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Are rising nominal interest rates bullish or bearish for gold?

April 28, 2017

The short answer to the above question is that they are neither. Read on for the longer answer.

Consider what happened to nominal interest rates during the long-term gold bull markets of the past 100 years. Interest rates generally trended downward during the gold bull market of the 1930s, upward during the gold bull market of the 1960s and 1970s, and downward during the bull market of 2001-2011. History’s message, therefore, is that the trend in the nominal interest rate does not strongly influence gold’s long-term price trend.

History tells us that gold bull markets can unfold in parallel with rising or falling nominal interest rates, but this shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that interest rates don’t affect whether gold is in a bullish or bearish trend. The long-term trend in the nominal interest rate is not critical; what is of great importance, as far as the gold market is concerned, is the REAL interest rate, with low/falling real interest rates being bullish for gold and high/rising real interest rates being bearish. For example, when gold was making huge gains during the 1970s in parallel with high/rising nominal interest rates, real interest rates were generally low. This is because gains in inflation expectations were matching, or exceeding, gains in nominal interest rates (the real interest rate is the nominal interest rate minus the EXPECTED rate of currency depreciation).

Very low real interest rates are artifacts of central banks, because in an intervention-free market all lenders would insist on a significant real return in exchange for temporarily relinquishing control of their money. In other words, “very low real interest rates” essentially means “very loose monetary policy”.

Something else that affects gold’s price trend is the difference between long-term and short-term interest rates (the yield-spread, or yield curve), with a rising yield-spread (‘steepening’ yield curve) being bullish for gold and a falling yield-spread (flattening yield curve) being bearish. It works this way because a rising trend in long-term interest rates relative to short-term interest rates generally indicates either falling market liquidity (associated with increasing risk aversion and a flight to safety) or rising inflation expectations, both of which are bullish for gold.

As is the case with the real interest rate, under the current monetary system the yield-spread tends to be a symptom of what central banks are doing. If money were free of central bank manipulation then the yield-spread would spend most of its time near zero (the yield curve would be almost horizontal) and would experience only minor fluctuations, but thanks to the attempts by central banks to ‘stabilise’ the financial world the yield-spread experiences the huge swings shown on the chart included below.


Last but not least, gold is influenced by the economy-wide trend in credit spreads (the differences between interest rates on high-quality and low-quality debt securities). Gold, a traditional haven in times of trouble, tends to do relatively well when credit spreads are widening and relatively poorly when credit spreads are contracting.

In summary, gold benefits from low real interest rates, an increasing yield-spread (a steepening yield curve), and widening credit spreads, each of which can occur when nominal interest rates are rising or falling.

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Long-term price targets are meaningless

April 24, 2017

Many commentators like to speculate on where the dollar-denominated gold price is ultimately headed. Some claim that it is destined to reach $3,000/oz, others claim that it won’t top until it hits at least $5,000/oz, and some even forecast an eventual rise to as high as $50,000/oz. All of these forecasts are meaningless.

Long-term dollar-denominated price targets are meaningless because a) they fail to account for — and cannot possibly account for, since it is unknowable — the future change in the dollar’s purchasing power, and b) the only reason a rational person invests is to preserve or increase purchasing power. To further explain by way of a hypothetical example, assume that five years from now a US dollar buys only 20% of the everyday goods and services that it buys today. In this case, the US$ gold price will have to be around $6,500/oz just to maintain its current value in purchasing power terms. To put it another way, in my example a person who buys gold at around $1300/oz today and holds it will suffer a loss, in real terms (the only terms that matter), unless the gold price is above $6,000/oz in April-2022. Considering a non-hypothetical example to make the same point, in 2007-2009 a resident of Zimbabwe who owned a small amount of gold and not much else would have become a trillionaire in Zimbabwe dollars and would also have remained poor.

The purchasing power issue is why the only long-term forecasts of gold’s value that I ever make are expressed in non-monetary terms. For example, throughout the first decade of this century I maintained that gold’s long-term bull market would continue until the Dow/gold ratio had fallen to at least 5 and would potentially continue until Dow/gold fell to 1.

The 2011 low of 5.7 in the Dow/gold ratio wasn’t far from the top of my expected bottoming range, although I doubt that the long-term downward trend is over. In any case, none of the buying/selling I do this year will be based on the realistic possibility that the Dow/gold ratio will eventually drop to 1. Such long-term forecasts are of academic interest only, or at least they should be.

If I were forced to state a very long-term target for the US$ gold price, it would be infinity. The US$ will eventually become worthless, at which point gold will have infinite value in US$ terms. But then, so will everything else that people want to own.

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Don’t get hung up on bull/bear labels

April 18, 2017

Gold is probably immersed in a multi-decade bull market containing cyclical bull and bear markets. We can be sure that a cyclical bear market began in 2011, but did this bear market come to an end in December of 2015? In other words, did a new cyclical gold bull get underway in December-2015? I don’t know, but the point I want to make today is that the answer to this question is not as important as most gold-market enthusiasts think.

During the first half of 2016 my view was that although a new cyclical gold bull market had probably begun, it was far from a certainty. The main reason I had some doubt was that gold’s true fundamentals* were not decisively bullish. However, by November of last year I thought it likely that a new gold bull market had NOT begun in December-2015. This was mainly because the true fundamentals had collectively become almost as gold-bearish as they ever get. It was also because it had, by then, become crystal-clear that the US equity bull market did not end in 2015.

The cyclical trend in the US stock market is important for gold. During any given year the gold price and the US stock market (as represented by the S&P500 Index) are just as likely to move in the same direction as move in opposite directions, but over long periods they are effectively at opposite ends of a seesaw. As far as I can tell, it would be unprecedented for a cyclical gold bull market to begin when a cyclical advance in the US stock market is far from complete.

