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Economics

Keep calm and carry on

At the end of July global equity bull markets had a moment of doubt, falling three or four per cent. In the seven trading days up to 1st August the S&P500 fell 3.8%, and we are not out of the woods yet. At the same time the Russell 2000, an index of small-cap US companies fell an exceptional 9%, and more worryingly it looks like it has lost bullish momentum as shown in the chart below. This indicates a possible double-top formation in the making.

Russell 2000 08082014

 

Meanwhile yield-spreads on junk bonds widened significantly, sending a signal that markets were reconsidering appropriate yields on risky bonds.

This is conventional analysis and the common backbone of most brokers’ reports. Put simply, investment is now all about the trend and little else. You never have to value anything properly any more: just measure confidence. This approach to investing resonates with post-Keynesian economics and government planning. The expectations of the crowd, or its animal spirits, are now there to be managed. No longer is there the seemingly irrational behaviour of unfettered markets dominated by independent thinkers. Forward guidance is just the latest manifestation of this policy. It represents the triumph of economic management over the markets.

Central banks have for a long time subscribed to management of expectations. Initially it was setting interest rates to accelerate the growth of money and credit. Investors and market traders soon learned that interest rate policy is the most important factor in pricing everything. Out of credit cycles technical analysis evolved, which sought to identify trends and turning points for investment purposes.

Today this control goes much further because of two precedents: in 2001-02 the Fed under Alan Greenspan’s chairmanship cut interest rates specifically to rescue the stock market out of its slump, and secondly the Fed’s rescue of the banking system in the wake of the Lehman crisis extended direct intervention into all financial markets.

Both of these actions succeeded in their objectives. Ubiquitous intervention continues to this day, and is copied elsewhere. It is no accident that Spanish bond yields for example are priced as if Spain’s sovereign debt is amongst the safest on the planet; and as if France’s bond yields reflect a credible plan to repay its debt.

We have known for years that through intervention central banks have managed to control the prices of currencies, precious metals and government bonds; but there is increasing evidence of direct buying of other financial assets, including equities. The means for continual price management are there: there are central banks, exchange stabilisation funds, sovereign wealth funds and government-controlled pension funds, which between them have limitless buying-power.

Doubtless there is a growing band of central bankers who believe that with this control they have finally discovered Keynes’s Holy Grail: the euthanasia of the rentier and his replacement by the state as the primary source of business capital. This being the case, last month’s dip in the markets will turn out to be just that, because intervention will simply continue and if necessary be ramped up.

But in the process, all market risk is being transferred from bonds, equities and all other financial assets into currencies themselves; and it is the outcome of their purchasing power that will prove to be the final judgement in the debate of markets versus economic planning.

Economics

FMQ carries on growing…

June’s FMQ components have now been released by the St Louis Fed, and it stands at a record $13.132 trillion. As can be seen in the chart above, it is $5.48 trillion more than an extension of the pre-Lehman crisis exponential growth trend. At this point readers not familiar with the construction of FMQ and its purpose may wish to refer to the original paper, here.

It should be borne in mind that there may be seasonal factors at play, with dips in the growth rate discernable at this time of year in the past. So the slower growth rate of FMQ, up $44bn between April and June when it might have risen $150-200bn, is not necessarily due to tapering of QE3. If tapering was responsible for slowing growth in FMQ, we could expect to see some tightening in short-term interest rates. But as the chart of 3-month T-bill rates shows they have been in a declining trend since last November.

The chart confirms that tapering seems to be having little or no effect on money markets and therefore the growth rate of fiat currency.

Weakness in interest rates is also consistent with poor economic demand. This week the first estimate of Q2 GDP was released which came in at an annualised 4%, substantially above market estimates of 3.1%. This outturn conflicts sharply with the lack of any meaningful demand for money, until one looks at the underlying estimates.

Of this 4% increase, the change in real private inventories added 1.66%. In other words GDP based on goods and services actually sold was only 2.34%. That changes in unsold goods, which is what inventories represent, should be part of final consumption is a dubious proposition, but need not concern us here. According to the technical note accompanying the release, figures for inventories and durable goods (which showed an incredible rise of 14%) are estimated and not hard data, so are subject to future revision. On this basis, the surprise GDP figure is little more than a government econometrician’s guess until the real data is available. Suspicions that these guesses err on the optimistic side are confirmed by the experience of the Q1 GDP figure, which was revised sharply downwards from first estimates when hard data eventually became available.

Whichever way we look at FMQ, it continues to expand at a frightening pace irrespective of the GDP outturn and its flaws. Furthermore, a look at the most recent Fed balance sheet confirms this view, showing that the 1st August figure will be considerably higher, unless there is an offsetting contraction of bank credit.

There is little sign of any such contraction. We can conclude from short-term market interest rates that the US economy is going nowhere fast, contrary to this week’s GDP estimate, and that demand for credit continues to come from essentially financial activities. But given that GDP estimates turn out to be far too optimistic, what if the US economy stalls or even slumps? Won’t that lead to a reversal of FMQ’s growth trend?

