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Steep price declines and increased buying often go together

July 25, 2015

In numerous TSI commentaries over the years I’ve written about the confusion in the minds of many analysts regarding what constitutes gold supply and the relationship between supply, demand and price in the gold market. I’ve also covered the issue several times at the TSI Blog, most recently on 24th June in the post titled “More confusion about gold demand“. I’m not going to delve into this subject matter again today other than to use the example of last Monday’s trading in GDX (Gold Miners ETF) shares to further explain a point made in the past.

On Monday 20th July the GDX price fell by about 10% on record volume of 170M shares. Since every transaction involves both a purchase and a sale, more GDX shares were bought last Monday than on any other single day in this ETF’s history. And yet, this massive increase in buying occurred in parallel with a large price decline. How could this be?

Obviously, the large price decline CAUSED the massive increase in buying. Many holders of GDX shares were eager to get out and the price had to fall as far as it did to attract sufficient new buying to restore the supply-demand balance.

It’s normal for large and fast price declines in the major financial markets to be accompanied by unusually-high trading volumes, meaning that it’s normal for large and fast price declines in the major financial markets to be accompanied by increased BUYING. Most people understand this. So why is it held up as evidence that something nefarious is happening whenever an increase in gold buying accompanies a large decline in the gold price?

I can only come up with two plausible explanations. One is that many analysts and commentators switch off their brains before pontificating about gold. The other is that the relationship between gold supply, demand and price is deliberately presented in a misleading way to promote an agenda. I suspect that the former explanation applies in most cases, meaning that in most cases there’s probably more ignorance than malice involved.

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Recommended Reading on the Iran Nuclear Treaty

July 23, 2015

Here are links to the two best articles I’ve read about the Iran nuclear treaty. The first is by David Stockman, an author, a blogger, a Wall Street veteran, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. The second is by Uri Avnery, a writer, the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, and a former member of Israel’s parliament. Although they tackle the issue from different perspectives, both articles are rich in historical information and insightful analysis. One thing Stockman and Avnery — and, as far as I can tell, everyone who is objective and well-informed on the subject — agree on is that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program and probably had no intention of starting such a program.

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Beware of bogus “inflation” indices

July 22, 2015

Every attempt to come up with a single number (a price index) that reflects the change in the purchasing power (PP) of money is bound to fail. The main reason is that disparate items cannot be added together and/or averaged to arrive at a sensible result. However, some price indices are less realistic than others. In particular, some well-meaning private-sector efforts to come up with a consumer price index (CPI) that does a better job than the official CPI have generated some of the least-plausible numbers.

One of the most popular alternatives to the official US CPI is the CPI calculated by As I noted in a previous post, it always seemed to me that the Shadowstats number was derived by adding an approximately constant fudge-factor to the official (bogus) CPI to essentially arrive at another bogus number that, regardless of the message being sent by real-world experience, was always much larger than the official number. As I also noted at that time, economist Ed Dolan did some detective work to determine the cause of the strangely-large and fairly-constant difference between the Shadowstats number and the official number. It turned out that Shadowstats had made a basic calculation error that caused its version of the CPI to consistently be at least 4.5%/year too high even assuming the correctness of its own methodology.

Another alternative CPI is called the Chapwood Index. The components of this index were selected based on a survey of what Ed Butowsky’s friends and associates spend their money on (Ed Butowsky is the index’s creator). The prices of the 500 most commonly purchased items were then added together to generate the index. Not surprisingly, considering the methodology, the result is not a realistic measure of the change in the dollar’s PP or the cost of living. As evidence I point out that if the roughly 10%/year average increase in the general price level estimated by the Chapwood Index during 2011-2014 is correct, then the US economy’s real GDP must have been about 25% smaller at the end of 2014 than it was at the end of 2010*. In other words, if the Chapwood Index is an accurate reflection of PP loss then the US economy now produces about 25% less goods/services than it did four years ago. This is not remotely close to the truth.

When assessing the validity of economic statistics it’s important to use commonsense. A statistic isn’t valid just because it happens to be consistent with a narrative that you wholeheartedly believe.

*I arrive at this figure by approximately adjusting nominal GDP by the Chapwood Index, that is, by using the Chapwood Index as the GDP deflator.

