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Economics

ECB embraces QE faulty logic

Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.

The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.

“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.

The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.

So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.

ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus

Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.

The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.

Poor logic

This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?

Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”

Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)

This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.

Argument ignores time preference

Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.

Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.

If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.

As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.

Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?

Exactly.

That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.

Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money

The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)

I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.

Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.

Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes

If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”

But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:

Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.

Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?

To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.

There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.

There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.

And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.

One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.

The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy

Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.

We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.

It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.

Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.

Economics

Renewed estimates of Chinese gold demand

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

Geopolitical and market background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE)

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

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

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

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

Quantifying demand

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

SGE gold deliveries

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

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

Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

SGE vaulted gold

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

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

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

Supply

Supply consists of scrap, domestically mined and imported gold

Scrap

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

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

Mine supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further comments on vaulted gold

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

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

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

Western gold flows to China

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

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

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

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

Economics

Are economic sanctions behind a possible recession in Russia?

According to commentators, sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are pushing Russia towards a recession. However, we hold that some key Russian economic data have been displaying weakening prior to the annexation of Crimea to Russia. This raises the likelihood that sanctions might not be the key factor for an emerging recession.

The yearly rate of growth of monthly real gross domestic product (GDP) eased to 0.3% in February from 0.7% in January and 1.8% in July last year. After closing at 12.2% in March last year the yearly rate of growth of retail sales fell to 7.7% in January before settling at 9.6% in February.

Russia real GDP

Russia retail sales

We suggest that the key factor behind any emerging slowdown and a possible recession is a sharp decline in the yearly` rate of growth of money supply (AMS) from 67.1% in May 2005 to minus 12.2% by September 2009. We hold that the driving force behind this sharp decline is a strong decline in the growth momentum of the central bank’s balance sheet during that period (see chart).

Graphs 3 4 Russia

There is a long time lag from changes in money supply and its effect on economic activity. We suspect that it is quite likely that the effect from a fall in the growth momentum of money during May 2005 to September 2009 is starting to dominate the present economic scene.

This means that various bubble activities that emerged on the back of the prior strong increase in money supply are at present coming under pressure. So from this perspective irrespective of sanctions, the Russian economy would have experienced a so-called economic slowdown, or even worse a recession.
Now, to counter a further weakening in the ruble against the US$ the Russian central bank has raised the seven day repo rate by 1.5% to 7%. The price of the US$ in ruble terms rose to 36.3 in March from 30.8 rubles in March last year – an increase of 18%.

Russia graphs 5 6

Whilst a tighter interest rate stance can have an effect on the present growth momentum of money supply this is likely to have a minor effect on the emerging economic slowdown, which we suggest is predominately driven by past money supply.

There is no doubt that if sanctions were to become effective they are going to hurt economic activity in general i.e. both bubble and non-bubble activities.

On this one needs to exercise some caution given the possibility that major world economies are heading toward a slower growth phase.

Hence from this perspective, regardless of sanctions the pace of the demand for the Russian exports is likely to ease.

We hold that it is quite likely that the Euro-zone, an important Russian trading partner, is unlikely to enforce sanctions in order to cushion the effect of the possible emerging economic slowdown in the Euro-zone. (Sanctions are likely to have a disruptive economic effect not only on Russia but also on the Euro-zone). Observe that Russia’s export to the Euro-zone as a percentage of its total exports stood at 54.1% in 2013 against 52.9% in 2012. In contrast Russia’s export to the US as a % of total stood at 2.1% in 2013. As a percentage of total imports Euro-zone imports from Russia stood at 8% in January whilst American imports from Russia as a percentage of total imports stood at 0.8%. Note that the Euro-zone relies on Russia for a third of its energy imports. Hence it will not surprise us if the Europeans are likely to be more reluctant than the US in enforcing sanctions.

Russia 7 8

Russia’s foreign reserves have weakened slightly in February from the month before. The level of reserves fell by 1.1% to $493 billion after declining by 2.1% in January. The growth momentum of reserves also remains under pressure. Year-on-year the rate of growth stood at minus 6.2% in February against a similar figure in January. A possible further weakening in China’s economic activity and ensuing pressure on the price of oil is likely to exert more pressure on foreign reserves.

Russia 9 10

Meanwhile, the growth momentum of the Russian consumer price index (CPI) displays a visible softening. The yearly rate of growth stood at 6.2% in February against 6.1% in January. Observe that in February last year the yearly rate of growth stood at 7.3%. Based on the lagged growth momentum of our Russian monetary measure AMS we can suggest that the yearly rate of growth of the Russian CPI is likely to weaken further in the months ahead.

