2014 ended with two ominous developments: the strength of the US dollar and a collapse in key commodity prices.
It is tempting to view both events as one, but the continuing fall in oil prices through December reveals they are sequential: first there was a greater preference for dollars compared with other currencies and this still persists, followed by a developing preference for all but the weakest currencies at the expense of raw materials and energy. These are two steps on a path that should logically lead to a global slump.
Dollar strength was the first warning that things were amiss, leading to higher interest rates in many of the emerging economies as their central banks sought to control investment outflows. Since this followed a prolonged period of credit expansion these countries appear to be entering the bust phase of the credit-driven boom-and-bust cycle; so for them, 2015 at a minimum will see a slump in economic activity as the accumulated malinvestments from the past are unwound. According to the IMF database, emerging market and developing economies at current prices account for total GDP of over $30 trillion, compared with advanced economies’ GDP totalling $47 trillion. It is clear that a slump in the former will have serious repercussions for the latter.
As the reserve currency the dollar is central to the exchange value of all other currencies. This is despite attempts by China and Russia to trade without it. Furthermore and because of this dependency, the global economy has become more geared to the dollar over the years because it has expanded relative to the US. In 2000, the US was one-third of global GDP; today it is about one-fifth.
The second development, falling energy and commodity prices, while initially driven by the same factors as dollar strength, confirms the growing likelihood of a global slump. If falling prices were entirely due to increased supply of the commodities involved, we could rejoice. However, while there has been some increase in energy and commodity supply the message is clear, and that is demand at current prices has unexpectedly declined, and prices are now trying to find a new equilibrium. And because we are considering world demand, this development is being missed or misread by economists who lack a global perspective.
The price of oil has approximately halved in the last six months. The fall has been attributed variously to the west trying to bankrupt Russia, or to Saudi Arabia driving American shale production out of business. This misses the bigger picture: according to BP’s Statistical Review 2014, at the beginning of last year world oil consumption comfortably exceeded supply, 91.3million barrels per day compared with 86.8. This indicates that something fundamental changed in 2014 to collapse the price, and that something can only be a sudden fall in demand in the second half.
Iron ore prices have also halved over the last six months, but other key commodities, such as copper which fell by only 11% over the period, appear to have not yet adjusted to the emerging markets slump. This complies with business cycle theory, because in the early stages of a slump businesses remain committed to their capital investment plans in the vain hope that conditions will improve. This being the case, the collapse in demand for energy can be expected to deepen and spread to other industrial raw materials as manufacturers throw in the towel and their investment plans are finally abandoned.
Therefore the economic background to the financial outlook for the global economy is not encouraging. Nor was it at the beginning of 2014, when it was obviously going to be a difficult year. The difference a year on is that the concerns about the future are more crystallised. This time last year I wrote that we were heading towards a second (to Lehman) and unexpected financial and currency crisis that could happen at any time. I only modify that to say the crisis has indeed begun and it has much further to go this year. This is the background against which we must briefly consider some of the other major currencies, and precious metals.
Japan and the yen
The complacency about Japan in the economic and investment communities is astonishing. Japan is committed to a scale of monetary inflation that if continued can only end up destroying the yen. The Bank of Japan is now financing the equivalent of twice the government deficit (¥41 trillion) by issuing new currency, some of which is being used to buy Japanese equity ETFs and property REITs. By these means pricing in bond, equity and commercial property markets has become irrelevant. “Abenomics” is about financing the government and managing the markets under the Keynesian cover of stimulating both the economy and animal spirits. In fact, with over ¥1.2 quadrillion of public sector debt the government is caught in a debt trap from which it sees no escape other than bluff. And since Abenomics was first embarked upon two years ago, the yen has fallen from 75 to the US dollar to 120, or 37%.
Instead of learning the lessons of previous hyperinflations, mainstream economists fall for the official line and ignore the facts. The facts are simple: Japan is a welfare state with an increasing and unsustainable ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers. She is the leading advanced nation on a debt path the other welfare nations are closely following. Consensus forecasts that the Japanese economy will be stimulated into recovery in 2015 are wide of the mark: instead she is destroying her currency and private sector wealth with it.
Eurozone and the euro
In the short-term the Eurozone is being revisited by its Greek problem. Whether or not the next Greek government backs off from confronting the other Eurozone members and the ECB remains to be seen. The problems for the Eurozone lie considerably deeper than Greece, made worse by politicians who have been reluctant to use the time bought by the ECB to address the structural difficulties of the 19 Eurozone members. The result is the stronger northern bloc (Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) is being crippled by the burden of the Mediterranean states plus Portugal plus France. And Germany and Finland have suffered the further blow of losing valuable export business from Russia.
