How to Pay Down the Federal Deficit: Sell America's Icons, Assets and Gold?


For most Americans, it is unimaginable that the U.S. could put its iconic properties on the market. But as the nation struggles to balance its balance sheet, should the federal government take a look at selling some of its most valuable assets?

It wouldn't be the first time that a large nation has pondered taking such drastic steps in recent years. Just two years ago, the Greeks and the British probably never would have thought that some of their famed assets would hit the auction block.

But since then, Greece has been saddled with such onerous budget restrictions due to E.U. bailout guarantees that some have suggested that it sell some of its popular islands. A number of the country's politicians are attempting to block the transactions. One of the jokes about Greece -- which sadly now has some basis in reality -- is that it will have to sell the Parthenon. The Greeks don't find the joke very funny.

The British have also begun the sale of assets, which could eventually include the Royal Mail.

Asset sales by governments have a long history. A large percentage of the geographic area of the United States was acquired through the purchase of land from other governments. In the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleonic France, strapped for cash due to its wars in Europe, sold the United States land that is now part or all of 14 states for the 2010 equivalent of $219 million.

24/7 Wall St. has identified nine U.S. assets that could generate a total of $543 billion -- or about a third of the annual budget deficit for the government's current fiscal year. The list is by no means comprehensive, but shows that the U.S. has salable assets that, in some cases, are worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Each of the nine assets on this list were compared to private companies or entities that already have established public valuations. For example, to put a value on the U.S. Postal Service, 24/7 Wall St. looked at FedEx (FDX) and United Parcel Service (UPS), and to estimate a sale price for the New York Federal Reserve building, they examined nearby Wall Street real estate. We looked at cash flow and revenue figures when comparable values were not available. We determined the size and dimensions of each asset using U.S. government data, which was taken from dozens of departments and agencies.

It's worth noting, though: While these nine sales and licensing agreements might make a big dent in a single year's budget deficit, they wouldn't balance the budget, and the current federal debt -- the overall amount we owe -- is around $14 trillion. That $543 billion is just a drop in the bigger bucket -- we'd need to find many, many more assets to put on the auction block to significantly reduce the debt. But this is a huge country, and this list is just the tip of the iceberg.

1. New York Federal Reserve Building

Guesstimated price tag: $750 million

Location: Manhattan, New York

U.S. ownership: 87 years

Who should buy it: Donald Trump, SL Green, Tishman Speyer

Why it's valuable: Location

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is located in a massive building that takes up an entire block in Manhattan's Financial District. Construction of the building was completed in 1924. It's 14 stories tall and features an additional five floors underground. If the bank relocated to less valuable real estate, the government could make a significant amount of money. A recent notice issued by the New York City Department of Finance estimated the building's value for the 2011 to 2012 tax year to be $88,594,000. While this may be the value for tax purposes, a review of comparable buildings in Manhattan revealed this wold likely be significantly less than its market price. On Madison Avenue, a similar building was sold for just under $1 billion. In all likelihood, considering its location and the historical significance of the building, the government could fetch closer to $750 million from a buyer like Donald Trump or SL Green.

2. Hoover Dam

Guesstimated price tag: $415 million

Location: Nevada/Arizona

U.S. ownership: 75 years

Who should buy it: Duke Power, Con Edison, Southern Company

Why it's valuable: Hydroelectric power

The Hoover Dam includes one of the largest hydroelectric installations in the country. If a company were to purchase the structure, it would most likely do so to privatize the dam and reap the benefits from the sale of the power it generates. According to the Department of the Interior, the average annual net generation for the Hoover Dam from 1947 through 2008 was about 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours. The Energy Information Administration calculates the average retail price of a single kilowatt-hour, as of 2010, at 9.88 cents. That means the energy produced by the dam each year is worth roughly $415 million. Of course, the operators of the power plant must deal with additional, necessary costs, such as flood control. Without the benefit of a profit and loss statement for the dam, one year's revenue is a reasonable -- though quite conservative -- valuation.

3. Randolph Air Force Base

Guesstimated price tag: $1 billion

Location: San Antonio, Texas

U.S. ownership: 81 years

Who should buy it: City of San Antonio
Why it's valuable: Could be converted to a commercial airport

There are many cases of former Air Force bases being converted into commercial airports, including the fields that are now Bangor International in Maine and Southern California Logistics in the Golden State. This usually happens only after a base has been closed, but there's no reason to believe the government wouldn't sell an operating base in an area where it could get a premium price for it. According to the Census Bureau, San Antonio is the fourth fastest-growing city in the U.S. The metropolis also happens to have a nation-high three Air Force bases within its city limits. Randolph AFB has two substantial runways capable of supporting all but the largest jetliners. Incorporating the costs the city of San Antonio would have to sustain to upgrade facilities and build a new terminal, Randolph could be sold for as much as $1 billion.