This is essentially the argument of the deflationists. In a slump they expect a dash from credit into cash as asset prices tumble. The counterpart of credit is deposits, the major components of FMQ. And without Fed intervention FMQ would rapidly contract. But in the event of a slump the Fed cannot be expected to stand idly by without taking extraordinary measures: in the words of Mario Draghi at the ECB, whatever it takes.

Economics

The Coming Slump

Governments and central banks have made little or no progress in recovering from the Lehman crisis six years ago. The problem is not helped by dependence on statistics which are downright misleading. This is particularly true of real GDP, comprised of nominal GDP deflated by an estimate of price inflation. First, we must discuss the inflation adjustment.

The idea that there is such a thing as a valid measure of price inflation is only true in an econometrician’s imagination. An index which might be theoretically valid at a single point in time is only subsequently valid in the wholly artificial construction of an unchanging, or “evenly rotating economy”: in other words an economy where everyone who is employed remains in the same employment producing at the same rate, retains the same proportion of cash liquidity, and buys exactly the same things in the same quantities. Furthermore business inventory quantities must also be static. All human choice must be excluded for this condition. Only then can any differences in prices be identified as due to changes in the quantity of money and credit. Besides this fiction, an accurate index cannot then be constructed, because not every economic transaction is reported. Furthermore biases are built into the index, for example to overweight consumer spending relative to capital investment, and to incorporate government activity which is provided to users free of cost or subsidised. Buying art, stockmarket investments or a house are as much economic transactions as buying a loaf of bread, but these activities and many like them are specifically excluded. Worse still, adjustments are often made to conceal price increases in index constituents under one pretext or another.

Economic activities are also only selectively included in GDP, which is supposed to be the total of a country’s transactions over a period of time expressed as a money total. A perfect GDP number would include all economic transactions, and in this case would capture the changes in consumer preferences excluded from a static price index. But there is no way of identifying them to tell the difference between changes due to economic progress and changes due to monetary inflation.

To illustrate this point further, let’s assume that in a nation’s economy there is no change in the quantity of money earned, held in cash, borrowed or repaid between two dates. This being the case, what will be the change in GDP? The answer is obviously zero. People can make and buy different products and offer and pay for different services at different prices, but if the total amount of money spent is unchanged there can be no change in GDP. Instead of measuring economic growth, a meaningless term, it only measures the quantity of money spent. To summarise so far, governments are using a price index, for which there is no sound theoretical basis, to deflate a money quantity mistakenly believed to represent economic progress. In our haste to dispense with the reality of markets we have substituted half-baked ideas utilising dodgy numbers. The error goes wholly unrecognised by the majority of economists, market commentators and of course the political classes.

It also explains some of the disconnection between monetary and price inflation. Price inflation in this context refers to the increase in prices due to demand enabled by extra money and credit. As already stated, newly issued money today is spent on assets and financial speculation, excluded from both GDP and its deflator.

It stands to reason that actions based on wrong assumptions will not achieve the intended result. The assumption is that money-printing and credit expansion are not having an inflationary effect, because the statistics say so. But as we have seen, the statistics are selective, focusing on current consumption. Objective enquiry about wider consequences is deterred, and nowhere is this truer than when seeking an understanding of the wider effects of monetary inflation. This leads us to the second error: we ignore the fact that monetary inflation is a transfer of wealth from the public to the creators of new money and credit.

The transfer of wealth through monetary inflation is initially selective, before being distributed more generally. The issuers of new currency and credit are governments and the banks, both of which reap the maximum benefit of utilising them before any prices rise. But the ultimate losers are the majority of the population: by the time new money ends up in wider circulation prices have already risen to reflect its existence.

Everywhere, monetary inflation transfers real wealth from ordinary people on fixed salaries or with savings. In the US for example, since the Lehman crisis money on deposit has increased from $5.4 trillion to $12.9 trillion. This gives us an idea of how much the original deposits are being devalued through monetary inflation, a continuing effect gradually revealed through those original deposits’ diminishing purchasing-power. The scale of wealth transfer from the public to both the government and the commercial banks, which is in addition to visible taxes, is strangling economic activity.

The supposed stimulation of an economy by monetary means relies on sloppy analysis and the ignorance of the losers. Unfortunately, it is process once embarked on that is difficult to stop without exposing the true weakness of government finances and the fragility of the banking system. Governments with the burden of public welfare costs are in a debt trap from which they lack the resolve to escape. The transformation of an economy from no monetary discipline into one based on sound-money principals is widely thought by central bankers to risk creating a major banking crisis. The crisis will indeed come, but it will probably have its origins in the inability of individuals, robbed of the purchasing power of their fixed salaries and savings, to pay the prices demanded from them by businesses. This is called a slump, an old-fashioned term for the simultaneous contraction of production and demand. Not even zero or negative interest rates will save the banks from this increasingly certain event, for a very simple reason: by continuing the transfer of wealth from individuals through monetary inflation, the cure will finally kill the patient.

