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Money

A Salvo in the Battle for the Gold Standard

I wrote what I thought was a fairly simple article for Forbes on Tuesday. I noticed that some people really got it, and they were very excited. However, others were skeptical or asking questions that went into the weeds. The former tells me that I said something important, but the latter says that I said it in a way that not everyone could relate to.

I started with the observation that many people argue (vehemently) that money should be defined as the medium of exchange. In the US, the dollar is used to purchase everything. Therefore the dollar circulates as the medium of exchange. Therefore the dollar is money. Q.E.D.

The catch is that the dollar only circulates because the government forces it to circulate, and forces gold not to. This means that the very concept of money is under the control of the government.

Ayn Rand noted that force is not essentially about a physical push, or a bullet hitting flesh. She said, “Force and mind are opposites…” She added, “To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument—is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality.”

She showed that force is an attack on the mind. Literally, the gun takes away your ability to see reality clearly and use logic to arrive at the best possible outcome. Instead, you must think and do as you are told. The insidious process she described is at work with the concept of money. The very concept of money has been perverted.

In most cases, people can see that government has no power to change reality, or alter the laws of physics. But in this case—by the leverage of a broken concept—many people assume that government has indeed the power to make concepts into what it wishes.

George Orwell once wrote about this.

Debt paper is not money, no matter who issues it. The government has no power to transform water into wine, or debt paper into money. I don’t think anyone is explicitly arguing that it has this power. I think their error is to gloss over why the dollar circulates, and just insist that, “well, it circulates therefore it is money.”

Thus, the government is granted the power to turn paper into gold, though the mind skitters away from openly admitting this conclusion.

The consequence to accepting the dollar as money is to think that gold goes up. As I often say, in reality, gold is going nowhere. It’s the dollar that is going down. But if the dollar is money, then the prices of all things are measured in dollars. And so, we think gold goes up. Because that’s the only way to frame it if the dollar is money.

If gold goes up, then one has made a profit. That’s right, one makes money for doing nothing, just holding a lump of metal. Where does such a free lunch come from? No time to explore that contradiction today. Let’s stay focused.

It may not be fair, but we have a capital gains tax that applies when an investment, commodity, or asset goes up. If you buy something for $1,000 and sell it for $1,500, then you have a $500 profit. You must pay tax on that income. There are no exceptions that I am aware of: antique Ferraris, stocks, bonds, bitcoin, copper, houses, etc.

And this is where the concept of money gets real.

The government has several ways of forcing gold not to circulate, of making us use their debt paper as if it were money. One of them is the capital gains tax on gold. You see, if you barter—remember, gold is not money, just a commodity—gold for a car then the government considers that to be a sale of gold at the current market price. If that is higher than what you paid when you bought, then you owe capital gains tax.

This tax makes it far too expensive to use gold in transactions, not to mention the ledger you would have to keep. So gold is forced out of circulation (and into private hoards). Gold is for holding, not for using as money.

I have been arguing that this bad tax provision ought to be repealed. And that’s the crux of the problem.

Am I just a crony, like every other crony, asking the government for a special favor and preferential treatment? Is the whole point of repealing the tax on gold so that gold speculators can make more money on their gold trades?

This was essentially the allegation of one Arizona legislator, who asked why gold should be treated differently than other investments.

If the dollar is money, then there is no good answer to this question.

To advocate for special privileges that benefit one’s own purse is to fight for cronyism (also known by its older name, fascism). This is not a principled position. Nor is it a sympathetic one. Everyone has a mental picture of a fat cats, seeking to engorge himself as public expense. Once we’re into that box, once we’re perceived that way, we’re doomed. No matter what “blah blah blah” comes out of our mouths, it will be seen as self-serving and hypocritical. And rightfully so.

Huh? Rightfully so?!? Yes. If we concede that the dollar is money, gold is a commodity, and if we concede that gold is going up, which means we make a profit, and if we demand not to be taxed on that profit, then we are no different than any other special interest group seeking favoritism. We are no different than any other rent seekers.

What is a principled free marketer to do? Well, if you cling to the notion that the dollar is money, then you are disarmed. You have to concede that gold should be taxed just like other assets. You can lobby to eliminate all capital gains tax, but that’s about it. Good luck with that. I will cheer you, but don’t expect victory any time soon.

I remind you of two things. One, tax keeps gold from circulating. In other words, the gold tax is the key to socialized money. We can never have a free market in money if gold is penalized with a tax every time the dollar loses value. Two, as Ayn Rand showed, the moral is the practical. Your belief in this bad definition of money is what keeps you from effectively fighting for a free market in money.

There is much more to say about the topic of money and credit, to support the case that gold is money. In this article, I just wanted to focus on this one issue, because I think the error is an important one. I expect gold’s enemies, as they begin to mobilize and organize, will be cunning enough to see the vulnerability and go for the jugular.

If we want to win, we will need to be armed properly for the fight. This is a battle for ideas, and the most important weapons we can wield are concepts. Preferably razor sharp concepts. Let’s get it right, starting with a clear understanding of the dollar and of gold.

Economics

2015: the year of the slump?

2014 ended with two ominous developments: the strength of the US dollar and a collapse in key commodity prices.

It is tempting to view both events as one, but the continuing fall in oil prices through December reveals they are sequential: first there was a greater preference for dollars compared with other currencies and this still persists, followed by a developing preference for all but the weakest currencies at the expense of raw materials and energy. These are two steps on a path that should logically lead to a global slump.

Dollar strength was the first warning that things were amiss, leading to higher interest rates in many of the emerging economies as their central banks sought to control investment outflows. Since this followed a prolonged period of credit expansion these countries appear to be entering the bust phase of the credit-driven boom-and-bust cycle; so for them, 2015 at a minimum will see a slump in economic activity as the accumulated malinvestments from the past are unwound. According to the IMF database, emerging market and developing economies at current prices account for total GDP of over $30 trillion, compared with advanced economies’ GDP totalling $47 trillion. It is clear that a slump in the former will have serious repercussions for the latter.

As the reserve currency the dollar is central to the exchange value of all other currencies. This is despite attempts by China and Russia to trade without it. Furthermore and because of this dependency, the global economy has become more geared to the dollar over the years because it has expanded relative to the US. In 2000, the US was one-third of global GDP; today it is about one-fifth.

