Chart of the Day: How Much Is the U.S. National Debt in Gold?

Since the financial crisis, two dominant topics in financial news have been the rise in gold prices and the increasing U.S. debt burden. The price of gold is up 94% since November 2008. The amount of U.S. debt outstanding is up 34% over the same period. Today's chart of the day unites these two popular topics.

U.S. debt is generally expressed in U.S. dollars, but what if we instead expressed it in troy pounds of gold (12 troy ounces to a troy pound) instead? That paints a somewhat different picture. Another way to think of this chart would be: how much gold would it take to pay off the national debt. Here's the chart, since 1971:

debt in gold 2011-04.png

In fact, it now takes much less gold to pay off the U.S. debt than it did a decade ago. At first, this might seem surprising, since the debt has grown so much. But the price of gold has jumped even higher.

One takeaway from this exercise is to show how little impact the U.S.'s gold reserves would make in paying down the debt. The U.S. government has around 21.7 million pounds of gold. That might sound like a lot, but it would take 808.0 million pounds of gold to pay off the debt. Even if the U.S. government put every once of its gold towards paying down the debt, it would pay down less than 3%.

How much is 808 million pounds of gold? For a little perspective, this is equal to the weight of 55,403 male Asiatic elephants. It's weighs as much as nearly 80 million gallons of water, which is enough to fill up 121 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It's the same weight as 1,691 Boeing 747-400 jets ("Operating Empty Weight"). Even now, with prices at historical highs, that's an awful lot of gold.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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