There is a growing certainty in the global economic outlook that is deeply alarming. The welfare-driven nations continue to impoverish their people by debauching their currencies. As Japan’s desperate monetary expansion now shows, far from improving her economic outlook, she is moving into a deepening slump, for which this article provides the explanation. Unfortunately we are all on the path to the same destructive process.

 

Economics

Monetary discord

Last Monday’s Daily Telegraph carried an interview with Jaime Caruana , the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements (the BIS). As General Manger, Caruana is CEO of the central banks’ central bank. In international monetary affairs the heads of all central banks, with the possible exception of Janet Yellen at the Fed, defer to him. And if any one central bank feels the need to obtain the support of all the others, Caruana is the link-man.

 

His opinion matters and it differs sharply from the line being pushed by the Fed, ECB, BoJ and BoE. But then he is not in the firing line, with an expectant public wanting to live beyond its means and a government addicted to monetary inflation. However, he points out that debt has continued to increase in the developed nations since the Lehman crisis as well as in most emerging economies. Meanwhile the growing sensitivity of all this debt to rises in interest rates is ignored by financial markets, where risk premiums should be rising, but are falling instead.

From someone in his position this is a stark warning. That he would prefer a return to sound money is revealed in his remark about the IMF’s hint that a few years of inflation would reduce the debt burden: “It must be clearly resisted.”

There is no Plan B offered, only recognition that Plan A has failed and that it should be scrapped. Some think this is already being done in the US, with tapering of QE3. But tapering is having little monetary effect, being replaced by the expansion of the Fed’s reverse repo programme. In a reverse repo the Fed gives the banks short-term US Government debt, paid for by drawing down their excess reserves. The USG paper is used as collateral to back credit creation, while the excess reserves are not in public circulation anyway. Therefore money is created out of thin air by the banks, replacing money created out of thin air by the Fed.

Interestingly Caruana dismisses deflation scares by saying that gently falling prices are benign, which places him firmly in the sound money camp.

But he doesn’t actually “come out” and admit to being Austrian in his economics, more an acolyte of Knut Wicksell, the Swedish economist, upon whose work on interest rates much of Austrian business cycle theory is based. This is why Caruana’s approach towards credit booms is being increasingly referred to in some circles as the Mises-Hayek-BIS view.

With the knowledge that the BIS is not in thrall to Keynes and the monetarists, we can logically expect that Caruana and his colleagues at the BIS will be placing a greater emphasis on the future role of gold in the monetary system. Given the other as yet unstated conclusion of the Mises-Hayek-BIS view, that paper currencies are in a doom-loop that ends with their own destruction, the BIS is on a course to break from the long-standing policy of preserving the dollar’s credibility by supressing gold.

Caruana is not alone in these thoughts. Even though central bankers in the political firing line only know expansionary monetary policies, it is clear that influential opinion in many quarters is building against them. It is too early to talk of a new monetary regime, but not too early to talk of the current one’s demise.

Economics

Time for change in the London bullion market

[Editor’s note: The Cobden Centre is happy to republish this commentary by Alasdair Macleod, the original can be found here.]

 

The London bullion market is an over-the-counter unregulated market and has had this status since the mid-1980s. The disadvantage of an OTC market being unregulated is that change often ends up being driven by a cartel of members promoting their own vested interests. Sadly, this has meant London has not kept pace with developments in market standards elsewhere.

 

The current row is focused on the twice-daily gold fix. The fix has been giving daily reference prices for gold since 1919, useful in the past when dealing was unrecorded and over-the-counter by telephone. The London gold fix could be described as an antiquated deal-based version of the LIBOR fix that has itself been discredited.

 

It was with this in mind that the House of Commons Treasury Committee called witnesses before it to give evidence on the matter on 2nd July. This dramatically exposed the inconsistences in the current situation, and was summed up by the Chairman Andrew Tyrie as follows: “Is there any reason we should not be treating this as an appalling story?”

 

These were strong words and his question remains hanging over the heads of all involved. It would be a mistake to think the Financial Conduct Authority which was given a rough ride by the Committee can ignore this “appalling story”. The FCA will almost certainly seek significant reforms, and reform means greater market transparency and no fix procedure that does not comply with IOSCO’s nineteen principles.

 

The current fix is thought to comply with only four of them, which is a measure of how things have moved on while the London bullion market has stood still. London effectively remains a cartel between bullion banks and the Bank of England (BoE). It has worked well for London in the past, because the BoE has used its position as the principal custodian of central bank gold to enhance liquidity. And when bailouts are required, the Bank has provided them behind closed doors.

 

The world has moved on. IOSCO has provided a standard for behaviour not just to cherry-pick, but as a minimum for credibility. China, which we routinely deride for the quality of official information, has a fully functioning gold bullion market which provides turnover and delivery statistics, as well as trade by the ten largest participants by both volume and bar sizes. China has also tied up mine output in Asia, Australia and Africa which now bypasses London completely. Dubai also has ambitions to become a major physical market, being in the centre of middle-eastern bullion stockpiles and with strong links into the Indian market.