The second development, falling energy and commodity prices, while initially driven by the same factors as dollar strength, confirms the growing likelihood of a global slump. If falling prices were entirely due to increased supply of the commodities involved, we could rejoice. However, while there has been some increase in energy and commodity supply the message is clear, and that is demand at current prices has unexpectedly declined, and prices are now trying to find a new equilibrium. And because we are considering world demand, this development is being missed or misread by economists who lack a global perspective.

The price of oil has approximately halved in the last six months. The fall has been attributed variously to the west trying to bankrupt Russia, or to Saudi Arabia driving American shale production out of business. This misses the bigger picture: according to BP’s Statistical Review 2014, at the beginning of last year world oil consumption comfortably exceeded supply, 91.3million barrels per day compared with 86.8. This indicates that something fundamental changed in 2014 to collapse the price, and that something can only be a sudden fall in demand in the second half.

Iron ore prices have also halved over the last six months, but other key commodities, such as copper which fell by only 11% over the period, appear to have not yet adjusted to the emerging markets slump. This complies with business cycle theory, because in the early stages of a slump businesses remain committed to their capital investment plans in the vain hope that conditions will improve. This being the case, the collapse in demand for energy can be expected to deepen and spread to other industrial raw materials as manufacturers throw in the towel and their investment plans are finally abandoned.

Therefore the economic background to the financial outlook for the global economy is not encouraging. Nor was it at the beginning of 2014, when it was obviously going to be a difficult year. The difference a year on is that the concerns about the future are more crystallised. This time last year I wrote that we were heading towards a second (to Lehman) and unexpected financial and currency crisis that could happen at any time. I only modify that to say the crisis has indeed begun and it has much further to go this year. This is the background against which we must briefly consider some of the other major currencies, and precious metals.

Japan and the yen

The complacency about Japan in the economic and investment communities is astonishing. Japan is committed to a scale of monetary inflation that if continued can only end up destroying the yen. The Bank of Japan is now financing the equivalent of twice the government deficit (¥41 trillion) by issuing new currency, some of which is being used to buy Japanese equity ETFs and property REITs. By these means pricing in bond, equity and commercial property markets has become irrelevant. “Abenomics” is about financing the government and managing the markets under the Keynesian cover of stimulating both the economy and animal spirits. In fact, with over ¥1.2 quadrillion of public sector debt the government is caught in a debt trap from which it sees no escape other than bluff. And since Abenomics was first embarked upon two years ago, the yen has fallen from 75 to the US dollar to 120, or 37%.

Instead of learning the lessons of previous hyperinflations, mainstream economists fall for the official line and ignore the facts. The facts are simple: Japan is a welfare state with an increasing and unsustainable ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers. She is the leading advanced nation on a debt path the other welfare nations are closely following. Consensus forecasts that the Japanese economy will be stimulated into recovery in 2015 are wide of the mark: instead she is destroying her currency and private sector wealth with it.

Eurozone and the euro

In the short-term the Eurozone is being revisited by its Greek problem. Whether or not the next Greek government backs off from confronting the other Eurozone members and the ECB remains to be seen. The problems for the Eurozone lie considerably deeper than Greece, made worse by politicians who have been reluctant to use the time bought by the ECB to address the structural difficulties of the 19 Eurozone members. The result is the stronger northern bloc (Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) is being crippled by the burden of the Mediterranean states plus Portugal plus France. And Germany and Finland have suffered the further blow of losing valuable export business from Russia.

In the coming months the Eurozone will likely face gas shortages from Russia through the trans-Ukrainian pipeline, and price deflation driven by energy and other commodity prices. Price deflation spurs two further points to consider, one false and the other true: lower prices are deemed to be recessionary (false), and falling prices increase the burden of real debt (true). The consequence is that the ECB will seek ways to expand money supply aggressively to stop the Eurozone from drifting into an economic crisis. In short, the Eurozone will likely develop its own version of Abenomics, the principal difference being the Eurozone’s timeline is behind Japan’s.

US and UK

Japan and the Eurozone account for total GDP of $18.3 trillion, slightly more than the US and added to the emerging and developing economies, gives a total of $48 trillion, or 62% of global GDP for nations leading the world into a slump. So when we consider the prospects for the US and the UK, together producing $20.4 trillion or 26% of the world’s GDP, their prospects are not good either. The UK as a trading nation exposed to the Eurozone has immediate risk, while the US which is not so dependent on international trade, less so.

Precious metals

The foregoing analysis is of the primary economic drivers for 2015 upon which all else will ultimately depend. The risk of a global slump can be called a first order event, while the possibility of a banking crisis, derivatives default or other market dislocation brought on by a slump could be termed a second order event. There is no point in speculating about the possibility and timing of second order events occurring in 2015, because they ultimately depend on the performance of the global economy.

However, when it becomes clear to investors that the global economy is indeed entering a slump, financial and systemic risks are certain to escalate. Judging this escalation by monitoring markets will be difficult because central banks, exchange stability funds and sovereign wealth funds routinely intervene in markets, rendering them misleading as price signals.

Precious metals are the only assets beyond the long-term control of governments. They can distort precious metal markets in the short term by expanding the quantity of derivatives, and there is a body of evidence that these methods have been employed in recent years. But most price distortion today appears to have come from bullion and investment banks who are fully committed to partying in bonds, equities and derivatives, and for which gold is a spoiler. This complacency is bound to be undermined at some point, and a global economic slump is the likely catalyst.

The dangers of ever-inflating currencies are clearly illustrated by the Fiat Money Quantity, which has continued to expand at an alarming rate as shown in the chart below.

FMQ 09012015

FMQ measures the amount of fiat currency issued as a replacement for gold as money, so is a measure of unbacked monetary expansion. At $13.52 trillion last November it is $5.68 trillion above the long-established pre-Lehman crisis growth path, stark evidence of a depreciating currency in monetary terms. Adjusting the price of gold for this depreciation gives a price today the equivalent of $490 in dollars at that time and quantity, so gold has roughly halved in real currency terms since the Lehman crisis.

Conclusion

There is compelling evidence that 2015 will see a global slump in economic activity. This being the case, financial and systemic risks will increase as evidence of the slump accumulates. It can be expected to undermine global equities, property and finally bond markets, which are currently all priced for economic stability. Even though these markets are increasingly controlled by central bank intervention, it is dangerous to assume this will continue to be the case as financial and systemic risks accumulate.

Precious metals are ultimately free from price management by the state. Furthermore, they are the only asset class notably under-priced today, given the enormous increase in the quantity of fiat money since the Lehman crisis.

In short, 2015 is shaping up to be very bad for fiat currencies and very good for gold and silver.

