Western central banks have tried to shake off the constraints of gold for a long time, which has created enormous difficulties for them. They have generally succeeded in managing opinion in the developed nations but been demonstrably unsuccessful in the lesser-developed world, particularly in Asia. It is the growing wealth earned by these nations that has fuelled demand for gold since the late 1960s. There is precious little bullion left in the West today to supply rapidly increasing Asian demand. It is important to understand how little there is and the dangers this poses for financial stability.
An examination of the facts shows that central banks have been on the back foot with respect to Asian gold demand since the emergence of the petrodollar. In the late 1960s, demand for oil began to expand rapidly, with oil pegged at $1.80 per barrel. By 1971, the average price had increased to $2.24, and there is little doubt that the appetite for gold from Middle-Eastern oil exporters was growing. It should have been clear to President Nixon’s advisers in 1971 that this was a developing problem when he decided to halt the run on the United States’ gold reserves by suspending the last vestiges of gold convertibility.
After all, the new arrangement was: America issued the petrodollars to pay for the oil, which were then recycled to Latin America and other countries in the West’s sphere of influence through the American banks. The Arabs knew exactly what was happening; gold was simply their escape route from this dodgy deal.
The run on U.S. gold reserves leading up to the Nixon Shock in August 1971 is blamed by monetary historians on France. But note this important passage from Ferdinand Lips’ book GoldWars:
Because Arabs did not understand bonds and stocks they invested their surplus funds in either real estate and/or gold. Since Biblical times, gold has been the best means to keep wealth and to transfer it from generation to generation. Gold therefore was the ideal vehicle for them. Furthermore after their oil reserves are exhausted in the distant future, they would still own gold. And gold, contrary to oil, could never be wasted.
According to Lips, Swiss private bankers, to whom many of the newly-enriched Arabs turned, recommended that a minimum of 10% and even as much as 40% should be held in gold bullion. This advice was wholly in tune with Arab thinking, creating extra demand for America’s gold reserves, some of which were auctioned off in the following years. Furthermore, Arab investors were unlikely to have been deterred by high dollar interest rates in the early eighties, because high interest rates simply compounded their rapidly-growing exposure to dollars.
Using numbers from BP’s Statistical Review and contemporary U.S. Treasury 10-year bond yields to gauge dollar returns, we can estimate gross Arab petrodollar income, including interest from 1965 to 2000, to total about $4.5 trillion. Taking average annual gold prices over that period, ten percent of this would equate to about 50,500 tonnes, which compares with total mine production during those years of 62,750 tonnes, over 90% of which went into jewellery.
This is not to say that 50,000 tonnes were bought by the Arabs; it could only be partly accommodated even if the central banks supplied them gold in very large quantities, of which there is some evidence that they did. Instead, it is to ram the point home that the Arabs, awash with printed-for-export petrodollars, had good reason to buy all available gold. And importantly, it also gives substance to Frank Veneroso’s conclusion in 2002that official intervention – i.e., undeclared sales of significant quantities of government-owned gold – was effectively being used to manage the price in the face of persistent demand for physical gold as late as the 1990s.
Transition from Arab demand
Arabs trying to invest a portion of their petrodollars would have left very little investment gold for the advanced economies. As it happened, U.S. citizens had been banned from holding bullion until 1974, and British citizens were banned until 1971. Instead, they invested mainly in mining shares and Krugerrands, continuing this tradition by using derivatives and unbacked unallocated accounts with bullion banks in preference to bullion itself. This meant that, until the mid-seventies, investment in physical gold in the West was minimal, almost all gold being held in illiquid jewellery form. Western bullion investors were restricted to mainly Germans, French, and Italians, mostly through Swiss banks. The 1970s bull market was therefore an Arab affair, and they continued to absorb gold through the subsequent bear market.
By the late-nineties, a new generation of Swiss investment managers, schooled in modern portfolio theory and less keen on gold, persuaded many of their European clients to reduce and even eliminate bullion holdings. At the same time, a younger generation of Western-educated Arabs began to replace more conservative patriarchs, so it is reasonable to assume that Arab demand for gold waned somewhat, as infrastructure spending and investment in equity markets began to provide portfolio diversification. This was therefore a period of transition for bullion, driven by declining Western investment sentiment and changing social structures in the Arab world.
It also marked the beginning of accelerating demand in emerging economies, notably India, but also in other countries such as Turkey and those in Southeast Asia, which were rapidly industrialising. In 1990, the Indian Government freed up the gold market by abolishing the Gold Control Act of 1968, paving the way for Indians to become the largest officially-recognised importers of gold until overtaken by China last year.
Lower prices in the 1990s stimulated demand for jewellery in the advanced economies, with Italy becoming the largest European manufacturing centre. At the same time, gold leasing by central banks increased substantially, as bullion banks exploited the differential between gold lease rates and the yield on short-term government debt. This leased gold satisfied jewellery demand as well continuing Asian demand for gold bars.
