Are Lower Gold Prices a Buying Opportunity?

Paul Brodsky at QB Asset Management Co. warns:

There are more American net-debtors than net-savers and US federal and state governments are deeply indebted. Thus, it is politically expedient for policy makers to inflate away the burden of existing and future US debt repayment (which will grow as the burden shifts from private and state debtors to the government).

Link: Is Gold a Crowded Trade? by Paul Brodsky

Investing in gold is tough because it challenges the investor to come to terms with the faults of his or her government, and then to act upon them. It requires the admission that there is risk in holding cash. This is counter-intuitive to this generation’s vintage of financial asset investor accustomed to thirty years of a credit build-up alongside declining interest rates.

There is certainly much more chatter in the press than in years past surrounding gold, and there certainly is more US retail investment (through ETFs) than there has been. That has been reflected to some degree in its rising price, no doubt. An ounce of gold has risen from about $250 in 1999 to current levels, having moved higher in each year and making it one of the best performing assets over the last ten years. So then, is a person that pays $1,100 an ounce today top-ticking the market by entering a crowded trade that has little upside and great downside?

We don’t think so.

Do your own research. Call your investment advisers and ask them what percentage, if any, they recommend investors allocate towards precious metals. Ring up prominent friends with substantial portfolios and ask them how much gold they have as a percentage of their portfolios. What about your fund managers overseeing, say $50 billion? Are they actually long $2.5 billion to $5 billion in precious metal plays? Our guess is that the figures in both cases will be very small, say 5% to 10% (if any at all).

Let’s extend this thinking. If people you know have only dipped their toes in the water and are doing more watching than investing in gold, then the past ten years of price appreciation must have come from elsewhere. Did it come from institutional investors? No, not in any great way. Most mutual and pension funds that report their holdings don’t own any gold – zip – other than very minor positions in precious metal mining stocks (and these stocks usually comprise less than 1% of their holdings). Hedge funds? Yes, it seems hedge funds have been buying gold but of those that have, most have less than 10% of their holdings in precious metals.

What about foreign central banks, Middle-East sheiks, Russians, ultra-wealthy families around the world? Yes, we would argue they “get the joke” and have been diversifying their wealth out of their home currencies and fiat currency-denominated assets into this scarcer currency.

Currently there is about $55 billion in global gold and silver ETFs – that’s it. (Does that qualify to be in the top ten of the any single issue in the DJIA?) It is estimated that all the gold mined in the last 5000 years is about 130,000 metric tons (each tonne converts into about 35,274 ounces). It’s a cube that would be roughly the size of a tennis court.

So let’s say there are 4.6 billion ounces of gold above ground, which means that at about $1,100/oz, the total global market value of all mined gold is currently worth a little over $2 trillion. By comparison, US Treasury debt was approaching $13 trillion, last we looked and we believe total US equity market capitalization is about $11 trillion. And then there are other bond markets (at least $8 trillion) money market funds, etc. There is also real estate.

In the US alone there is estimated to be about $65 trillion in present value private sector credit outstanding and trillions more in unfunded government obligations. And then there are the financial assets (stocks and bonds), real estate and public sector obligations for the rest of the world.

Global central banks are trying to keep it all afloat by printing even more money (by making more debt). The response by central banks to declining velocity has been and will continue to be the same as their responses to credit deflation – they will continue to print money. They may give it to their fractionally reserved banks that may then use the money multiplier to distribute more credit and in turn raise systemic velocity, or they may give it directly to debtors in the hope they will spend like drunken sailors again.

There is enormous embedded inflation already and more to come. The high-powered money has already been created; it is leveragable and it is there to increase velocity. Higher prices must follow.

Will the Fed and other central banks withdraw liquidity? No, never. They never have and they never will regardless of how many tools they proclaim are in their toolbox to do so. If money velocity picks up leading to rising consumer prices, it will also lead to rising market-priced interest rates. They may decide to cut back their monetization, but they will not drain money.

We can look at price inflation contemporaneously or we can throw the ball ahead of the receiver. The result will be the same. The defense is blitzing; Jerry Rice is standing all alone in the end zone; Joe Montana is going to get sacked….but the ball is already in the air.

