Fed Owns 64% More U.S. Government Debt Than China

Terence P. Jeffrey | January 16, 2014 | 11:11am EST
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President Barack Obama and Janet Yellen, whom he nominated to be chairman of the Federal Reserve. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - The Federal Reserve owned 64 percent more U.S. government debt than entities in the People’s Republic of China did as of the end of November, which is the latest period for which the Treasury has reported on the foreign ownership of U.S. government debt.

The $1,316,700,000,000 in U.S. Treasury securities that entities in mainland China owned as of the end of November set a record for China, but it was still $846,966,000,000 less than the $2,163,666,000,000 in U.S. Treasury securities the Federal Reserve owned as of Nov. 27, according the Fed’s weekly balance sheets.

As of January 9, the latest day on the Fed’s last weekly accounting sheet, the Fed had increased its holdings of U.S. Treasury securities to $2,212,924,000,000.

The Fed also owns $1,490,167,000,000 in mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae.

At the end of January 2009, the month President Barack Obama was first inaugurated, mainland China owned $744.2 billion in U.S. government debt and the Fed owned $475.129 billion.

When Sen. Richard Shelby (R.-Ala.), a member of the Senate Banking Committee, took to the Senate floor last week to explain why he had voted against the confirmation of Janet Yellen as the new chairman of the Federal Reserve, he made a point of the fact that the Fed—not the People’s Republic of China—is the world’s largest owner of U.S. government debt.

“In fact, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet shows the Federal Reserve itself is by far the largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds,” said Shelby.

“Many hold the misconception in this country that China is the world’s largest owner of U.S. debt. That is not true,” said Shelby.  “In fact, the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet shows the Federal Reserve itself is by far the largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds. With $2.2 trillion in Treasury debt, the Fed holds nearly $900 billion more than China does, if you can think in those terms. The Fed holds more in Treasury bonds than do China and most of the Eurozone combined.

“The rate of acceleration with which the Federal Reserve is purchasing Treasuries should be alarming to all Americans,” said Shelby.

Shelby described the Fed’s massive purchases of U.S. government debt as a “backdoor stimulus program”—one that may have unpredictable consequences.

“Let’s call this what it is: a backdoor stimulus program through monetary policy,” said Shelby. “Very complicated, yes, but very important. It dwarfs even the fiscal stimulus package President Obama rammed through Congress during his first days in office about 5 years ago. President Obama’s fiscal stimulus package totaled $787 billion—a lot of money—and I have just described the Fed’s monetary stimulus package as nearly four times larger and growing.”

Shelby argued that, despite currently low inflation, the Fed’s policy could lead to prices increasing “uncontrollably.”

“This highly unconventional monetary policy poses huge risks to our economy—namely, inflation in the future and a devaluation of our currency,” said Shelby.

“I realize that current inflation expectations are relatively low and anchored,” he said. “However, again we are in completely uncharted territory. Should inflation expectations become unglued, prices could increase uncontrollably. There is simply no playbook that I am aware of on how to deal with such a situation successfully.”

Shelby additionally observed that although the Fed has announced it is going to reduce the size of its ongoing debt purchases, it is nonetheless going to continue making them.

“Yes, I also understand that the Fed has recently announced it will modestly scale back its so-called quantitative easing program,” said Shelby. The Fed will still purchase tens of billions of dollars of securities each month.

“Make no mistake—the Fed’s balance sheet will continue to expand rapidly,” he said.

“How long will this continue? We don’t know,” he said. “How large will the Fed’s balance sheet ultimately grow? We don’t know. Will the Fed be able to contain inflation if it does begin to rise? Again, we don’t know. And when will the Federal Reserve actually begin to unwind the balance sheet—which will be tricky? Again, we don’t know. How exactly does the Federal Reserve plan to unwind the balance sheet? Again, we don’t know, and I don’t believe they know.”

Shelby said that even in-coming Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen, who will take over for Bernanke on February 1, could not answer these questions for him.

“I raise these points because I met with Dr. Yellen in my office and attended her confirmation hearing in the Banking Committee. I received no meaningful answers to any of those questions, only the usual platitudes that so often mark such meetings.”

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