The news is filled with dire warnings of what will happen if Congress does not lift the debt ceiling and the U.S. Treasury defaults on its debt.
Conservative House Republicans in the new Congress have promised to block any increase in the debt ceiling without an agreement to make cuts in the government’s massive deficit spending. President Biden has vowed not to negotiate and says Congress must pass a clean bill that only increases the debt ceiling.
Unless Congress raises the debt limit, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen estimates that the Treasury will run out of cash and be unable to pay all its bills sometime in June, triggering a default on the U.S. Treasury’s outstanding debt.
It would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it, for the Treasury to default on its debt when it owns more than half a trillion dollars worth of the most classic monetary asset there is: gold. If there is a way to convert the gold into cash in the Treasury’s bank account, then the government can pay its bills through the end of the fiscal year 2023 without an increase in the debt limit. There is a way, and it has been done multiple times in the past. All that is required is the passage of a bill that changes a few words in existing legislation — a bill that both Republicans and Democrats should support.
The Treasury owns a lot of gold: 261.5 million ounces of it, or more than 8,170 tons. The market price of gold is about $1,940 per ounce, so the Treasury’s gold is actually worth about $507 billion. Because of a law passed in 1973, the Gold Reserve Act requires the Treasury to value its gold at $42.22 per ounce — a number 50 years out of date and with no connection to reality. Gold is in fact a giant undervalued monetary asset of the Treasury. Unlike the phony idea of the Treasury issuing a trillion-dollar platinum coin, the gold owned by the U.S. Treasury is real; because of an outdated law, the Treasury just values it at an absurdly low price.
With the proposed change, the Treasury can simply issue gold certificates against the market value of its gold and deposit these certificates into its account with the Federal Reserve. The Fed will credit the Treasury’s account with an equivalent value in dollars, and the Treasury can spend the money as needed. The Treasury already has $11 billion in gold certificates deposited with the Fed. If the Treasury revalues its gold holding to current prices, we calculate that it can deposit $494 billion in new gold certificates at the Fed — creating $494 billion in spendable dollars without creating a penny of additional Treasury debt.
The Gold Reserve Act, as amended in 1973, provides that: “The Secretary [of the Treasury] may issue gold certificates against other gold held in the Treasury. The Secretary may prescribe the form and denominations of the certificates.” So the authorization to create gold certificates could not be clearer.
Then comes the words needing legislative change: “The amount of outstanding certificates may be not more than the value (for the purpose of issuing those certificates, of 42 and two-ninths dollars a fine troy ounce) of the gold held against the gold certificates.” New legislation is required to modify the Gold Reserve Act and strike “42 and two-ninths dollars” and replace it with “the current market value (as determined by the Secretary at the time of issuance).”
Voila! The Treasury has $494 billion more in cash with no additional debt. The president’s budget proposed a deficit of $1.2 trillion for fiscal 2023, so the additional funds should carry the Treasury from the current June deadline to easily past the end of fiscal 2023, giving the new Republican House majority, and the Democratic Senate majority, time to negotiate, in regular order, and pass a 2024 fiscal year budget with spending cuts as well as pass a new appropriately-sized debt ceiling to facilitate government funding in fiscal 2024 and beyond.
By merely recognizing the true market value of the Treasury’s gold holdings, the intense embarrassment to the administration and Congress of a looming default by the Treasury can be completely avoided. It is indeed ironic that in a world of inflated fiat currency and massive deficit finance, simply recognizing the true value of the government’s gold holdings can keep the government solvent. There are no budgetary tricks involved. It’s been done before and can work again.
Alex J. Pollock is a senior fellow at the Mises Institute and the co-author of the new book, "Surprised Again!—The Covid Crisis and the New Market Bubble. " Paul H. Kupiec is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.