The United States has the largest gold reserves of any nation in the world by a significant margin. The U.S. is reported to hold about 8,133.5 metric tonnes of gold. Germany is a distant second with 3,401.0 metric tonnes of the yellow metal. Italy has 2,451.8 metric tonnes in reserve. Could nations tap into their gold reserves to ameliorate their sovereign debt woes? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Presently, the Italian government’s annual deficit is nearly 4% of national output. In order cover this year’s budget shortfall at current spending levels, Italy would have to raise $72 billion. One way to do this might be to sell $72 billion of gold.

Unfortunately, Italy’s total gold holdings are only worth about $81 billion at today’s prices. That doesn’t get the Italian government very far considering Italy’s current debt has grown to almost $2.2 trillion after years of fiscal irresponsibility. Furthermore, Italy is going to have to come up with $151.55 billion in financing from September to the end of this year just to avoid default, according to Goldman Sachs. It seems the Italian welfare state is insolvent, having spent far more than they have or will be able to generate. The facts do not bode well for the world’s eleventh largest economy looking at a mountain of debt that is over 120% of national output.

The situation in the United States is not much brighter. The U.S. has 3.3 times the amount of gold as Italy, but nearly 6.6 times the amount of government debt. Sure, the U.S. has the largest gold reserves in the world, but the total amount of gold held by the United States is only worth about $270 billion at today’s prices. In other words, all of the gold held in Fort Knox and at the various U.S. mints would be enough to cover about one half the cost of Obama’s newest proposed spending bill.

In fact, at today’s prices, the value of all the gold ever mined in the history of the world comes to a grand total of $5.2 trillion. That is just enough to fund the U.S. Federal government for a little over a year at current spending levels.

The fact that government debt far outpaces the amount of gold reserves may be another signal that gold is undervalued relative to fiat currencies. This could actually turn out to be a golden opportunity to reduce sovereign debt. Perhaps, instead of dumping all of their gold at once to pay down debt, nations like the U.S. or Italy could actually take advantage of their large gold stocks and the public’s new appetite for gold by minting new coins of various weights and then selling them at a premium. The proceeds from the sale of new coins could be used to retire existing debt. As the new coins circulate, the public will be more accepting of gold. Increased demand will give countries like U.S and Italy a larger future income stream from selling their bullion.

Some economists have argued that over-extended governments should sell their assets on the open market to pay down the massive debts they have incurred. I certainly agree. This would reduce government debt and return valuable resources taking from the private sector. Gold reserves should be included in such an auction.

It is unlikely governments will sell bullion to pay debt. It is more unlikely governments will reduce spending in any meaningful way so long as it is easier for the politicians to print colorful paper tickets or make electronic entries to inflate the money supply. The chief problem is that governments do not have nearly enough real resources, actual or projected, to cover the cost of their exorbitant spending.  

History tells us that this age-old political game usually ends with destruction of the currency. It is unlikely the dollar or the euro will fare differently this time around as long as governments are controlling the money.

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