Money

The Biggest Monetary Change in 80 Years

The Swiss people put an initiative on their ballot to reverse decades of regression. They’re trying to get gold back into the monetary system, in the hope of halting the destructive process of currency debasement. I am sad to see the measure defeated on Sunday, even though I had concerns about it.

The simple fact that gold backing for a currency is up for vote in Switzerland shows how much the world is changing. A gold initiative wasn’t possible before 2008, and even today, no other country is ready for it yet.

Most people care little about monetary policy. Even the critics of central banks mostly quibble over minor rule changes or who to put in charge. Few have any serious interest in the gold standard. This, unfortunately, includes the gold bugs.

Gold bugs say they love gold, but they don’t necessarily advocate gold as money. They want something else, and the Swiss referendum shines a spotlight on it. The gold bugs focused on the requirement of the Swiss National Bank to buy gold. Jim Rickards, bestselling author of Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis, said:

“[T]he Swiss gold referendum could have a massive impact on the gold market. It would be extremely bullish, not only putting a floor under gold but also sending the price of gold up significantly.”

Got that? The Swiss referendum will drive up the gold price. The gold bugs don’t care about the monetary implications. They just want to make a few bucks on their gold trades. Let me present one more bit of evidence.

A common gold bug refrain is that the Federal Reserve and its cronies are suppressing the gold price. Addressing and debunking this allegation is beyond the scope of this article, though I have spent many gallons of electrons on this topic elsewhere. There is no monster under the bed, and no dark banking cabal that suppresses gold.

Conspiracy theories about gold price suppression are just the frustrations of people who want to sell their gold. They’re frustrated because they bought with the intention of selling at a profit, but then the price dropped.

In one area, gold bugs agree with gold standard advocates—the slow collapse of the dollar. Gold bugs often say, “All fiat currencies eventually reach their intrinsic value—zero.” This is a good reason to own gold. On the other hand, they fail to understand that a rising gold price simply reflects the falling dollar. It doesn’t make anyone richer. Sure, you may have more dollars, but each of them is worth proportionally less. If you really believe that the dollar will fail, then you should buy more gold while you can. A lower gold price is good, because it lets you accumulate more.

And that’s the irony. Although the gold bugs say they believe the dollar will fail, they don’t want to accumulate more gold. Their crying for a higher price betrays their desire to sell their gold. They are like stock market or real estate speculators. They just want their luck to turn at the asset bubble roulette table.

Central banking encourages speculation, and the gold bugs certainly have the right to bet on the gold price. But let’s please keep that away from the fight to move to the gold standard. Publicly counting the profits from a Swiss currency referendum comes across as self-serving. That won’t win anyone over to the cause of honest money.

We urgently need to restore honesty to the monetary system. We need sound money. There is an emerging, but global movement in support of this cause. That is the biggest monetary change in 80 years.

Economics

The Case For Monetary Freedom And Free Banking

There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.

The pursuit of legal plunder, to use Frédéric Bastiat’s well-chosen phrase, has been behind all the major economic and political disasters that have befallen mankind throughout history.

Government Spending Equals Plundering People

We often forget the fundamental
truth that governments have nothing 
to spend or redistribute that they do not first take from society’s producers. The fiscal history of mankind is nothing but a long, uninterrupted account
of the methods governments have devised for seizing the income and wealth of their citizens and subjects.

Parallel to that same sad history must be an account of all the attempts by the victims of government’s legal plunder to devise counter-methods to prevent or at least limit the looting of their income and wealth by those in political power.

Every student who takes an economics course learns that governments have basically three methods for obtaining control over a portion of the people’s wealth: taxation, borrowing, and inflation––the printing of money.

It was John Maynard Keynes who pointed out in his 1919 book, The Economic Consequences of the Peace:

“By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they also confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some . . .

“There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

Limiting Government with the Gold Standard

To prevent the use of inflation by governments to attain their fiscal ends, various attempts have been made over the last 200 years to limit the power of the State to print money to cover its expenditures. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the method used was the gold standard. The idea was to place the creation of money outside the control of government.

As a commodity, the amount of gold available for both monetary and non-monetary uses is determined and limited by the same market forces that determine the supply of any other freely traded good or service: the demand and price for gold for various uses relative to the cost and profitability of mining and minting it into coins or bullion, or into some other commercial form.

Any paper money in circulation under the gold standard was meant to be money substitutes––that is, notes or claims to quantities of gold that had been deposited in banks and that were used as a convenient alternative to the constant withdrawing and depositing of gold coins or bullion to facilitate everyday market exchanges.

Under the gold standard, the supply of money substitutes in circulation was meant to increase and decrease to reflect any changes in the quantity of gold in a nation’s banking system. The gold standard that existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never worked as precisely or as rigidly as it is portrayed in some economics textbooks. But, nonetheless, the power of government to resort to the money printing press to cover its expenditures was significantly limited.

Governments, therefore, had to use one of the two other methods for acquiring their citizens’ and subjects’ income and wealth. Governments had to either tax the population or borrow money from financial institutions.

But as a number of economists have pointed out, before World
War I many of the countries of North
America and western and central Europe operated under an “unwritten
fiscal constitution.” Governments, except during times of national emergency, were expected to more or less 
balance their budgets on an annual 
basis.

If a national emergency
 (such as a war) compelled a government to borrow money to cover its
 unexpected expenditures, it was expected to run budget surpluses to
pay off any accumulated debt when the emergency had passed.

This unwritten balanced-budget rule was never rigidly practiced either, of course. But the idea that needless government debt was a waste and a drag on the economic welfare of a nation served as an important check on the growth of government spending.

When governments planned to do things, the people were more or less explicitly presented with the bill. It was more difficult for governments to promise a wide variety of benefits without also showing what the taxpayer’s burden would be.

World War I Destroyed the Gold Standard

This all changed during and after World War I. The gold standard was set aside to fund the war expenditures for all the belligerents in the conflict. And John Maynard Keynes, who in 1919 had warned about the dangers of inflation, soon was arguing that gold was a “barbarous relic” that needed to be replaced with government-managed paper money to facilitate monetary and fiscal fine-tuning.

In addition, that unwritten fiscal constitution which required annual balanced budgets was replaced with the Keynesian conception of a balanced budget over the phases of the business cycle.

In practice, of course, this set loose the fiscal demons. Restrained by neither gold nor the limits of taxation, governments around the world went into an orgy of deficit spending and money creation that led some to refer to a good part of the twentieth century as the “age of inflation.”

