The Fed Balance Sheet: What Is Uncle Sam’s Largest Asset?

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Note: I’ve updated the quiz based on today’s Q3 Flow of Funds release. Hint: The correct answer is the same as it was for the last quiz, just more incredible.

Pop Quiz! Without recourse to your text, your notes or a Google search, what line item is the largest asset on Uncle Sam’s balance sheet?

A) U.S. Official Reserve Assets B) Total Mortgages C) Taxes Receivable D) Student Loans

The correct answer, as of the latest Flow of Funds report is … Student Loans.

The rapid growth in student debt has been a frequent topic in the financial press. One stunning chart that caught my attention illustrated the rapid growth in federal loans to students since the onset of the great recession. Here is a chart based on data from the Flow of Funds Table L.105, which shows the Federal Government’s assets and liabilities.

As I point out on the chart, the two callouts are for Q4 2007, the quarter in which the Great Recession began (December 2007) the most recent quarter on record, Q3 2012. The loan balance has risen and astonishing 448 percent over that timeframe, most of which dates from after the recession.

This chart only includes federal loans to students. Private loans make up an even larger amount. Earlier this year the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) posted an article with the attention-grabbing title: Too Big to Fail: Student debt hits a trillion.

But back to our quiz. Student loans may be a liability on the consumer balance sheet, but they constitute an asset for Uncle Sam. Just how big? Over 36 percent of the total federal assets, about 4.5 times the 8 percent for the total mortgages outstanding and over three times the size of Taxes Receivable.

Of course, assets are, sadly, the trivial side of Uncle Sam’s Flow of Funds balance sheet – about 1.39 Trillion. The liability side totaled 13.11 Trillion at the end of Q3.

The current banter is all about the Fiscal Cliff, but that complex set of issues will be addressed – one way or another – before the next quarterly update of this grim quiz. However, the student loan bubble, the biggest slice in Uncle Sam’s pie, will haunt our economy for many years to come.

      

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