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.
Recent evidence points increasingly towards global economic contraction.
Parts of the Eurozone are in great difficulty, and only last weekend S&P the rating agency warned that Greece will default on its debts “at some point in the next fifteen months”. Japan is collapsing under the wealth-destruction of Abenomics. China is juggling with a debt bubble that threatens to implode. The US tells us through government statistics that their outlook is promising, but the reality is very different with one-third of employable adults not working; furthermore the GDP deflator is significantly greater than officially admitted. And the UK is financially over-geared and over-dependent on a failing Eurozone.
This is hardly surprising, because the monetary inflation of recent years has transferred wealth from the majority of the saving and working population to a financial minority. A stealth tax through monetary inflation has been imposed on the majority of people trying to earn an honest living on a fixed salary. It has been under-recorded in consumer price statistics but has occurred nonetheless. Six years of this wealth transfer may have enriched Wall Street, but it has also impoverished Main Street.
The developed world is now in deep financial trouble. This is a situation which may be coming to a debt-laden conclusion. Those in charge of our money know that monetary expansion has failed to stimulate recovery. They also know that their management of financial markets, always with the objective of fostering confidence, has left them with market distortions that now threaten to derail bonds, equities and derivatives.
Today, central banking’s greatest worry is falling prices. The early signs are now upon us, reflected in dollar strength, as well as falling commodity and energy prices. In an economic contraction exposure to foreign currencies is the primary risk faced by international businesses and investors. The world’s financial system is based on the dollar as reserve currency for all the others: it is the back-to-base option for international exposure. The trouble is that leverage between foreign currencies and the US dollar has grown to highly dangerous levels, as shown below.
Plainly, there is great potential for currency instability, compounded by over-priced bond markets. Greece, facing another default, borrows ten-year money in euros at about 6.5%, while Spain and Italy at 2.1% and 2.3% respectively. Investors accepting these low returns should be asking themselves what will be the marginal cost of financing a large increase in government deficits brought on by an economic slump.
A slump will obviously escalate risk for owners of government bonds. The principal holders are banks whose asset-to-equity ratios can be as much as 40-50 times excluding goodwill, particularly when derivative exposure is taken into account. The stark reality is that banks risk failure not because of Irving Fisher’s debt-deflation theory, but because they are exposed to a government debt bubble that will inevitably burst: only a two per cent rise in Eurozone bond yields may be sufficient to trigger a global banking crisis. Fisher’s nightmare of bad debts from failing businesses and falling loan collateral values will merely be an additional burden.
Macro-economists refer to a slump as deflation, but we face something far more complex worth taking the trouble to understand.
The weakness of modern macro-economics is it is not based on a credible theory of prices. Instead of a mechanical relationship between changes in the quantity of money and prices, the purchasing power of a fiat currency is mainly dependent on the confidence its users have in it. This is expressed in preferences for money compared with goods, and these preferences can change for any number of reasons.
When an indebted individual is unable to access further credit, he may be forced to raise cash by selling marketable assets and by reducing consumption. In a normal economy, there are always some people doing this, but when they are outnumbered by others in a happier position, overall the economy progresses. A slump occurs when those that need or want to reduce their financial commitments outnumber those that don’t. There arises an overall shift in preferences in favour of cash, so all other things being equal prices fall.
Shifts in these preferences are almost always the result of past and anticipated state intervention, which replaces the randomness of a free market with a behavioural bias. But this is just one factor that sets price relationships: confidence in the purchasing power of government-issued currency must also be considered and will be uppermost in the minds of those not facing financial difficulties. This is reflected by markets reacting, among other things, to the changing outlook for the issuing government’s finances. If it appears to enough people that the issuing government’s finances are likely to deteriorate significantly, there will be a run against the currency, usually in favour of the dollar upon which all currencies are based. And those holding dollars and aware of the increasing risk to the dollar’s own future purchasing power can only turn to gold and subsequently those goods that represent the necessities of life. And when that happens we have a crack-up boom and the final destruction of the dollar as money.
