-- Published: Friday, 8 January 2016 | Print | Disqus
By Alasdair Macleod
Advance signs of a global slump in economic activity emerged in 2015.
Furthermore, the dollar's strength, coupled with widening credit spreads confirms a global tendency for dollar-denominated debt to contract. These developments typically precede an economic and financial crisis that could manifest itself in 2016, partially confirmed by the disappointing performance of equity markets. If so, demand for physical gold can be expected to escalate rapidly as a financial crisis unfolds.
Gold has now been in a bear market since September 2011. Major central banks in the advanced economies have implemented policies that have covertly suppressed the gold price, while they have overtly inflated asset prices. This has led to valuation extremes in all asset markets, including gold, that would never be seen in free markets backed with sound money. We can be certain that today's unprecedented build-up of price distortions will be corrected eventually by market forces, probably in the coming months. The commencement of a crisis has already been evidenced by the collapse in energy and industrial-commodity prices, causing major problems for nations and international companies with US dollar obligations and suddenly finding they lack the revenue to service them. The scale of commodity-related losses is not generally understood, but cannot be ignored for much longer.
The rapid expansion of central bank balance sheets since the Lehman crisis is the ultimate phase of a process that can be traced back to at least the 1980s. Starting in London, US and European banks at that time took control of securities markets. Since then, they have increasingly directed bank credit at the expansion of those securities markets, principally through the development of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives, but also by dominating bond and equity markets, and regulated derivatives.
The expansion of bank credit aimed towards financial activities has had the triple effect of inflating financial assets, suppressing commodity prices below where they would otherwise be, and enhancing international demand for the US dollar as the main pricing currency. The result has been an unprecedented peace-time expansion of global debt, while confidence in the reserve currency has been maintained. However, there are indications that this period of expansion is now at an end. According to the Bank for International Settlements' statistical releases, the gross value of bank-held derivatives has been contracting since 2013. Notional amounts of outstanding OTC contracts peaked at end-2013 at $711 trillion, and by June 2015 had declined to $553 trillion.
This is an important point, because an unseen bubble at the heart of the financial system is deflating with unknown consequences. When bubbles deflate, and here we are talking about one in the hundreds of trillions, bad debts are usually exposed. Even though much of the reduction in outstanding OTC derivatives is due to consolidation of positions following the Frank Dodd Act, much of it is not.
When free markets reassert themselves, and they always do, the disruption promises to be substantial. We appear to be in the early stages of this event.
Dollar and European dangers
As noted above, the rising value of the dollar measured against commodities is a major problem. In the short-term the dollar is extremely over-bought against record levels of commodity short positions. Most notable is the dollar price of oil, with West Texas Intermediate having fallen from $105 in June 2013 to $32 today. While much of the fall can be attributed to lower demand from a slowing global economy, some of it is undoubtedly due to the strength of the dollar itself. Bad and potential bad debts, many commodity-related and denominated in dollars, are a global issue, and the US banks are trying to control their international loan exposure. Consequently, international borrowers with dollar-denominated debt are being forced to sell down local currencies to buy dollars in order to cover their dollar obligations. The problem has been aggravated further by speculators bidding up the dollar against these distressed buyers.
The dollar's overvaluation is also supported by the belief that the US economy is healthy and performing relatively well. With official unemployment down to 5%, demand for domestic credit, while patchy, is basically sound and growing at a moderate pace. However, nominal GDP growth is entirely due to monetary stimulus being not yet offset by lagging price inflation, and is not the well-founded economic recovery generally supposed. But for dollar bulls, the apparent strength of the US economy is another reason to believe the dollar will remain strong, given the prospect of a rising interest rate trend. There are considerable dangers to this bullish view for the dollar, not least the degree to which it is already discounted in current prices.
A second global problem is the financial and economic condition of the Eurozone. 2015 saw the Greek crisis deferred, but for 2016 we have the prospect of trouble from Spain and Portugal, with government debt as a percentage of GDP estimated at 100% and 130% respectively. In the Spanish general election in December an anti-austerity combination of the left-wing Podemas and PSOE political parties won 159 seats against the ruling party's 123. Negotiations are now underway, but it looks like an anti-austerity coalition will form the next government. Greece was difficult enough, but Spain is many times greater in terms of its economic impact and the amount of government debt involved. Also, Portugal, whose economy is about the same size as that of Greece, had its general election in October, and the ruling party lost its overall majority, suggesting that anti-austerity pressures will increase in Lisbon as well. And Greece has not gone away.