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A common currency is NOT a problem

July 20, 2015

A popular view these days is that the euro is a failed experiment because economically and/or politically disparate countries cannot share a currency without eventually bringing on a major crisis. Another way of expressing this conventional wisdom is: a monetary union (a common currency) cannot work without a fiscal union (a common government). This is unadulterated hogwash. Many different countries in completely different parts of the world were able to successfully share the same money for centuries. The money was called gold.

The fact that a bunch of totally disparate countries in Europe have a common currency is not the problem. The problem is the central planning agency known as the European Central Bank (ECB), which tries to impose a common interest rate across these diverse countries/economies. This leads to even more distortions than arise when such agencies operate within a single country (the Fed in the US, for example), which is really saying something considering the distortions caused by the Fed and other single-country central banks.

I’m reticent to pick on John Hussman, because his analysis is usually on the mark. However, his recent comments on the Greek crisis and its supposed relationship to a common currency make for an excellent example of the popular view that I’m taking issue with in this post. Here is the relevant excerpt from the Hussman commentary, with my retorts interspersed in brackets and bold text:

The prerequisite for a common currency is that countries share a wide range of common economic features. [No, it isn't! Money isn't supposed to be a tool that is used to manipulate the economy, it is supposed to be a medium of exchange.] A single currency doesn’t just remove exchange rate flexibility. It also removes the ability to finance deficits through money creation, independent of other countries. [Removing the ability to finance deficits through money creation is a benefit, not a drawback.] Moreover, because capital flows often respond more to short-term interest rate differences (“carry trade” spreads) than to long-term credit conditions, the common currency of the euro has removed a great deal of interest rate variation between countries. [No, the ECB has done that. In the absence of the ECB, interest rates in the euro-zone would have correctly reflected economic reality all along.] It may seem like a good thing that countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and others have been able to borrow at interest rates close to those of Germany for nearly two decades. But that has also enabled them to run far larger and more persistent fiscal deficits than would have been possible if they had individually floating currencies. [This is completely true, but it is the consequence of a common central bank, not a common currency.]

The euro is essentially a monetary arrangement that encourages and enables wide differences in economic fundamentals between countries to be glossed over and kicked down the road through increasing indebtedness of the weaker countries in the union to the stronger members. [The ECB, not the common currency, encourages this.] This produces recurring crises when the debt burdens become so intolerable that even short-run refinancing can’t be achieved without bailouts.

Greece isn’t uniquely to blame. It’s unfortunately just the first country to arrive at that particular finish line. Greece is simply demonstrating that a common currency between economically disparate countries can’t be sustained without continuing subsidies from the more prosperous countries in the system to less prosperous ones. [If this is true, how did economically disparate countries around the world use gold as a common currency for so long without the more prosperous ones having to subsidise the less prosperous ones?]

Money is supposed to be neutral — a medium of exchange and a yardstick. It is inherently no more problematic for totally disparate countries to use a common currency than it is for totally disparate countries to use common measures of length or weight. On the contrary, there are advantages to the use of a common currency in that trading and investing are made more efficient.

In conclusion, the problem is the central planning of money and interest rates, not the fact that different countries use the same money. It’s a problem that exists everywhere; it’s just that it is presently more obvious in the euro-zone.

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Gold Commitments of Traders (COT) Nonsense

July 13, 2015

A lot of nonsensical commentary gets written about the Commitments of Traders (COT) data for gold (and silver). The information in the COT reports can be used as an indicator of gold-market sentiment. Nothing more, nothing less. It cannot validly be used to support the theory that “commercial” traders (primarily bullion banks) have been conducting a long-term price-suppression scheme.

One of the most important points to understand with regard to the positioning of traders in the gold futures market is that the group known as speculators drives the short-term price trends. This is made apparent by the following chart, which was created by Saxo Bank and linked at the article posted HERE. The chart clearly shows that, with only a few minor discrepancies, over the past three years the net position of speculators in the COMEX futures market (the black line) has moved with the gold price (the red line). More specifically, it shows that speculators start adding to their collective net-long position at price lows and continue to add until the price makes a short-term top, at which point they become net sellers and their collective net-long position begins to decline. The process is self-reinforcing, in that a rising price prompts buying and a falling price prompts selling by the trend-followers within the speculating community. Note that a chart stretching back well beyond 2012 would show the same relationship.