So, despite the fall in prices between 1997-2000, all supply was absorbed into firm hands. When gold prices bottomed out, Western central banks almost certainly had less gold than publicly stated, the result of managing the price until 1985, and through leasing thereafter. This was the background to the London Bullion Market Association, which was founded in 1987.
In 1987, the unallocated account system became formalized under London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) rules, allowing the bullion banks to issue gold IOUs to their customers, making efficient use of the bullion available. The ability to expand customer business in the gold market without having to acquire physical bullion is the chief characteristic of the LBMA to this day. Futures markets in the U.S. also expanded, and so derivatives and unallocated accounts became central to Western investment in gold. Today the only significant bullion held by Western investors is likely to be a small European residual plus exchange-traded fund (ETF) holdings. In total (including ETFs), this probably amounts to no more than a few thousand tonnes.
The LBMA was established in 1987 in the wake of the Financial Services Act in 1986. Prior to that date, the twice-daily gold fix had become the standard pricing mechanism for international dealers, whose ranks grew on the back of the 1970s bull market. This meant that international banks established their bullion dealing activities in London in preference to Zurich, which was the investment centre for physical bullion. The establishment of the LBMA was the formalization of an existing gold market based on the 400-ounce “good delivery” standard and the operation of both allocated and unallocated accounts.
During the twenty-year bear market, attitudes to gold diverged, with capital markets increasingly taking the view that the inflation dragon had been slain and gold’s bull market with it. At the same time, Asian demand – initially from the Arab oil exporters but increasingly from other nations led by Turkey, India, and Iran – ensured that there were buyers for all the physical gold available. Mine supply, which benefited from the introduction of heap-leaching techniques, had increased from 1,314 tonnes in 1980 to 2,137 tonnes in 1990 and 2,625 tonnes by 2000. Together with scrap supply, London was in a strong position to intermediate between a substantial increase in gold flows to Asian buyers, and it was from this that central bank leasing naturally developed.
Gold backed by these physical flows was the ideal asset for the carry trade. A bullion bank would lease gold from a central bank, sell the gold, and invest the proceeds in short-term government debt. It was profitable for the bullion bank, governments were happy to have the finance, and the lessor was happy to see an idle asset work up some extra income. However, leasing only works so long as the bullion bank can hedge by accessing future supply so that the lease can eventually be terminated.
Before 2000, this was a growing activity, fuelled further by Swiss portfolio disinvestment in the late 1990s. As is usual in markets with a long-term behavioral trend, competition for this business extended the risks beyond being dangerous. This culminated in a crisis in September 1999, when a 30% jump in the price threatened to bankrupt some of the bullion banks who were in the habit of running short positions.
Bull markets always start with very little mainstream and public involvement, and so it has proved with gold since the start of this century. So let us recap where all the gold was at that time:
- Total above-ground gold stocks were about 129,000 tonnes, of which 31,800 tonnes were officially monetary gold. Of the balance, approximately 85-90% was turned into jewellery or other wrought forms, leaving only 10-15,000 tonnes invested in bar and coins and allocated for industrial use.
- Out of a maximum of 15,000 tonnes, coins (mostly Krugerrands) accounted for about 1,500 tonnes and other uses (non-recovered industrial and dental), say, 1,000 tonnes. This leaves a maximum of 12,500 tonnes and possibly as little as 7,500 tonnes of investment gold worldwide at that time.
- After Swiss fund managers disposed of most of the bullion held in portfolios for their clients in the late 1990s, there was very little investment gold left in European and American ownership.
- Frank Veneroso in 2002 concluded, after diligent research, that central banks had by then supplied between 10-15,000 tonnes of monetary gold into the market. Much of this would have gone into jewellery, particularly in Asia, but some would have gone to the Middle East. This explains how extra investment gold may have been supplied to satisfy Middle Eastern demand.
- Middle Eastern countries must have been the largest holders of non-monetary gold in bar form at this time. We can see that 10% of petrodollars invested in gold would have totalled over 50,000 tonnes, yet there can only have been between 7,500-12,500 tonnes available in bar form for all investor categories world-wide. This may have been increased somewhat by the addition of monetary gold leased by central banks and acquired through the market.
It was at this point that the second gold bull market commenced against a background of very little liquidity. Investment bullion was tightly held, the central banks were badly short of their declared holdings of monetary gold, and from about 2004 onwards, ETFs were to grow to over 1,500 tonnes. Asian demand continued to grow (led by India), and China began actively promoting private ownership of gold at about the same time.
