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

Courtesy of Doug Short.

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 for Q4 2011, 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 the Flow of Funds Table L.106, 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, Q4 2011. The loan balance has risen and astonishing 332% 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 month the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) posted an article with the attention-grabbing title: Too Big to Fail: Student debt hits a trillion. The details of the private student loan market are not readily available, but CFPB plans to publish its study results on the topic this summer.

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 31% of the total federal assets, way more than double the 13.6% of remaining outstanding loans issued under TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Of course, assets are, sadly, the trivial side of Uncle Sam’s balance sheet — a bit less than 1.36 Trillion. The liability side totals 12.28 Trillion.

Student loan debt is something we’ll want to continue watching, especially when the details of private loan market becomes available.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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