So the idea that the outlook is for either deflation or inflation is incorrect, and betrays a superficial analysis founded on the misconceptions of macro-economics. Nor does one lead to the other: what really happens is the overall preference between money and goods shifts, influenced not only by current events but by anticipated ones as well.
Recently a rising dollar has led to a falling gold price. This raises the question as to whether further dollar strength against other currencies will continue to undermine the gold price.
Let us assume that the central banks will at some time in the future try to prevent a financial crisis triggered by an economic slump. Their natural response is to expand money and credit. However, this policy-route will be closed off for non-dollar currencies already weakened by a flight into the dollar, leaving us with the bulk of the world’s monetary reflation the responsibility of the Fed.
With this background to the gold price, Asians in their domestic markets are likely to continue to accumulate physical gold, perhaps accelerating their purchases to reflect a renewed bout of scepticism over the local currency. Wealthy investors in Europe will also buy gold, partly through bullion banks, but on the margin demand for delivered physical seems likely to increase. Investment managers and hedge funds in North America will likely close their paper-gold shorts and go long when their computers (which do most of the trading) detect a change in trend.
It seems likely that a change in trend for the gold price in western capital markets will be a component part of a wider reset for all financial markets, because it will signal a change in perceptions of risk for bonds and currencies. With a growing realisation that the great welfare economies are all sliding into a slump, the moment for this reset has moved an important step closer.
If there is one concept that illustrates the difference between a top-down macro-economic approach and the reality of everyday life it is the velocity of circulation of money. Compare the following statements:
“The collapse in velocity is testament to the substantial misallocation of capital brought about by the easy money regimes of the past 20 years.” Broker’s research note issued September 2014; and
“The mathematical economists refuse to start from the various individuals’ demand for and supply of money. They introduce instead the spurious notion of velocity of circulation according to the pattern of mechanics.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.
This article’s objective is not to disagree with the broker’s conclusion; rather it is to examine the basis upon which it is made.
The idea of velocity of circulation referred to arose from the quantity theory of money, which links changes in the quantity of money to changes in the general level of prices. This is set out in the equation of exchange. The basic elements are money, velocity and total spending, or GDP. The following is the simplest of a number of ways it has been expressed:
Amount of Money x Velocity of Circulation = Total Spending (or GDP)
Assuming we can quantify both money and total spending, we end up with velocity. But this does not tell us why velocity might vary: all we know is that it must vary in order to balance the equation. You could equally state that two completely unrelated quantities can be put into a mathematical equation, so long as a variable is included whose only function is to always make the equation balance. In other words the equation of exchange actually tells us nothing per se.
This gives analysts a problem, not resolved by the modern reliance on statistics and computer models. The dubious gift to us from statisticians is their so-called progress made in quantifying the economy, so much so that at the London School of Economics a machine called MONIAC (monetary national income analogue computer) used fluid mechanics to model the UK’s economy. This and other more recent computer models give unwarranted credence to the idea that the economy can be modelled, derivations such as velocity explained, and valid conclusions drawn.
Von Mises’s criticism is based on the philosopher’s logic that economics is a social and not a physical science. Therefore, mathematical relationships must be strictly confined to accounting and not be confused with economics, or as he put it human action. Unfortunately we now have the concept of velocity so ingrained in our thinking that this vital point usually escapes us. Indeed, the same is true of GDP, or the right hand side of the equation of exchange.
GDP is only an accounting identity: no more than that. It ranks gin with golf-balls by reducing them both to a monetary value. Statisticians select what’s included so it is biased in favour of consumer goods and against capital investment. Crucially it does not tell us about an ever-changing economy comprised of successes, failures, and hard-to-predict human needs and wants, which taken all together is economic progress. And because it is biased in its composition and says nothing about progress the value of this statistic is grossly exaggerated.