Russia 11 12

Summary and conclusion

According to some experts sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are likely to push Russia into a recession. We suggest that the key factor which is likely to push Russia into a recession is not sanctions as such but a sharp decline in the growth momentum of money supply between May 2005 and September 2009. Given the possibility that major world economies are heading towards a renewed economic slowdown, we suggest that regardless of sanctions the pace of the demand for Russia’s exports is likely to ease. Now, given that the Euro-zone relies on Russia for a third of its energy imports it will not surprise us if the Euro-zone proves likely to be more reluctant than the US in enforcing sanctions.

Economics

John Butler: Bitcoin, the Monetary Touchstone

Click to download PDF

Click to download PDF

Is Bitcoin a sound form of alternative money? Does it provide a viable, alternative store of value with gold? These are questions that John Butler answers in his latest Amphora Report, which is reprinted below. This article offers a useful background to the thinking behind Bitcoin and it’s potential as a disrupter of fiat currencies.

BITCOIN: THE MONETARY TOUCHSTONE Created in 2008 by the mysterious ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’, in the past few months bitcoin has gone from a fringe financial technology topic to a mainstream media phenomenon. The debate is now raging as to whether bitcoin is, or is not, a sound form of alternative money. As the Amphora Report has, from inception, focused regularly on monetary theory and the financial market implications of activist central banking, in this edition I survey a handful of prominent, diverging views on bitcoin and then share some of my own thoughts. In brief, I believe that bitcoin’s ‘blockchain’ technology enables a low-cost payments system capable of disintermediating the banking industry, but I do not believe bitcoin presents a viable, alternative store of value on par with gold. In any case, bitcoin serves as a monetary ‘touchstone’ of sorts, distinguishing those who lean toward economic and monetary authoritarianism from those who favour market-based organisation instead.

TO UNDERSTAND BITCOIN ONE MUST FIRST UNDERSTAND MONEY

Satoshi Nakamoto, the initially mysterious and now legendary creator of bitcoin, finally became a mainstream celebrity last week, having been ‘outed’ by US periodical Newsweek. Many who have followed the bitcoin story, however, find Newsweek’s claim rather dubious and instead believe that ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ is a pseudonym adopted by either a single individual or team responsible for researching and publishing the original 2008 paper describing the specific, ‘blockchain’ algorithm behind bitcoin.

I have no strong opinion on Newsweek’s specific claims, nor on who, or what group, created bitcoin, although I am curious, for reasons that will become apparent. More important is to understand whether bitcoin could function as a sound, alternative money.

To begin, we need first consider why an alternative money would ever be necessary in the first place. Well, repeatedly throughout history, due to financial pressures, governments have chosen to debase their coins or inflate their paper currencies to service or settle their debts, by implication appropriating the wealth of prudent savers in the process. Wars, for example can be expensive and most large debasements in history have occurred either during or following major wars, in particular in those countries on the losing side of the conflict. But even the winners can succumb, as Rome demonstrated in the 3rd century or as the victorious WWI powers did in the 1920s and 1930s.

To continue reading, download the Amphora Report here (PDF): Amphora Report, Vol 5, 12 March 2014.

Economics

Pop!

Editor’s note: We’re grateful to Tim Price of PFP Group for this article. PFP has made this document available for your general information.

“10th March 2000: NASDAQ closes at a record 5048.62, up 24.1% for the year to date — after gaining 86.5% in 1999. A conference on optical fibre stocks sells out nearly every hotel room in Baltimore, the biggest stocks on NASDAQ trade at an average of 120 times earnings, and 15% of NASDAQ’s value is made up of companies less than two years old that have never earned a profit. James J. Cramer, author of the eponymous column “Wrong!” for TheStreet.com, writes that a revival of value stocks “will only happen when the Brocades and Broadcoms blow up. And I don’t see that happening any time soon.” In fact, says Cramer, he’s tempted to short-sell Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, betting that the great value investor’s shares are “ripe for the banging.” BancOne fund manager Chris Guinther sums it all up: “In today’s market, it pays to be aggressive.” Today is the absolute peak of the market bubble: In one of the worst crashes in history, NASDAQ plunges 60.6% over the next 12 months. And Cramer’s “Red Hots”? Brocade unravels by 67.1%, Broadcom collapses by 84.1%. Meanwhile, Berkshire Hathaway gains 72.2% over the year to come.” 

- ‘This day in financial history’ on JasonZweig.com.

“The Fed and the other major central banks have been planting time bombs all over the global financial system for years, but especially since their post-crisis money printing spree incepted in the fall of 2008. Now comes a new leader to the Eccles Building who is not only bubble-blind like her two predecessors, but is also apparently bubble-mute. Janet Yellen is pleased to speak of financial bubbles as a “misalignment of asset prices,” and professes not to espy any on the horizon.

