How should the U.S. use its gold?

A 1kg gold bar is displayed at a Tokyo jewelry shop.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: You want to talk about a stash of gold to sell? How does nearly 9,000 tons sound?

260 million troy ounces, plus or minus. That's the U.S. government's stockpile; more than any country in the world by far.

In the current issue of The Atlantic magazine, Jim Picerno wonders aloud whether, given our current financial troubles, we should start selling some of it off.

Jim, good to have you with us.

Jim Picerno: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: So you started asking all these questions about the U.S. gold supply, did anybody answer you?

Picerno: Um, I got answers, but they weren't all that satisfying. I called the White House, I called some key members of Congress, I called around to the Treasury and the bottom line is, I couldn't really get anyone to have a discussion with me on the record about what are the plans for all the gold that the United States holds. And to me, it was odd in the sense that it's a national asset. And in a time when there's deficits and budgetary problems and all kinds of economic turmoil, it seems, call me crazy, relatively prudent to talk about something that's a national asset, that's worth $300 billion -- give or take -- but it's very difficult to get anybody in Washington to talk about it.

Ryssdal: Now the law says that if we wanted to sell it, we could only sell it to bring down the national debt, right?

Picerno: Right, that's embedded in the U.S. Code. Of course, Congress could change that -- they wrote it, they can do anything they want with it.

Ryssdal: What could we do?

Picerno: I talked to a number of economists, and a lot of them or at least some of them, told me that we shouldn't use it to turn around and fund consumption. You want to use any proceeds from selling gold for something that has some sort of value as a future investment. One economist told me, I thought it was a good idea, that if oil was cheap -- it's not exactly cheap right now -- but if oil was cheap and gold was expensive, selling some of the gold and buying oil to put in strategic petroleum reserves might be a good idea, might be a savvy move.

Ryssdal: Now there are some good reasons for not selling all this gold. First of all, if we just open the vaults, the price of gold goes to like 14 cents an ounce.

Picerno: Oh absolutely. And I mean, again, I think there's a very productive debate, should we hold the gold, should we sell it, should we keep some of it? And for the record, European central banks have been selling some of their gold over the last 10, 15 years. Of course, other central banks, particularly in Asia, China and India, have been buying gold. But the biggest argument against selling it is that, well, if you sell it, what are you gonna get? You're going to get, at the end of the day, paper dollars. Well, guess what? The Federal Reserve can print up as much dollars as they want. In fact, it seems to be doing that as we speak.

Ryssdal: Jim Picerno, he's the editor of the Beta Investment Report. His article, which is called "Uncle Sam's Mysterious Hoarde" is in the November issue of The Atlantic magazine. Jim, thanks a lot.

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