Other than through physically-backed ETFs, Western investors were encouraged to satisfy their demand for bullion through derivatives and unallocated accounts at the bullion banks. There are no publicly available records detailing the extent of these unallocated accounts, but the point is that Western demand has not resulted in increased holdings of bullion except through securitised ETFs. Instead, the liabilities faced by the bullion banks on uncovered accounts will have increased to accommodate growth in demand. Therefore, the vested interests of the bullion banks and the central banks overseeing the gold market call for continued suppression of the gold price, so as to avoid a repeat of the crisis faced in September 1999 when the price increased by 30% in only two weeks.
Where are the sellers?
Price suppression can only be a temporary stop-gap, and there has never been sufficient supply to allow the central banks to retrieve their leased gold from the bullion banks. Therefore, Frank Veneroso’s conclusion in 2002 that there had to be existing leases totalling 10-15,000 tonnes is a starting point from which leases and loans have increased. There are two events which will almost certainly have increased this figure dramatically:
- When the price rose to $1900 in September 2011, there was a concerted attempt to suppress the price from further rises. The lesson from the 1999 crisis is that the bullion banks’ geared exposure to unallocated accounts was forcing a crisis upon them; if they had been forced to cash-settle these accounts, the gold price would almost certainly have risen further, risking a widespread monetary crisis.
- Through 2012, Asian demand, particularly from China, coinciding with continued investor demand for ETFs, was already proving impossible to contain. In February this year, the Cyprus bail-in banking crisis warned depositors in the Eurozone that all bank deposits over the insured limit risked being confiscated in the event of a wider Eurozone banking crisis. This drove many unallocated account holders to seek delivery of physical gold from their banks, forcing ABN-AMRO and Rabobank to suspend all gold deliveries from their unallocated accounts. This was followed by a concerted central- and bullion-bank bear raid on the market in early April, driving the price down to trigger stop-loss sales in derivative markets and subsequent liquidation of ETF holdings.
It is widely assumed that the unexpected rise in demand for bullion that resulted from the April take-down was satisfied through ETF sales, but an examination of the quantities involved shows they were insufficient. The table below includes officially reported demand for China and India alone, not taking into account escalating demand from the Chinese diaspora in the Far East and from elsewhere in Asia:
These figures do not include Chinese and Indian purchases of gold in foreign markets and stored abroad, typically carried out by the rich and very rich. Nor do they include foreign purchases by the Chinese Government and its agencies. Despite these omissions, in 2012, recorded demand from these two countries left the world in a supply deficit of 131 tonnes. Furthermore, ahead of the April smash-down in the first quarter of this year, the deficit had jumped to 88 tons, or an annualised rate of 352 tonnes.
Demands for delivery by panicking Europeans in the wake of the Cyprus fiasco could only provoke one reaction. On Friday 12th April, 400 tonnes of paper gold were dumped on the market in two orders, triggering stop-loss sales and turning market sentiment bearish in the extreme. Western investors started to think about cutting their losses, and they sold down ETF holdings to the tune of 325 tonnes in 2013 by the end of May. However, this triggered record demand among those who looked on gold as insurance against currency and systemic risks.
Later that year, in July, Ben Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee he didn’t understand gold. That was probably a reference to the April gold price smash orchestrated by the central banks and how it unleashed record levels of demand. It was an admission that he thought everyone would follow the new trend by acting like portfolio investors, forgetting that if you lower the price of a commodity, you merely unleash demand. It was also an important admission of policy failure.
Since those events in April, someone has been supplying the market with significant quantities of gold to keep the price down. We know it is not Arab gold, because I have discovered through interviewing a director of a major Swiss refiner that Arab gold is being recast from LBMA specification bars into one-kilo .9999 bars, which has become the new Asian standard. Arab gold does not appear to be being sold, only recast, and anyway, it is only a small part of their overall wealth. We also know from our long-term analysis that any European gold bullion is relatively small in quantity and tightly held. There can only be one source for this gold, and that is the central banks.
I discovered that there was a discrepancy in the Bank of England’s custodial gold of up to 1,300 tonnes between the date of its last Annual Report (28th February) and mid-June, when a lower figure was given out to the public on the Bank’s website. This fits in well with the additional amount of gold needed to manage the price between those months. Furthermore, the Finnish Central Bank recently admitted that all its gold held at the Bank of England was “invested” – i.e., sold – and further added that the practice “was common for central banks.”
Bearing in mind Veneroso’s conclusion in 2002 that there must be 10,000-15,000 tonnes out on lease and loan from the central banks at that time, one could imagine that this figure has increased significantly. Officially, the signatories of the Central Bank Gold Agreement, plus the U.S. and U.K. own 20,393 tonnes. A number of other central banks are likely to have been persuaded to “invest” their gold, but this is bound to exclude Russia, China, the Central Asian states, Iran, and Venezuela. Taking these holders out (amounting to about 3,000 tonnes) leaves a balance of 8,401 tonnes for all the rest. If we further assume that half of that has been deposited in London, New York, or Zurich and leased out, that means the total gold leased and available for leasing since 2002 is about 12,000 tonnes. And once that has gone, there is no monetary gold left for the purpose of price suppression.