“Let’s see. The Russell 2000 is trading at 85X actual earnings and that’s apparently “within normal valuation parameters.” Likewise, the social media stocks are replicating the eyeballs and clicks based valuation madness of Greenspan’s dot-com bubble. But there is nothing to see there, either–not even Twitter at 35X its current run-rate of sales or the $19 billion WhatsApp deal. Given the latter’s lack of revenues, patents and entry barriers to the red hot business of free texting, its key valuation metric reduces to market cap per employee–which computes out to a cool $350 million for each of its 55 payrollers.” - ‘Yellenomics: the folly of free money’ by David Stockman.

Trying to time the markets is either next to impossible, or simply impossible. Either way, we think it’s impossible, so we don’t try. And since we don’t short stocks, the path of least resistance when it comes to equity market investing is

a) Avoid obvious overvaluation, and
b) Concentrate on apparently dramatic undervaluation.

If in doubt, the best policy is always to ask ‘What would Ben Graham have done ?’ and then just do that. (And conversely, if Ben Graham would never have done it, then don’t do it either.) And David Stockman isn’t the only person who detects evidence of a bubble in Big ‘Tech’. V. Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial Holdings points to the highly speculative valuations currently on offer in the ‘social media’ and ‘other tech / web’ space. For example:

Data courtesy Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd, March 7 2014.

It’s fairly safe to assume that Ben Graham would not have given ownership of these companies at current valuations his uninhibited endorsement. Indeed, as he once said,

“Investors do not make mistakes, or bad mistakes, in buying good stocks at fair prices. They make their serious mistakes by buying poor stocks, particularly the ones that are pushed for various reasons. And sometimes — in fact, very frequently — they make mistakes by buying good stocks in the upper reaches of bull markets.”

So in summary, here are the cardinal errors:

i) Buying rubbish (or speculative nonsense);
ii) Overpaying for quality.

Avoiding the first error is relatively easy, subject to the vagaries of subjective judgment. Avoiding the second, however, may be difficult, perhaps impossibly so, when our monetary overlords at the central banks are hopelessly distorting the price of money. The prudent response, we feel, is to lean that much more heavily on the side of caution by only even considering out-and-out deep value – at least within the context of the listed equity markets. And it is worth repeating Graham and Dodd’s 1934 definition from ‘Security Analysis’:

“An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.” [Emphasis ours.]

Quite which operations in today’s marketplace will turn out to be speculative is not yet known to anybody. But the law of gravitation, egged on by the madness of crowds, will doubtless reveal its secrets to us before too long. The ‘social media and other tech / web space’ seems as good a place as any to expect to see investment operations smashed against the rocks before the year is out.

But as we suggest, overpaying for quality may be an inevitable risk in a financial world in which hopes and fears over QE, Zero Interest Rate Policies and banking system solvency (and the threat of depositor bail-ins) dominate more objective fundamentals such as corporate profits growth (or lack thereof). Groupthink alone is sufficient to cause unhealthy dislocations when gravitational forces ensue. We suspect that global megacap consumer brands may now be an unhealthily crowded trade – the sort of investment that makes sense at first glance given the problems highlighted at the beginning of this paragraph, but unhealthily crowded nevertheless. They certainly have been before. Take the ‘nifty fifty’ growth stocks of the early 1970s. Coca-Cola was one such stock. When the forces of recession arrived on the back of the Russian gas embargo Arab oil embargo, Coke’s stock managed to lose over two thirds of its value.

The real thing: Coca-Cola share price, 1973-1974

The real thing: Coca-Cola share price, 1973-1974

Coke wasn’t alone. Over the same period, Disney also lost over two thirds of its value. Blue-chip IBM survived relatively unscathed: it only lost 57%. Note that this isn’t a prediction for the next bear phase – but we would suggest that the social media sector, being inherently more flimsy, has that much further to fall.

Where are we currently finding ‘deep value’ ? In pockets of the mid-cap market throughout Asia, notably in Japan, and also, ahem, in Russia, which we note has now replaced gold as the most reviled part of the global asset marketplace. But we also note that gold seems to have turned a corner after its annus horribilis in 2013. As does its kissing cousin, silver. Since we bought both for very specific reasons, and the underlying fundamentals for holding both have if anything only strengthened even as their prices melted last year, we’re unlikely to be selling either any time soon. And of course the miners of each have also seen their share prices recover some, though so far only some, of the ground they lost, but again we’re in the sector for the long haul. We think money printing is in and of itself inflationary. We also think that central banks may soon have to go ‘all-in’ in their fight against deflation. We think they are destined to lose control of the markets before they are ultimately proved wrong in any case, but who knows ? This is what happens when you allow economic policy wonks unfettered power to experiment on complex markets with unproven (and unprovable) models and make-it-up-as-you-go-along monetary policy on the hoof. Since this is destined to end badly, apart from diversifying sensibly into non-equity assets, it makes sense to seek shelter – in equity terms – in those things most worthy of Ben Graham’s affection. Or in the words of Ben Graham’s most celebrated acolyte, Warren Buffett,

“We don’t have to be smarter than the rest. We have to be more disciplined than the rest.”