 

Even Singapore sees itself servicing South East Asia and becoming a global centre. These realities are reflected in the 995 LBMA 400oz bar being outdated and being replaced by a new Asian 1kg 9999 standard, with refiners working overtime to affect the transition. London cannot possibly meet these global challenges without major reform.

 

Central banks are now net buyers of bullion, withdrawing liquidity from the London market instead of adding to it. With the FCA as one of its new responsibilities, the ability of the BoE to act as ringmaster in the LBMA is changing from an interventionist to a regulatory role. If it is to retain the physical gold business, London’s standards, on which users’ trust is ultimately based, must be of the highest order with the maximum levels of information disclosure.

Economics

A tale of two certainties

It is common knowledge that Japan is in extreme financial difficulties, and that the currency is most likely to sink and sink. After all, Government debt to GDP is over 250%, and the rate of increase of retirees has exceeded the birth rate for some time. A combination of population demographics, escalating welfare costs, high government debt and the government’s inability in finding a solution to Japan’s ongoing crisis ensures for international speculators that going short of the yen is a no-brainer.

 
Almost without being noticed, the Japanese yen has already lost about 30% against the US dollar and nearly 40% against the euro over the last two years. The beneficiaries of this trend unsurprisingly are speculators borrowing yen at negligible interest rates to speculate in other markets, expecting to add the yen’s depreciation to their profits. Thank you Mr Abe for allowing us to borrow yen at 1.06 euro-cents two years ago to invest in Spanish 10-year government bonds at 7.5%. Today the bonds yield 2.65% and we can buy back yen at 0.72 euro-cents. Gearing up ten times on an original stake of $10,000,000 has made a clear profit of some $300,000,000 in just two years.

 
Shorting the yen has not been profitable this year so far, with the US dollar falling against the Japanese yen from 105.3 on December 31st to 101.5 at the half-year, an annualised loss of 7.2%. This gave a negative financing return on all bond carry trades, which in the case of Spanish government debt deal cited above resulted in annualised losses of over 5%, or 50% on a ten times geared position. The trader can either take the view it’s time the yen had another fall, or it’s time to cut the position.

 
These returns, though dependant on market timing, are by no means unique. Consequently nearly everyone in the hedge fund and investment banking communities has been playing this lucrative carry game at one time or another.

 
Not only has a weak yen been instrumental in lowering bond yields around the world, it has also been a vehicle for other purchases. On the sale or short side, another commonly agreed certainty has been the imminent collapse of the credit-driven Chinese economy, which will ensure metal prices continue to fall. In this case, gearing is normally obtained through derivatives.

 
However, things don’t seem to be going according to plan for many investment banks and hedge funds, which might presage a change of strategy. Copper, which started off as a profitable short by falling 12.5% to a low of $2.93 per pound, has recovered sharply this week to $3.26 in a sudden short-squeeze. Zinc is up 6.4% over the last six months, and aluminium up 6%. Gold is up 11%, and silver 8.5%. So anyone shorting a portfolio of metal futures is making significant losses, particularly when the position is highly geared.

 
It may be just coincidence, but stories about multiple rehypothecations of physical metal in China’s warehouses have emanated from sources involved with trading in these metals. These traders have had to take significant losses on the chin on a failed strategy, and may now be moving towards a more bullish stance, because China’s warehouse scandal has not played out as they expected.

 
So two certainties, the collapse of both the yen and of Chinese economic demand don’t seem to be happening, or at least not happening quickly enough. The pressure is building for a change of investment strategies which is likely to drive markets in new directions in the coming months.

 
Economics

Taming the markets

A recent report by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) entitled Global Public Investor 2014 discussed the investment strategies of 400 government investors split into 157 central banks, 156 government pension funds and 87 sovereign wealth funds, with $29 trillion at their disposal. We normally assume that government pension and sovereign wealth funds are invested to maximise returns and are not used for political and economic purposes, but the same cannot be said of central banks.

 

According to the OMFIF report the principal reasons central banks are now investing in a wider range of assets include an appetite for higher returns in a low interest rate environment, and geopolitical reasons, whereby stakes in foreign corporations are acquired for strategic purposes. However, central banks are the conduit for a government’s financial management of an economy, and the function has been generally limited to setting interest rates, currency issuance and overseeing the expansion of bank credit. Foreign currency management and gold dealing have been grey areas, with these functions often managed by a government’s finance ministry in an exchange stabilisation fund. So a central bank investing in equities is clearly a case of mission-creep.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Peoples Bank of China through its $3.9 trillion State Administration of Foreign Exchange Fund is acquiring equity stakes in European and other companies, but we should note that central banks, such as the Swiss, Danish and Italians are also investing significant sums in equities. Other central banks yet to buy equities will be watching with interest, and analysing the potential benefits of equity investment as an ancillary tool for managing markets.

It will be far easier for the Fed, the ECB or the Bank of England to buy equities if the trail is already blazed by other smaller and respectable central banks. Perhaps an analyst at the Bank for International Settlements will open the door by writing paper on the subject. Given the abject failure of monetary policy to stimulate the major advanced economies, surely it is only a matter of time before our “animal spirits” are kept alive with this new tool.