Politicians and bureaucrats could now far more easily offer short-run benefits to special-interest groups through growth in government power and spending, while avoiding any mention of the longer-run costs to society as a whole, in their roles as taxpayers and consumers.

Obama and Santa Cartoon

The Counter-Revolution Against Keynesianism

Beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s a counter-revolution against Keynesian economics emerged, especially in the United States, which came to be identified with Milton Friedman and monetarism.

To restrain government’s ability to create inflation, Friedman proposed a “monetary rule”: the annual increase in the money supply should be limited to the average annual increase in real output in the economy. Put the creation of paper money on “automatic pilot,” and governments would once more be prevented from using the printing press to capriciously cover their expenditures.

But in the years after receiving the Nobel Prize in economics in 1984, Friedman had second thoughts about the effectiveness of his monetary rule. He stated that Public Choice theory – the use of economic theory to analyze the logic and incentives in political decision-making – persuaded him that trying to get central banks to pursue a monetary policy that would serve the long-run interest of society was a waste of time.

Just like the rest of us, politicians, bureaucrats, and central bankers have their own self-interested goals, and they will use the political power placed at their disposal to advance their interests.

Said Friedman: “We must try to set up institutions under which individuals who intend only their own gain are led by an invisible hand to serve the public interest,” He also concluded that after looking over the monetary history of the twentieth century, “Leaving monetary and banking arrangements to the market would have produced a more satisfactory outcome than was actually achieved through government involvement.”

Separating Money from Government Control

Though Milton Friedman was unwilling to take his own argument that far, the logical conclusion of his admission that the control of money can never be trusted in the hands of the government is the need to separate money creation from the State. What is required is the denationalization of money, or in other words, the establishment of monetary freedom in society.

Under a regime of monetary freedom the government would no longer have any role in monetary and banking affairs. The people would have, to use a phrase popularized by the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek, a “choice in currency.” The law would respect and enforce all market-based, consensual contracts regardless of the currency or commodity chosen by the market participants as money. And the government would not give a special status to any particular currency through legal-tender laws as the only “lawful money.”

Monetary freedom encompasses what is known as “free banking.” That is, private banks are at liberty to accept deposits in any commodity money or currency left in their trust by depositors and to issue their own private banknotes or claims against these deposits.

To the extent these banknotes and claims are recognized and trusted by a growing number of people in the wider economic community, they may circulate as convenient money substitutes. Such private banks would settle their mutual claims against each other on behalf of their respective depositors through private clearinghouses that would have international connections as well.

Few advocates of the free market have included the privatization of the monetary system among their proposed economic policy reforms. The most notable advocate of monetary freedom and free banking in the twentieth century was the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who demonstrated that as long as governments and their central banks have monopoly control over the monetary system inflations and the business cycle are virtually inevitable, with all of their distorting and devastating effects.

But the last 30 years have seen the emergence of a body of serious and detailed literature on the desirability and workability of a fully private and competitive free-banking system as an alternative to government central banking.

Self-Interest and Monetary Freedom

Its political advantage is that it completely removes all monetary matters from the hands of government. However effective the old gold standard may have been before the First World War, it nonetheless remained a government-managed monetary system that opened the door to eventual abuse.

Furthermore, a free-banking system fulfills Milton Friedman’s recommendation that the monetary order should be one that harnesses private interest for the advancement of the public interest through the “invisible hand” of the market process.

The interests of depositors in a reliable banking system would coincide with the self-interest of profit-seeking financial intermediaries. A likely unintended consequence would be a more stable and adaptable monetary system than the systems of monetary central planning the world labors under now.

Of course, a system of monetary freedom does not do away with the continuing motives for government to grow and spend. Even limits on the government’s ability to create money to finance its expenditures does not preclude fiscal irresponsibility, with damaging economic consequences for a large segment of the population through deficit spending and growing national debt.

Obama as Santa Cartoon

Monetary Freedom and a Philosophy of Liberty

In the long run, the only way to limit the growth of government spending and power over society is to change political and ideological thinking. As long as many people want government to use its power to tax and regulate to benefit them at the expense of others, it will retain its power and continue to grow.

Monetary and fiscal reform is ultimately inseparable from the rebirth and implementation of a philosophy of freedom that sees government limited to the protection of each individual’s right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.

As Ludwig von Mises expressed it ninety years ago in the aftermath of the First World War and during the Great German Inflation of the early 1920s:

“What is needed first and foremost is to renounce all inflationist fallacies. This renunciation cannot last, however, if it is not firmly grounded on a full and complete divorce of ideology from all imperialist, militarist, protectionist, statist, and socialist ideas.”

If the belief in and desire for personal and economic liberty can gain hold and grow once more in people’s hearts and minds, monetary freedom and fiscal restraint will eventually come by logical necessity.

[Editor’s note: this piece first appeared here http://www.epictimes.com/richardebeling/2014/12/the-case-for-monetary-freedom-and-free-banking/]

Money

The Truth Behind The Swiss Gold Referendum

A recent column in US News & World Report, The Swiss Gold Rush by Pat Garofalo, its assistant managing editor for opinion, is subtitled “A push for the gold standard in Switzerland is symbolic of Europe’s rising right wing.” US News & World Report hereby descends from commentary to propaganda. Who edits its editors?

To begin with, the Swiss referendum, decisively and sensibly rejected by the Swiss electorate, was not about “the gold standard.” It was a vote on a proposition requiring its central bank to increase its gold reserves from around 8% to 20% — implying the acquisition, over five years, of 1,500 tons (“costing at about $56.3 billion at current prices,” reports Bloomberg), never to sell gold, and to hold that federation’s gold within Switzerland.  That had nothing to do with the gold standard.

The Swiss voted 77% – 23% to reject this proposition. The Swiss National Council had rejected the initiative by 156 votes to 20 with 22 abstentions, and the Council of States by 43 votes to 2 abstentions. And the referendum may well have been a bad, or at least silly, idea.

With a Swiss GDP of around $650 billion (USD) per year the requirement to acquire $10B/year of this iconic shiny-and-ductile commodity while not insignificant, at less than 2% of annual GDP, hardly would have been crippling.  That said, the gold standard was not on the ballot.

As for the gold markets themselves, according to a 2011 report by the FT, reporting on a study by the London Bullion Market Association, there was a $240bn average daily turnover in the London bullion market. The annual mandated Swiss acquisition, then, apparently would have amounted to about … half an hour’s trading volume on one of the world’s major gold marketplaces.  Commodity investment, however, has nothing to do with the gold standard.