And

“We don’t get paid for activity, just for being right. As to how long we’ll wait, we’ll wait indefinitely.”

Economics

Is inflation good for economic growth?

After settling at 3.9% in July 2011 the yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) fell to 1.6% by January this year. Also, the yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index less food and energy displays a visible downtrend falling from 2.3% in April 2012 to 1.6% in January.

US CPI

On account of a visible decline in the growth momentum of the consumer price index (CPI) many economists have concluded that this provides scope for the US central bank to maintain its aggressive monetary stance.

Some other economists, such as the president of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank’s Charles Evans are even arguing that the declining trend in the growth momentum of the CPI makes it possible for the Fed to further strengthen monetary pumping. This, Evans holds, will reverse the declining trend in price inflation and will bring the economy onto a path of healthy economic growth. According to the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank president the US central bank should be willing to let inflation temporarily run above its target level of 2%. He also said that an unemployment rate of about 5.5% and an inflation rate of about 2% are indicative of a healthy economy.

But how is it possible that higher price inflation will make the economy stronger? If price inflation slightly above 2% is good for the economy, why not aim at a much higher rate of inflation, which will make the economy much healthier?

Contrary to Evans a strengthening in monetary pumping to lift the rate of price inflation will only deepen economic impoverishment by allowing the emergence of new bubble activities and by the strengthening of existing bubble activities.

It will increase the pace of the wealth diversion from wealth generators to various non-productive activities, thereby weakening the process of wealth generation.

Evans and other economists are of the view that a strengthening in monetary pumping will strengthen the flow of monetary spending, which in turn will keep the economy stronger.

On this way of thinking an increase in the monetary spending of one individual lifts the income of another individual whose increase in spending boosts the incomes of more individuals, which in turn boosts their spending and lifts the incomes of more individuals etc.

If, for whatever reasons, people curtail their spending this disrupts the monetary flow and undermines the economy. To revive the monetary flow it is recommended that the central bank should lift monetary pumping. Once the monetary flow is re-established this sets in motion self-sustaining economic growth, so it is held.

Again we suggest that monetary pumping cannot set in motion self-sustaining economic growth. It can only set in motion an exchange of something for nothing i.e. an economic impoverishment.

As long as the pool of real wealth is still growing monetary pumping can create the illusion that it can grow the economy. Once however, the pool is declining the illusion that the Fed’s loose policies can set in motion an economic growth is shattered.

If on account of the deterioration of the infrastructure a baker’s production of bread per unit of time is now 8 loaves instead of 10 loaves and the shoemaker’s production per unit of time is now 4 pair of shoes instead of 8 pair of shoes, then no amount of money printing can lift the production of real wealth per unit of time i.e. of bread and shoes. Monetary pumping cannot replace non-existent tools and machinery.

On the contrary the holders of newly printed money who don’t produce any real wealth will weaken the ability of wealth generators to produce wealth by diverting to themselves bread and shoes thereby leaving less real wealth to fund the maintenance and the expansion of the infrastructure.

Now, Fed officials give the impression that once they put the economy onto the so called self-sustained growth path the removal of the monetary stimulus will not generate major side effects. Note that a loose monetary policy sets in motion bubble activities. The existence of these activities is supported by the monetary pumping, which diverts to them real wealth from wealth generating activities.

Once monetary pumping is aborted bubble activities are forced to go under since they cannot fund themselves without the support of loose monetary policy – an economic bust ensues. The illusion that the Fed can bring the economy onto a self-sustaining growth path is shattered.

Summary and conclusion

On account of a visible decline in the growth momentum of the US price index many economists have concluded that this provides scope for the US central bank (the Fed) to maintain its aggressive monetary stance. Some economists such as the president of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank, Charles Evans, even argue that the declining trend in the growth momentum of the CPI makes it possible for the Fed to further strengthen monetary pumping. This, it is held, will reverse the declining trend in price inflation and will bring the US economy onto a path of healthy economic growth. We suggest that contrary to Evans a strengthening in monetary pumping will only deepen economic impoverishment by allowing the emergence of new bubble activities and by the strengthening of existing bubble activities.