The only apparent certainty in the equation of exchange is the quantity of money, assuming it is all recorded. No one seems to allow for unrecorded money such as shadow banking, but we shall let that pass. If the money is sound, as it was when the quantity theory of money was devised, one could assume that an increase in its quantity would tend to raise prices. This was experienced following Spain’s importation of gold and silver from the new world in the sixteenth century, and following the gold mining booms in California and South Africa. But relating an increase in the quantity of gold to prices in general is at best a summary of a number of various factors that drive the price relationship between money and goods.
Today we no longer have sound money, whose purchasing power was regulated by human preferences across national boundaries. Instead we have fiat currencies whose purchasing power is formalised in foreign exchanges. When the Icelandic krona on 8th October 2008 halved in value, it had nothing to do with changes in the quantity of money or Iceland’s GDP. Yet if we try to interpret velocity in this case, we will find ourselves pleading a special case to explain its substantial increase as domestic prices absorbed the shock imparted through the foreign exchanges.
Iceland’s currency collapse is not an isolated event. The purchasing power of a fiat currency varies constantly, even to the point of losing it altogether. The truth of the matter is the utility of a fiat currency is entirely dependent on the subjective opinions of individuals expressed through markets, and has nothing to do with a mechanical quantity relationship. In this respect, merely the potential for unlimited currency issuance or a change in perceptions of the issuer’s financial stability, as Iceland discovered, can be enough to destabilise it.
According to the equation of exchange, this is not how things should work. The order of events is first you have an increase in the quantity of money and then prices rise, because monetarist logic states that prices rise as a result of the extra money being spent, not as a result of money yet to be spent. With a mechanical theory there can be no room for subjectivity.
It is therefore nonsense to conclude that velocity is a vital signal of some sort. Monetarism is at the very least still work-in-progress until monetarists finally discover velocity is no more than a factor to make their equation balance. The broker’s analyst quoted above would have been better to confine his statement to the easy money regimes of the past 20 years being responsible for the substantial misallocation of capital, and leaving out the bit about velocity entirely.
A small slip perhaps on the way to a sensible conclusion; but it is indicative of the false mechanisation of human behaviour by modern macro-economists. However it should also be noted that is impossible to square the concept of velocity of circulation with one simple fact of everyday life: we earn our salaries once and we dispose of it. That’s a constant velocity of roughly one.
Today’s financial markets are built on the sand of unsound currencies. Consequently brokers, banks and investors are wedded to monetary inflation and have lost both the desire and ability to understand gold and properly value it.
Furthermore governments and central banks in welfare-driven states see markets themselves as the biggest threat to their successful management of the economy, a threat that needs to be tamed. This is the backdrop to the outlook for the price of gold today and of the forces an investor in gold is pitted against.
At the heart of market control is the substitution of unsound currency for sound money, which historically has been gold. Increasing the quantity of currency and encouraging banks to increase credit out of thin air is the principal means by which central banks operate. No matter that adulterating the currency impoverishes the majority of the population: central banks are working from the Keynesian and monetarist manual of how to manage markets.
In this environment an investor risks all he possesses if he insists on fighting the system; and nowhere is this truer than with gold. Gold is not about conventional investing in this world of fiat currencies, it is about insurance against the financial system collapsing under the weight of its own delusions. Regarded as an insurance premium against this risk, gold is common sense; and there are times when it is worth increasing your insurance. In taking that decision, an individual must be able to evaluate three things: the relative quantities of currency to gold, the likelihood of a systemic crisis and the true cost of insuring against it. We shall consider each of these in turn.
The relationship of currency to gold
Not only has the quantity of global currency and bank credit expanded dramatically since the Lehman crisis, it is clear that this is a trend that cannot now be reversed without triggering financial chaos. In other words we are already committed to monetary hyperinflation. Just look at the chart of the quantity of US dollar fiat money and note its dramatic growth since the Lehman crisis in 2008.