In the coming months the Eurozone will likely face gas shortages from Russia through the trans-Ukrainian pipeline, and price deflation driven by energy and other commodity prices. Price deflation spurs two further points to consider, one false and the other true: lower prices are deemed to be recessionary (false), and falling prices increase the burden of real debt (true). The consequence is that the ECB will seek ways to expand money supply aggressively to stop the Eurozone from drifting into an economic crisis. In short, the Eurozone will likely develop its own version of Abenomics, the principal difference being the Eurozone’s timeline is behind Japan’s.
US and UK
Japan and the Eurozone account for total GDP of $18.3 trillion, slightly more than the US and added to the emerging and developing economies, gives a total of $48 trillion, or 62% of global GDP for nations leading the world into a slump. So when we consider the prospects for the US and the UK, together producing $20.4 trillion or 26% of the world’s GDP, their prospects are not good either. The UK as a trading nation exposed to the Eurozone has immediate risk, while the US which is not so dependent on international trade, less so.
The foregoing analysis is of the primary economic drivers for 2015 upon which all else will ultimately depend. The risk of a global slump can be called a first order event, while the possibility of a banking crisis, derivatives default or other market dislocation brought on by a slump could be termed a second order event. There is no point in speculating about the possibility and timing of second order events occurring in 2015, because they ultimately depend on the performance of the global economy.
However, when it becomes clear to investors that the global economy is indeed entering a slump, financial and systemic risks are certain to escalate. Judging this escalation by monitoring markets will be difficult because central banks, exchange stability funds and sovereign wealth funds routinely intervene in markets, rendering them misleading as price signals.
Precious metals are the only assets beyond the long-term control of governments. They can distort precious metal markets in the short term by expanding the quantity of derivatives, and there is a body of evidence that these methods have been employed in recent years. But most price distortion today appears to have come from bullion and investment banks who are fully committed to partying in bonds, equities and derivatives, and for which gold is a spoiler. This complacency is bound to be undermined at some point, and a global economic slump is the likely catalyst.
The dangers of ever-inflating currencies are clearly illustrated by the Fiat Money Quantity, which has continued to expand at an alarming rate as shown in the chart below.
FMQ measures the amount of fiat currency issued as a replacement for gold as money, so is a measure of unbacked monetary expansion. At $13.52 trillion last November it is $5.68 trillion above the long-established pre-Lehman crisis growth path, stark evidence of a depreciating currency in monetary terms. Adjusting the price of gold for this depreciation gives a price today the equivalent of $490 in dollars at that time and quantity, so gold has roughly halved in real currency terms since the Lehman crisis.
There is compelling evidence that 2015 will see a global slump in economic activity. This being the case, financial and systemic risks will increase as evidence of the slump accumulates. It can be expected to undermine global equities, property and finally bond markets, which are currently all priced for economic stability. Even though these markets are increasingly controlled by central bank intervention, it is dangerous to assume this will continue to be the case as financial and systemic risks accumulate.
Precious metals are ultimately free from price management by the state. Furthermore, they are the only asset class notably under-priced today, given the enormous increase in the quantity of fiat money since the Lehman crisis.
In short, 2015 is shaping up to be very bad for fiat currencies and very good for gold and silver.
Last week I wrote that contrary to the prevailing mood US dollar strength could reverse at any time. This week I look at another aspect of the dollar, which almost certainly will become a significant source of supply: a global shift out of it by foreign holders.
As well as multinational corporations that account in dollars, there are non-US entities that use dollars purely for trade. And so long as governments intervene in currency markets, governments end up with those trade dollars in their foreign reserves. Some of these governments are now pushing hard to replace the dollar, having seen its debasement, which is beyond their control. This has upset nations like China, and that is before we speculate about any geopolitical angle.
The consequence of China’s currency management has been a massive accumulation of dollars which China cannot easily sell. All she can do is stop accumulating them and not reinvest the proceeds from maturing Treasuries, and this has broadly been her policy for at least the last year. So this problem has been in the works for some time and doubtless contributed to China’s determination to reduce her dependency on the dollar. Furthermore, it is why thirteen months ago George Osborne was summoned (that is the only word for it) to Beijing to discuss a move to urgently develop offshore renminbi capital markets, utilising the historic links between Hong Kong and London. Since then, it is reported that last month over 22% of China’s external trade was settled in its own currency.
Given the short time involved, it is clear that there is a major change happening in cross-border trade hardly noticed by financial commentators. But this is not all: sanctions against Russia have turned her urgently against the dollar as well, and together with China these two nations dominate and carry with them the bulk of Asia, representing nearly four billion rapidly industrialising souls. To this we should add the Middle East, most of whose oil is now exported to China, India and South-East Asia, making the petro-dollar potentially redundant as well.
In a dollar-centric currency system, China is restricted in what she can do, because with nearly $4 trillion in total foreign exchange reserves she cannot sell enough dollars to make a difference without driving the renminbi substantially higher. In the past she has reduced her dollar balances by selling them for other currencies, such as the euro, but she cannot rely on the other major central banks to neutralise the market effect of her dollar sales on her behalf. Partly for this reason China now intends to redeploy her reserves into international investment to develop her export markets for capital goods, as well as into major infrastructure projects, such as the $40bn Silk Road scheme.