Demonetized (as at present), gold merely is a commodity. The gold standard is a quality standard, not a quantity standard, and is about maintaining the integrity of the currency, not limiting its supply. This Swiss referendum substantively was irrelevant to monetary policy. As Forbes.com’s own Nathan Lewis perceptively has pointed out the amount of gold held, under the gold standard, as reserves by banks of issue fluctuated dramatically and immaterially.

The Swiss referendum generated a modicum of international attention and considerable criticism. The referendum presented, in fact, as misguided. It did not, however, even imply a restoration of the gold standard much less prove itself, as Garofalo presented it, as a symptom of “Europe’s rising right wing.”

Garofalo stated that “the gold standard is the idea that a nation’s money supply should be tied to gold, rather than being fully controlled by its central bank.”  This is not even a crude approximation of the gold standard. The gold standard simply holds that the value of a currency shall be defined by, and legally convertible into, a fixed weight of gold.

Garofalo implies, and cites other writers who claim, that the gold standard constrains the money supply.  Not so.  As Nathan Lewis has pointed out, for instance, from 1775 to 1900 the amount of gold in the U.S. monetary system increased by 3.4x while the currency increased by 163x without causing a depreciation in value of the currency.

The gold standard is a qualitative, not quantitative, standard. It does not constrain growth of the money supply, merely calibrating it reasonably well (albeit imperfectly, perfection having never been attained by any monetary system) to the real economy’s money demand. Lewis:

between 1880 and 1900, the monetary base in Italy actually shrank by 4.8%.  However, the monetary base in the U.S. grew by 81% over those same years. Both used gold standard systems. So, the “money supply” not only has no relation to gold mining production, but two countries can have wildly different outcomes during the same time period.

As for whether the gold standard is superior to fiduciary management there is abundant evidence that the organic nature of the gold standard consistently outperforms the synthetic nature of central bank discretion.  Garofalo references a poll of 40 academic economists who dismiss the (admittedly unfashionable) gold standard.

In criticizing the performance of the gold standard Garofalo relies on The Atlantic’s Matt O’Brien.

Indeed, when it was in force, the gold standard brought with it a whole host of negative effects, and as Matt O’Brien wrote in The Atlantic, “was a devilish device for turning recessions into depressions.” It ensures that a central bank can’t respond to a crisis by putting more money into the financial system, greasing the wheels of the economy, since the money supply is restricted by an outside factor.

As for another celebrity on whom Garofalo relies, Nouriel Roubini, his ill-founded hysteria on the gold standard has been critiqued here and here. O’Brien and Roubini are entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts.

As economic historian Professor Brian Domitrovic, also at Forbes.com, relates, The Gold Standard Had Nothing To Do With Panics and Busts,

Looking at the 19th century, before the gold standard became a ghost, a dead-letter in the early era of the Federal Reserve from 1913-33, there is no evidence that the good old thing was implicated in any panic or bust.

Rather than relying on commentators and academics, pro or anti gold, it might be pertinent to turn to the thoughts of central bankers. Herr Dr. Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank, in a 2012 speech referred to gold as “in a sense, a timeless classic.”

And Garofalo makes no reference to the 2011 Bank of England Financial Stability Paper No. 13, summarized and hyperlinked by Forbes.com contributor Charles Kadlec here. This study by the prudential Bank of England — not for nothing called “the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street” — provides an empirical assessment of the fiduciary management approach ushered in by Presidents Johnson and Nixon and, at the time of the study, in effect for 40 years.

Financial Stability Paper No. 13 contrasts the world economy’s real performance under the Johnson/Nixon protocols relative to the Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard and the classical gold standard. The Bank of England analysis, based on the empirical data, concludes that fiduciary management greatly underperformed (for economic growth, financial stability, inflation, recession, and all other categories assessed) its predecessor systems.

Garofalo legitimately cites the weight of elite academic economic opinion against the out-of-fashion gold standard. That said, this august collection of economists, few if any of whom foresaw the panic of 2007 and ensuing Great Recession, seem to be guided by former U.S. Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest’s motto, “Often wrong, never in doubt.” Readers deserve to be provided with the weight of the evidence to, at least, supplement the weight of elite opinion.

More troubling are Garofalo’s innuendos tying gold standard proponents to sinister “right-wing” politics. There is no meaningful correlation between advocacy for the gold standard and, for example, anti-immigrant sentiment. I, a gold standard proponent, am very much on record for a generous, inclusive, immigration policy (including a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens). So is American Principles In Action, the gold standard’s most prominent advocacy group in Washington, DC (which I professionally advise).

The figure most synonymous with right-wing totalitarianism, Adolf Hitler, virulently opposed the gold standard.  The gold standard then was, as it now is, intrinsic to a liberal republican order. Hitler is recorded as saying:

I had no interest in gold— either natural or synthetic.Our opponents have not yet understood our system. We can be easy in our minds on that subject; they’ll have terrible crises once the war is over. During that time, we’ll be building a solid State, proof against crises, and without an ounce of gold behind it. Anyone who sells above the set prices, let him be marched off into a concentration camp ! That’s the bastion of money. There’s no other way.

Garofalo states that “In 2012, Republicans kowtowed to their more extreme members by including a call to return to the gold standard in their party platform.”   This, flatly, is wrong.  The 2012 GOP platform did not call to return to the gold standard.  It simply called for a ““commission to investigate possible ways to set a fixed value for the dollar.”  (Nor did it represent a “kowtow” to “more extreme members.”)

Instead of reciting the platform language Garofalo relied on a distorted description of it by commentator Bruce Bartlett, to which he links.  (Bartlett’s reference, in his New York Times Economix blog, to a “metallic basis” was to platform language referencing a commission established by Reagan, not the call to action in the 2012 platform.)

Garofalo states that “Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – has mentioned the possibility of a return to the gold standard.”  The source to which he links states shows the Senator entirely noncommittal:  “Paul wouldn’t comment on whether a gold standard is needed or not….”  Sen. Paul, pressed by a questioner, simply called for a commission to study the matter, which has a subtle yet materially different connotation from having “mentioned the possibility.”

Garofalo’s misrepresentations are, at best, sloppy, giving readers good cause to wonder about the integrity of this writer’s work. His collected writings are a compilation of progressive nostrums: complaining that gas prices are too low, opposing corporate tax reform, criticizing President Obama for refusing to propose a gas tax, supporting the mandated minimum wage, throwing bouquets to the IRS, and so forth.