Economics

Speech to the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce in London

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

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Economics

Do equities (and real estate) give you inflation protection?

Hyperinflation in Hungary, 1946. (Photo by Mizerak Istvan)

Hyperinflation in Hungary, 1946. (Photo by Mizerak Istvan)

Confronted with the possibility that the endgame of the present experiment in extreme monetary accommodation may be higher inflation and even currency disaster, many private investors and portfolio managers respond that they should be okay, since their wealth is protected through allocations to equities and real estate. In contrast to cash and fixed income securities, which are certain to get obliterated in an inflationary environment, equities and real estate are considered some form of ‘hard’ or ‘real’ asset, not just nominal paper promises. “Why should I own gold? A well-diversified portfolio of top international companies should give me good protection against any major disaster,” a senior portfolio manager told me. “I don’t know about gold. What’s so special about it? But I own real estate. If we enter a high inflation scenario, real estate will maintain its value”, a private investor said. But how probable is it that those strategies are going to work?

The wages of fear

Let us consider the overall backdrop first. Most experiments with unconstrained paper money in history ended in hyperinflation and currency collapse. Those that didn’t were terminated by a political decision to return to commodity-linked, inelastic money voluntarily, a move that required a combination of economic literacy and political backbone that I will leave to the reader to assess if it can be found in sufficient measure among today’s political and bureaucratic elite. Our present fiat money experiment is close to 43 years old and showing signs of serious strain: For a number of years now central banks have been manoeuvring themselves into a corner where they must keep rates at zero and keep propping up certain asset prices through targeted money printing operations to maintain the mirage of the system’s solvency, and there are little signs that any of them is going to find a way out anytime soon.

I know, I know, there are two alternative memes making the rounds presently. One maintains that a deflationary correction is more likely than inflation. The other that a recovery is on track and that this will allow central banks to pull back. The former is not entirely silly. One of the side-effects of relentless bubble blowing is indeed that Mr. Market will occasionally insist on deflating the bubbles. But then the global monetary politburo that holds the keys to the printing presses knows better what the world needs and won’t let Mr. Market do his work. Thus, money-printing will continue. Remember Mr. Bernanke and his apodictic declaration that a ‘determined’ government can always create higher inflation. The second meme is popular but silly, and not the topic of this essay.

The first thing to say is that the idea of equities being a good protector against monetary disaster sounds too good to be true. Here is an asset class that benefits immensely from the current policy of “quantitative easing” and interest rate repression, as even the most hardened believers in equity-markets as disinterested and trustworthy barometers of economic health will find it hard to argue that present valuations purely reflect solid company fundamentals, yet equities should also do well when the recovery finally enters self-sustainable speed and the central bankers exit, and even offer protection for when central bankers don’t exit and we finally go into inflationary meltdown. – Wow! Stop the presses! Here is an asset class that you cannot lose with. (Well, maybe with the exception of the deflationary collapse.)

We should maybe get a tad suspicious if an asset class claims to be the winner in all seasons. Maybe the explanation is psychological. People like to own assets that are sufficiently mainstream, which means they have done well in the past, and assets that offer an income stream (dividends or interest payments), because even if they attach (as I do) a meaningful probability to high inflation and even to currency disaster, the timing of it all is difficult and waiting is so much easier when you are sitting on an income stream. I suspect that there could be an element of wishful thinking at work when investors argue that equities offer disaster protection as well. Like most other people I, too, want to have it all but I believe the universe was not quite so kind to us and arranged things differently. Usually, life requires harsher trade-offs. So at present, the returns from rising equity markets and the paltry returns from fixed income are the ‘wages of fear’ that investors get paid for driving nitroglycerin-filled trucks through the financial jungle, just as in Henri-George Clouzot’s eponymous 1953-classic.  Remember: the way to hell is paved with positive carry!

Equities versus gold

I am not denying that equities do have, in principle, the potential to offer some degree of protection against inflation and other financial calamities imposed by government. A reader from Germany recently wrote to me how his father had managed to protect large chunks of his personal wealth through World War II and subsequent currency reform by holding shares in some of Germany’s top companies (and diligently avoided bonds – in particular government bonds!). There can be little doubt that owning claims to the capital of well-established productive concerns is superior to owning securitised promises of politicians. But what about equities versus gold? In my view, gold is still the essential self-defense asset against fiat money disaster, certainly in case of hyperinflation but probably even in a deflationary calamity.

