Debt ceiling: Selling gold isn't the answer

gold bars
The U.S. Treasury currently holds over $400 billion worth of gold in its reserves.

The idea of minting a $1 trillion platinum coin as a way to avoid the U.S. debt ceiling is officially off the table.

But what about selling the nation's deep gold reserves?

After all, the U.S. Treasury has 261.5 million ounces of the precious metal in Fort Knox, Kentucky. With gold selling at roughly $1,655 an ounce, the government has $432 billion worth of the shiny metal just collecting dust.

But even before anyone succumbs to the temptation of suggesting the gold option, U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has nixed the idea. The optics of the U.S. holding a fire sale of assets such as gold would damage the country's reputation and have global implications, he said.

"Selling the nation's gold to meet payment obligations would undercut confidence in the United States both here and abroad, and would be extremely destabilizing to the world financial system," he wrote in a letter to Congressional leadership last month.

President Obama also chimed in at a press conference on Monday, saying there are "no magic tricks" or "easy outs" to the debt challenge.

It would certainly buy Washington more time at a time when lawmakers can't seem to agree on anything. There are only two months left for politicians to debate over the terms under which they raise the debt ceiling, and the U.S. has already reached its legal borrowing limit.

Selling the gold could serve as an additional revenue stream without running up any more debt, which would relieve pressure on Congress to come to a consensus by March.

Related: America's Debt Challenge

But experts say getting rid of the Treasury's gold won't work for many reasons.

The first is that though the sale would generate upwards of $400 billion, it would barely make a dent in paying the nation's bills. The government currently borrows about $100 billion each month, meaning that the sale would only cover the U.S.' debt obligations for about four months.

"At its best, it would just be a temporary stopgap," said Chris Blasi, president of Neptune Global Holdings, a boutique precious metals firm in Wilmington, Del. "If you really wanted to solve our problems long-term, this is not a solution."

Bernanke and Paul spar over gold
Bernanke and Paul spar over gold

Another problem: gold prices are bound to crash if the U.S. Treasury were to flood the market. That would reduce how much the government could collect.

"There would be a glut of metal coming in to the market, which would cause prices to pull back," said Blasi. He said prices could retreat immediately by about 12%.

A larger issue is the signal it would telegraph to the world financial markets that the U.S. is getting desperate.

"Confidence would plummet and it would really hasten the demise of the dollar," he said. "If you get down to a point where you're hocking your gold, that's it. You're all done."

Related: Debt ceiling: Welcome to Fight Club

These drawbacks haven't stopped people from suggesting this as a viable solution in the past. The same idea was kicked around last year when Washington slogged through debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011.

The British did it more than a decade ago. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown sold off nearly two thirds of the United Kingdom's gold, or nearly 13 million ounces between 1999 and 2002. Brown, who was the nation's chief finance minister at the time, believed he was getting rid of a useless asset.

But his timing was off; the sale happened before one of the biggest bull runs in gold prices. The metal, at the time, was selling at near-record lows of an inflation-adjusted average of $275 an ounce.

The sales amounted to about $3.5 billion. Today, the sale would have been worth about six times more.

"When Britain did it, it was just a ridiculous move, selling off reserves at the complete bottom," Blasi said. "But the ramifications would be far greater if the U.S. did it ... We'd be admitting to the world that we're willing to sell whatever we have."

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