Meanwhile, the quantity of above-ground stocks of gold is growing at less than 2% annually. Gold is therefore getting cheaper relative to the dollar by the day. [Note: FMQ is the sum of all fiat money created both on the Fed’s balance sheet and in the commercial banks. [See here for a full description]
Increasing likelihood of a systemic crisis
Ask yourself a question: how much would interest rates have to rise before a systemic crisis is triggered? The clue to the answer is illustrated in the chart below which shows how lower interest rate peaks have triggered successive recessions (blue shaded areas are official recessions).
The reason is simple: it is the accumulating burden of debt. The sum of US federal and private sector debt stands at about$30 trillion, so a one per cent rise in interest rates and bond yields will simplistically cost $300bn annually. The increase in interest rates during the 2004-07 credit boom added annual interest rate costs of a little over double that, precipitating the Lehman crisis the following year. And while the US this time might possibly weather a two to three per cent rise in improving economic conditions, much less would be required to tip other G8 economies into financial and economic chaos.
The real cost of insurance
By this we mean the real price of gold, adjusted by the rapid expansion of fiat currency. One approach is to adjust the nominal price by the ratio of US dollars in circulation to US gold reserves. This raises two problems: which measure of money supply should be used, and given the Fed has never been audited, are the official gold reserves as reported to be trusted?
The best option is to adjust the gold price by the growth in the quantity of fiat money (FMQ) relative to the growth in above-ground stocks of gold. FMQ is constructed so as to capture the reversal of gold’s demonetisation. This is shown in the chart below of both the adjusted and nominal dollar price of gold.
Taken from the month before the Lehman collapse, the real price of gold adjusted in this way is $550 today, based on a nominal price of $1220. So in real terms, gold has fallen 40% from its pre-Lehman level of $920, and has roughly halved from its adjusted high in 2011.
So to summarise:
• We already have monetary hyperinflation, defined as an accelerating debasement of the dollar. And so for that matter all other currencies that are referenced to it are on a similar course, a condition which is unlikely to be halted except by a final systemic and currency crisis.
• Attempts to stabilise the purchasing power of currencies by raising interest rates will very quickly develop into financial and economic chaos.
• The insurance cost of owning gold is anomalously low, being considerably less than at the time of the Lehman crisis, which was the first inkling of systemic risk for many people.
So how is the global economy playing out?
If the economy starts to grow again a small rise in interest rates would collapse bond markets and bankrupt over-indebted businesses and over-geared banks. Alternatively a contracting economy will increase the debt burden in real terms, again threatening its implosion. So the last thing central banks will welcome is change in the global economic outlook.
Falling commodity prices and a flight from other currencies into the dollar appear to be signalling the greater risk is that we are sliding into a global slump. Even though large financial speculators appear to be driving commodity and energy prices lower, the fact remains that the global economy is being undermined by diminishing affordability for goods and services. In other words, the debt burden is already too large for the private sector to bear, despite a prolonged period of zero official interest rates.
A slump was halted when prices collapsed after Lehman went bust; that time it was the creation of unlimited money and credit by the Fed that saved the day. Preventing a slump is the central banker’s raison d’être. It is why Ben Bernanke wrote about distributing money by helicopter as the final solution. It is why we have had zero interest rates for six years.
In 2008 gold and oil prices fell heavily until it became clear that monetary stimulus would prevail. Equities also fell with the S&P 500 Index down 60% from its October 2007 high, but this index was already 24% down by the time Lehman failed.
The precedent for unlimited creation of cash and credit has been set and is undisputed. The markets are buoyed up by a sea of post-Lehman liquidity, are not discounting any trouble, and are ignoring the signals from commodity prices. If the economic downturn shows any further signs of accelerating the adjustment is likely to be brutal, involving a complete and sudden reassessment of financial risk.
This time gold has been in a bear market ahead of the event. This time the consensus is that insurance against financial and systemic risk is wholly unnecessary. This time China, Russia and the rest of Asia are buying out physical bullion liquidated by western investors.