If you own gold you own a universal monetary asset, a global, inelastic and apolitical form of money. Its value is not derived from any specific enterprise, any industry or nation, or any issuing authority. It is nation-less, boundary-less, completely global in its appeal – an international and for all I can say ‘eternal’ form of money. (I like Bitcoin but I don’t think it is quite up there yet.) If you own equities instead you hold claims on the future income stream of specific and hopefully continuingly productive enterprises. Shares are not just claims on any “hard” assets that a company may own, such as land or factory buildings but constitute claims on the future profitability of particular business models. But inflations are macro-economic fiascos. They are disasters, and disasters of a peculiar kind. Some firms may indeed benefit, at least initially, from rising and even high inflation but for many companies inflation will create severe problems. Many companies will indeed go under.

One of the many problems with inflation is that it greatly complicates economic calculation (to the point of making it almost impossible), and that it encourages entrepreneurial error. It can, of course, be said that encouraging entrepreneurial error is the very modus operandi of any policy of easy money: artificially low interest rates ‘work’ by creating an illusion of high savings availability, of a low time preference of the public that should enhance the feasibility of long term investment projects. Via low interest rates entrepreneurs are lured into investment projects that are bound to lack, in the long run, the necessary support from the public’s true voluntary savings. ‘Easy money’ encourages investment always and everywhere under false pretences. But the point here is that, once inflation really kicks in, the errors are likely to compound.

A common problem of calculation under inflation is that many companies will report ‘phantom’ or ‘apparent’ profits, which result from rising sales revenue being booked as income while the also rapidly rising replacement costs for machinery or semi-finished goods are often not fully reflected in depreciation charges, and often remain difficult to ascertain anyway as high inflation is also volatile inflation. Some of what is shown as profit will ultimately simply constitute ‘eating into capital’. Long term planning and economic calculation are greatly disrupted by inflation. In any case, inflation will create some winners but also many losers, even to the point of company failures. High inflation economies are sick economies and usually not a good place to invest.

Historical example: Germany 1918-1923

In 1931 the Italian economist and statistician Costantino Bresciani-Turroni published a study of Weimar Germany’s descent into hyperinflation under the title Le Vicende del Marco Tedesco, which was translated into English under the title The Economics of Inflation, and published in 1937. Among many other things, Bresciani-Turroni also looked at how equities fared: in rapidly depreciating paper money terms, in dollar terms (which means versus gold), and relative to the wholesale price index.

Such studies must always be taken with a generous helping of salt, for a number of reasons. First, history can tell us what happened (in specific and always unique instances) but not what must happen (as a general rule). The social sciences know no laboratory experiments. The next inflationary meltdown may look different from this one. There is no reason to believe that what was observed in Germany at the time must be prototypical for all currency collapses going forward. Second, any study that uses historical data, meaning statistics, is potentially subject to challenges on account of the methodologies used and the accuracy of the underlying data, and this is the case many times over when data series are of such staggering volatility and even somewhat dubious reliability as they are in the case of Germany’s quick descent into monetary chaos. Be that as it may, the study is still very interesting.

Sensibly, Bresciani-Turroni starts his account in the summer of 1914, when Germany left the international gold standard to allow for inflationary war financing. As almost always in the history of money, the state decreed to get rid of the gold anchor so that it could fund itself by printing money freely, and not, as the fairy tales that modern macroeconomists tell themselves will have it, because the gold standard was oh so inflexible and deflationary, which it was, of course, but that was a good thing.

Bresciani-Turroni takes the average of an official German stock index for the year 1913, the last gold standard year, as the base and sets it at 100. He then charts the index in paper mark prices through to 1923, and also calculates the index adjusted for the mark’s steep depreciation versus the dollar, and adjusted according to the index of wholesale prices.

I give you the conclusion right away: If you had held paper marks throughout you would have lost everything. Paper marks became worthless by the end of 1923. Equities did much better but over the whole period underperformed the dollar (and thus gold) and the wholesale price index. By the end of 1923, the stock index that was on average 100 in 1913 stood at 26.80 if adjusted for the dollar exchange rate, according to Bresciani-Turroni’s calculation. In gold-terms you had thus lost more than 70 percent of your purchasing power by staying invested in German equities. Adjusted for wholesale price inflation, the index stood at 21.27. Yes, you avoided total annihilation of your wealth but you were still almost 80 percent poorer measured in the real prices of goods and services and also about 70 percent poorer in gold terms.

What is also fascinating is the sheer volatility of the stock market throughout that period. In 1918, the year of the armistice, the index dropped 30 percent in nominal terms, more than 50 percent in dollar terms, and more than 40 percent when adjusted for inflation. In nominal terms, the index reached a low of 88 in late 1918 (remember: the average of 1913 = 100) and never looked back. It rose to 127 by the end of 1919, 274 by the end of 1920, 731 by the end of 1921, 8,981 by the end of 1922, and it finally reached 26,890,000,000,000 (that is 26.89 trillion) by the end of 1923. Yet, it still underperformed gold and wholesale prices.