Greece in 2015 was the warm-up act for what's ahead in the Eurozone. Meanwhile, €3 trillion of government bonds in Europe now trade with negative yields, an unprecedented situation, which illustrates how overvalued European government bonds in general have become, particularly when taking into account the parlous condition of some major governments' finances. The Eurozone banks are also financially precarious, having an average Tier 1 capital ratio to tangible assets of 5.1%, dropping to 4.1% when off-balance sheet items are included. Furthermore, the netting off of credit default swaps permitted under new Basel Committee rules has allowed the banks to conceal their true loan risk. The combination of European banks gaming the system, average core balance sheet leverage (including off-balance sheet obligations) of 24:1, and their balance sheets laden with wildly overvalued government bonds, has the makings of a crisis in search of a trigger.
A European banking crisis could escalate very rapidly if and when it starts, and would be an event beyond the direct control of an alarmingly undercapitalised ECB. The initial effect might be to drive the dollar higher in the foreign exchanges, particularly against the euro, and instigate a further markdown of commodity prices, as markets try to discount the economic implications of a systemic problem in the Eurozone. If an event such as this occurs, it would be impossible to limit it to a single geographical area. The major central banks would be forced into a coordinated rescue programme, involving a major expansion of all their balance sheets, on top of the post-Lehman crisis expansion.
Once initial uncertainties are out of the way, the prospect of escalating systemic risk should be very positive for gold, which is the only certain hedge against these events. To determine the potential for the gold price, its current value should be assessed by looking at the long-run inflation of fiat dollars relative to the increase of above-ground gold stocks, and adjusting the dollar price of gold accordingly.
FMQ and gold
The fiat money quantity represents the total fiat money that has been produced by the US banking system. It includes fiat currency not in circulation, being mainly bank reserves sitting on the Fed's balance sheet. The chart below shows the monthly accumulation of US dollar FMQ since 1959.
Following the Lehman crisis, the dollar-price of gold fell initially before recovering and gaining all-time highs in September 2011. With the benefit of hindsight, we can surmise that the immediate effect of the Lehman crisis was to trigger a flight into the dollar, before it became evident that the Fed's actions aimed at stabilising the financial sector were succeeding at the expense of monetary inflation. This also provides an explanation as to why, in order to maintain confidence in the dollar, the gold price had to be subsequently suppressed. Judging by all the circumstantial evidence following the Cyprus crisis, the most notable suppression exercise was in April 2013, and close study of market actions and volumes reveals that other less dramatic price suppressions have from time to time also taken place.
Given this experience, it would be wrong to rule out another attempt by the western central banks to suppress the price of gold in the event of a crisis. However, it is becoming clear that they can only suppress the price through the paper markets, given the relative scarcity of physical bullion in western central bank vaults, and the reluctance of individual central banks to compromise their bullion holdings any further. These short-term uncertainties cannot be quantified, but we can have a clear idea as to gold's current true value, expressed in US dollars. This is the subject of our next chart.
The chart shows the price of gold deflated by both the increase in FMQ over the years and by the expansion of above-ground gold stocks, since the price was fixed at $35 in 1934 by President Roosevelt. Adjusted by these two factors, gold at end-December 2015 was priced at the equivalent of $3.25 in 1934 dollars, less than 10% of the 1934 price. The only occasion the adjusted price has been lower was in 1971, just months before the Nixon shock, when the Bretton Woods system finally collapsed. The adjusted price stood at $3.13 in March that year.
The next chart shows the same price adjustments applied to the gold price, this time from August 2008, when the Lehman crisis broke and the nominal gold price was $918.
The adjusted price, reflecting the expansion of both the FMQ and above-ground gold stocks, now stands at $402, a decline of 56% in real terms since Lehman.
On value considerations, we can therefore conclude the following:
• Gold is cheaper than it has ever been against the world's reserve currency, with the single exception of the time when it was so under-priced that the US Government was forced to scrap its peg at $35 and abandon the Bretton Woods Agreement.
• Compared with the situation at the time of the Lehman crisis, gold is significantly cheaper today, which is wholly at odds with the continuing systemic risk to fiat currencies from undercapitalised banks, unprepared for the prospect of markets normalising.
Many contemporary financial analysts would argue that gold is not relevant to these issues, because gold is no longer money. This line of reasoning ignores the fact that ordinary people in the west do not get this message and are accumulating gold coins and small bullion bars at increasing rates. And more importantly, economic power is shifting from countries where this Keynesian view is prevalent to countries where it is not. The next section looks at the geostrategic implications of the shift in the ownership and pricing of gold from west to east.