Could this have disappeared since 2002 at an average rate of 1,000 tonnes per annum? Quite possibly, in which case, the central banks are very close to losing all control over the gold price.
This article was previously published at PeakProsperity.com.
Zerohedge recently drew attention to the growing level of foreign bank cash deposits, tucked away at the bottom of the Fed’s H.8 statement.
Foreign banks’ cash balances have increased by $518.7bn since September 2012, accounting for almost all of the increase in these banks’ total assets in the H.8 table. The implication is that these cash balances are held as reserves on the Fed’s balance sheet, the counterpart of quantitative easing.
This naturally raises the reasonable question posed by Zerohedge’s article as to why the Fed appears to be benefiting foreign banks with QE. The answer is either these deposits have been transferred to them from US banks in the normal course of business or the Fed is prepared to provide liquidity to foreign banks: after all the US dollar is the reserve currency. And this liquidity is most needed by the weakest banks in the international banking system, many of which are in the eurozone.
The ECB’s room for manoeuvre with respect to money-printing is more limited, and it is the only central bank of the big four not to have overtly quantitatively eased. Furthermore, the eurozone is still in trouble even though it has disappeared from the headlines. The chart below of bank lending figures supplied by the ECB illustrates the problem.
Bank lending peaked in mid-2012, and by mid-2013 it had contracted over €1 trillion. By now, the ECB should have advance knowledge of the yet-to-be-released Q3 bank lending total, which if it has continued the downward trend explains why the ECB unexpectedly reduced interest rates recently.
Meanwhile, the Bank of England has finally admitted that the UK’s economy is growing. Conventional wisdom suggests the BoE should permit interest rates to return to more normal levels, but it refuses to do so for at least another year. The fact that the UK continues with current interest rate polices is due in part to policy coordination with the Fed, the ECB and to a lesser extent perhaps the Bank of Japan.
The logical implication from the Fed’s and the BoE’s actions is that interest rate policies are being managed with the weakest in mind. Therefore the course of prices and bank lending in the eurozone could be regarded as the current determinant of when tapering will be introduced by the Fed.
However there is still an overriding problem: if the stimulant of monetary inflation is reduced, rates along the yield curve will rise rapidly from today’s wholly artificially suppressed levels. The two cannot be divorced. The Fed knows this, and it is central to its internal debate.
The fact of the matter is that just as zero interest rates flatter bank balance sheets and government borrowing costs, the reverse is also true. Add into the mix the deflationary implications of more normal interest rates and it is obvious that the Fed and the BoE are trapped. They will not be looking forward to the day when they run out of excuses for this dilemma. But for now at least there is a rescue mission in place for the eurozone, and the Fed will continue to lend its support to foreign banks.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
This week an article in Euromoney points out that liquidity in bond markets is drying up. The blame is laid at the door of regulations designed to increase banks’ capital relative to their balance sheets. Furthermore, the article informs us, new regulations restricting the gearing on repo transactions are likely to make things worse, not only reducing bond market liquidity further, but also affecting credit markets. The reason this will be so is that in a repurchase agreement a bank supplies credit to non-banks for the period of the repo.
One could take another equally valid point of view: the reason for deteriorating liquidity in bond markets is due in part to yields being unnaturally low. If you price bonds too highly, which amounts to the same thing, few investors want to buy them without the unconditional support of the central bank as a ready buyer. This, after all, is why just the hint of tapering recently was enough to derail the markets. So here again we come up against the same choice: if the Fed insists on mispricing the market with its interventions and zero interest rate policy it must fully support the market with both QE and also twist applied to the yield curve to maintain market liquidity.
For the investment analysts and commentators that still expect tapering this must come as something of a surprise. The underlying point they have missed is that once a central bank embarks on a policy of printing money as a cure-all, it is impossible to stop, or even to just taper without risking a liquidity crisis. Increasingly illiquid markets are now telling us that QE should be increased.
The point was rammed home this week by the ECB’s decision to lower interest rates. The move was sold to the financial press as designed to stimulate inflation and reduce the risk of deflation. However, central to the deflation argument is the need to stimulate liquidity in the secondary markets, which according to the Euromoney article “are now close to breakdown”.
At least the ECB rate cut should defuse tapering expectations in US markets, making it easier for the Fed to back down from its failed experiment. The Fed now needs to plant the suggestion that QE will have to be increased, or a similar mechanism designed to boost liquidity introduced.
This will not be difficult in the prevailing economic conditions. Even though GDP remains a positive figure, concerns over deflation abound and are preoccupying more and more analysts. These are concerns which analysts can readily accept as an immediate and greater risk than inflation.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
On Wednesday Finland gave in to public pressure and revealed where she stores her gold reserves. The statement followed a press release by the Bank of Sweden on similar lines released on Monday.
