It would be the greatest garage sale in history.
The United States Treasury possesses 261.5 million ounces of gold, worth about $392.25 billion at current prices.
Some in Washington say the time has come for the country to sell some of its gold, along with other government assets such as land and buildings, to pay down the $14.3 trillion federal debt and give Congress more time to resolve the federal debt ceiling crisis.
"It's just sort of sitting there," Ron Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told the Washington Post. "Given the high price it is now, and the tremendous debt problem we now have, by all means, sell at the peak."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX, agreed, telling the New York Sun that selling some of the Treasury's gold would be "a good and moral decision. An individual would have to do the same."
The idea isn't as crazy as it might sound. Six nations – Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden – collectively sold off 48% of their gold reserves in the late 1990s. Britain sold half of its gold reserves from 1999 to 2002, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sold 13% of its gold – over 403 tons of the yellow metal – as recently as 2009.
The ongoing Congressional struggle over raising the debt ceiling took an ominous turn last week when Republicans walked away from the negotiations, citing Democratic demands for tax increases. At the same time, Republican demands for deep spending cuts have met with resistance from Democrats.
With the deadline just five weeks away – Congress must act before Aug. 2 to avoid defaulting on the nation's debt – some are looking at the sale of gold and other federal assets as a way to reduce the debt and give both sides more time to reach a deal.
The Treasury's gold is just one asset some Republicans think could be liquidated.
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-UT, introduced a bill in February – the Federal Building and Property Disposal Act – that would require the government to identify and sell approximately $19 billion of unneeded property by 2020.
Chaffetz told Salt Lake City's KSL-TV that data from the Clinton Administration indicated 1% of federal land served no public use.
"We need to, $1 billion at a time, start figuring out how we're going to put a dent in that debt," Chaffetz said.
He has backing from others in government, including U.S. Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-FL, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert.
"I'm not an economist, but I have maintained a household," Ross told Reuters. "The federal government owns 70% of Utah, for example. There are federal buildings. If you need cash, let's start liquidating."
Although Herbert expressed doubt that property like national parks would ever be sold, he acknowledged that the idea is worth a look.
"It's an idea that's not new – that's been talked about for the last generation," Herbert told KSL-TV. "If we want to reduce the deficit and balance the budget on the federal level, why don't we reduce some of the federal assets."
Rep. Austin Scott, R-GA, told The Wall Street Journal that the government should consider selling off more of its substantial holdings in private companies such as American International Group Inc. (NYSE: AIG) and General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM), which were acquired as part of the effort to address the 2008 financial crisis.
Others have proposed the Treasury start unloading its $125 billion of mortgage-backed securities or $400 billion of student loans.
For several years the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, has advocated the privatization of such government operations as the Post Office, Amtrak, and electric utilities such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which it says would raise cash from a sale and create taxable private entities.
However, as tempting as a national garage sale sounds, it would not be easy, and it could produce unwanted consequences.
The truth is, even if the government sold many of the assets proponents have suggested, it would hardly dent the national debt. If the government sold every ounce of gold in the U.S. Treasury for $1,500 an ounce, for example, it would reduce the debt by less than 3%.
And trying to sell large amounts of any asset would severely disrupt markets and make it harder to get the best price for those assets.
Mary J. Miller, assistant secretary of the Treasury for Financial Markets, wrote a commentary last month explaining why the Treasury is against selling any U.S. assets to reduce the federal debt.
"This idea is not a viable option," Miller wrote. "A ‘fire sale' of financial assets would be damaging to the economy, taxpayers, and financial markets. It would harm the interests of taxpayers, and would undermine confidence in the United States."
Miller said selling the Treasury's gold would be "extremely destabilizing to the world financial system" and undercut confidence in the United States. The sale of its mortgage-backed securities "could jeopardize the still-fragile housing market," she said, although she noted that the Treasury is selling those assets at a steady rate of $10 billion a month.
The Obama Administration also expressed no interest in selling federal assets.
"Selling off the gold is just one level of crazy away from selling Mount Rushmore," one unnamed official told the Washington Post.
Despite the negative sentiment from President Obama and the Treasury toward selling government assets, events in the next few weeks may inspire a change of heart. Stubborn partisanship by negotiators of both parties virtually guarantees the debt ceiling game of chicken will go down to the final days, if not the final hours.
And at that point, the unlikely may become the possible.
"A group of House Republicans has questioned the validity of the August deadline, suggesting the Treasury could sell assets, such as gold reserves, to keep paying creditors," a Wall Street Journal story pointed out. "Treasury officials have rejected the idea, but could be forced to rethink if talks stall."
News and Related Story Links:
- Money Morning:
Washington's Debt-Ceiling Debate – A Political Sham
- Money Morning:
Don't Get Suckered by Wall Street's Wimpy Gold Price Forecasts
- Money Morning:
President Obama Tackles Deficit Reduction and Debt Ceiling as Budget Battle Continues
- U.S. Treasury:
Status Report of U.S. Treasury-Owned Gold
H.R. 665: Excess Federal Building and Property DisposalAct of 2011
As debt talks break down, clock ticks toward crisis
- The Daily Caller:
Government yard sale could help bring down national debt