In recent months, there has been a call to either push for a gold standard or watch as states introduces bills coin their own money in response to the economy. On the extreme, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced a bill that proposes repeal legal tender laws that will essentially bring the country back to the chaos of the United States pre-constitutional economies. Many of these arguments are interesting with some good and bad ideas, but they do not take into consideration issues of basic math.

If a proposal to move the United States to either a gold, silver, or bi-metal standard passes, we will probably see the biggest economic contraction in history because there is not enough gold or silver in the country’s storage in order to cover the total money supply.

First, in calculating the country’s value of gold and silver holdings, we find that according to the 2010 United States Mint Annual Report [PDF], there are 245,262,897 troy ounces of gold stored in the United States Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky. This amount has not changed in recent memory. In the Mint facility at West Point, nicknamed the “Fort Knox of Silver,” the country owns 7,075,171 troy ounces of silver. But what they worth?

Determining the worth of the metals in storage is an interesting exercise. If we valued the government’s total holdings in accordance with statutory requirements, gold is valued at $42.22222 per fine troy ounce (see 31 U.S.C. § 5117(b)) and silver is values at least $1.292929292 per fine troy ounce (see 31 U.S.C. § 5116(b)(2). Although these values are much lower than what the markets value these metals, when the federal government counts its assets, gold and silver is based on numbers written into law.

Valuing these metals based on their market value, gold is worth $1,514.20 per troy ounce and silver is $35.16 per troy ounce (New York prices when the market closed on May 20, 2011). These values significantly raise the value of the government’s holdings. Using these numbers we can calculate the United States’ total holdings as:

Gold Statutory Value Gold Market Value Silver Statutory Value Silver Market Value
Inventories (troy ounces) 245,262,897 245,262,897 7,075,171 7,075,171
Valuation per Troy Ounce 42.2222 1,513.20 1.292929292 35.16
Total Value (in millions) $  10,355 $ 371,205 $  9,148 $ 247,985

Total Statutory Value: $  10,365 million
Total Market Value: $371,453 million

This means that the amount of money the economy can have is over $371 billion. This seems reasonable until we look at the total amount of money that in economy.

Economists have several ways of calculating the money supply in an economy. The Federal Reserve used M1 and M2 as their basis of analysis. M1 is a narrow measure of money’s function as a medium of exchange. In other words, it is the purchase power of all liquid or near liquid assets. M2 is a broader measure that reflects money’s function as a store of value. For the Federal Reserve, M1 is basically the supply of ready cash. M2 consists of M1 plus other deposits that are not as readily available, such as savings and retirement accounts. The economists at the Federal Reserve are constantly updating these numbers to determine how well the economy is doing.

According to the Money Stock Measures published by the Federal Reserve on May 19, 2011, at the end of April 2011, the seasonally adjusted M1 money supply was $1,901 billion meaning that there is just under $2 trillion of ready cash in the economy. The M2 money supply, the count of all cash, is $8,945.7 billion.

When calculating what is needed to back the United States currency with precious metals, this is where basic mathematics shows the potential failure of the policy. If such a policy requires the instant conversion of all ready cash (M1) to be backed by metals, only the first $371 billion of the nearly $2 trillion could be converted. In other words, in order to back every dollar with the country’s store of metals, we are over $1.6 trillion dollars short. To cover the entire money supply (M2), there is a $7.2 trillion shortfall. Simply, there is only enough gold and silver to cover about 5-percent of all cash and equivalents in the United States economy.

In order to break even on the conversion, the country would either have to acquire precious metals on the open market, issue $7.2 trillion in bonds that had to be backed by precious metals to a world that does not have those kind of assets, or find a way to revaluate the dollar so that the total money supply can be covered by the $371 billion in physical assets.

And this only covers current assets. It does not account for any growth!

Regardless of how the metals advocates justify their positions, it would be impossible to back the entire economy with down payment of 5-percent.

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