The totals (in tonnes) for these two Scandinavian countries are as follows:
|Bank of England
|New York Fed
|Swiss National Bank
|Bank of Finland
|Bank of Canada
So far, so good. But then the Head of Communications for the Bank of Finland added some more information in Finnish in a blog run on the Bank’s website. It is not available in English, so I asked her for a translation, but I am still waiting.
Instead, a Finnish reader of my own blog and a Finnish journalist who has been following this topic have independently given me an English translation of a highly relevant and interesting paragraph, three from the end. This is the journalist’s:
Maximum half of the gold has been within investment activity over the years. Gold has been invested among other things in deposits similar to money market deposits and using gold interest rate swaps. Gold investment activity is common for central banks. The risks associated with gold investments are controlled using limits, investment diversification and limitations concerning duration.
And my reader’s translation:
Throughout these years no more than half of the gold has been invested. Gold has been invested in for example deposits similar to money market deposits and gold interest rate swap agreements. Gold investment activities are common for central banks. Risks related to gold investments are controlled with limits, decentralising investments and limits regarding run times.
Half Finland’s gold is stored at the Bank of England, and “no more than half” is “invested”. If any “investment” is to take place it would be in London. It is not immediately clear what is meant by invested, but presumably this is a result of translation of what has happened from English into Finnish plus explanation for a non-specialist readership. However if it has been invested, then by definition it is no longer in the possession of the Bank of Finland, and will most probably have been sold into the market in return for a promise to redeliver at a later date. This follows the Austrian National Bank’s admission to a parliamentary committee a year ago that it had earned EUR300m by leasing its gold through London.
The evidence is mounting that Western central banks through the Bank of England have been feeding monetary gold into the market through leasing operations. Indeed, the Finnish blog says as much: “Gold investment activities are common for central banks”.
This explains in part how the voracious appetite for gold by China, India and South-East Asia is being satisfied, without the gold price rising to reflect this demand. It is also consistent with my disclosure earlier this year of the discrepancy of up to 1,300 tonnes between the gold in custody as recorded in the Bank of England’s Annual Report, dated 28th February 2013 and the amount recorded on the virtual tour on the Bank’s website the following June.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
A number of people have asked me to expand on how the rapid expansion of money supply leads to an effect the opposite of that intended: a fall in economic activity. This effect starts early in the recovery phase of the credit cycle, and is particularly marked today because of the aggressive rate of monetary inflation. This article takes the reader through the events that lead to this inevitable outcome.
There are two indisputable economic facts to bear in mind. The first is that GDP is simply a money-total of economic transactions, and a central bank fosters an increase in GDP by making available more money and therefore bank credit to inflate this number. This is not the same as genuine economic progress, which is what consumers desire and entrepreneurs provide in an unfettered market with reliable money. The second fact is that newly issued money is not absorbed into an economy evenly: it has to be handed to someone first, like a bank or government department, who in turn passes it on to someone else through their dealings and so on, step by step until it is finally dispersed.
As new money enters the economy, it naturally drives up the prices of goods bought with it. This means that someone seeking to buy a similar product without the benefit of new money finds it is more expensive, or put more correctly the purchasing power of his wages and savings has fallen relative to that product. Therefore, the new money benefits those that first obtain it at the expense of everyone else. Obviously, if large amounts of new money are being mobilised by a central bank, as is the case today, the transfer of wealth from those who receive the money later to those who get it early will be correspondingly greater.
Now let’s look at today’s monetary environment in the United States. The wealth-transfer effect is not being adequately recorded, because official inflation statistics do not capture the real increase in consumer prices. The difference between official figures and a truer estimate of US inflation is illustrated by John Williams of Shadowstats.com, who estimates it to be 7% higher than the official rate at roughly 9%, using the government’s computation methodology prior to 1980. Simplistically and assuming no wage inflation, this approximates to the current rate of wealth transfer from the majority of people to those that first receive the new money from the central bank.
The Fed is busy financing most of the Government’s borrowing. The newly-issued money in Government’s hands is distributed widely, and maintains prices of most basic goods and services at a higher level than they would otherwise be. However, in providing this funding, the Fed creates excess reserves on its own balance sheet, and it is this money we are considering.
The reserves on the Fed’s balance sheet are actually deposits, the assets of commercial banks and other domestic and foreign depository institutions that use the Fed as a bank, in the same way the rest of us have bank deposits at a commercial bank. So even though these deposits are on the Fed’s balance sheet, they are the property of individual banks.
These banks are free to draw down on their deposits at the Fed, just as you and I can draw down our deposits. However, because US banks have been risk-averse and under regulatory pressure to improve their own financial position, they have tended to leave money on deposit at the Fed, rather than employ it for financial activities. There are signs this is changing.