In 1919 the nominal index rose 30 percent, yet in gold/dollar terms German equities lost more than 70 percent that year. The years 1920 and 1921 are of particular interest. Inflation had set off a speculative frenzy in Germany. “Playing” the stock market had suddenly become a national obsession. Over those two years the nominal stock index did indeed keep pace with the ongoing destruction of the German Mark. By the end of 1921, you would have even come out slightly ahead of gold and overall prices when compared to early 1920 as a starting point. However, this changed again dramatically in 1922 when the German public shifted its focus to foreign exchange and gold as protectors of their real wealth. Although the nominal stock index grew more than tenfold in 1922, German equities lost 70 percent of their value in gold terms and in wholesale items. The public turned their back on stocks as they sensed that Germany was heading for economic ruin. In October 1922 stock prices were in fact so depressed that some truly bizarre situations occurred:

“…all the share capital of a great company, the Daimler, was , according to the Bourse quotations, scarcely worth 980 million paper marks. Now, since a motor-car made by that company cost at that time on an average three million marks, it follows that ‘the Bourse attributed a value of 327 cars to the Daimler capital, with the three great works, the extensive area of land, its reserves and its liquid capital and its commercial organization developed in Germany and abroad.’”

In 1923, stocks did again remarkably well. In what looks like a classic “crack-up boom”, in which everybody desperately tries to get out of paper currency and rushes to buy just anything, the equity index did outperform gold, dollar, and wholesale prices. Despite this impressive sprint, equities were still, over the entire period, a suboptimal tool for wealth protection.

Some observations on real estate

Interestingly, owning real estate proved disastrous for many people in Weimar Germany. There is no detailed analysis in Bresciani-Turroni’s study but the anecdotal references are hardly encouraging. Rents were regulated by law and in the rapid inflation of 1922 and 1923 could apparently not be adjusted quickly enough. Real estate became a zero-yielding asset while maintenance costs exploded:

“In 1922 and 1923, because of the rapid depreciation of the mark, the old house-rents became ridiculous. Consequently the value of houses fell considerably. Many landlords, for whom houses were now valueless because the rents did not cover maintenance expenses, were forced to sell them.”

Germany’s hyperinflation was an economic, social and political disaster. It impoverished large sections of the German middle class, in particular those who were conservative with their finances, who saved and who entrusted their savings to the state-sponsored financial infrastructure: banks, insurance companies, government bonds, mortgage bonds. Real estate investments offered poor protection and even equities were suboptimal. Having gold bars stored in a Swiss safe deposit (or even a German one) would have done the trick.

Again, history does not – usually – repeat itself. Next time things may unfold differently. Yet, gold certainly remains my favorite asset.

This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.

Economics

The success of “credit easing” on its own terms

Click for Telegraph Story

Click for Telegraph Story

Today, the Telegraph reports, UK house price growth ‘approaching madness’:

The speed UK property prices are rising at is “approaching madness”, analysts have warned, after data showed house prices jumped 2.4pc in February, the biggest monthly increase in five years.

The rise, revealed in the latest Halifax House Price Index, outstripped analysts’ expectations of a 0.7pc rise, renewing fears of a house price bubble.

House prices advanced 7.9pc on an year-on-year basis, the figures showed, taking the average price across the UK to £179,872 and marking the strongest annual uplift since October 2007.

The Chancellor’s policies of “monetary activism” and “credit easing” including Funding for Lending and Help to Buy have, on their own terms, succeeded. According to Kaleidic Economics, the Austrian measure of the money supply is now expanding by over 12% year on year:

Click for Kaleidic's data

Click for Kaleidic’s data

Nothing has been learned since Hayek wrote Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. His preface could have been written today:

It is a curious fact that the general disinclination to explain the past boom by monetary factors has been quickly replaced by an even greater readiness to hold the present working of our monetary organization exclusively responsible for our present plight. And the same stabilizers who believed that nothing was wrong with the boom and that it might last indefinitely because prices did not rise, now believe that everything could be set right again if only we would use the weapons of monetary policy to prevent prices from falling.The same superficial view,which sees no other harmful effect of a credit expansion but the rise of the price level, now believes that our only difficulty is a fall in the price level, caused by credit contraction.

