The Fed Balance Sheet: What is Uncle Sam's Largest Asset?

by: Doug Short

Note from dshort: I've updated the quiz based on yesterday's Q4 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 (NASDAQ:GOOG) 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 an ongoing topic in the financial press. One stunning chart that continues to haunt me illustrates 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.


(Click to enlarge)

As I point out on the chart, the two call-outs are for Q4 2007, the quarter in which the Great Recession began (December 2007) the most recent quarter on record, Q4 2012. The loan balance has risen and astonishing 467 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. Last 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 37 percent of the total federal assets, about 4.7 times the 7.9 percent for the total mortgages outstanding and over three times the size of Taxes Receivable.


(Click to enlarge)

Of course, assets are, sadly, the trivial side of Uncle Sam's Flow of Funds balance sheet -- about 1.42 Trillion. The liability side totaled 13.47 Trillion at the end of Q4.

The big news of late has been the Dow setting all-time highs. However, the student loan bubble, the biggest slice in Uncle Sam's asset pie, will haunt us for many years to come.

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