Equity bulls are unlikely to complain. If the ECB can help recapitalise the eurozone’s banks by subscribing to capital issues, what’s not to like? If a failing industrial conglomerate is given a new lease of life by a share support scheme paid for by a central bank, think of all the jobs saved at no apparent cost! By issuing government currency to support industrial investment, Keynes’s dream explicitly stated in the conclusion to his General Theory can finally be realised, with the state replacing despised savers as the source of funding for industrial investment.

The acquisition of equities by central banks, government pension funds and sovereign wealth funds amounts to enormous power to sway markets the state’s way; all that’s required is a bit of inter-departmental cooperation and $29 trillion (and rising) can be fully utilised to this end. This intervention could increase until governments end up as significant shareholders in most major companies. Norway’s Government Pension fund alone is buying 5% of every major listed European company.

So do not under-estimate the potential scope for further government intervention. Politicians and crony-capitalists will relish this new state-sponsored capitalism, which promises to tame bear markets and enhance share options. Unfortunately such idealist thinking is in defiance of economic reality with all the eventual consequences that entails.

 
Economics

Technical analysis versus value in gold

Editor’s note: The Cobden Centre is happy to republish this commentary by Alasdair Macleod, the original can be found here.

At the outset I should declare an interest. In the 1980s I was a member of the UK’s Society of Technical Analysis and for a while I was the society’s examiner and lecturer on Elliott Wave Theory. My proudest moment as a technician was calling the 1987 crash the night before it happened and a new bull market two months later in early December. Before anyone assumes I have a gift for technical analysis, I hasten to add I have also made many wrong calls using it, so to be so spectacularly right on that occasion was almost certainly down to a large element of luck. I should also mention that the most successful investors I have observed over 40 years are those who recognise value and disdain charts altogether.

Technical analysts assume past prices are a valid basis for predicting what investors will pay tomorrow. The Warren Buffetts of this world act differently: they care not what others think and use their own judgement of value. This means that value investors often buy when the trend is down and sell when the trend is up, the opposite of technically-driven decisions. A bear market ends when value investors overcome the trend.

Technical analysts go with the crowd and give any trend an added spin. This explains the preoccupation with moving averages, bands, oscillators and momentum. Speculators, who used to be independent thinkers, now depend heavily on technical analysis. This is not to deny that many technicians make a reasonable living: the key is to know when the trend ends, and the difficulty in that decision perhaps explains why technical analysts are not on anyone’s rich list.

Value investors like Buffett rely on an assessment of the income that an investment can generate, and the opportunity-cost of owning it. This may explain his well-known views on gold which for all but a small coterie of central and bullion banks does not generate any income. So where does gold, a sterile asset in Buffett’s eyes stand in all this?

Value investors in gold who buy on falling prices are predominately Asian. For Asians the value in gold comes from the continual debasement of national currencies, a factor rarely considered by western investors who measure investment returns in their home currency with no allowance for changes in purchasing power.

The financial system discourages a more realistic approach, not even according physical gold an investment status. Using technical analysis with the false comfort of stop-losses leads to more profits for market-makers. Furthermore, gold’s replacement as money by unstable national currencies makes economic and investment calculation for anything other than the shortest of timescales unreliable or even impossible. But then this point goes over the heads of the trend-followers as well as the fundamental question of value.

Technical analysis is a tool for idle investors unwilling or unable to understand true value. It dominates price formation in western markets and distorts investor behaviour by exaggerating any natural bias towards trends. It is this band-wagon effect that is the root of trend-following’s success, but also its ultimate weakness. A better strategy is to make the effort to value gold properly and then act accordingly.

Economics

Renewed estimates of Chinese gold demand

Editor’s note: This article was previously published here at Goldmoney.com. It is republished with thanks.

Geopolitical and market background

I have been revisiting estimates of the quantities of gold being absorbed by China, and yet again I have had to revise them upwards. Analysis of the detail discovered in historic information in the context of China’s gold strategy has allowed me for the first time to make reasonable estimates of vaulted gold, comprised of gold accounts at commercial banks, mine output and scrap. There is also compelling evidence mine output and scrap are being accumulated by the government in its own vaults, and not being delivered to satisfy public demand.

The impact of these revelations on estimates of total identified demand and the drain on bullion stocks from outside China is likely to be dramatic, but confirms what some of us have suspected but been unable to prove. Western analysts have always lagged in their understanding of Chinese demand and there is now evidence China is deliberately concealing the scale of it from us. Instead, China is happy to let us accept the lower estimates of western analysts, which by identifying gold demand from the retail end of the supply chain give significantly lower figures.

Before 2012 the Shanghai Gold Exchange was keen to advertise its ambitions to become a major gold trading hub. This is no longer the case. The last SGE Annual Report in English was for 2010, and the last Gold Market Report was for 2011. 2013 was a watershed year. Following the Cyprus debacle, western central banks, seemingly unaware of latent Chinese demand embarked on a policy of supplying large quantities of bullion to break the bull market and suppress the price. The resulting expansion in both global and Chinese demand was so rapid that analysts in western capital markets have been caught unawares.