Rather than earn a quarter of one per cent, some of this deposit money has been employed in financial speculation in derivative markets, or found its way into the stock market, gone into residential property, and some is now going into consumer loans for credit-worthy borrowers.
In addition to the government’s deficit spending, these channels represent ways in which money is entering the economy. Furthermore, anyone working in the main finance centres is being paid well, so prices in New York and London are driven higher than in other cities and in the country as a whole. They spend their bonuses on flashy cars and country houses, benefiting salesmen and property values in fashionable locations. And with stock prices close to their all-time highs, investors with portfolios everywhere feel financially better off, so they can increase their spending as well.
All the extra spending boosts GDP, and to some extent it has a snowball effect. Banks loosen their purse strings a little more, and spending increases further. But the number of people benefiting is only a small minority of the population. The rest, low-paid workers on fixed incomes, pensioners, people living on modest savings in cash at the bank, and part time employed as well as the unemployed find their cost of living has gone up. They all think prices have risen, and don’t understand that their earnings, pensions and savings have been reduced by monetary inflation: they are the ultimate victims of wealth transfer.
While luxury goods are in strong demand in London and New York, general merchants in the country find trading conditions tough. Higher prices are forcing most people to spend less, or to seek cheaper alternatives. Manufacturers of everyday goods have to find ways to reduce costs, including firing staff. After all if you transfer wealth from ordinary folk they will simply spend less and businesses will suffer.
So we have a paradox: growth in GDP remains positive; indeed artificially strong because of the under-recording of inflation, while in truth the economy is in a slump. The increase in GDP, which reflects the money being spent by the fortunate few before it is absorbed into general circulation, conceals a worse economic situation than before. The effect of an expansion of new money into an economy does not make the majority of people better off; instead it makes them worse off because of the wealth transfer effect. No wonder unemployment remains stubbornly high.
It is the commonest fallacy in economics today that monetary inflation stimulates activity. Instead, it benefits the few at the expense of the majority. The experience of all currency inflations is just that, and the worse the inflation the more the majority of the population is impoverished.
The problem for central banks is that the alternative to maintaining an increasing pace of monetary growth is to risk triggering a widespread debt crisis involving both over-indebted governments and also over-extended businesses and home-owners. This was why the concept of tapering, or putting a brake on the rate of money creation, destabilised worldwide markets and was rapidly abandoned. With undercapitalised banks already squeezed between bad debts and depositor liabilities, there is the potential for a cascade of financial failures. And while many central bankers could profit by reading and understanding this article, the truth is they are not appointed to face up to the reality that monetary inflation is economically destructive, and that escalating currency expansion taken to its logical conclusion means the currency itself will eventually become worthless.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
China is now overtly pushing for the US dollar to be replaced as the world’s reserve currency.
Xinhua, China’s official press agency on Sunday ran an op-ed article which kicked off as follows:
As U.S. politicians of both political parties are still shuffling back and forth between the White House and the Capitol Hill without striking a viable deal to bring normality to the body politic they brag about, it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.
China does have a broad strategy to prepare for this event. She is encouraging the creation of an international market in her own currency through the twin centres of Hong Kong and London, side-lining New York, and she is actively promoting through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) non-dollar trade settlement across the whole of Asia. She has also been covertly building her gold reserves while overtly encouraging her citizens to accumulate gold as well.
There can be little doubt from these actions that China is preparing herself for the demise of the dollar, at least as the world’s reserve currency. Central to insuring herself and her citizens against this outcome is gold. China has invested heavily in domestic mine production and is now the largest producer at an estimated 440 tonnes annually, and she is also looking to buy up gold mines elsewhere. Little or none of the domestically mined gold is seen in the market, so it is a reasonable assumption the Government is quietly accumulating all her own production without it becoming publicly available.
Recorded demand for gold from China’s private sector has escalated to the point where their demand now accounts for significantly more than the rest of the world’s mine production. The Shanghai Gold Exchange is the mainland monopoly for physical delivery, and Hong Kong acts as a separate interacting hub. Between them in the first eight months of 2013 they have delivered 1,730 tonnes into private hands, or an annualised rate of 2,600 tonnes.
The world ex-China mines an estimated 2,260 tonnes, leaving a supply deficit for not only the rest of gold-hungry South-east Asia and India, but the rest of the world as well. It is this fact that gives meat to the suspicion that Western central bank monetary gold is being supplied keep the price down, because ETF sales and diminishing supplies of non-Asian scrap have been wholly insufficient to satisfy this surge in demand.
So why is the Chinese Government so keen on gold? The answer most likely involves geo-politics. And here it is worth noting that through the SCO, China and Russia with the support of most of the countries in between them are building an economic bloc with a common feature: gold. It is noticeable that while the West’s financial system has been bad-mouthing gold, all the members of the SCO, including most of its prospective members, have been accumulating it. The result is a strong vein of gold throughout Asia while the West has left itself dangerously exposed.