… There is no reason to assume that the crisis was started by a deliberate deflationary action on the part of the monetary authorities, or that the deflation itself is anything but a secondary phenomenon, a process induced by the maladjustments of industry left over from the boom. If, however, the deflation is not a cause but an effect of the unprofitableness of industry, then it is surely vain to hope that by reversing the deflationary process, we can regain lasting prosperity. Far from following a deflationary policy, central banks, particularly in the United States, have been making earlier and more far-reaching efforts than have ever been undertaken before to combat the depression by a policy of credit expansion—with the result that the depression has lasted longer and has become more severe than any preceding one. What we need is a readjustment of those elements in the structure of production and of prices that existed before the deflation began and which then made it unprofitable for industry to borrow. But, instead of furthering the inevitable liquidation of the maladjustments brought about by the boom during the last three years, all conceivable means have been used to prevent that readjustment from taking place; and one of these means, which has been repeatedly tried though without success, from the earliest to the most recent stages of depression, has been this deliberate policy of credit expansion.

On its own terms, systematic intervention in the market for credit has succeeded: it has restarted the Domesday machine which delivered us into this mess. Those of us who have studied Mises, Hayek and the other Austrian-School masters will know that our present economic system remains built on sand.

Economics

Five years of disastrously low interest rates have left Britain addicted to cheap credit

The Bank of England

This article originally appeared in The Telegraph on 5 March 2014. It is reproduced by permission of the author.

Five years ago today, the Bank of England cut interest rates about as low as they can go: 0.5 percent. And there they have remained.

If rates have been rock bottom for five years, our central bankers have been cutting them for even longer. You need to go back almost nine years to find a time when real interest rates last rose. Almost a million mortgage holders have never known a rate rise.

And this is all a Good Thing, according to the orthodoxy in SW1. Sure, low rates might hit savers, who don’t get such good returns, but for home owners and businesses, it’s been a blessing.

Don’t just compare the winners with the losers, say the pundits. Think of the whole economy. Rates were set at rock bottom shortly after banks started to go bust. Slashing the official cost of borrowing saved the day, they say.

I disagree. Low interest rates did not save the UK economy from the financial crisis. Low interest rates helped caused the crisis – and keeping rates low means many of the chronic imbalances remain.

To see why, cast your mind back to 1997 and Gordon Brown’s decision to allow the Bank of England to set interest rates independent of any ministerial oversight.

Why did Chancellor Brown make that move? Fear that populist politicians did not have enough discipline. Desperate to curry favour with the electorate, ministers might show themselves to be mere mortals, slashing rates as an electoral bribe.

The oppostite turned out to be the case.  Since independence, those supermen at the central bank set rates far lower than any minister previously dared.  And the results of leaving these decisions to supposedly benign technocrats at the central bank has been pretty disastrous.

Setting interest rates low is simply a form of price fixing. Set the price of anything – bread, coffee, rental accommodation – artificially low and first you get a glut, as whatever is available gets bought up.

Then comes the shortage. With less incentive to produce more of those things, the supply dries up. So, too, with credit.

With interest rates low, there is less incentive to save. Since one persons savings mean another’s borrowing, less saving means less real credit in the system. With no real credit, along comes the candyfloss variety, conjured up by the banks – and we know what happened next.  See Northern Rock…

When politicians praise low interest rates, yet lament the lack of credit, they demonstrate an extraordinary, almost pre-modern, economic illiteracy.

Too many politicians and central bankers believe cheap credit is a cause of economic success, rather than a consequence of it. We will pay a terrible price for this conceit.

Low interest rates might stimulate the economy in the short term, but not in a way that is good for long-term growth. As I show in my paper on monetary policy, cheap credit encourages over-consumption, explaining why we remain more dependent than ever on consumer- (and credit-) induced growth.

Cheap credit cannot rebalance the economy. By encouraging over-consumption, it leads to further imbalances.

Think of too much cheap credit as cholesterol, clogging up our economic arteries, laying down layer upon layer of so-called “malinvestment”.

“Saved” by low rates, an estimated one in 10 British businesses is now a zombie firm, able to service its debts, but with no chance of ever being able to pay them off.

Undead, these zombie firms can sell to their existing customer base, keeping out new competition. But what they cannot do is move into new markets or restructure and reorganise. Might this help explain Britain’s relatively poor export and productivity performance?

What was supposed to be an emergency measure to get UK plc through the financial storm, has taken on an appearance of permanence. We are addicted to cheap credit. Even a modest 1 per cent rate rise would have serious consequences for many.

Sooner or later, interest rates will have to rise. The extent to which low interest rates have merely delayed the moment of reckoning, preventing us from making the necessary readjustments, will then become painfully evident.

We are going to need a different monetary policy, perhaps rather sooner than we realise.