This simply amounts to dispersing China’s dollars into diverse hands to conceal their disposal. Meanwhile currency markets have charged off in the opposite direction, with the dollar’s strength undermining commodity prices, most noticeably oil, very much to China’s benefit. And while the talking-heads are debating the effect on Russia and America’s shale, they are oblivious to the potential tsunami of dollars just waiting for the opportunity to return to the good old US of A.
There is a significant risk that the financial effects of the collapse in the oil price could spread through the financial system. Already there must have been significant transfers of value through OTC derivative markets, whose gross notional value is about $700 trillion. Roughly $300 trillion of this is with the top US banks as counterparty. A minority of this is with credit default swaps, but if there is problem here, it could easily spread to other derivative categories through counterparty risk.
Remember that the US economy is $17 trillion, so we are talking figures of a far greater magnitude than that.
We have had these scares in the past, notably with AIG, and the Lehman crisis, and also with the Eurozone crisis when Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy were insolvent together. We could be on the verge of another such crisis, this time triggered by the collapse in the price of crude oil.
For me one event we cannot ignore is a clause slipped into the omnibus finance bill passed by Congress last week, whereby the FDIC, which insures small bank deposits in the event of a bank failure, will also take on responsibility for derivative contracts. The only possible reason this has been slipped in must be because the Wall Street banks are worried about counterparty risk for derivatives, which is totally beyond any individual bank’s control.
The fact that this is the subject of urgent legislation (the wording was put together by Citi and adopted word for word) instead of a more considered approach confirms to me that we have a real problem on our hands.
Each commodity market has its own story to tell: oil prices are falling because OPEC can’t agree production cuts, steel faces a glut from overcapacity, and even the price of maize has fallen, presumably because of good harvests.
In local currencies this is not so much the case. Of course, the difference between prices in local currencies and prices in US dollars is reflected in the weakness of most currencies against the dollar in the foreign exchange markets. This tells us that whatever is happening in each individual commodity and in each individual currency the common factor is the US dollar.
This is obvious perhaps, but the fall in commodity prices and the rise in the US dollar have to be seen in context. We should note that for most of the global population, the concern that we are facing global deflation (by which is commonly meant falling prices) is not yet true. Nor is a conclusion that the fall in the oil price indicates a sudden collapse in demand for energy. When the dollar price of oil began to slide, so did the exchange rates for all the other major currencies, confirming a significant part of oil’s price move came from dollar strength, which would have also been true of commodity prices generally.
All we can say is that on average there has been a shift of preferences towards holding dollars and away from holding commodities. Looked at in this light we can see that a trend of destocking can develop solely for financial rather than business reasons, because businesses which account in dollars face financial losses on excess inventory. It is the function of speculators to anticipate these decisions, which is what we have seen in recent months.
Macro-economists, who are Keynesian or monetarist by definition, are beginning to interpret falling commodity prices and a rising dollar as evidence of insufficient aggregate demand, which left unchecked will lead to deflation, increasing unemployment, bankruptcies, falling asset prices, and bank insolvencies. It is, they say, an outcome to be avoided at all costs by ensuring that aggregate demand is stimulated so that none of this happens.
Whether or not they are right in this assessment is not the point. They neglect to allow that some of the move in commodity prices is due to the currency itself as the numéraire of all prices.
For evidence of this we need look no further than the attitude of the Fed and every other central bank that targets price inflation as part of their monetary policy. In forming monetary policy there is no allowance for the possibility, nay likelihood, that in future there will be a change in preferences against the dollar, or any other currency for that matter, and in favour of anything else. The tragedy of this lack of market comprehension is that it’s a fair bet that monetary policy will not only succeed in limiting the rise of the dollar as it is designed to do, but end up undermining it when preferences shift the other way.
The moral of the story is that the Fed may be able to fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but worst of all they are fooling themselves. And we should bear in mind that dollar strength is only a trend which can easily reverse at any time.
The hypothesis that follows, if carried through, is certain to have a significant effect on gold and the relationship between gold and all government-issued currencies.
The successful remonetisation of gold by a major power such as Russia would draw attention to the fault-lines between fiat currencies issued by governments unable or unwilling to do the same and those that can follow in due course. It would be a schism in the world’s dollar-based monetary order.
Russia has made plain her overriding monetary objective: to do away with the US dollar for all her trade, an ambition she shares with China and their Asian partners. Furthermore, in the short-term the rouble’s weakness is undermining the Russian economy by forcing the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) to impose high interest rates to defend the currency and by increasing the burden of foreign currency debt. There is little doubt that one objective of NATO’s economic sanctions is to harm the Russian economy by undermining the currency, and this policy is working with the rouble having fallen 30% against the US dollar this year so far with the prospect of further falls to come.