We are being regularly advised by analysts working at investment banks to sell gold. But bear in mind that the investment industry is driven by trend-chasing recommendations, because that is what investors demand. Expecting analysts to value gold properly is as unlikely as farmers telling turkeys the truth about Thanksgiving.
Last year markets behaved nervously on rumours that QE3 would be tapered; this year we have lived with the fact. It turned out that there has been little or no damage to markets, with bond yields at historic lows and equity markets hitting new highs.
This contrasts with the ending of QE1 and QE2, which were marked by falls in the S&P 500 Index of 9% and 11.6% respectively. Presumably the introduction of twist followed by QE3 was designed at least in part to return financial assets to a rising price trend, and tapering has been consistent with this strategy.
From a monetary point of view there is only a loose correlation between the growth of fiat money as measured by the Fiat Money Quantity, and monthly bond-buying by the Fed. FMQ is unique in that it specifically seeks to measure the quantity of fiat money created on the back of gold originally given to the commercial banks by our forebears in return for money substitutes and deposit guarantees. This gold, in the case of Americans’ forebears, was then handed to the Fed by these commercial banks after the Federal Reserve System was created. Subsequently gold has always been acquired by the Fed in return for fiat dollars. FMQ is therefore the sum of cash plus instant access bank accounts and commercial bank assets held at the Fed.
The chart below shows monthly increases in the Fed’s asset purchases and of changes in FMQ.
The reason I take twice the monthly Fed purchases is that they are recorded twice in FMQ. The chart shows that the creation of fiat money continues without QE. That being the case, QE has less to do with stimulating the economy (which it has failed to do) and is more about funding government borrowing.
Thanks to the Fed’s monetary policies, which have encouraged an increase in demand for US Treasuries, the Federal government no longer has a problem funding its deficit. QE is therefore redundant, and has been since tapering was first mooted. This does not mean that QE is going to be abandoned forever: its re-introduction will depend on the relationship between the government’s borrowing needs and market demand for its debt.
This analysis is confirmed by Japan’s current situation. There, QE coincides with an economy that is deteriorating by the day. One cannot argue that QE has been good for the Japanese economy. The reality behind “abenomics” is that Japan’s government is funding a massive deficit at the same time as savers are drawing down capital to cover their day-to-day living requirements. In short, the funding gap is being covered by printing money. And now the collapsing yen, which is the inevitable consequence of monetary inflation, threatens to expose this folly.
On a final note, there appears to be complacency in capital markets about government deficits. A correction in bond markets will inevitably occur at some point and severely disrupt government fund-raising. If and when this occurs, and given that it is now obvious to everyone that QE does nothing for economic growth, it will be hard to re-introduce it as a disguised funding mechanism for governments without undermining market confidence.
You’d think that the US dollar has suddenly become strong, and the chart below of the other three major currencies confirms it.
The US dollar is the risk-free currency for international accounting, because it is the currency on which all the others are based. And it is clear that three months ago dollar exchange rates against the three currencies shown began to strengthen notably.
However, each of the currencies in the chart has its own specific problems driving it weaker. The yen is the embodiment of financial kamikaze, with the Abe government destroying it through debasement as a cover-up for a budget deficit that is beyond its control. The pound is being poleaxed by a campaign to keep Scotland in the union which has backfired, plus a deferral of interest rate expectations. And the euro sports negative deposit rates in the belief they will cure the Eurozone’s gathering slump, which if it develops unchecked will threaten the stability of Europe’s banks.
So far this has been mainly a race to the bottom, with the dollar on the side-lines. The US economy, which is officially due to recover (as it has been expected to every year from 2008) looks like it’s still going nowhere. Indeed, if you apply a more realistic deflator than the one that is officially calculated, there is a strong argument that the US has never recovered since the Lehman crisis.