Garofalo is a propagandist rather than a commentator. Good on him: the discourse is made spicier by propaganda.

That said, the readers of US News & World Report deserve much better quality propaganda than this. The Swiss referendum may have been silly but it was not about the gold standard. The gold standard neither is “ugly” nor evidence of a “rightward lurch.” And, in the words of its foremost living proponent, Lewis E. Lehrman (whose eponymous Institute I professionally advise), “By the test of centuries, the true gold standard, without reserve currencies, is the least imperfect monetary system of history.”

Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/12/01/the-truth-behind-the-swiss-gold-referendum-escapes-most-of-the-mainstream-media/

Economics

We seem to have miscalculated

“What will futurity make of the Ph.D. standard ? Likely, it will be even more baffled than we are. Imagine trying to explain the present-day arrangements to your 20-something grandchild a couple of decades hence – after the Crash of, say, 2016, that wiped out the youngster’s inheritance and provoked a central bank response so heavy-handed as to shatter the confidence even of Wall Street in the Federal Reserve’s methods.

“I expect you’ll wind up saying something like this: “My generation gave former tenured economics professors discretionary authority to fabricate money and to fix interest rates. We put the cart of asset prices before the horse of enterprise. We entertained the fantasy that high asset prices made for prosperity, rather than the other way around. We actually worked to foster inflation, which we called ‘price stability’ (this was on the eve of the hyperinflation of 2017). We seem to have miscalculated.”

– Excerpt from James Grant’s November 2014 Cato speech. Hat-tip to Alex Stanczyk.

You can be for gold, or you can be for paper, but you cannot possibly be for both. It may soon be time to take a stand. The arguments in favour of gold are well known, and just as widely ignored by the paperbugs, who have a belief system at least as curious because its end product is destined to fail – we just do not know precisely when. The price of gold is weakly correlated to other prices in financial markets, as the last three years have clearly demonstrated. Indeed gold may be the only asset whose price is being suppressed by the monetary authorities, as opposed to those sundry instruments whose prices are being just as artificially inflated to offer the illusion of health in the financial system (stocks and bonds being the primary financial victims). Beware appearances in an unhinged financial system, because they can be dangerously deceptive. It is quite easy to manipulate the paper price of gold on a financial futures exchange if you never have to make delivery of the physical asset and are content to play games with paper. At some point that will change. Contrary to popular belief, gold is supremely liquid, though its supply is not inexhaustible. It is no-one’s liability – this aspect may be one of the most crucial in the months to come, as and when investors learn to start fearing counterparty risk all over again. Gold offers a degree of protection against uncertainty. And unlike paper money, there are fundamental and finite limits to its creation and supply.

What protection ? There is, of course, one argument against gold that seems to trump all others and blares loudly to sceptical ears. Its price in US dollars has recently fallen. Not in rubles, and not perhaps in yen, of course, but certainly in US dollars. Perhaps gold is really a currency, then, as opposed to a tiresome commodity ? But the belief system of the paperbug dies hard.

The curious might ask why so many central banks are busily repatriating their gold ? Or why so many Asian central banks are busily accumulating it ? It is surely not just, in Ben Bernanke’s weasel words, tradition ?

If you plot the assets of central banks against the gold price, you see a more or less perfect fit going back at least to 2002. It is almost as if gold were linked in some way to money. That correlative trend for some reason broke down in 2012 and has yet to re-emerge. We think it will return, because 6,000 years of human history weigh heavily in its favour.

Or you can put your faith in paper. History, however, would not recommend it. Fiat money has a 100% failure rate.

Please note that we are not advocating gold to the exclusion of all else within the context of a balanced investment portfolio. There is a role for objectively creditworthy debt, especially if deflation really does take hold – it’s just that the provision of objectively creditworthy bonds in a global debt bubble is now vanishingly small. There is a role for listed businesses run by principled, decent management, where the market’s assessment of value for those businesses sits comfortably below those businesses’ intrinsic worth. But you need to look far and wide for such opportunities, because six years of central and commercial banks playing games with paper have made many stock markets thoroughly unattractive to the discerning value investor. We suggest looking in Asia. There is a role for price momentum strategies which, having disappointed for several years, though not catastrophically so, now appear to be getting a second wind, from the likes of deflating oil prices, periphery currencies, and so on.

As investors we are all trapped within a horrifying bubble. We must play the hand we’ve been dealt, however bad it is. But there are now growing signs of end-of-bubble instability. The system does not appear remotely sound. Since political vision in Europe, in particular, is clearly absent, the field has been left to central bankers to run amok. The only question we cannot answer is: precisely when does the centre fail ? The correct response is to recall the words of the famed value investor Peter Cundill, when he confided in his diary:

“The most important attribute for success in value investing is patience, patience, and more patience. THE MAJORITY OF INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”

But the absence of patience by the majority of investors is fine, because it leaves more money on the table for the rest of us. The only question remaining is: in what exact form should we hold that money ?

Be patient, and do please set aside thirty minutes to listen to James Grant’s quietly passionate and wonderfully articulate Cato Institute speech. It will be time well spent.

Money

The Gold Standard Did Not Cause The Great Depression, Part 1

AEI’s James Pethokoukis and National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru — among many others — appear to have fallen victim to what I have called “the Eichengreen Fallacy,” the demonstrably incorrect proposition that the gold standard caused the Great Depression.  This fallacy is at the root of much confusion in the discourse.

Both these conservatives find themselves, most incongruously, in the company of Professors Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, and Charles Postel; Nouriel Roubini; Thomas Frank; Think Progress’s Marie Diamond; the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal and other leading thinkers of the left pouring ridicule on the gold standard.  Most recently, Matt O’Brien, of the Washington Post, hyperbolically described the gold standard as “the worst possible case for the worst possible idea,” echoing a previous headline of a blog by Pethokoukis “The case for the gold standard is really pretty awful.”

Mssrs. Pethokoukis and Ponnuru appear to have been misled by an ambient fallacy (reprised recently by Bloomberg View‘s Barry Ritholtz) that there is an inherent deflationary/recessionary propensity of the gold standard. Thus they are being lured into opposition to such respected center-right thought leaders as Lewis E. Lehrman (whose Institute’s monetary policy website I professionally edit); Steve Forbes, Chairman of Forbes Media; Sean Fieler, chairman of American Principles in Action (for which I serve as senior advisor, economics) and the Honorable Steve Lonegan, APIA’s monetary policy director.