Russia faces the reality that pricing the rouble in US dollars through the foreign exchanges leaves her a certain loser in a currency war against America and her NATO allies. There is a solution which was suggested in a recent paper by John Butler of Atom Capital, and that is for Russia to link the rouble to gold, or more correctly put it on a gold exchange standard*. The proposal at first sight is so left-field that it takes a lateral thinker such as Butler to think of it. Separately, Professor Steve Hanke of John Hopkins University has alternatively proposed that Russia sets up a currency board to stabilise the rouble. Professor Hanke points out that Northern Russia tied the rouble to the British pound with great success in 1918 after the Bolshevik revolution when Britain and other allied nations invaded and briefly controlled the region. What he didn’t say is that sterling would most likely have been accepted as a gold substitute in the region at that time, so running a currency board was the equivalent of putting the rouble in Russia’s occupied lands onto a gold exchange standard.
Professor Hanke has successfully advised several governments to introduce currency boards over the years, but we can probably rule it out as an option for Russia because of her desire to ditch US dollar relationships. However, on further examination Butler’s idea of fixing the rouble to gold is certainly feasible. Russia’s public sector external debt is the equivalent of only $378bn in a $2 trillion economy, her foreign exchange reserves total $429bn of which over $45bn is in physical gold, and the budget deficit this year is likely to be roughly $10bn, considerably less than 1% of GDP. These relationships suggest that a rouble to gold exchange standard could work so long as fiscal discipline is maintained and credit expansion moderated.
Once a rate is set, the Russians would not be restricted to just buying and selling gold to maintain the rate of gold exchange. The CBR has the power to manage rouble liquidity as well, and as John Butler points out, it can issue coupon-bearing bonds to the public which would be attractive compared with holding cash roubles. By issuing these bonds, the public is in effect offered a yield linked to gold, but higher than gold’s interest rate indicated by the gold lease rates in the London market. Therefore, as the sound-money environment becomes established the public will adjust its financial affairs around a considerably lower interest rate than the current 9.5%-10% level, but in the context of sound money it must always be repaid. Obviously the CBR would have to monitor bank credit expansion to ensure that lower interest rates do not result in a dangerous increase in bank lending and jeopardise the arrangement.
In short, the central bank could easily counter any tendency for roubles to be cashed in for gold by withdrawing roubles from circulation and by restricting credit. Consideration would also have to be given to roubles in foreign ownership, but the current situation for foreign-owned roubles is favourable as well. Speculators in foreign exchange markets are likely to have sold the rouble against dollars and euros, because of the Ukrainian situation and as a play on lower oil prices. The announcement of a gold exchange standard can therefore be expected to lead to foreign demand for the rouble from foreign exchange markets because these positions would almost certainly be closed. Since there is currently a low appetite for physical gold in western capital markets, longer-term foreign holders of roubles are unlikely to swap them for gold, preferring to sell them for other fiat currencies. So now could be a good time to introduce a gold-exchange standard.
The greatest threat to a rouble-gold parity would probably arise from bullion banks in London and New York buying roubles to submit to the CBR in return for bullion to cover their short positions in the gold market. This would be eliminated by regulations restricting gold for rouble exchanges to legitimate import-export business, but also permitting the issue of roubles against bullion for non-trade related deals and not the other way round.
So we can see that the management of a gold-exchange standard is certainly possible. That being the case, the rate of exchange could be set at close to current prices, say 60,000 roubles per ounce. Instead of intervention in currency markets, the CBR should use its foreign currency reserves to build and maintain sufficient gold to comfortably manage the rouble-gold exchange rate.
As the rate becomes established, it is likely that the gold price itself will stabilise against other currencies, and probably rise as it becomes remonetised. After all, Russia has some $380bn in foreign currency reserves, the bulk of which can be deployed by buying gold. This equates to almost 10,000 tonnes of gold at current prices, to which can be added future foreign exchange revenues from energy exports. And if other countries begin to follow Russia by setting up their own gold exchange standards they likewise will be sellers of dollars for gold.
The rate of increase in the cost of living for the Russian population should begin to drop as the rouble stabilises, particularly for life’s essentials. This has powerfully positive political implications compared with the current pain of food price inflation of 11.5%. Over time domestic savings would grow, spurred on by low welfare provision by the state, long-term monetary stability and low taxes. This is the ideal environment for developing a strong manufacturing base, as Germany’s post-war experience clearly demonstrated, but without her high welfare costs and associated taxation.
Western economists schooled in demand management will think it madness for the central bank to impose a gold exchange standard and to give up the facility to expand the quantity of fiat currency at will, but they are ignoring the empirical evidence of a highly successful Britain which similarly imposed a gold standard in 1844. They simply don’t understand that monetary inflation creates uncertainty for capital investment, and destroys the genuine savings necessary to fund it. Instead they have bought into the fallacy that economic progress can be managed by debauching the currency and ignoring the destruction of savings.
