Print This Post Print This Post

Does the debt/GDP ratio drive the gold price?

September 29, 2014

The article linked HERE answers yes to the above question. The correct answer is no.

The above-linked article presents the following graph as evidence that the debt/GDP ratio (US federal government debt divided by US GDP, in this case) does, indeed, drive the US$ gold price. However, this is a classic example of cherry-picking the timescale of the data to demonstrate a relationship that isn’t apparent over other timescales. It is also a classic example of confusing correlation with causation. Many things went up in price during the 2002-2014 period covered by this graph. Should we assume that all of these price rises were caused by the increase in the US government-debt/GDP ratio?

By the way, graphs like this were far more visually appealing — although no more valid — three years ago, because the positive correlation ended in 2011. Since 2011, the debt/GDP ratio has continued its relentless advance while the gold price has trended downward. A similar graph that was popular for a while showed a strong positive correlation between the gold price and the US monetary base from the early-2000s through to 2011-2012, which created the impression that the gold price would continue to rise as long as the US monetary base continued to do the same. Again, though, this impression was the result of confusing correlation and causation.

Here’s a chart showing the relationship between the gold price and the US debt/GDP ratio over a much longer period. This chart’s message is that there is no consistent relationship between these two quantities. For example, the huge gold bull market of the 1970s occurred while the debt/GDP ratio was low with a slight downward bias and actually ended at around the time that the debt/GDP ratio embarked on a major upward trend. In fact, from the early-1970s through to the mid-1990s there appeared to be an INVERSE relationship between the gold price and the debt/GDP ratio, but this is just a coincidence. It doesn’t imply that gold was hurt by a rising debt/GDP ratio and helped by a falling debt/GDP ratio; it implies that the debt/GDP ratio isn’t a primary driver of gold’s price tend. For another example, the gold price and the debt/GDP ratio rose in parallel during 2001-2006, but the rise in the debt/GDP ratio during this period was slow and was not generally considered to be a reason for concern. Therefore, it wasn’t the driver of gold’s upward trend.

The theory that the US government debt/GDP ratio is an important driver of the US$ gold price seems to be solely based on the 3-year period from late-2008 through to late-2011, when the two rocketed upward together.

The reality is that a rising US debt/GDP ratio can be a valid part of a bullish gold story, but only to the extent that it helps to bring about lower real interest rates and/or a steeper yield curve and/or a weaker US dollar and/or rising credit spreads. It isn’t directly bullish for gold, which is why a long-term comparison of the US$ gold price and the US debt/GDP ratio shows no consistent relationship. The same can be said about a rising US monetary base.

Print This Post Print This Post

Sentiment and momentum extremes

September 26, 2014

A number of markets are currently at sentiment and momentum extremes. Generally, the Dollar Index is very extended to the upside in terms of both sentiment and momentum, whereas the markets that benefit from a weaker US$ are very extended to the downside in terms of both sentiment and momentum. With regard to the markets that are stretched to the downside, here are some of the most extreme cases based on Market Vane bullish percentages and daily RSIs (Relative Strength Indexes) over the first four days of this week. Note that a market is considered to be ‘oversold’ when its daily RSI(14) drops to 30, while a daily RSI reading of 20 or lower is a rarely-reached extreme.

1) The following extreme daily RSI(14) readings were recorded during the past four days:

– 19.2 for the Continuous Commodity Index (CCI)

– 14.3 for the TSXV Venture Exchange Composite Index (CDNX), a proxy for junior Canadian resource stocks

– 14.5 for platinum

– 15.4 for silver

– 16.4 for the silver/gold ratio

– 16.2 for the Yen (note: the daily RSIs for the euro and the Pound went below 20 earlier this month, but are now a little higher)

2) The following extremely low Market Vane bullish percentages were recorded over the past four days:

– 22% for silver (the lowest level in more than 10 years and possibly a multi-decade low)

– 20% for corn

– 14% for wheat (one of lowest levels ever, in any market)

Negative sentiment and momentum extremes do not necessarily mean that a price low is imminent. The meaning is that there will be a lot of potential energy to drive a rally after the price trend reverses.