***

At current valuations the gold market is a tiny speck in relation to where perceived global wealth is being housed. The fundamental issue is one of ratios and relative future value. Our bet is that the gold-to-everything-else spread will narrow substantially. We are indifferent to whether gold rises to $10,000/oz. while the DJIA stays at 10,000 or gold stays at $1,100 while stocks and bonds crater. (In fact, we would love it if gold stayed at current levels while financial assets fell because then we would greatly increase our purchasing power vis-à-vis the rest of humanity and wouldn’t owe any capital gains tax!)

Further, we think that fundamentally gold is worth many multiples of its current price. Remember, it rose from $35/oz to $880/oz in a matter of nine years from 1971 to 1980, and the piece de resistance came in the last few months when everyone had to own it and its price went parabolic (it became a bubble).

There is chatter and there are fundamentals. (Consider that 250,000 people watch CNBC on a good day and 10 million people regularly watch Good Morning America. And remember CNBC and most business media focus on financial assets, not commercial business.) We think the gold chatter is a bunch of financial asset predators talking up their businesses. Needless to say, we don’t think gold is a crowded trade.

Conclusion: Future global US dollar-based claims are now estimated to be above $100 trillion versus a current US dollar monetary base of about $2 trillion. Global markets, policy makers and politicians are beginning to recognize that existing US dollar-denominated public and private credit (claims) cannot be settled with current USDs outstanding. Either far more USDs must be manufactured or credit must deflate far more.

2. Expectations: Three “Flations”

– Price Inflation/Deflation: Price deflation is a natural economic function (through competition, economies of scale and innovation); price inflation (though monetary/credit inflation) is a political construct meant to offset the natural tendency of prices to decline

– Credit Inflation/Deflation: Credit inflation temporarily warps pricing structure of goods, services and wages, which leads to broad economic and asset mal-investment

– Monetary Inflation/Deflation: The only true inflation/deflation metric (“inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon…”), the growth or decline in a currency’s monetary base best defines the increase or decrease in that currency’s purchasing power over time.

Conclusion: In the current lexicon, “deflation” is commonly and mistakenly confused with economic contraction. They are very different dynamics that may not correlate. Monetary growth/contraction may cause rising/falling nominal prices over time independent of changes in supply/demand fundamentals (see Zimbabwe). Thus, money and credit growth from an economy’s political dimension could synthesize nominal output growth while real (inflation-adjusted) output and real asset values may contract. Real output and assets are produce sustainable economic capital and employment over time.

3. US Monetary Base

– M0 = Money in circulation plus bank reserves held at the Fed
– High-powered money => May be leveraged further through fractionally-reserved banking system
– M0 just increased 135% in last 18 months

4. Reflexive Cause & Effect
– Output contraction => central bank generated monetary inflation
– Monetary Inflation in the form of M0 (new money given to the banking system) unaccompanied by a further bank system multiplier effect and/or by an increase in monetary velocity (thereby increasing M1, M2, M3) will effectuate a different form of monetary inflation
– Will checks be sent to homeowners (debtors, not creditor banks) made out to their servicers?

In a global paper currency monetary regime, where banking systems do not multiply their new high-powered money and where velocity does not rise (i.e. today’s environment), price inflation is a lagging consequence of monetary inflation. Demand-led output growth does not matter; indeed contracting demand is likely to push prices higher because it engenders more aggressive policy intervention.

Q: So what has been the true rate of inflation already experienced?

A: Something closer to 135% than popular price baskets. Of course, this may not be manifest through price inflation in any discrete year and it is likely the goal of policy makers to drag it out.

Q: Will policy makers withdraw the inflation they have already created?

A: Yes, if they don’t mind economic contraction. No, if they do not want to witness substantial credit deflation leading to output contraction and rising unemployment.

Q: What will be the ultimate outcome of global central bank monetary inflation?

A: It seems inevitable that there will be a new global monetary regime. That is not as radical as it sounds, given the current one is only 39 years old and no paper money system has ever lasted throughout millennia.

Q: Would Americans suffer from a new global regime?

A: American debtors would benefit from inflation because the burden of their debts would be inflated away vis-à-vis their higher nominal wages and asset prices. American dollar holders would suffer because they would lose future purchasing power, as would dollar-denominated bondholders because the purchasing power from their coupon interest and principal repayment would be inflated away.

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