I said this a long time ago. We the People are RICH! Yes, we have a burdensome national debt which is finally shrinking, but compared to our wealth of assets, it is relatively small.
I know, it is difficult to imagine $20 trillion as small, but as I have said before, We the Poeple are in the driver’s seat. We just needed the right navigator. Donald Trump is that navigator.
As Powdered Wig reported in this article from August 2015, We the People are the owners of vast sections of real estate across the country. If for example, we simply sell the mineral rights to much of that land, leaving the land intact for American citizens to enjoy, or sell the land too, there is a tremendous bonanza that belongs to Mom and Pop America. Or, we can mine or drill for the minerals ourselves and make even more money. Rick Perry’s Department of Energy can manage whatever program is chosen.
The federal debt’s $20 trillion, and the fastest growing part of it — entitlements (which make up 60% of all federal spending) — are surging as baby boomers retire in droves, according to Market Watch. Interest on all this red ink is piling up and rising interest rates are only going to make things worse. So Uncle Sam’s broke, right? That’s the common view.
Not so fast. If you’re only looking at the liabilities side of a company’s balance sheet, you only get half the story. At the end of its last fiscal year, Apple AAPL, +2.12% had $75 billion in long-term debt. Think Apple’s broke? Of course not: the other side of its balance sheet shows that the company is sitting on tons of assets.
Yet this is how we evaluate the federal government. We look at its liabilities while ignoring its assets. Think the feds are broke? Not so fast, says a 2013 report from the Institute for Energy Research, which points out that the government owns “above ground” assets such as “buildings, lands, roads, railroad infrastructure, levees, dams, and hydroelectric generating facilities, to name just a few, many of which are underutilized,” and “below ground” assets such as “rights to mineral and energy leases, from which they receive royalties, rents, and bonus payments.”
Let’s focus on a giant part of this: Mineral rights for oil and gas reserves. The IER report said they’re worth $128 trillion. But that was January 2013. Even though oil prices CLK7, +1.34% have dropped 50% and gas prices NGK17, +1.05% have fallen some 15% since, that’s still, as Donald Trump might say, a yuge amount of money.
Which brings us to one of the president’s more intriguing ideas: why not sell off some of those rights and pay down part of the debt?
Candidate Trump sold this in his usual simplistic terms: I’m a real estate guy, I know how to make the deals. We pay down the debt while putting Americans back to work in the oil and gas industry. We become energy independent and screw the Middle East. What’s not to like?
But there’s more to this than meets the eye. The government can’t just sell the land that sits atop oil and gas reserves—because it often doesn’t own it. Remember, mineral rights for oil and gas are “below ground” assets. Surface land that sits above is often owned by a private party. Regulations allow for companies to drill regardless of who actually owns the dirt and grass on top. So when Trump says “sell the land,” what he really means is “sell the mineral rights below.” This would be a change from what the Interior Department, which oversees such things, now does. Since 1982, it has leased drilling rights for hundreds of millions of acres—an area bigger than Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona combined. Leases generally run for a decade.
Then there is this question: what would it take for the majors—Exxon MobilXOM, +0.69% , Chevron CVX, +0.87% , Royal Dutch Shell RDS.A, +0.98% , BPBP, +0.36% and so forth—to buy? The plunge in commodity prices noted above has squeezed industry profits, and companies have generally been shedding assets of late. Exxon Mobil did make a shale oil bet valued at up to $6.6 billion in January in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico. It was the first big deal under new CEO Darren Woods, who succeeded now-Secretary on State Rex Tillerson. But that was the biggest bet XOM has made in eight years, since it dropped $41 billion on XTO Energy, a Houston-based natural gas company. Compare that with the $210 billion it spent on share buybacks between 2006 and 2016. That strategy has since yielded to an even more conservative one: hoarding cash–not spending it.
It’s important to remember that in absolute terms, oil companies make tons of money. But it’s also a capital intensive business, meaning that profit margins are much narrower than people think. For example, Apple’s net profit margin over the last nine years, according to S&P Capital IQ, was 21.5%—but Exxon Mobil’s was 8.29%. Translation: energy companies often spend more to make less. They always want access and drilling rights, but given the margins involved, and the volatile nature of the market, there always has to be a margin of safety. Interior has yet to place a value on what it might sell, or develop a process to do so. So we’re a long way off from any of this coming to fruition, if indeed it does at all. So if Trump—who is to be applauded for at least thinking out of the box on issues like this—thinks he’ll be able to slash the debt this way, he may want to think again.