I started following China’s gold strategy over two years ago and was more or less on my own, having been tipped off by a contact that the Chinese government had already accumulated large amounts of gold before actively promoting gold ownership for private individuals. I took the view that the Chinese government acted for good reasons and that it is a mistake to ignore their actions, particularly when gold is involved.

Since then, Koos Jansen of ingoldwetrust.ch has taken a specialised interest in the SGE and Hong Kong’s trade statistics, and his dedication to the issue has helped spread interest and knowledge in the subject. He has been particularly successful in broadcasting market statistics published in Chinese to a western audience, overcoming the lack of information available in English.

I believe that China is well on the way to having gained control of the international gold market, thanks to western central banks suppression of the gold price, which accelerated last year. The basic reasons behind China’s policy are entirely logical:

  • China knew at the outset that gold is the west’s weak spot, with actual monetary reserves massively overstated. For all I know their intelligence services may have had an accurate assessment of how much gold there is left in western vaults, and if they had not, their allies, the Russians, probably did. Representatives of the People’s Bank of China will have attended meetings at the Bank for International Settlements where these issues are presumably openly discussed by central bankers.
  • China has significant currency surpluses under US control. By controlling the gold market China can flip value from US Treasuries into gold as and when it wishes. This gives China ultimate financial leverage over the west if required.
  • By encouraging its population to invest in gold China reduces the need to acquire dollars to control the renminbi/dollar rate. Put another way, gold purchases by the public have helped absorb her trade surplus. Furthermore gold ownership insulates her middle classes from external currency instability which has become an increasing concern since the Lehman crisis.

For its geopolitical strategy to work China must accumulate large quantities of bullion. To this end China has encouraged mine production, making the country the largest producer in the world. It must also have control over the global market for physical gold, and by rapidly developing the SGE and its sister the Shanghai Gold Futures Exchange the groundwork has been completed. If western markets, starved of physical metal, are forced at a future date to declare force majeure when settlements fail, the SGE and SGFE will be in a position to become the world’s market for gold. Interestingly, Arab holders have recently been recasting some of their old gold holdings from the LBMA’s 400 ounce 995 standard into the Chinese one kilo 9999 standard, which insures them against this potential risk.

China appears in a few years to have achieved dominance of the physical gold market. Since January 2008 turnover on the SGE has increased from a quarterly average of 362 tonnes per month to 1,100 tonnes, and deliveries from 44 tonnes per month to 212 tonnes. It is noticeable how activity increased rapidly from April 2013, in the wake of the dramatic fall in the gold price. From January 2008, the SGE has delivered from its vaults into public hands a total of 6,776 tonnes. This is illustrated in the chart below.

This is only part of the story, the part that is in the public domain. In addition there is gold imported through Hong Kong and fabricated for the Chinese retail market bypassing the SGE, changes of stock levels within the SGE’s network of vaults, the destination of domestic mine output and scrap, government purchases of gold in London and elsewhere, and purchases stored abroad by the wealthy. Furthermore the Chinese diaspora throughout South East Asia competes with China for global gold stocks, and its demand is in addition to that of China’s Mainland and Hong Kong.

The Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE)

The SGE, which is the government-owned and controlled gold exchange monopoly, runs a vaulting system with which westerners will be familiar. Gold in the vaults is fungible, but when it leaves the SGE’s vaults it is no longer so, and in order to re-enter them it is treated as scrap and recast. In 2011 there were 49 vaults in the SGE’s system, and bars and ingots are supplied to SGE specifications by a number of foreign and Chinese refiners. Besides commercial banks, SGE members include refiners, jewellery manufacturers, mines, and investment companies. The SGE’s 2010 Annual Report, the last published in English, states there were 25 commercial banks included in 163 members of the exchange, 6,751 institutional clients accounting for 81% of gold traded, and 1,778,500 clients of the commercial banks with gold accounts. The 2011 Gold Report, the most recent available, stated that the number of commercial bank members had increased to 29 with 2,353,600 clients, and given the rapid expansion of demand since, the number of gold account holders is likely to be considerably greater today.

About 75% of the SGE’s gold turnover is for forward settlement and the balance is for spot delivery. Standard bars are Au99.95 3 kilos (roughly 100 ounces), Au99.99 1 kilo, Au100g and Au50g. The institutional standard has become Au99.99 1 kilo bars, most of which are sourced from Swiss refiners, with the old Au99.95 standard less than 15% of turnover today compared with 65% five years ago. The smaller 100g and 50g bars are generally for retail demand and a very small proportion of the total traded. Public demand for smaller bars is satisfied mainly through branded products provided by commercial banks and other retail entities instead of from SGE-authorised refiners.

Overall volumes on the SGE are a tiny fraction of those recorded in London, and the market is relatively illiquid, so much so that opportunities for price arbitrage are often apparent rather than real. The obvious difference between the two markets is the large amounts of gold delivered to China’s public. This has fuelled the rapid growth of the Chinese market leading to a parallel increase in vaulted bullion stocks, which for 2013 is likely to have been substantial.