They commonly assume that Russia needs to devalue her costs to make energy and mineral extraction profitable. Again, this is a fallacy exposed by the experience of the 1800s, when all British overseas interests, which supplied the Empire’s raw materials, operated under a gold-based sterling regime. Instead, by not being burdened with unmanageable debt and welfare costs, by maintaining lightly-regulated and flexible labour markets, and by running a balanced budget, Russia can easily lay the foundation for a lasting Eurasian empire by embracing a gold exchange standard, because like Britain after the Napoleonic Wars Russia’s future is about new opportunities and not preserving legacy industries and institutions.
That in a nutshell is the domestic case for Russia to consider such a step; but if Russia takes this window of opportunity to establish a gold exchange standard there will be ramifications for her economic relationships with the rest of the world, as well as geopolitical considerations to take into account.
An important advantage of adopting a gold exchange standard is that it will be difficult for western nations to accuse Russia of a desire to undermine the dollar-based global monetary system. After all, President Putin was more or less told at the Brisbane G20 meeting, from which he departed early, that Russia was not welcome as a participant in international affairs, and the official Fed line is that gold no longer plays a role in monetary policy.
However, by adopting a gold exchange standard Russia is almost certain to raise fundamental questions about the other G20 nations’ approach to gold, and to set back western central banks’ long-standing attempts to demonetise it. It could mark the beginning of the end of the dollar-based international monetary system by driving currencies into two camps: those that can follow Russia onto a gold standard and those that cannot or will not. The likely determinant would be the level of government spending and long-term welfare liabilities, because governments that leech too much wealth from their populations and face escalating welfare costs will be unable to meet the conditions required to anchor their currencies to gold. Into this category we can put nearly all the advanced nations, whose currencies are predominantly the dollar, yen, euro and pound. Other nations without these burdens and enjoying low tax rates have the flexibility to set their own gold exchange standards should they wish to insulate themselves from a future fiat currency crisis.
It is beyond the scope of this article to examine the case for other countries, but likely candidates would include China, which is working towards a similar objective. Of course, Russia might not be actively contemplating a gold standard, but Vladimir Putin is showing every sign of rapidly consolidating Russia’s political and economic control over the Eurasian region, while turning away from America and Western Europe. The fast-track establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union, domination of Asia in partnership with China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and plans to set up an alternative to the SWIFT banking payments network are all testaments to this. It would therefore be negligent to rule out the one step that would put a stop to foreign attempts to undermine the rouble and the Russian economy: by moving the currency war away from the foreign exchanges and into the physical gold market were Russia and China hold all the aces.
*Technically a gold standard is a commodity money standard in which the commodity is gold, deposits and notes are fully backed by gold and gold coins circulate. A gold exchange standard permits other metals to be used in coins and for currency and credit to be issued without the full backing of gold, so long as they can be redeemed for gold from the central bank on demand.
G20 gatherings of world leaders on the surface are all the same: they conclude with a meaningless anodyne statement that everyone can agree with. But these meetings do serve a purpose: they allow the world leaders to meet informally and exchange views.
Since the last G20 in St Petersburg in 2013 when there was a high degree of conviction that economic growth would return, the global economic outlook has instead deteriorated significantly. Instead of last time’s mutual bonhomie over the prospect of their collective success, the world’s leaders this time are almost certainly worried. They would have learned about the failure of monetary policy everywhere. They would have had this first-hand from Japan’s delegation, which is on its way to financial and currency destruction. The despair in the European delegations would have been obvious as well.
The problem is that post-war monetary theories have failed to deliver. Lower interest rates and increased quantities of money in order to promote economic growth no longer work. The abandonment of the laws of the markets in favour of stimulating consumer demand by monetary means has turned out to be a blind alley. Time will tell, but if the global economy is heading for a slump, the banking system will become overburdened with defaulting borrowers, and government deficits will rise uncontrollably, especially in the welfare nations. This cannot be permitted to happen under any circumstances. It is therefore quite likely that the alternative to monetary-driven policy, accelerated government deficit spending as a pre-emptive measure, will be tried instead. And in this respect the relative success of the British and American economies will be attributed to their large budget deficits, while the misery of austerity is identified with the problems in France and the southern Eurozone.
These are bad and confused arguments, but they will be emotionally attractive to the political class, while the central bankers probably feel it is time the politicians took responsibility for economic management. Furthermore, it is surely becoming obvious that monetary solutions only enrich the bankers. And the most effective way of countering deflation, economists will argue, will be for demand-led price rises for consumer products, which have a better chance of coming about through increased government spending. And do not be surprised if economists argue that governments need to take over the debt-creation process to kick-start the business cycle.