Print This Post Print This Post

The coming US monetary tightening

September 23, 2014

Over the past 12 months I’ve written extensively at TSI about the myths surrounding US bank reserves and the relationship between bank lending and bank reserves. For example, I’ve explained that bank reserves cannot be loaned into the economy and that in the real world — as opposed to the world described in economics textbooks — banks do NOT expand credit by ‘piggybacking’ on their reserves. As part of these bank-reserve writings I addressed the reasoning behind the Fed’s decision to start paying interest on reserves, reaching the conclusion that the decision had been taken to enable the Fed Funds Rate (FFR) to be hiked in the future without contracting the supplies of reserves and money. Last week there was confirmation from the horse’s mouth that my conclusion was correct, as well as some other interesting information on how an eventual tightening of US monetary policy will proceed.

As implied above, the Fed confirmed last week that when it finally gets around to moving the FFR upward, it will do so primarily by adjusting the interest rate it pays on excess reserve balances. If not for the existence of this relatively new policy tool, the only way that the FFR could be hiked would be via the traditional method involving reductions in the supplies of reserves and money. Moreover, considering the immense quantity of excess reserves now in the banking system, there would need to be a large reduction in the supply of reserves just to achieve a 0.25% increase in the FFR. Trying to shift the FFR upward via the traditional method would therefore quickly ignite a financial crisis.

The other interesting information conveyed by the Fed last week is that the size of its balance sheet will be reduced by ceasing to reinvest repayments of principal on the securities it holds. For example, if the Fed currently owns a bond with 3 years remaining duration, then — assuming that it has embarked on a policy normalisation route — it will not reinvest the proceeds when the bond’s principal is repaid in three years’ time. Instead, the principal repayment will bring about a reduction in the Fed’s balance sheet and a reduction in the money supply.

This means that the Fed plans to reduce the size of its balance sheet — and tighten monetary policy — at a snail’s pace.

Print This Post Print This Post

Lower US living standards are an INTENDED consequence of Fed policy

September 21, 2014

The following chart is very interesting. I found it in John Mauldin’s latest “Thoughts from the Frontline” letter, although it was created by the Boston Consulting Group. It compares the cost of manufacturing in the top 25 exporting countries.


According to this chart, Australia is now the most expensive country to manufacture stuff. Manufacturing costs in Australia are now 30% higher than in the US, almost 20% higher than in Japan, almost 10% higher than in Germany, and about 5% higher than in Switzerland. The cost of manufacturing in the US is now slightly below the average — at around the same level as South Korea, Russia, Taiwan and Poland. This means that the Fed is almost half way to its goal of reducing US living standards to the point where the average factory worker in the US can compete on a cost basis with the average factory worker in Indonesia.

The above comment is only partly tongue-in-cheek. Many pro-free-market commentators discuss the decline in US living standards as if it were an unintended consequence of the Fed’s policies, but there is nothing unintended about it. It is a deliberate objective. The Fed will never come out and say “we are doing what we can to reduce living standards”, but a policy that is designed to boost asset prices, support capital-consuming businesses and promote investments that would never see the light of day in the absence of artificially low interest rates, all while minimising “wage inflation”, is also designed to reduce real wages and, therefore, to reduce living standards. The Fed surely doesn’t want to reduce US living standards to Indonesian levels, but that’s the direction in which its efforts are deliberately pointed.

I’ve explained in TSI commentaries that the root of the problem is unswerving commitment to bad economic theory. Under the Keynesian theories that all central bankers religiously follow, wealth is something that just exists. There is no careful and deep consideration given to how the wealth came to be and why some countries managed to accumulate a lot of wealth while other countries remained poor. According to these theories, people spend more during some periods due to a vague notion called rising “animal spirits”. This causes the amount of wealth to grow. Then, after a while, the mysterious “animal spirits” begin to subside, causing people to start spending less. This leads to a reduction in the amount of wealth. Under this perception of the world, one of the central bank’s primary tasks is to combat the unfathomable and destabilising natural force that drives the shifts in spending. This is done by indirectly manipulating prices throughout the economy, including the real price of labour.

The so-called counter-cyclical policies are destined to backfire, but the nature of the eventual backfiring is often difficult to predict. In broad terms, there are two possibilities: There could be a surge in inflation fear followed by a collapse in asset prices, a recession and a moonshot in deflation fear, or the collapse in asset prices and its knock-on effects could happen without a preceding surge in inflation fear. In both cases, the asset-price collapse and recession would likely usher-in a new round of ‘stimulative’ policy, because the devotion to bad theory prevents the right lessons from being learned.

Print This Post Print This Post

Gold mining CEOs are generally clueless about gold

September 12, 2014

The CEOs of commodity-producing companies are usually knowledgeable about the supply of and the demand for their company’s products, but gold-mining CEOs are exceptions. The vast majority of gold-mining CEOs have almost no understanding of supply and demand in the gold market.