They also put themselves sideways with Cato Institute president John Allison; Professors Richard Timberlake, Lawrence White, George Selgin and Brian Domitrovic; Atlas Economic Research Foundation’s Dr. Judy Shelton; Ethics and Public Policy Center’s John Mueller; public figures such as Dr. Ben Carson and, perhaps, Peter Thiel; journalists such as George Melloan and James Grant; and Forbes.com commentators John Tamny, Nathan Lewis, Peter Ferrara, and Jerry Bowyer, among others.

At odds, too, with such esteemed international figures as former Indian RBI deputy governor S.S. Tarapore; former El Salvadoran finance minister Manuel Hinds; and Mexican business titan Hugo Salinas Price. And, at least by way of open-mindedness and perhaps even outright sympathy, The Weekly Standard editor-in-chief William Kristol; Cato’s Dr. James Dorn; Heritage Foundation’s Dr. Norbert Michel; the UK’s Honorable Kwasi Kwarteng and Steve Baker … among many other respected contemporary figures.   Not to mention libertarian lions such as the Honorable Ron Paul.

Gold advocates and sympathizers from the deep past include Copernicus and Newton, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Witherspoon, John Marshall and Tom Paine, among many other American founders; and, from the less distant past, such important thinkers as Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Jacques Rueff, as well as revered political leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.

Alan Greenspan recently, in Foreign Affairs, while not discerning gold on the horizon, recently celebrated the “universal acceptability of gold” while raising a quizzical avuncular eyebrow, or two, at what he describes as “fiat” currency.

Let not pass unnoticed the recent statement by Herr Jens Wiedmann, president of the Bundesbank,

Concrete objects have served as money for most of human history; we may therefore speak of commodity money. A great deal of trust was placed in particular in precious and rare metals – gold first and foremost – due to their assumed intrinsic value. In its function as a medium of exchange, medium of payment and store of value, gold is thus, in a sense, a timeless classic.

Nor let pass unnoticed the Bank of England’s 2011 Financial Stability Paper No. 13 assessing the long term performance of the Federal Reserve Note standard and assessing its real outcomes — in every category reviewed, including job creation, economic growth, and inflation — to have proven itself, over 40 years, as deeply inferior in practice to the gold and even gold-exchange standards.

Seems a puzzling mésalliance on the part of Mssrs. Pethokoukis and Ponnuru.The Eichengreen Fallacy — that the gold standard caused and protracted the Great Depression — has led the discourse severely astray. It is imperative to set matters straight.  As I previously have written:

Prof. Eichengreen, author of Golden Fetters, was and remains non-cognizant of a subtle but crucial aspect of world monetary history — and, apparently, of the works of Profs. Jacques Rueff and Robert Triffin elucidating the implications.  Eichengreen blundered by attributing the Great Depression to the gold standard.  This, demonstrably, is untrue.

As Lehrman puts it, the true gold standard repeatedly has proven, in practice, the least imperfect of monetary regimes tried. Robust data actually recommend the gold standard as a powerful force for equitable prosperity.

Just perhaps it can be bettered.  So let the games begin. That said, proposing alternatives to the gold standard is very different from denigrating it.

Pethokoukis (whose writings I regularly follow and with appreciation) recently presented, at AEIdeas, The gold standard is fool’s gold for Republicans. This was a riposte to my here calling him to task for insinuating a connection between the gold standard and the rise of the Nazis and Hitler.  And to task for making statements in another of his AEIdea blogs taking Professors Beckworth and Tyler Cowen out of context.  He also therein conflated the “weight of the evidence” with “weight of opinion.”  It appears that he has fallen prey to the Eichengreen Fallacy.

In self-defense Pethokoukis cites scholarly materials which tend to prove the innocence of the gold standard rather than his insinuation.  For example: he cites Prof. Beckworth’s statement that “the flawed interwar gold standard … probably … led to the Great Depression which, in turn, guaranteed the rise of the Nazis….”

Prof. Beckworth’s characterization “flawed” is entirely consistent with the characterization by the great French monetary official and savant Jacques Rueff, whose work informs my own, of the gold-exchange standard as “a grotesque caricature” of the gold standard.

Similarly, his reference to Prof. Sumner overlooks the obvious fact that Prof. Sumner would appear fully to grasp the key distinction.  Sumner, as quoted by Pethokoukis:

The gold standard got a bad reputation after the Great Depression, when it was seen as contributing to worldwide deflation.  Kurt Schuler points out that the interwar gold standard didn’t follow the rules of the game, which is true.

Pethokoukis speculates,

Perhaps advocates are so sensitive to charges that the gold standard played a key role in the Great Depression, that nuance gets lost in their knee-jerk counterattacks. After all, many gold bugs think their moment is approaching once again. As Ron Paul wrote in his 2009 book “End the Fed”: ” … we should be prepared for hyperinflation and a great deal of poverty with a depression and possibly street violence as well.”  And when the stuff hits the fan, nations will again return to the gold standard for stability. Or so goes the theory over at Forbes.

Notwithstanding my high regard for Dr. Ron Paul I have not shared in prognostications of hyperinflation, poverty, and possible street violence.  If such sentiments have occurred at Forbes.com, whose columnists trend to the classical liberal rather than Austrian model preferred by Dr. Paul, they are vanishingly rare.  To indict Forbes.com by imputing Dr. Paul’s views here suggests a lack of familiarity with these publications.  There are some crucial distinctions to which his attention hereby is invited.

There are some civil disputes amongst various camps of gold standard proponents.  They are far less material than the demonstrably incorrect fallacy that the authentic gold standard has deflationary tendencies which precipitated the Great Depression.  Once this fallacy is dispelled, James Pethokoukis and Ramesh Ponnuru may find it congenial to adopt a different posture in the — steadily rising — debate over the gold standard.  They, as do Profs. Beckworth and Sumner, might find themselves arguing for their version of a better policy rather than denigrating the case for gold standard as, in Pethokoukis’s words, “pretty awful.”

To be continued.

Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/11/03/the-eichengreen-fallacy-misleads-some-market-mone

Economics

China’s gold strategy

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.

Gold Supply 31102014.jpg

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.

Economics

A market reset due

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.

Total World Money 2013

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.

Prices

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.

Gold

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.

Economics

Market failure

There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

  • Wilbur Wright, quoted by James Tobin in ‘To Conquer the Air’.

