The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a neo-Florentine fortress of sandstone and limestone in Lower Manhattan, covers a city block. A battery of structural and technological defenses makes it perhaps the world’s most secure bank; it can be sealed off in less than 25 seconds. On a recent visit to its subterranean vault, beneath 80 feet of bedrock, I walked along a narrow passageway through a 90-ton steel cylinder that can create an airtight and watertight seal. On the other side was a vault with neatly stacked walls of 27-pound yellow bricks—one of the largest collections of gold in the world.
Standing next to this mass of concentrated wealth all but paralyzes one’s sense of financial proportion. But after the initial awe of this King Midas moment, a question nagged: what’s the point?
Nearly 40 years after President Nixon suspended the dollar’s link to gold, the United States still sits on far more of it than any other nation: official holdings total 8,965 tons, or roughly 260 million troy ounces, according to the Treasury Department. (Most of it is stored in Fort Knox, Kentucky; the New York Fed holds about 11 million troy ounces, along with gold reserves from other countries and international organizations.) Gold is easily convertible into cash, and America’s mountain of metal is now worth more than ever: assuming the recent market price of $1,200 a troy ounce, the value of the federal stock exceeds $300 billion. Yet in an age of soaring deficits, our gold reserves earn no income, incur huge storage and security costs, and serve no practical purpose, short of a politically unthinkable renaissance of gold-based money (see “The Tea Party’s Brain,” page 98). Why?