Ireland joined the OECD 15% minimum corporate tax rate agreement which was finalized in October 2021.
Macao’s economy bounced back after COVID-19 restrictions began to lift, but more storm clouds are on the horizon for the Chinese district. The CCP’s anti-corruption campaign and recent arrests could signal a more strained relationship between Mainland China and the world’s largest gambling hub.
Looking Ahead at the World’s GDP
The global GDP figure of $94 trillion may seem massive to us today, but such a total might seem much more modest in the future.
In 1970, the world economy was only about $3 trillion in GDP—or 30 times smaller than it is today. Over the next thirty years, the global economy is expected to more or less double again. By 2050, global GDP could total close to $180 trillion.
Correction: In earlier versions of this graphic, countries such as Vietnam and Pakistan were inadvertently not included in the visualization. They have now been added. In cases where the IMF has no data for 2021 (specifically Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, and Lebanon), the latest available data is used.
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