The debate over federal government deficits and debt has consumed Washington for some time, but the arguments for the most part have focused on taxes and spending. One aspect, however, of the debate of American creditworthiness that doesn’t get discussed is what assets the federal government owns. After all, a borrower’s assets should be one of the main factors in determining the wisdom of its borrowing, but when talking about the U.S. government’s debt burden, it seems to get left out of the conversation entirely. And a recent report from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) makes some startling claims about how much U.S. taxpayers own in real assets. According to the report, the U.S. government owns:
•More than 900,000 separate real assets covering more than 3 billion sq. ft.
•Mineral rights, on and offshore, covering 2.515 billion acres of land, more than the total surface land in Canada
•45,190 underutilized buildings, the operating costs of which are $1.66 billion annually
•Oil and gas resources on and offshore worth $128 trillion, roughly eight times the national debt of the country
The IER is a think tank that advocates for deregulation in the energy industry, so we should perhaps take these numbers with a grain of salt. Any estimate of oil and mineral wealth in unexplored areas is going to be highly speculative, but even if the true figure is half what the IER estimates, the fact that the federal government owns property worth well in excess of its total debt is instructive in our current debate over government borrowing.
But the federal government owns much more than just land and the minerals and oil beneath it. The federal government also has a very sizable stash of gold. In fact, at 261,498,926.247 oz., it’s the largest in the world. And, in case you haven’t noticed, gold is quite popular among investors who fear the debasement of government currencies in this era of worldwide, aggressive monetary stimulus. At the going rate of $1,660 per ounce, that stash is worth nearly $442 billion. Ever since Richard Nixon broke the link between the dollar and gold in 1971, there’s has been no official justification for sitting on all this gold. And some of it could easily be used to pay down the debt or put toward neglected projects like infrastructure.
And finally, another big chunk of federal assets come in the form of student loans. According to the Federal Student Aid, the office in the Department of Education that manages the federal student-loan program, the feds own $948 billion in outstanding student loans. This appears to be the face value of these loans — the actual market value is probably lower since a portion of these loans are in default and may not be paid back. But the market value for these loans is most likely in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the performing loans in the portfolio could be sold off to other financial institutions.
There are obviously other factors besides raising revenue that would go into a decision to sell these assets. The federal government has an interest in protecting and preserving America’s environmental assets, and the Department of Education’s student-loan program is there to help young people access higher education. Selling off those assets would potentially put those policy objectives at risk. But the reason the federal government still holds on to so much gold is a bit more difficult to understand. With gold prices so high, it probably makes sense to unload at least some of it.
More than anything, these assets partially illustrate why the world is still so eager to lend the U.S. money. Despite all the doom and gloom you hear about the decline of America’s creditworthiness, it’s still a very rich country in both productive capacity and industrial and natural resources. And the financial crisis and demographic shifts that have caused our budget problems are either temporary effects or problems that could be solved by a mature discussion about priorities.