For example, like most gold-market analysts and commentators, most gold-mining CEOs wrongly believe that the change in annual gold production is an important driver of the gold price. In particular, they talk about “Peak Gold” as if a leveling-off or a downward trend in global gold-mine production would be very supportive for the gold price. This means that they don’t understand that the gold-mining industry’s contribution to the total supply of gold currently equates to only 1.5% per year, and, therefore, that changes in industry-wide gold production will always be dwarfed — in terms of effect on the gold price — by changes in investment/speculative demand. (And by the way, changes in investment/speculative demand cannot be quantified by looking at transaction volumes.)

Gold CEOs’ general cluelessness about the gold market is reflected by the performance of the World Gold Council (WGC). Every year, the WGC produces a pile of completely irrelevant information about gold.

Fortunately, understanding the gold market has nothing to do with being a good CEO of a gold-mining company. A good gold-mining CEO is someone who a) implements strategies that keep total costs at relatively low levels, b) prudently manages country, local-community, environmental and other political risks, c) ensures that the balance sheet remains healthy, and d) only makes acquisitions that are accretive.

Print This Post Print This Post

The ECB’s cunning new plan

September 8, 2014

Last Thursday (4th September) the ECB introduced a cunning new plan to spur growth in the euro-zone, the first part of which involves cutting official interest-rate targets by 0.1%. The benchmark refinancing rate has been reduced to 0.05%, because 0.15% was obviously too high, and the deposit rate has gone further into negative territory, because it obviously wasn’t negative enough. The actions have been taken due to “inflation” and inflation expectations being too low.

Inflation of any kind is the last thing that Europe needs, but from the Keynesian perspective, which is the perspective of all central bankers, it is critical that both inflation and inflation expectations are well above zero. The reason is that in the back-to-front world in which Keynesians are mired, consumption spending comes first and is the driving force of the economy. Furthermore, according to Keynesian logic if people believe that prices are going to be lower in the future they will put off their spending, which will set in motion a vicious deflationary spiral of price declines leading to reduced spending, leading to additional price declines, and so on.

Keynesian logic explains why the computer and smartphone manufacturers never sell anything. Everyone knows that if they wait a year they will be able to buy a better smartphone and a better computer at a lower price, so nobody ever buys these products. As a consequence, the entire computer and smartphone industries have zero sales year after year.

Getting back to the ECB, a goal of reducing the cost of credit to zero is to generate some “price inflation”, which, according to the theories that inform the decisions of central bankers, will boost immediate consumption and cause the economy to grow faster. But if a faster rate of price inflation is what they want, then what they will have to do is increase the rate of monetary inflation. In this regard, taking an overnight interest rate down from 0.15% to 0.05% is probably not going to do much. If the ECB is serious about generating “inflation” then what it really needs to do is implement a Fed-style QE program.

Which brings me to the second part of the ECB’s cunning new plan. The ECB announced that it would begin monetising covered bonds and asset-backed securities (ABS)*, including real-estate-backed securities, next month, with the details to be announced at next month’s ECB meeting. Depending on its size and mechanics, this asset monetisation program could certainly cause prices to rise. To the extent that it does cause prices to rise it will benefit banks and speculators at the expense of savers, productive businesses and wage earners.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, due to the limited availability of eligible collateral the QE program announced by the ECB last week might be restricted in size to about 200B euros. This means that it might not be large enough to have much effect on the euro-zone money supply.

*Banks create asset-backed securities by pooling mortgages and other loans. Covered bonds are similar, but the underlying assets are ‘ring-fenced’ on the bank’s balance sheet, which means that the assets are still there if the bank goes bust.

Print This Post Print This Post

The global boom/bust indicator

September 5, 2014

The gold market is generally weak relative to the industrial metals markets during the boom phase of the inflation-fueled, central-bank-sponsored boom/bust cycle and strong relative to the industrial metals markets during the bust phase of the cycle. In other words, the gold/GYX ratio (gold relative to the Industrial Metals Index) tends to fall during the booms, which are periods when economic confidence rises while mal-investment sets the stage for an economic contraction, and rise during the busts, which are periods when the mistakes of the past come to the fore. This is due to gold’s historical role as a store of purchasing power and a hedge against uncertainty.

By shading the bust periods in grey, I’ve indicated the global booms and busts on the following chart of the gold/GYX ratio. During the 16-year period covered by the chart there have been three busts: the recession of 2001-2002 that followed the bursting of the NASDAQ bubble, the global financial crisis and “great recession” of 2007-2009, and the euro-zone sovereign debt and banking crisis of 2011-2012.

