This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Die Welt.
The first thing any insolvent private person is forced to do is relinquish the family silver. But other rules seem to apply to governments. Whether they’ve been living above their means for a few years or for decades, certain countries hold on tight to their assets, declare themselves unable to pay back their debts and turn to other countries for help.
The European Union has seen many an example of this. Right now, Greece is negotiating with the troika of the E.U., the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new rescue package while Athens sits on an impressive 112-ton stash of gold, about what four large, fully loaded trucks could carry.
The gleaming bars in the vaults of the Greek central bank are worth $5.8 billion. If Athens were to sell that gold, the Greek state would theoretically be able to meet at least part of the debt payments due soon without any outside help.
Gold Reserves in Greece increased to 112.75 Tonnes in the third quarter of 2016 from 112.72 Tonnes in the second quarter of 2016. Gold Reserves in Greece averaged 114.09 Tonnes from 2000 until 2016, reaching an all time high of 132.56 Tonnes in the fourth quarter of 2000 and a record low of 107.21 Tonnes in the third quarter of 2003.
Another country in crisis, Portugal, also holds a significant amount of precious metal dating back to the days of António de Oliveira Salazar’s regime. Instead of aid, Lisbon could have converted its $19 billion worth of gold into cash.
Nick Moore, chief commodities strategist at the Royal Bank of Scotland in London, reports that a question often asked by bank clients is why these governments don’t sell some of their gold. After all, it is recognized worldwide as an asset that can be sold even in tough economic times. The gold in the central banks of euro-zone members is altogether worth some $545 billion.
With that, 4.5% of Euroland’s $12 trillion public debt could be paid off in one fell swoop. In relation to its debt, Portugal is particularly gold rich. Lisbon could put 383 tons of it on the market and make $19.3 billion at the present rate.
The issue is particularly volatile because the Portuguese just squeezed a $116 billion aid package out of the E.U. The reason given for the aid request was that the country wouldn’t get fair conditions from capital markets, but it needed money to pay back outstanding loans. With the money they would have gotten from selling gold, they would have been able to pay back a large part of an older debt they’ve been carrying, which is due this year.
In comparison with the rest of Europe, Lisbon is hoarding disproportionately large quantities of gold. No other country has that much precious metal in their foreign-exchange reserves. During the euro’s early years, the Portuguese national bank wasn’t shy about selling, reducing its gold reserves from 567 tons to 340 tons, and raising liquidities of about $4 billion.