So, too, for the stock market. It is easy to study stock tables in solitude from the comfort of your office and declare the market efficient. Or you can be a full-time investor for a number of years and, if your eyes are open, learn that it is not. As with the Wrights, the burden of proof is somehow made to fall on the practitioner to demonstrate that he or she has accomplished something the so-called experts said could not be done (and even he may find himself explained away as aberrational). Almost none of the burden seems to fall on the armchair academics, who cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong.”

  • Seth Klarman, in ‘A Response to Lowenstein’s Searching for Rational Investors In a Perfect Storm’.

Days of miracle and wonder in the bond markets.. but not necessarily in any good way. Last week we highlighted the seeming anomaly that even as there has never been so much debt in the history of the world, it has also never been so expensive. Between 2000 and 2013, the value of outstanding tradeable debt rose from $33 trillion to $100 trillion, according to research from Incrementum AG. (Over the same period, total equity market capitalisation rose “merely” from $49 trillion to $66 trillion.) Although we would suggest there is now no semblance of traditional value in conventional government debt whatsoever, it could yet get more expensive still.

Albert Edwards of SocGen deserves some credit for maintaining his ‘Ice Age’ thesis over a sustained period of widespread scepticism from other market participants. He summarises it as follows:

“First, that the West would drift ever closer to outright deflation, following Japan’s template a decade earlier. And second, financial markets would adjust in the same way as in Japan. Government bonds would re-rate in absolute and relative terms compared to equities, which would also de-rate in absolute terms..

“Another associated element of the Ice Age we also saw in Japan is that with each cyclical upturn, equity investors have assumed with child-like innocence that central banks have somehow ‘fixed’ the problem and we were back in a self-sustaining recovery. These hopes would only be crushed as the next cyclical downturn took inflation, bond yields and equity valuations to new destructive lows. In the Ice Age, hope is the biggest enemy..

“Investors are beginning to see how impotent the Fed and ECB’s efforts are to prevent deflation. And as the scales lift from their eyes, equity, credit and other risk assets trading at extraordinarily high valuations will take their next Ice Age stride towards the final denouement.”

It is certainly staggering that even after expanding its balance sheet by $3.5 trillion, the Fed has been unable to trigger visible price inflation in anything other than financial assets. One dreads to contemplate the scale of the altogether less visible private sector deleveraging that has cancelled it out. One notes that while bonds are behaving precisely in line with the Ice Age thesis, stock markets – by and large – are not quite following the plot. But there were signs last week that they may finally have got a copy of the script.

The tragedy of our times, unfolding slowly but surely via ever-lower bond yields, is that there is a vacuum at the heart of the political process where bold action – not least to grasp the debt nettle – should reside. Since nature abhors the vacuum, central bankers have filled it. They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a central banker facing the prospect of outright deflation, the answer to everything is the printing of ex nihilo money and the manipulation of financial asset prices. The by-product of these malign trends is that it makes rational investment and asset allocation, indeed more narrowly the pursuit of real capital preservation, impossible.

Since the integrity of the debt (and currency) markets is clearly at risk, we have long sought alternatives that offer much diminished credit and counterparty risk. The time-honoured alternative has been gold. As the chart below (via Nick Laird) shows, between 2000 and 2011, gold

US Debt Limit vs Gold

tracked the expansion in US debt pretty handily. In 2008 and then in 2011/2012 gold became overextended relative to US debt. Beginning in 2013 gold then decoupled in the opposite direction. As things stand today, if one expects that relationship to resume – and we do – then gold looks anomalously cheap relative to the gross level of US debt, which clearly is not going to contract any time soon.

A second rationale for holding gold takes into account the balance sheet expansion of the broader universe of central banks:

Central Bank Balance Sheet

If one accepts that gold is not merely an industrial commodity but an alternative form of money (and central banks clearly do, or they would not be holding it in the form of reserves), than it clearly makes sense to favour a money whose supply is growing at 1.5% per annum over monies whose supply is growing at between 8% and 20% per annum. It then merely comes down to biding one’s time and waiting for Albert Edwards’ “final denouement” (or simply the next phase of the global financial crisis that never really went away).

Two recent tweets from George Cooper on the topic of bond investing are also worthy of republication here:

“The combination of indexing / rating agencies and syndication means that collectively the investment industry does not provide effective discipline to borrowers.”

This is a clear example of market failure brought about by institutional fund managers and the consultants that “guide” their institutional investor clients. There is simply no punishment for ill-disciplined government borrowers (i.e., all of them). To put it another way, where have the bond vigilantes gone ? And,

“The best thing the ECB could do here is state clearly that it has reached the limit of monetary policy and the rest is up to politicians.”

It is not as if politicians asleep at the wheel have gone entirely unnoticed. Two high-profile reports have been published this year drawing attention to the debt problems gnawing away at the economic vitality of the West. Perhaps the most damning response to date has come from the euro zone’s pre-eminent political cynic, Jean-Claude Juncker:

“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

No discussion of the bond market could possibly be complete without a brief mention of the defenestration of the so-called ‘Bond King’, Bill Gross, from Pimco. For the benefit of anyone living under a rock these past weeks, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund jumped ship before he could be shoved overboard. Pimco’s owners, Allianz, must surely regret having allowed so much power to be centralised in the form of one single ‘star’ manager. In a messy transfer that nobody came out of well, Janus Capital announced that Bill Gross would be joining to run a start-up bond fund, before he had even announced his resignation from Pimco (but then Janus was a two-faced god). This was deliriously tacky behaviour from within a normally staid backwater of the financial markets. Some financial media reported this as a ‘David vs Goliath’ story; in reality it is anything but. The story can be more accurately summarised as ‘Bond fund manager leaves gigantic asset gatherer for other gigantic asset gatherer’ (Janus Capital’s $178 billion in client capital being hardly small potatoes). This is barely about asset management in the truest, aspirational sense of the phrase. This writer recalls the giddy marketing of a particularly new economy-oriented growth vehicle called the ‘Janus Twenty’ fund in the UK back in 2000. Between March 2000 and September 2001, that particular growth vehicle lost 63% of its value. Faddish opportunism is clearly still alive and well. This gross behaviour may mark a market top for bonds, but probably not. But it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that navigating the bond markets profitably over the coming months will require almost supernatural powers in second-guessing both central banks and one’s peers – especially if doing so on an indexed basis. For what it’s worth this is a game we won’t even bother playing. Our pursuit of the rational alternative – compelling deep value in equity markets – continues.