In 1989, New York real estate investor Seymour Durst spent $120,000 to erect a "National Debt Clock" in Times Square to track the exact amount of money that the U.S. federal government was borrowing to pay its bills. At the time, the country had run up a $2.7 trillion tab, but that figure seems almost quaint today [source: Stephey]. In 2008, the clock briefly ran out of available digits when the debt topped $10 trillion. By January 2013, the upgraded clock — it can now display up to a quadrillion dollars — registered $16.43 trillion and some change [source: TreasuryDirect].
Now, it's important to understand that U.S. doesn't owe that entire $16.43 trillion to its creditors, which is everyone that owns U.S. Treasury bonds and securities: individual American citizens, banks, corporations, state and local governments, and foreign investors. Treasury securities are essentially government-backed IOUs. In exchange for a cash loan, the government pays you interest. Only $11.56 trillion of the national debt represents the debt held by the public or public debt, the money the federal government borrows from outside sources to fund its budget. The other $4.87 trillion is tied up in intragovernmental holdings, mostly in the federal government's largest trust funds: Social Security and Medicare.
The question we want to answer today is: who actually owns that $11.56 trillion in public debt? And how does America's skyrocketing national debt rank against other industrialized nations? Find out in our global parade of America's biggest sugar daddies according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.