We might look back on Brisbane as a milestone in global economic policy, when governments and central banks changed the emphasis of economic management from monetary stimulation through the financial system towards a greater emphasis on direct government intervention. In the process two things are likely to happen: currencies will begin to lose their purchasing power with respect to everyday goods, and government bond yields are likely to rise, undermining financial asset valuations.
This will certainly puff up GDP, because government spending is a significant part of it. But the idea that controlled price inflation can be engineered flies in the face of all experience. If the emphasis does shift from monetary solutions towards more aggressive government spending the risk will also shift towards an uncontrollable decline in purchasing power for currencies. It will be very good for inflation hedges like gold.
According to the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey for October banks eased their credit standards in the last quarter, while their risk perceptions increased.
This apparent contradiction suggests that the 137 banks surveyed were at the margin competing for lower-quality business, hardly the sign of a healthy lending market. Furthermore, the detail showed enterprises were cutting borrowing for fixed investment sharply and required more working capital instead to finance inventories and perhaps to cover trading losses.
This survey follows bank lending statistics since the banking crisis to mid-2014, which are shown in the chart below (Source: ECB).
It is likely that some of the contraction in bank lending has been replaced with bond finance by the larger credit-worthy corporations, and Eurozone banks have also preferred buying sovereign bonds. Meanwhile, the Eurozone economy obviously faces a deepening crisis.
There are some global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) based in the Eurozone, and this week the Financial Stability Board (FSB) published a consultation document on G-SIBs’ capital ratios in connection with the bail-in procedures to be considered at the G20 meeting this weekend. The timing is not helpful for the ECB, because the FSB’s principle recommendation is that G-SIBs’ Tier 1 and 2 capital should as a minimum be double the Basel III level. This gives operational leverage of between 5 and 6.25 times risk-weighted assets, compared with up to 12.5 times under Basel III.
The FSB expects the required capital increase to be satisfied mostly by the issue of qualifying debt instruments, so the G-SIBs will not have to tap equity markets. However, since Eurozone G-SIBs are faced with issuing bonds at higher interest rates than the returns on sovereign debt, they will be tempted to scale back their balance sheets instead. Meanwhile bank depositors should note they are no longer at the head of the creditors’ queue when their bank goes bust, which could affect the non-G-SIB banks with higher capital ratios.
If G-SIBs can be de-geared without triggering a bank lending crisis the world of finance should eventually be a safer place: that’s the intention. Unfortunately, a bail-in of a large bank is unlikely to work in practice, because if an important bank does go to the wall, without the limitless government backing of a bail-out, money-markets will almost certainly fail to function in its wake and the crisis could rapidly become systemic.
Meanwhile, it might appear that the ECB is a powerless bystander watching a train-wreck in the making. Businesses in the Eurozone appear to only want to borrow to survive, as we can see from the October Bank Lending Survey. Key banks are now being told to halve their balance sheet gearing, encouraging a further reduction in bank credit. Normally a central bank would respond by increasing the quantity of narrow money, which the ECB is trying to do despite the legal hurdles in its founding constitution.
However, it is becoming apparent that the ECB’s intention to increase its balance sheet by up to €1 trillion may not be nearly enough, given that the FSB’s proposals look like giving an added spin to contraction of bank credit in the Eurozone.
There is little doubt that deflationary risks have increased in recent weeks, if only because the dollar has risen sharply against other currencies.
Understanding what this risk actually is, as opposed to what the talking heads say it is, will be central to financial survival, particularly for those with an interest in precious metals.
The economic establishment associates deflation, or falling prices, with lack of demand. From this it follows that if it is allowed to continue, deflation will lead to business failures and ultimately bank insolvencies due to contraction of bank credit. Therefore, the reasoning goes, demand and consumer confidence must be stimulated to ensure this doesn’t happen.
We must bear this in mind when we judge the response to current events. For the moment, we have signs that must be worrying the central banks: the Japanese economy is imploding despite aggressive monetary stimulation, and the Eurozone shows the same developing symptoms. The UK is heavily dependent on trade with the Eurozone and there is a feeling its strong performance is cooling. The chart below shows how all this has translated into their respective currencies since August.
Particularly alarming has been the slide in these currencies since mid-October, with the yen falling especially heavily. Given the anticipated effect on US price inflation, we can be sure that if these major currencies weaken further the Fed will act.
Central to understanding the scale of the problem is grasping the enormity of the capital flows involved. The illustration below shows the relationship between non-USD currencies and the USD itself.
The relationship between the dollar’s monetary base and global broad money is leverage of over forty times. As Japan and the Eurozone face a deepening recession, capital flows will naturally reverse back into the dollar, which is what appears to be happening today. Economists, who are still expecting economic growth for the US, appear to have been slow to recognise the wider implications for the US economy and the dollar itself.
The Fed, bearing the burden of responsibility for the world’s reserve currency, will be under pressure to ease the situation by weakening the dollar. So far, the Fed’s debasement of the dollar appears to have been remarkably unsuccessful at the consumer price level, which may encourage it to act more aggressively. But it better be careful: this is not a matter susceptible to fine-tuning.