As is the case in any market, the speculators in gold tend to be most bullish/optimistic just prior to significant price tops and most bearish (or least optimistic) just prior to significant price bottoms. That’s why the COT information can be used as a sentiment indicator. And as with most sentiment indicators, the COT’s weakness is that there are no absolute benchmarks. For example, while we can be confident that a short-term price bottom for gold will coincide with a relatively low level for the speculative net-long position in COMEX gold futures, there’s no way of knowing that level in advance.

If we lump large speculators and small (non-reporting) traders together under the “speculators” label, then the “commercial” position is simply the inverse of the speculative position. In order for speculators to become net-long by X contracts, commercials must become net-short by X contracts. This is a function of mathematics, since the futures market is a zero-sum game. Furthermore and as discussed above, we know that it’s the group known as “speculators” that’s driving the process since the price has a strong positive correlation with this group’s net-long position.

Therefore, getting angry with commercials for shorting gold futures — as some gold bulls do — is equivalent to getting angry with speculators for buying gold futures, since speculators, as a group, cannot possibly increase their long exposure in gold futures unless commercials, as a group, increase their short exposure.

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Currency devaluation, the most destructive policy of all

July 10, 2015

With the return to a currency that can be devalued at will by its own government being spoken of in some quarters as part of the solution to Greece’s economic malaise, this is an opportune time to reprint a piece about currency devaluation that was originally included in a TSI commentary in July of last year. The gist of the piece is that currency devaluation cannot possibly help, but it can certainly hurt. Here it is, beginning with a quotation from a surprising source.

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. 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 confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the existing distribution of wealth*. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers’, who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.

Lenin was certainly right. 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 it does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

The above quotation is perfect. It does such a good job of succinctly describing why currency devaluation is a destructive policy, both economically and socially, that it could have been written by Mises. Strangely, therefore, it was written by Keynes**.

It seems that Keynes understood the problems wrought by policies designed to debauch (devalue) the currency, but such understanding is nowhere to be seen among his modern-day followers. Instead, the modicum of sense contained in the writings of Keynes has been discarded by the Keynesians of today in favour of a total focus on “aggregate demand”. If you wrongly believe the economy to be an amorphous blob driven by changes in “aggregate demand”, then you are looking at the economy through a lens that creates such a distorted view of the world that what you perceive is the opposite of reality. When looking through such a lens, currency-devaluation policy can appear to be justifiable.

One of the most common ‘justifications’ for currency devaluation is that it makes local exporters more competitive. The problem, as explained in previous TSI commentaries, is that it can only benefit exporters at the EXPENSE of consumers and importers. There can be no net benefit to the economy. Moreover, the beneficiaries only benefit temporarily. The reason is that a sustained reduction in a currency’s value on the foreign exchange market requires relatively high monetary inflation, which leads to rises in domestic prices that not only counteract any benefit to exporters from the exchange-rate decline, but also distort relative prices in a way that makes the overall economy less efficient.

Related to the “we need to devalue our currency to make our exports more competitive” idiocy is the handwringing that happens in reaction to trade deficits. According to neo-Keynesian orthodoxy, every dollar that flows out of the US due to a trade deficit is a dollar less of spending within the domestic economy, which, in turn, leads to a weaker domestic economy and higher unemployment. In reality, however, every dollar that flows out due to a trade deficit eventually returns as some form of investment. That’s why the $500B+ annual US trade deficit has not reduced the US money supply. As Joseph Salerno (a good economist) explains in a 17th July article, trade-deficit dollars get invested by foreigners in US stocks, bonds, real estate such as buildings and golf courses, and financial intermediaries like banks and mutual funds, with many of the dollars ultimately being lent to or invested in US businesses. These businesses then spend the dollars on paying wages and buying real capital goods like raw materials, plants and equipment, and software. The point is that the flow of spending in the US economy is not diminished by a negative trade balance, but merely re-routed. There will be a redirection of labor and capital out of export industries into industries producing consumer and capital goods for domestic use, with no net loss of jobs. A net loss of jobs will, however, come about due to policies put in place to ‘fix’ a perceived trade-deficit problem.