This is the context in which we must judge what currencies are doing. And there is an interpretation which is very worrying: we may be seeing the beginnings of a major flight out of other currencies into the dollar. This is a risk because the global currency complex is based on a floating dollar standard and has been since President Nixon ended the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971. It has led to a growing accumulation of currency and credit everywhere that ultimately could become unstable. The relationship between the dollar and other currencies is captured vividly in the illustration below.
The gearing of total world money and credit on today’s monetary base is forty times, but this is after a rapid expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet in recent years. Compared with the Fed’s monetary base before the Lehman crisis, world money is now nearly 180 times geared, which leaves very little room for continuing stability.
It may be too early to say this inverse pyramid is toppling over, because it is not yet fully confirmed by money flows between bond markets. However in the last few days Eurozone government bond yields have started rising. So far it can be argued that they have been over-valued and a correction is overdue. But if this new trend is fuelled by international banks liquidating non-US bond positions we will certainly have a problem.
We can be sure that central bankers are following the situation closely. Nearly all economic and monetary theorists since the 1930s have been preoccupied with preventing self-feeding monetary contractions, which in current times will be signalled by a flight into the dollar. The cure when this happens is obvious to them: just issue more dollars. This can be easily done by extending currency swaps between central banks and by coordinating currency intervention, rather than new rounds of plain old QE.
So far market traders appear to have been assuming the dollar is strong for less defined reasons, marking down key commodities and gold as a result. However, the relationship between the dollar, currencies and bond yields needs watching as they may be beginning to signal something more serious is afoot.
In a radio interview recently* I was asked a question to which I could not easily give a satisfactory reply: if the gold market is rigged, why does it matter?
I have no problem delivering a comprehensive answer based on a sound aprioristic analysis of how rigging markets distorts the basis of economic calculation and why a properly functioning gold market is central to all other financial prices. The difficulty is in answering the question in terms the listeners understand, bearing in mind I was told to assume they have very little comprehension of finance or economics.
I did not as they say, want to go there. But it behoves those of us who argue the economics of sound money to try to make the answer as intelligible as possible without sounding like a committed capitalist and a conspiracy theorist to boot, so here goes.
Manipulating the price of gold ultimately destabilises the financial system because it is the highest form of money. This is why nearly all central banks retain a holding. The fact we don’t use it as money in our daily business does not invalidate its status. Rather, gold is subject to Gresham’s Law, which famously states bad money drives out the good. We would rather pay for things in government-issue paper currency and hang on to gold for a rainy day.
As money, it is on the other side of all asset prices. In other words stocks, bonds and property prices can be expected to rise measured in gold when the gold price falls and vice-versa. This relationship is often muddled by other factors, the most obvious one being changing levels of confidence in paper currencies against which gold is normally priced. However, with bond yields today at record lows and equities at record highs this relationship is apparent today.
Another way to describe this relationship is in terms of risk. Banks which dominate asset markets become complacent about risk because they are greedy for profit. This leads to banks competing with one another until they end up ignoring risk entirely. It happened very obviously with the American banking crisis six years ago until house prices suddenly collapsed, threatening to take the whole financial system down. In common with all financial bubbles everyone ignored risk. History provides many other examples.
Therefore, gold is unlike other assets because a rising gold price reflects an increasing perception of general financial risk, ensuring downward pressure on other financial asset prices. So while the big banks are making easy money ignoring risks in equity and bond markets, they will not want their party spoiled by warning signs from a rising gold price.
This is a long way from proof that the gold market is manipulated. But the big banks, and we must include central banks which are obviously keen to maintain financial confidence, have the motive and the means. And if they have these they can be expected to take the opportunity.
So why does it matter if the gold price is rigged? A freely-determined gold price is central to ensuring that reality and not financial bubbles guides us in our financial and economic activities. Suppressing the gold price is rather like turning off a fire alarm because you can’t stand the noise.
*File on 4: BBC Radio4 due to be broadcast on 23 September at 8.00pm UK-time and repeated on 28 September at 5.00pm.