For the moment capital markets appear to be adapting to deflation piece-meal. Analysts are revising their growth expectations lower for Japan, the Eurozone and China, and suggesting we sell commodities. They have yet to apply the logic to equities and assess the effect on government finances: when they do we can expect government bond yields to rise and equities to fall.
The fall in the gold price is equally detached from economic reality. While it is superficially easy to link a strong dollar to a weak gold price, this line of argument ignores the inevitable systemic and currency risks that arise from an economic slump. The apparent mispricing of gold, equities, bonds and even currencies indicate they are all are ripe for a simultaneous correction, driven by what the economic establishment terms deflation, but more correctly is termed a slump.
China first delegated the management of gold policy to the People’s Bank by regulations in 1983.
This development was central to China’s emergence as a free-market economy following the post-Mao reforms in 1979/82. At that time the west was doing its best to suppress gold to enhance confidence in paper currencies, releasing large quantities of bullion for others to buy. This is why the timing is important: it was an opportunity for China, a one-billion population country in the throes of rapid economic modernisation, to diversify growing trade surpluses from the dollar.
To my knowledge this subject has not been properly addressed by any private-sector analysts, which might explain why it is commonly thought that China’s gold policy is a more recent development, and why even industry specialists show so little understanding of the true position. But in the thirty-one years since China’s gold regulations were enacted, global mine production has increased above-ground stocks from an estimated 92,000 tonnes to 163,000 tonnes today, or 71,000 tonnes* ; and while the west was also reducing its stocks in a prolonged bear market all that gold was hoarded somewhere.
The period I shall focus on is between 1983 and 2002, when gold ownership in China was finally liberated and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was formed. The fact that the Chinese authorities permitted private ownership of gold suggests that they had by then acquired sufficient gold for monetary and strategic purposes, and were content to add to them from domestic mine production and Chinese scrap thereafter rather than through market purchases. This raises the question as to how much gold China might have secretly accumulated by the end of 2002 for this to be the case.
China’s 1983 gold regulations coincided with the start of a western bear market in gold, when Swiss private bankers managing the largest western depositories reduced their clients’ holdings over the following fifteen years ultimately to very low levels. In the mid-eighties the London bullion market developed to enable future mine and scrap supplies to be secured and sold for immediate delivery. The bullion delivered was leased or swapped from central banks to be replaced at later dates. A respected American analyst, Frank Veneroso, in a 2002 speech in Lima estimated total central bank leases and swaps to be between 10,000 and 16,000 tonnes at that time. This amount has to be subtracted from official reserves and added to the enormous increase in mine supply, along with western portfolio liquidation. No one actually knows how much gold was supplied through the markets, but this must not stop us making reasonable estimates.
Between 1983 and 2002, mine production, scrap supplies, portfolio sales and central bank leasing absorbed by new Asian and Middle Eastern buyers probably exceeded 75,000 tonnes. It is easy to be blasé about such large amounts, but at today’s prices this is the equivalent of $3 trillion. The Arabs had surplus dollars and Asia was rapidly industrialising. Both camps were not much influenced by western central bank propaganda aimed at side-lining gold in the new era of floating exchange rates, though Arab enthusiasm will have been diminished somewhat by the severe bear market as the 1980s progressed. The table below summarises the likely distribution of this gold.
Today, many believe that India is the largest private sector market, but in the 12 years following the repeal of the Gold Control Act in 1990, an estimated 5,426 tonnes only were imported (Source: Indian Gold Book 2002), and between 1983 and 1990 perhaps a further 1,500 tonnes were smuggled into India, giving total Indian purchases of about 7,000 tonnes between 1983 and 2002. That leaves the rest of Asia including the Middle East, China, Turkey and South-East Asia. Of the latter two, Turkey probably took in about 4,000 tonnes, and we can pencil in 5,000 tonnes for South-East Asia, bearing in mind the tiger economies’ boom-and-bust in the 1990s. This leaves approximately 55,000 tonnes split between the Middle East and China, assuming 4,850 tonnes satisfied other unclassified demand.
The Middle East began to accumulate gold in the mid-1970s, storing much of it in the vaults of the Swiss private banks. Income from oil continued to rise, so despite the severe bear market in gold from 1980 onwards, Middle-Eastern investors continued to buy. In the 1990s, a new generation of Swiss portfolio managers less committed to gold was advising clients, including those in the Middle East, to sell. At the same time, discouraged by gold’s bear market, a western-educated generation of Arabs started to diversify into equities, infrastructure spending and other investment media. Gold stocks owned by Arab investors remain a well-kept secret to this day, but probably still represents the largest quantity of vaulted gold, given the scale of petro-dollar surpluses in the 1980s. However, because of the change in the Arabs’ financial culture, from the 1990s onwards the pace of their acquisition waned.