By way of contrast the LBMA is not a regulated market but is overseen by the Bank of England, while the SGE is both controlled and regulated by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC is also a member of both its own exchange and of the LBMA, and deals actively in non-monetary gold. While the LBMA is at arm’s length from the BoE, the SGE is effectively a department of the PBOC. This allows the Chinese government to control the gold market for its own strategic objectives.

Quantifying demand

Identifiable demand is the sum of deliveries to the public withdrawn from SGE vaults, plus the residual gold left in Hong Kong, being the net balance between imports and exports. To this total must be added an estimate of changes in vaulted bullion stocks.

SGE gold deliveries

Gold deliveries from SGE vaults to the general public are listed both weekly and monthly in Chinese. The following chart shows how they have grown on a monthly basis.

Growth in public demand for physical gold is a reflection of the increased wealth and savings of Chinese citizens, and also reflects advertising campaigns that have encouraged ordinary people to invest in gold. Advertising the attractions of gold investment is consistent with a deliberate government policy of absorbing as much gold as possible from western vaults, including those of central banks.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong provides import, export and re-export figures for gold. All gold is imported, exports refer to gold that has been materially altered in form, and re-exports are of gold transited more or less unaltered. Thus, exports refer mainly to jewellery which in China’s case is sold directly into the Mainland without going through the SGE, and re-exports refer to gold in bar form which we can assume is delivered to the SGE. Some imported gold remains on the island, and some is re-exported from China back to Hong Kong. This gold is either vaulted in Hong Kong or alternatively turned into jewellery and sold mostly to visitors from the Mainland buying tax-free gold.

The mainstream media has reported on the large quantities of gold flowing from Switzerland to Hong Kong, but this is only part of the story. In 2013, Hong Kong imported 916 tonnes from Switzerland, 190 tonnes from the US, 176 tonnes from Australia and 150 tonnes from South Africa as well as significant tonnages from eight other countries, including the UK. She also imported 337 tonnes from Mainland China and exported 211 tonnes of it back to China as fabricated gold.

Hong Kong is not the sole entry port for gold destined for the Mainland. The table below illustrates how Hong Kong’s gold trade with China has grown, and its purpose is to identify gold additional to that supplied via Hong Kong to the SGE. Included in the bottom line, but not separately itemised, is fabricated gold trade with China (both ways), as well as the balance of all imports and exports accruing to Hong Kong.

The bottom line, “Additional supply from HK” should be added to SGE deliveries and changes in SGE vaulted gold to create known demand for China and Hong Kong.

SGE vaulted gold

The increase in SGE vaulted gold in recent years can only be estimated. However, it was reported in earlier SGE Annual Reports to amount to 519.55 tonnes in 2008, 582.6 tonnes in 2009, and 841.8 tonnes in 2010. There have been no reported vault figures since.

The closest and most logical relationship for vaulted gold is with actual deliveries. After all, public demand is likely to be split between clients maintaining gold accounts at member banks, and clients taking physical possession. The ratios of delivered to vaulted gold were remarkably stable at 1.05, 1.03, and 0.99 for 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. On this basis it seems reasonable to assume that vaulted gold has continued to increase at approximately the same amount as delivered gold on a one-to-one basis. The estimated annual increase in vaulted gold is shown in the table below.

The benefits of vault storage, ranging from security from theft to the ability to use it as collateral, seem certain to encourage gold account holders to continue to accumulate vaulted metal rather than take personal possession.

Supply

Supply consists of scrap, domestically mined and imported gold

Scrap

Scrap is almost entirely gold bars, originally delivered from the SGE’s vaults into public hands, and subsequently sold and resubmitted for refining. Consequently scrap supplies tend to increase when gold can be profitably sold by individuals in a rising market, and they decrease on falling prices. There is very little old jewellery scrap and industrial recycling is not relatively significant. Official scrap figures are only available for 2009-2011: 244.5, 256.3 and 405.8 tonnes respectively. I shall therefore assume scrap supplies for 2012 at 430 tonnes and 2013 at 350 tonnes, reflecting gold price movements during those two years.

Scrap is refined entirely by Chinese refiners, and as stated in the discussion concerning mine supply below, the absence of SGE standard kilo bars in Hong Kong is strong evidence that they are withheld from circulation. It is therefore reasonable to assume that scrap should be regarded as vaulted, probably held separately on behalf of the government or its agencies.

Mine supply

China mines more gold than any other nation and it is generally assumed mine supply is sold through the SGE. That is what one would expect, and it is worth noting that a number of mines are members of the SGE and do indeed trade on it. They act as both buyers and sellers, which suggests they frequently use the market for hedging purposes, if nothing else.