China, India and the rest of Asia
China and India, together with all the other countries in mainland Asia, have been draining the west's vaults of above-ground gold stocks for far longer than most people in western capital markets realise. China first delegated the management of gold policy to the Peoples Bank by regulations adopted in 1983, in a move that followed the post-Mao reforms of 1979/82. The intention behind these regulations was for the state to acquire substantial amounts of gold, to develop gold mining, and to control all processing and refining activities. At that time the west was doing its best to suppress gold in order to enhance the credibility of paper currencies, by releasing large quantities of vaulted bullion through leasing and outright sales. This is why the timing is important: it was an opportunity for China, with its one-billion plus population in the throes of rapid economic reform, to diversify growing foreign currency surpluses, in the same way as the Arab nations did earlier and contemporaneously between 1973-1990 following the oil price boom.
When China set up the Shanghai Gold Exchange in 2002 and encouraged its private sector to accumulate gold, the state had obviously acquired enough bullion for its own strategic purposes. We cannot know how much the state has actually accumulated, or indeed to what extent the gold she has mined has been taken into state ownership since, but the amount is likely to be very substantial. We do know that gross deliveries into public hands since 2002, satisfied mainly by imports from western vaults, exceed 11,000 tonnes to date. It is therefore quite possible that China and its citizens now have more gold than all the other central banks put together, given that some official gold is currently leased by western central banks and some has been secretly sold to suppress the price.
The monthly statements about China's gold reserve additions are therefore meaningless. However, Russia is now accumulating official reserves as well, and the Indian state is trying to acquire her citizen's gold by stealth, having been frozen out of the market through lack of supply. The bulk of Asia is, or will be, bound together through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an economic partnership dominated by China and Russia, encompassing more than half the world's population, and which accepts physical gold as the ultimate form of money. And what clearly emerged in 2015 is that the dominant trade currency in this bloc will unquestionably be the Chinese yuan, the currency of the country that has now cornered the world's physical gold market.
The future for the world's money is rapidly developing, as will become increasingly apparent in 2016. The era of dollar supremacy is coming to an end, no doubt hastened by the Fed's ultimately destructive monetary policies. The threat to the dollar's primacy is also a threat to the other great paper currencies: the euro, the yen and sterling. Whether or not these fail before, with or after the dollar, is only a matter for timing. China must have foreseen this possible outcome, otherwise she would not have embarked on a policy of accumulating gold as long ago as 1983, invested substantial resources into gold mining and refining, actively encouraged her citizens to own it, and is today promoting use of her currency for global trade and the pricing of gold.
Western market observers seem to be unaware of how advanced China's currency policy is today. Instead, they expect a full-blown credit crisis, the result of the credit expansion of recent years being undermined by a rapidly slowing economy. Furthermore, they argue that Chinese labour costs have increased and require a much lower yuan exchange rate to become competitive again. Based on western-style macroeconomic analysis, they naturally conclude that China will require a substantial currency devaluation to contain these problems.
While it is a mistake to gloss over the considerable economic difficulties, this analysis is flawed on two counts. Firstly, the state owns the banks, so a credit crisis stops with the debtors. And secondly, under the thirteenth five-year plan, China is embarking on a redirection of economic resources from being the cheap manufacturer for the rest of the world to serving its growing middle class and developing trans-Asian infrastructure. China's unemployment rate is estimated to be about 5%, so workers employed on current production lines will need to be redeployed, if the state's economic strategy is to progress. A substantial devaluation is therefore counterproductive, though the central bank does move the yuan's peg against the dollar from time to time.
The purpose behind China's accumulation of gold can only be to eventually make the yuan a reliable store of value. China will need to see a higher gold price in yuan, probably at a time dictated by external events, which she will patiently await. This is why, having developed the Shanghai Gold Exchange into the world's most important physical gold market, China plans to price gold in yuan, with the objective that the yuan-gold peg will eventually supersede yuan-dollar peg.
We will surely end 2016 with a wider appreciation that the dollar is no longer king, and that the future for money lies in Asia, the yuan, and gold.
In the near-term, paper gold is extremely oversold, reflecting the expression of western establishment sentiment in the paper markets. Futures and forward markets are short of paper gold to an extraordinary degree. Whether or not this leaves open the possibility of further falls in the dollar price of gold in the next few months is a moot point. More importantly, on longer-term considerations, gold has not been this undervalued since the events leading to the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement. If current events lead to a systemic crisis in western capital markets in 2016, which given the global slump in economic activity looks increasingly likely, a further expansion of central bank balance sheets on top of the post-Lehman expansion seems certain. If this happens, it is unlikely the purchasing power of the dollar and the other major currencies will remain at current levels. And if the dollar loses purchasing-power, price inflation will rise along with nominal interest rates, and a wider debt liquidation in western capital markets becomes a real possibility.
China and her SCO partners have taken steps to be protected from this outcome and have cornered the gold market. A wise person should take note and think seriously about the implications.