Another common ‘justification’ for currency devaluation is that it lowers real wages and thus gets around the problem that the nominal price of labour tends to be ‘sticky’. The idea is that nominal wage rates are excessively slow to fall in response to reduced demand for workers, and that currency devaluation helps by surreptitiously reducing the real price of labour. The first point to note here is that the ‘stickiness’ of wages was never a problem in the US prior to the 1930s, when the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations took steps to prevent wages from falling in response to a severe economic downturn. A second and related point is that government payments to the unemployed can reduce the incentive for able-bodied people to accept lower wages to re-enter the workforce. In other words, if nominal wages are problematically ‘sticky’ it is because of government intervention, not the free market. Third, the knowledge that modern money relentlessly loses purchasing power over time would tend to make nominal wages ‘stickier’ than they would otherwise be. In other words, the policy designed to address the perceived problem of ‘sticky’ wages actually contributes to the problem. In any case, these points are not critically relevant. Regardless of whether wages really are ‘sticky’ and regardless of the cause of the supposed problem, ‘sticky’ wages could never logically justify a policy that must ultimately weaken the economy.

The primary problem with currency devaluation is that it leads to non-uniform changes in prices throughout the economy. In effect, the implementers of devaluation policy send false price signals into the economy, which leads to more investing mistakes than would otherwise happen. As a result of the greater number of investing mistakes, there ends up being less wealth. Furthermore, the smaller pool of wealth will be redistributed by the devaluation policy, often in a way that is so obviously unfair that it provokes calls for new interventions and punitive taxes. It therefore puts the economy on the proverbial “slippery slope”.

In summary, Keynes wasn’t right about much, but early in his career he was absolutely right about currency devaluation. It is a process that engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and it does so in a manner that not one man in a million will be able to diagnose.

    *The undeserved wealth distribution caused by currency devaluation policy is the root cause of today’s fixation on “inequality”. Unfortunately, none of the most popular writers on this topic understand the cause of the perceived problem.

    **The quotation is from Chapter 6 of Keynes’ 1919 book titled “The Economic Consequences of the Peace”.

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Can the Fed do more?

July 7, 2015

It’s not an overstatement to say that over the 6-year period beginning in September-2008, the US Federal Reserve went berserk with its Quantitative Easing (QE). The following chart shows that the US Monetary Base, an indicator of the net quantity of dollars directly created by the Fed*, had a gentle upward slope until around August of 2008, at which point it took off like a rocket. More specifically, the Monetary Base gained about 30% during the 6-year period leading up to September of 2008 and then quintupled (gained 400%) over the next 6 years. Is it therefore fair to say that the Fed has now ‘shot its load’ and will be unable to do much in reaction to the next financial crisis and/or recession?


Unfortunately, the answer is no. The sad truth is that the Fed is not only capable of doing a lot more, it will almost certainly pump a lot more money into the economy the next time its senior management decides that the financial or economic wheels are falling off.

The Fed is capable of doing a lot more because it is not yet remotely close to running out of things to monetise. For example, the US Federal debt is presently about $18.1T and will probably top $20T within the next two years. This means that there is plenty of scope for the Fed to add to its current $2.5T stash of Treasury securities. Also, the Fed is not strictly limited in what it can monetise. Up until now it has been monetising Mortgage-Backed and Agency securities in addition to Treasury securities, but it could branch out into other asset-backed securities (those backed by auto loans or student debt, for instance), municipal bonds, investment-grade corporate bonds, and equity ETFs. If the situation were perceived to be sufficiently dire it could even change the rules to allow itself to monetise commercial and residential real-estate.

And the Fed almost certainly will do a lot more on the money-pumping front in the face of future economic and/or stock market weakness, because it has not only failed to learn the right lessons from the events of the past 15 years, it has learned exactly the wrong lessons. Rather than learning that injecting more money into the economy in an effort to mitigate the fallout from a busted bubble leads to a bigger bubble, a bigger bust, greater hardship and structural economic weakness, its senior management is convinced that the QE and interest-rate-suppression programs provided a substantial net benefit to the overall economy. Given this conviction in the righteousness of its previous actions, why wouldn’t the Fed do more of the same if the perceived need were to arise in the future? The answer, of course, is that it would. And it will.

In conclusion, those who think that the Fed is incapable of further monetary expansion do not have a good understanding of the situation, and those who believe that the Fed could do more, but will choose not to as the result of newfound financial prudence or concern for the well-being of savers, are naive.

*The Monetary Base is made up of currency (physical notes and coins) in circulation outside the banking system plus bank reserves. Bank reserves aren’t counted in the True Money Supply, but for every dollar of reserves created by the Fed as part of its QE the Fed also adds a dollar of money to the economy via a deposit into the demand account of a Primary Dealer. That is, QE results in the one-for-one creation of money and reserves. For a more detailed explanation, refer to my 16th February 2015 post.