The booms tend to fall apart more quickly than they build up, so the rising trends in the gold/GYX ratio tend to be shorter and steeper than the falling trends.


Gold/GYX’s current situation looks most similar to Q2-2007. At that time the ratio tested its late-2006 bottom and then reversed upward, marking the end of the boom that began in 2003. However, gold will soon have to start strengthening relative to industrial metals such as copper in order for the 2007 similarity to be maintained. If this doesn’t happen and the gold/GYX ratio breaks decisively below its December-2013 bottom, it will indicate that the boom is going to extend into 2015.

I want to stress that gold’s relationship to the boom/bust cycle is primarily about its performance relative to other commodities, especially the industrial metals. It is not about gold’s performance in US$ terms. For example, from mid-2005 through to mid-2006 gold performed poorly relative to the industrial metals, but this was a good time to be long gold and a very good time to be long gold stocks. It’s just that the industrial metals handily outperformed gold during this period, which makes sense considering the global economic and financial-market backdrop at the time. For another example, from May through November of 2008 gold performed extremely well relative to the industrial metals. This makes sense considering the global economic and financial-market backdrop of the period, but it was a bad time to be long gold and a very bad time to be long gold stocks.

Print This Post Print This Post

The “Widowmaker Trade”

September 1, 2014

Over the past 15 years there have always been very compelling reasons to short Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs), but almost everyone who has attempted to make money by shorting JGBs has ended up losing money. The consistency with which bearish JGB speculators have lost money over a great many years led to the short-selling of JGBs becoming known as the “widowmaker trade” and spawned the saying: “you can’t claim to be a speculator until you’ve lost money shorting JGBs”.

As evidenced by the steady downward trend on the following chart of the 10-year JGB yield, anyone who has attempted to short the JGB since the beginning of this year has lost money. In other words, the “widowmaker trade” is still living up to its name. Moreover, with the exception of a few days during early-April of last year, the 10-year JGB yield has never been lower than it is right now.


Actually, despite the steady upward grind in price and downward grind in yield, I doubt that many speculators have lost money shorting JGBs this year. The reason is that the market for JGBs no longer functions like a real market. It has effectively been squashed by the gigantic boot of the Bank of Japan (BOJ).

Due to the BOJ’s policy of buying-up every piece of government debt it can get its hands on, the JGB is so over-priced that there are no buyers apart from the BOJ. At the same time, nobody in their right mind would bet against a high-priced investment that was being supported by a totally committed buyer with infinitely deep pockets. Consequently, for all intents and purposes the JGB market is dead.

Given the proclivity of the US monetary authorities to copy Japan’s worst policy choices, speculators who believe that they will make a fortune over the years ahead by shorting US government bonds should probably re-think their stance. After all, if a Keynesian remedy fails dismally in Japan, it can only be because the remedy wasn’t implemented aggressively enough.

Print This Post Print This Post

Interest rate suppression stupidity

September 1, 2014

It is illogical to expect an artificially-low interest rate to help the economy. This is because the best-case scenario resulting from interest-rate suppression is a wealth transfer from savers to speculators. In other words, the best case is a ‘wash’ for the overall economy. The realistic case, however, is very much a negative for the overall economy, because in addition to punishing savers an artificially low interest rate will cause mal-investment and thus make the economy less efficient.

Furthermore, thanks to the Japanese experience of the past two decades there is now a mountain of recent empirical evidence to support the logic outlined above. Japan’s policymakers have tried and tried again to propel their economy to the mythical “escape velocity” by pushing interest rates down to absurdly low levels and keeping them there, but every attempt has failed. Unfortunately, the fact that interest-rate suppression has been a total bust in Japan has not dissuaded other central banks from going down the same path.

The root of the problem is devotion to bad economic theory. If you are convinced that lowering the interest rate, pumping money into the economy and ramping-up government spending is beneficial, then from your perspective a failure of such measures to sustainably boost the rate of economic growth can only mean that the measures weren’t aggressive enough. If the interest rate is reduced to zero and the economy remains sluggish, then a negative interest rate must be needed. If the economy doesn’t become strong in response to 10% annual money-supply growth, then 15% or 20% annual monetary expansion is obviously required. If a hefty boost in government spending fails to kick-start the economy, then it must be the case that government spending wasn’t boosted enough.

The alternative is that the theory underlying the policy is completely wrong, but this possibility must never be acknowledged.

Print This Post Print This Post