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National debt: Whom does the US owe?

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

(Read caption) The Federal Reserve holds 9 percent of US debt.

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The U.S. owes somebody a whole pile of money. You knew that, right? Years of deficit spending have run up the national debt to a level that defines the word “stratosphere.” By the end of this year, the most commonly used measure of US debt – debt held by the public – will break $10 trillion for the first time.

But who is that somebody the US owes money to? Or who are the somebodies, since there isn’t one person sitting in an island lair plotting to enslave America via IOUs – no matter what Glenn Beck says about financier George Soros.

Well, most of them are US citizens, or US-based institutions. (“Debt held by the public” basically means anything not held by the federal government itself, so institutions count.) At the end of 2010, about 53 percent of US debt held by the public was held domestically, according to a recent study from the Congressional Budget Office.

Within this slice, the largest category is individuals – Treasury notes are good solid additions to any portfolio. US individuals hold 12 percent of the country’s debt. Next under the domestic category comes the Federal Reserve, which holds 9 percent of US debt, then pension and retirement funds, mutual funds, and state and local governments.


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