Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why Tim Geithner Ruled Out Selling U.S. Government-Held Gold

According to a CNN Money report, there have been some suggestions that the U.S. Treasury sell the gold it holds if the debt ceiling isn't raised. Tim Geithener has ruled a sale out, and there are three reasons why. First of all, as explained by assistant secretary of the Treasury Mary Miller, doing so would reduce confidence in the U.S.' currency. Secondly, there would be a huge logistical difficulty in selling a lot of the Treasury's gold: who would buy it? How long would it take for the gold to be sold? The IMF found central-bank buyers of more than half of the 400 tonnes it sold starting in late 2009, but the rest of the gold took more than a year to sell on the open market. At today's prices, 400 tonnes is worth about $19.4 billion.

The difficulty of selling the gold in a timely manner ties into the third reason: even though the U.S. treasury has a huge amount of gold, the amount pales in comparison to the spending the U.S. government undertakes. Even moving a small amount of the Treasury's gold would only buy a little time - it the gold could be sold in time.

Another suggestion is selling the bonds held by the Federal Reserve to raise the needed cash. On the face of it, this suggestion is more practicable because debt-securities markets are much more liquid and the Fed's portfolio is much larger than the Treasury's gold hoard. The barrier to this approach is legal. The Fed is not a subsidary of the Treasury, so it can't just transfer the proceeds to the U.S. government. In fact, the central bank's selling of securities is offset by the monetary base shrinking: the proceeds are erased. Legally, the only way for the Fed to help out would be to loan the Treasury the money...which would violate the debt-ceiling law, since it would be legally equivalent to the Treasury floating more bonds.

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