The West selling its stocks of gold has become the biggest strategic gamble in financial history. We are committing ourselves entirely to fiat currencies, which our central banks are now having to issue in accelerating quantities. In the process China and Russia have been handed ultimate economic power on a plate.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
We are now into a second week of a partial Federal Government shut-down, which is causing considerable concern, centred on the Government’s ability to finance its debt and pay interest without a budget agreed for the new fiscal year. Should this continue into next week and beyond, the Fed will have to enter damage-limitation mode if the Treasury cannot issue any more bonds because of the separate problem of the debt ceiling.
Most likely, QE will have to be switched from financing the government to buying Treasuries already owned by the private sector. Any attempt to reduce the monthly addition of raw money will simply result in bond yields and then interest rates rising. And indeed, already this week we have seen yields on short-term T-bills rise in anticipation of a possible default. The market is naturally beginning to discount the possibility that the Fed may not be able to control the situation.
The T-bill issue is very serious, because they are the most liquid collateral for the $70 trillion shadow banking system. And without the liquidity they provide securities and derivative markets, we can say that Round Two of the banking crisis could make Lehman look like a picnic in the park.
This is the sort of event deflationists have long been expecting. According to their analysis there comes a point where debt liquidation is triggered and there is a dash for cash as assets collapse. But they reckon without allowing for the fact that deposits can only be encashed at the margin; otherwise they are merely transferred, and only destroyed when banks go under. This is the risk the Fed anticipates, and we can be certain it will move heaven and earth to avoid bank insolvencies.
Furthermore the deflationists do not have a satisfactory argument for the effect on currency exchange rates. Iceland went through a similar deflationary event to that risked in the US today when its banking system collapsed and the currency halved overnight. Today a dollar collapse on the back of a banking crisis would also disrupt all other fiat currencies, forcing central banks to coordinate intervention to conceal the currency effect. This leaves gold as the only true reflector of loss of confidence in the dollar and therefore all other fiat currencies.
Those worrying about deflation ignore the fact that it is the fiat currency that takes it on the chin while gold rises – every time without exception. This was even the experience of the 1930s, when Roosevelt suspended convertibility, increased the price of gold by 40% to $35 per ounce, and the banking crisis was contained.
Of course there is likely to be some short-term uncertainty; but against the Fiat Money Quantity (FMQ) gold is down 30% compared with the price pre-Lehman crisis. This is shown in the chart below.
With gold at an extreme low in valuation terms, current events, whichever way they go, seem unlikely to drive it much lower. A wise man perhaps should copy the Asians, who know a thing or two about paper currencies, and are buying gold in ever-increasing quantities.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
Recent statistics are confirming “economic recovery” in the UK and even some of the weaker eurozone states. I put this in quotes, because what we are seeing is expanding nominal GDP, which is not the same thing. GDP reflects money and credit going into the economy, which everyone believes is the same thing.
Instead of economic recovery, GDP is reflecting money leaving financial markets, particularly bonds, for less interest-rate sensitive havens. Globally, bonds represent invested capital of over $150 trillion, or more than twice global GDP, so even marginal amounts unleashed by rising bond yields can be financially destabilising and the effect on GDP growth could be electric. The mistake of confusing economic progress (a better description of what we all desire) with GDP is about to bite the economic establishment big-time and pressure for interest rates to rise early and substantially will intensify as a result, dragged up by those rising bond yields.
The problem facing central planners is that this GDP chimera is driven by a predominantly financial community that has money to invest in capital assets such as housing and even motor cars. The vast majority of economic actors, comprised of pensioners, low-wage workers living from payday to payday and the unemployed are simply disadvantaged as prices, already often beyond their reach, become even more unaffordable. It is a misfortune encapsulated in the concept of the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, where the substantial majority will be badly squeezed by rising prices generated by the spending of that few.
The central planners are understandably focused on the misfortunes of the majority. For many of them, as prices start to rise so too do costs for their employers, many of which will be squeezed out of business. How can interest rates possibly be permitted to rise in the face of these dangers?
Central banks have drawn their line in the sand over interest rates and they will eventually be forced to reconsider their position. They are almost certain to be too slow in raising interest rates and so the markets will continually expect higher bond yields and higher interest rates to come. For those of us with long memories it is a repeat of the late-seventies stagflation era. Except this time, aggressively raising interest rates to stabilise the purchasing power of the currency is not an option: it will simply break the banking system lumbered with its share of the $150 trillion invested in bonds.
Markets are blithely assuming that central banks are in control of events. They are not even in control of their own governments’ profligacy, and they are losing their control over markets as well, as the tapering episode showed. The fatal error of rescuing both the banking system and government finances by reckless currency inflation is in the process of becoming apparent to all. Unless this policy is somehow reversed we risk a global rerun of the collapse of the German mark in 1923.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
After all the fuss about tapering, it is worth remembering that central banks can and do expand the money quantity without quantitative easing.