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Does “Austrian Economics” predict inflation or deflation?

July 6, 2015

The answer to the above question is no, meaning that “Austrian Economics” makes no prediction about whether the future will be inflationary or deflationary. That’s why some adherents to “Austrian” economic theory predict inflation while others predict deflation. A good economic theory can give you insights into the likely short-term, long-term, direct and indirect effects of policy choices, but it doesn’t tell you what will happen regardless of future choices and events. I’ll try to explain using two well-known quotes from Ludwig von Mises, the most important economist of the “Austrian” school.

Here’s the first quote:

There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.

The first sentence of this quote is sometimes taken out of context as part of an argument in favour of deflation. It could be construed, if considered in isolation, as a statement that a period of deflation MUST follow a credit-fueled boom. However, no good economist, let alone the greatest economist of the past century, would ever claim that price deflation was inevitable regardless of what was happening to the money supply. To do so would be to claim that the law of supply and demand did not apply to money. In the real world there will always be a link between money supply and money purchasing power. The link is complex, but it will always be possible to reduce the purchasing power of money by increasing its supply.

The second sentence provides the necessary clarification. In essence, it says that a boom fueled by a great credit expansion can collapse in one of two ways. The first is by voluntarily ending the credit expansion. This would generally involve doing nothing or very little while a corrective process ran its course. The other is by relentlessly persisting with credit expansion in an effort to avoid a crisis. This would lead to a total catastrophe of the currency system, meaning it would lead to the currency becoming completely worthless.

The first of the two alternatives is the deflation path. The second is the inflation path (endless rapid monetary inflation leading to hyperinflation and, eventually, to the currency becoming so devalued it no longer functions as money). Note that money can only collapse due to inflation. Deflation makes money more valuable.

The Fed is presently heading down the inflation path, but it doesn’t have to stay on this path. A change of direction is still possible.

Now for the other Mises quote mentioned in the opening paragraph:

This first stage of the inflationary process may last for many years. While it lasts, the prices of many goods and services are not yet adjusted to the altered money relation. There are still people in the country who have not yet become aware of the fact that they are confronted with a price revolution which will finally result in a considerable rise of all prices, although the extent of this rise will not be the same in the various commodities and services. These people still believe that prices one day will drop. Waiting for this day, they restrict their purchases and concomitantly increase their cash holdings. As long as such ideas are still held by public opinion, it is not yet too late for the government to abandon its inflationary policy.

But then, finally, the masses wake up. They become suddenly aware of the fact that inflation is a deliberate policy and will go on endlessly. A breakdown occurs. The crack-up boom appears. Everybody is anxious to swap his money against ‘real’ goods, no matter whether he needs them or not, no matter how much money he has to pay for them. Within a very short time, within a few weeks or even days, the things which were used as money are no longer used as media of exchange. They become scrap paper. Nobody wants to give away anything against them.

The gist is that if the inflation policy continues for long enough then a psychological tipping point will eventually be reached. At this tipping point the value of money will collapse as people rush to exchange whatever money they have for ‘real’ goods. Mises refers to this monetary collapse as the “crack-up boom”. Prior to this point being reached it will not be too late to abandon the inflation policy.

Today, the US is still immersed in the first stage of the inflationary process. If it continues along its current path then a “crack-up boom” will eventually occur, but there is no way of knowing — and “Austrian” economic theory makes no attempt to predict — when such an event will occur. If the current policy course is maintained then the breakdown could occur within 2-5 years (it almost certainly won’t happen within the next 2 years), but it could also be decades away. Importantly, there is still hope that policy-makers will wake up and change course before the masses wake up and trash the currency.

In conclusion, “Austrian” economic theory helps us understand the damage that is caused by monetary inflation and where the relentless implementation of inflation policy will eventually lead. That is, it helps us understand the direct and indirect effects of monetary-policy choices. It doesn’t, however, make specific predictions about whether the next few years will be characterised by inflation or deflation, because whether there is more inflation or a shift into deflation will depend on the future actions of governments and central banks. It will also depend on the performances of financial markets, because, for example, a large stock-market decline could prompt a sufficient increase in the demand for cash to temporarily offset the effects of a higher money supply on the purchasing power of money.

The upshot is that regardless of how the terms are defined, at this stage neither inflation nor deflation is inevitable.

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