By elimination this leaves China as the only other significant buyer during that era. Given that Arab enthusiasm for gold diminished for over half the 1983-2002 period, the Chinese government being price-insensitive to a western-generated bear market could have easily accumulated in excess of 20,000 tonnes by the end of 2002.
China’s reasons for accumulating gold
We now know that China had the resources from its trade surpluses as well as the opportunity to buy bullion. Heap-leaching techniques boosted mine output and western investors sold down their bullion, so there was ample supply available; but what was China’s motive?
Initially China probably sought to diversify from US dollars, which was the only trade currency it received in the days before the euro. Furthermore, it would have seemed nonsensical to export goods in return for someone else’s paper specifically inflated to pay them, which is how it must have appeared to China at the time. It became obvious from European and American attitudes to China’s emergence as an economic power that these export markets could not be wholly relied upon in the long term. So following Russia’s recovery from its 1998 financial crisis, China set about developing an Asian trading bloc in partnership with Russia as an eventual replacement for western export markets, and in 2001 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was born. In the following year, her gold policy also changed radically, when Chinese citizens were allowed for the first time to buy gold and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was set up to satisfy anticipated demand.
The fact that China permitted its citizens to buy physical gold suggests that it had already acquired a satisfactory holding. Since 2002, it will have continued to add to gold through mine and scrap supplies, which is confirmed by the apparent absence of Chinese-refined 1 kilo bars in the global vaulting system. Furthermore China takes in gold doré from Asian and African mines, which it also refines and probably adds to government stockpiles.
Since 2002, the Chinese state has almost certainly acquired by these means a further 5,000 tonnes or more. Allowing the public to buy gold, as well as satisfying the public’s desire for owning it, also reduces the need for currency intervention to stop the renminbi rising. Therefore the Chinese state has probably accumulated between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes since 1983, and has no need to acquire any more through market purchases given her own refineries are supplying over 500 tonnes per annum.
All other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation** are gold-friendly or have increased their gold reserves. So the west having ditched gold for its own paper will now find that gold has a new role as Asia’s ultimate money for over 3 billion people, or over 4 billion if you include the South-East Asian and Pacific Rim countries for which the SCO will be the dominant trading partner.
*See GoldMoney’s estimates of the aboveground gold stock by James Turk and Juan Castaneda.
**Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia. Turkey and Afghanistan are to join in due course.
The behaviour of financial markets these days is frankly divorced from reality, with value-investing banished.
Markets have become distorted by Rumsfeld-knowns such as interest rate policy and “market guidance”, and Rumsfeld-unknowns such as undeclared market intervention by the authorities. On top of these distortions there is remote investing by computers programmed with algorithms and high-frequency traders, unable to make human value-assessments.
Take just one instance of possible “market guidance” that occurred this week. On Thursday 16th October, James Dullard of the St Louis Fed hinted that QE might be extended. In the ensuing four trading sessions the Dow rallied over 5%. Was this comment sparked by signs of slowing economic growth, or by a desire to buoy up sliding equity markets? Then there is the vested interest of keeping government funding costs low, which raises the question whether or not exceptionally low bond yields, particularly in the Eurozone, are by design or accidental.
Those who support the theory that it is all an evil plot will also note that governments and their central banks through exchange stability funds (set up with the explicit purpose of market intervention), wealth funds and state pension funds have some $30 trillion to direct as they see fit. The reality is that there is intervention across a range of markets; but most of the mispricing is in the hands of private, not government investors. For evidence look no further than the record level of brokers’ loans to buyers of equities, who with greed worthy of a latter-day South-Sea Bubble seek to gear up their speculative profits.
These are not markets with widespread public participation, buying dot-coms and the like. Instead ordinary people have given their savings and pension funds to professionals who speculate on their behalf. It is the professionals who talk about the Yellen put, meaning the Fed simply won’t let prices fall significantly. We can fret about who is actually responsible for market distortions, instead we should ask who benefits.
Governments: in the past they have covered their debts through a process dubbed financial repression, when artificially low interest rates and bond yields were the principal mechanism whereby wealth is transferred from savers to the government. This process still goes on today. Forget government inflation figures: when did a bank deposit net of taxes last give a positive return after your cost of living increases?
Zero interest rate policy lays the process bare, and turns savers into borrowers. Mr Average has replaced savings with mortgages and car loans. And while the elderly and other passive savers are still defenceless against financial repression, the process has taken on a new twist. The transfer of wealth to governments now targets investment managers.
Investment and hedge funds we invest with together with the banks which take our deposits speculate on our behalf. They think that with a Yellen or Draghi put underwriting markets a ten-year government bond with a two per cent yield is an attractive investment. In doing so they are transferring financial resources to governments in a variation on old-fashioned financial repression.
Our dysfunctional markets have become little more than the essential prerequisite, as Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert might have said, to plucking the goose for the largest amount of feathers with the minimum of hissing.