Put simply, so long as a central bank decides to hold interest rates at a chosen level and is prepared to provide liquidity to any bank that requires it, the central bank stands in the market to offer unlimited quantities of money at the stated rate. As a result central banks are like motorists who do not know how to reverse from lack of practice. And the only times they apply the brakes are when bank credit is expanding more rapidly in proportion to measures of narrow money, and then always too late to avoid an accident. This is the well-established sequence of the monetary cycle of boom and bust.
The continual expansion of deposits was even true during Paul Volcker’s time at the Fed, and is illustrated in the chart below of true money supply (TMS), which is comprised of cash and liquid deposits at the commercial banks and covers the years of his tenure.
The Fed raised the fed funds rate from an average of 11.2% in 1979 to a peak of 20% in June 1981, and TMS hardly fell. However, any fall was only statistical, because before 1982 banks were limited by Regulation Q of the Banking Act 1933 to paying interest on accessible savings deposits at a maximum of 5.25%, even though Treasury bonds were yielding more than double that at the time. Consequently deposits moved away from bank accounts to other savings vehicles. This anomaly was corrected in 1982 by deregulation, when money-market deposit accounts for $2,500 and over with no interest rate restrictions were permitted, followed by the Super NOW accounts in January 1983. This is the reason for the sudden increase in TMS at that time.
Taking these distortions into account, it can be seen that not even a sharp rise in interest rates halted monetary growth. Furthermore, during Volcker’s chairmanship TMS actually doubled. So we can conclude that even when the Fed tackles price inflation with draconian measures it does not actually restrict monetary growth.
The lesson for today is that even if the Fed was to taper, it would most probably be wrong to think this would be to restrict monetary growth. The Fed is wholly committed, as is the ECB, the BoE and the Bank of Japan, to maintaining close-to-zero interest rates for up to two more years, which is the overriding consideration.
QE is a very effective way to ensure monetary expansion, with the additional benefit that it finances the government deficit at virtually no cost. The financial markets and the general public have fully accepted QE as a valid method of pursuing monetary policy and are not alarmed by potential inflationary consequences.
What is more important for both central banks and the markets generally is the firm belief that monetary expansion will continue. It would be a pity, so far as the Fed is concerned, to reduce or give up QE, because it would have to use other means of deposit creation. But with respect to monetary creation that is all.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com
Now that there is growing evidence of GDP growth, we must consider a new topic: the likely effect on central bank balance sheets, using the US Fed as an example.
Since the banking crisis the Fed has acquired substantial quantities of securities as a result of the assistance it gave to too-big-to-fail banks and subsequently through quantitative easing, most of the assistance to the banks, the Maiden Lane and TALF securitisations, has been repaid. But since then, QE has swelled the Fed’s balance sheet to $3.6 trillion. The financing of this expansion is reflected mainly in excess reserves, which are deposits in favour of depository institutions, in excess of their required reserves.
As bond yields rise, it is obvious that the Fed will have to absorb portfolio losses, currently amounting to about $20bn for each one per cent fall in the value of its US Treasuries and $13bn on its mortgage securities (though these are likely to be more stable in price due to their self-liquidating nature). So far, 10-year Treasuries have fallen about 12% since end-April, and the Fed has $522bn of Treasuries with a maturity of over 10 years. In very rough terms the losses on its Treasuries of all maturities are likely to be about $200bn since April, larger than the Fed’s own capital by a very wide margin.
On the face of it, it doesn’t matter if the Fed’s capital is wiped out because it can easily magic up some more. But another problem will come when it has to raise interest rates: what will it do to stop banks withdrawing their excess reserve deposits? Presumably raise the interest rate paid on them. But it will probably appear to the wider public that the Fed is paying the banks not to lend money to businesses and people. At the moment interest on reserve deposits is only ¼%, but what if it has to be raised to 3% or 4% or even more to control bank credit? The banks will be earning between them $60-80bn per annum by leaving their excess reserves at the Fed.
It can be seen that rising bond yields and interest rates will play havoc with central bank accounts. It wasn’t meant to be like this: economic recovery was going to allow the Fed to taper its QE, and government deficits would disappear as tax revenues recover, giving the space for the Fed to unwind its purchases of Treasury debt. Instead, rising interest rates are likely to make it very difficult for the Fed to reduce its holdings of Treasuries, eliminating all those inflationary excess reserves at the same time.
The other major central banks face the same problem, having expanded their balance sheets in the wake of the banking crisis. They will be expected to stabilise the banking system and ensure undercapitalised banks are not wiped out by rising bond yields, or wrong-footed by interest-rate swap exposures. If, at the same time, the central banks are forced to recapitalise themselves to appear solvent, one wonders what the effect will be on the currencies concerned.
We might be about to discover how sound they and their currencies really are.