4. Naming Rights to the Grand Canyon

Guesstimated price tag: $1 billion

Location: Arizona

U.S. ownership: Became a national monument 103 years ago

Who should buy it: Large international brand

Why it's valuable: Brand recognition

It's very common for large venues, like stadiums and convention centers, to sell naming rights for tens of millions of dollars. The new Citi Field in New York (formerly the Met's Shea Stadium) sold naming rights to Citigroup for $400 million. The U.S. government would likely get much more for a major national attraction like the Grand Canyon, which has more than twice as many visitors each year as Citi Field, and has the added branding value of being a major national landmark. This trend could spread to any of the hundreds of national monuments in the U.S., such as Mount Rushmore or the Washington Monument.

5. Yellowstone National Park

Guesstimated price tag: $5 billion

Location: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming

U.S. ownership: 139 years

Who should buy it: Plum Creek, Weyerhaeuser

Why it's valuable: Timber

Yellowstone, spread across parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, is a popular destination for tourists trying to experience the best of the great outdoors. But if the federal government reaches a point where it is desperate for cash, it could try to sell the land to foresting and paper companies like Plum Creek or Weyerhaeuser for its timber value. Based on the current price per acre of Wyoming timberland, the 2.2 million acre park (more than twice the size of Rhode Island) could fetch approximately $5 billion from a major logging concern.

6. Interstate Highway System

Guesstimated price tag: $25 billion

Location: Across the U.S.

U.S. ownership: 55 years

Who would buy it: Carlyle, Blackstone, TPG Capital
Why it's valuable: Tolls, roadside businesses

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the Dwight D. Eisenhower U.S. Interstate Highway System is the largest in the world, spanning more than 45,000 miles. Today, the system is largely without toll roads, besides those present before the system was incorporated in 1956. While the government pays more than $5 billion each year maintaining the interstates, if an independent company purchased the system and set up tolls on half of the existing interstate roads, potential revenue for a single year would be close to $25 billion. But as with the Hoover Dam, these calculations have to be made without the benefit of a profit and loss statement, so the price tag of one year's revenues -- $25 billion -- is a quite conservative valuation.

7. U.S. Postal Service

Guesstimated price tag: $40 billion

Location: Nationwide

U.S. ownership: 236 years
Who should buy it: UPS, FedEx

Why it's valuable: Parcel delivery infrastructure (employees, vehicles, buildings)

The U.S. postal service, mired in debt and facing steady declines in mail volume, could nevertheless be a potentially valuable enterprise for one of the country's larger parcel companies. The acquiring company would likely assume the Postal Service's facilities, employees and fleet, strip down the unnecessary elements, and incorporate the remaining parts into its own operations. As implausible as a buyout like this seems, it could happen. The British government is currently considering the same thing for its own Royal Mail, with some reports suggesting a public stock offering of $14.4 billion. The U.S. Postal Service is several times larger than its U.K. equivalent, and even incorporating the $13 billion in debt that would be assumed by a buyer, operations could go for as much as $40 billion.

8. The Gulf of Mexico

Guesstimated price tag: $70 billion

Location: Gulf of Mexico

U.S. ownership: Lease agreement

Who should buy it: BP, Exxon, Texaco

Why it's valuable: Oil drilling

The U.S. currently leases massive blocks of territory in the Gulf of Mexico through auction to the biggest oil companies in the world. At the moment, the government has only leased roughly one-fifth of the nearly 160 million acres of drillable space in the gulf. With the demand for new sources of oil rising steadily, there's good reason to believe the government, if in a dire fiscal predicament, could initiate a fire sale on the remaining property for a reduced price. Currently, blocks (a square mile or more) are being leased for an average of $550 per acre. The government could sell, rather than lease, the remaining land at this price for more than $70 billion.

9. U.S. Gold Supply

Guesstimated price tag: $400 billion
Location: U.S. Bullion Depository, Fort Knox, Kentucky

U.S. ownership: Varies

Who should buy It: China, Germany, the International Monetary Fund

Why it's valuable: Precious commodity

The advantage of gold is that holdings are completely liquid because of the demand from other large nations, for commercial use, and for private products used by consumers. At least 15 countries and organizations hold gold reserves valued at more than $20 billion. The U.S. currently possesses the greatest hoard of gold in the world, at nearly 9,000 metric tons. The value of this gold, according to the World Gold Council is close to $400 billion.

Originally published