Typically, a mine will produce doré which has to be assessed and paid for before it is forwarded to a refinery. Only when it is refined and cast into standard bars can gold be delivered to the market. Broadly, one of the following procedures between doré and the sale of gold bars will occur:

  • The refiner acts on commission from the mine, and the mine sells the finished product on the market. This is inefficient management of cash-flow, though footnotes in the accounts of some mine companies suggest this happens.
  • The refiner buys doré from the mine, refines it and sells it through the SGE. This is inefficient for the refiner, which has to find the capital to buy the doré.
  • A commercial bank, being a member of the SGE, finances the mine from doré to the sale of deliverable gold, paying the mine up-front. This is the way the global mining industry often works.
  • The government, which ultimately directs the mines, refiners and the SGE, buys the mine output at pre-agreed prices and may or may not put the transaction through the market.

I believe the government acquires all mine output, because it is consistent with the geopolitical strategy outlined at the beginning of this article. Furthermore, two of my contacts, one a Swiss refiner with facilities in Hong Kong and the other a vault operator in Hong Kong, tell me they have never seen a Chinese-refined one kilo bar. Admittedly, most one kilo bars in existence bear the stamp of Swiss and other foreign refiners, but nonetheless there must be over two million Chinese-refined kilo bars in existence. Either Chinese customs are completely successful in stopping all ex-vault Chinese-refined one kilo bars leaving the Mainland, or the government takes all domestically refined production for itself, with the exception perhaps of some 100 and 50 gram bars. Logic suggests the latter is true rather than the former.

Since the SGE is effectively a department of the PBOC, it must be at the government’s discretion if domestic mine production is put through the market by the PBOC. Whether or not Chinese mine supply is put through the market is impossible to establish from the available statistics, and is unimportant: no bars end up in circulation because they all remain vaulted. It is material however to the overall supply and demand picture, because global mine supply last year drops to about 2,490 tonnes assuming Chinese production is not available to the market.

Geopolitics suggests that China acquires most, if not all of its own mine and scrap production, which accumulates in the vaulting system. This throws the emphasis back on the figures for vaulted gold, which I have estimated at one-for-one with delivered gold due to gold account holder demand. To this estimate we should now add both Chinese scrap and mine supply. This would explain why vaulted gold is no longer reported, and it would underwrite my estimates of vaulted gold from 2011 onwards.

Further comments on vaulted gold

From the above it can be seen there are three elements to vaulted gold: gold held on behalf of accountholders with the commercial banks, scrap gold and mine supply. The absence of Chinese one kilo bars in circulation leads us to suppose scrap and mine supply accumulate, inflating SGE vault figures, but a moment’s reflection shows this is too simplistic. If it was included in total vaulted gold, then the quantity of gold held by accountholders with the commercial banks, as reported in 2009-11, would have fallen substantially to compensate. This cannot have been the case, as the number of accountholders increased substantially over the period, as did interest in gold investment.

Therefore, scrap and mined gold must be allocated into other vaults not included in the SGE network, and these vaults can only be under the control of the government. It will have been from these vaults that China’s sudden increase in monetary gold of 444 tonnes in the first quarter of 2009 was drawn, which explains why the total recorded in SGE vaults was obviously unaffected. So for the purpose of determining the quantity of vaulted gold, scrap and mined gold must be added to the gold recorded in SGE vaults.

Though it is beyond the scope of this analysis, the existence of government vaults not in the SGE network should be noted, and given cumulative mine production over the last thirty years, scrap supply and possibly other purchases of gold from abroad, the bullion stocks in these government vaults are likely to be very substantial.

Western gold flows to China

We are now in a position to estimate Chinese demand and supply factors in a global context. The result is summarised in the table below.

Chinese demand before 2013 had arrived at a plateau, admittedly higher than generally realised, before expanding dramatically following last April’s price drop. Taking the WGC’s figures for the Rest of the World gives us new global demand figures, which throw up a shortfall amounting to 9,461 tonnes since the Lehman crisis, satisfied from existing above-ground stocks.

This figure, though shocking to those unaware of these stock flows, could well be conservative, because we have only been able to address SGE deliveries, vaulted gold and Hong Kong net flows. Missing from our calculations is Chinese government purchases in London, demand from the ultra-rich not routed through the SGE, and gold held by Chinese nationals abroad. It is also likely that demand from the Chinese diaspora in SE Asia and Asian is also underestimated by western analysts.

There are assumptions in this analysis that should be clear to all. But if it only serves to expose the futility of attempts in western capital markets to manage the gold price, the exercise has been worthwhile. For much of 2013 commentators routinely stated that Asian demand was satisfied from ETF redemptions. But as can be seen, ETF sales totalling 881 tonnes covered only one quarter of the west’s shortfall against China, the rest coming mostly from central bank vaults. Anecdotal evidence from Switzerland is that the four major refiners have been working round-the-clock turning LBMA 400 ounce bars into one kilo 9999 bars for China. They are even working with gold bars that are battered and dusty, which suggests the west is not only digging into deep storage to satisfy Chinese demand at current prices, but digging a hole for itself as well.

Economics

Speech to the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce in London

Last week I spoke to a small group in London about the current monetary situation and the outlook for gold. The speech lasts about 20 minutes and the video can be found here:

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