In any case, for practical speculation purposes there is never a need to answer the question: bull market or bear market? In fact, there is never a need to even ask the question. The question that should always be asked is: based on all the relevant evidence at the current time, should I buy, sell or do nothing?

For example, based on the extreme negativity that prevailed at the time, the length and magnitude of the preceding price decline and a number of other considerations, it could be determined in January-2016 that an excellent opportunity to buy gold-mining stocks had arrived. Coming to this conclusion did not require having an opinion on whether a new gold bull market was getting underway. For another example, during May-August of last year an objective assessment of the price action and the important sentiment indicators revealed numerous excellent opportunities to reduce exposure to the gold-mining sector, regardless of whether or not a new bull market had begun several months earlier. For a third example, the analysis of the salient evidence in real time during December of last year suggested that another sector-wide buying opportunity had arrived in the world of gold mining. Again, taking advantage of this buying opportunity did not require an opinion on whether a cyclical gold bull market had begun back in December-2015.

The upshot is that assertions to the effect that an investment is in a bull market or a bear market can make for colourful commentary, but in the real worlds of trading and investing it’s best not to get hung up on bull and bear labels. As well as being unnecessary, fixating on such labels can be problematic. This is because someone who is convinced that a bull market is in progress will be inclined to ignore good selling opportunities and someone who is convinced that a bear market is underway will be inclined to ignore good buying opportunities.

*In no particular order, the fundamental drivers of the US$ gold price are the real US interest rate (as indicated by the 10-year TIPS yield), US credit spreads, the relative strength of the US banking sector (as indicated by the BKX/SPX ratio), the US yield curve, the general trend in commodity prices and the US dollar’s performance on the FX market (as indicated by the Dollar Index).

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The much-maligned paper gold market

April 5, 2017

The article “What sets the Gold Price — Is it the Paper Market or Physical Market?” contains some interesting information about the gold market and is worth reading, but it also contains some logical missteps. In this post I’ll zoom in on a couple of the logical missteps.

The following two paragraphs from near the middle of the above-linked article capture the article’s theme and will be my focus:

In essence, trading activity in the London gold market predominantly represents huge synthetic artificial gold supply, where paper gold trading is deriving the price of gold, not physical gold trading. Synthetic gold is just created out of thin air as a book-keeping entry and is executed as a cashflow transaction between the contracting parties. There is no purchase of physical gold in such a transaction, no marginal demand for gold. Synthetic paper gold therefore absorbs demand that would otherwise have flowed into the limited physical gold supply, and the gold price therefore fails to represent this demand because demand has been channelled away from physical gold transactions into synthetic gold.

Likewise, if an entity dumps gold futures contracts on the COMEX platform representing millions of ounces of gold, that entity does not need to have held any physical gold, but that transaction has an immediate effect on the international gold price. This has real world impact, because many physical gold transactions around the world take this international gold price as the basis of their transactions.

The most obvious error in the above excerpt concerns the effect of ‘dumping’ gold futures contracts on the COMEX. While this action could certainly have the immediate effect of pushing the gold price down, the short-sale of a futures contract must subsequently be closed via the purchase of a futures contract. This means that there can be no sustained reduction in the gold price due to the selling of futures contracts.

A related error is one of omission, since the gold price is often boosted by the speculative buying of futures contracts. Again, though, the effect will be temporary, since every purchase of a futures contract must be followed by a sale.

With regard to the massive non-futures paper gold market, the existence of such a market is a consequence of gold’s unique role in the commodity world. Whereas the usefulness of other commodities stems from the desire to consume them in some way, gold is widely considered to be at its most useful when it is sitting dormant in a vault. This means that to get the benefit of owning gold a person doesn’t necessarily need physical access to the gold. In many cases, a paper claim to gold sitting in a vault on the other side of the world will be considered as good as or better than having the physical gold in one’s possession. Furthermore, in many cases a piece of paper that tracks the price of gold will be considered as good as a paper claim to physical gold in a vault.

At the same time, there will be people who want ownership of physical gold — either gold in their own possession or a receipt that guarantees ownership of a specific chunk of metal stored in a vault. The gold demand of such people could not be satisfied by a piece of paper that tracked the gold price and was settled in dollars or some other currency. In other words, demand for physical gold could not be satisfied by the creation of so-called “synthetic artificial” gold.

The reality is that the existence of the massive non-futures-related “paper” gold market effectively results in a lot more gold supply AND a lot more gold demand than would otherwise be the case. To put it more succinctly, it results in a much bigger and more liquid market. This, in turn, makes it more feasible for large-scale speculators to get involved in the gold market and would not necessarily result in the gold price being lower than it would be if trading were limited to physical gold.

On a related matter, there is not a massive non-futures paper market in platinum and yet the platinum price is close to a 50-year low relative to the gold price. Also, the general level of commodity prices, as represented by the GSCI Spot Commodity Index (GNX), made an all-time low relative to gold last year. If the “paper” market is suppressing the gold price, why has gold become so expensive relative to most other commodities?

I view the whole paper-physical debate as a distraction from the true drivers of the gold price. The fact is that gold’s price movements can best be understood by reference to ‘real’ interest rates, currency exchange rates, and indicators of economic and financial-system confidence — what I refer to as gold’s true fundamentals. For example and as illustrated by the following chart, the bond/dollar ratio does a good job of explaining gold’s price trends most of the time.


In conclusion, the “paper” gold market is not a problem to be reckoned with. It is just part of the overall gold situation and, as noted above, a consequence of gold’s historical role. Moreover, it isn’t going anywhere, so it makes no sense to either complain about it or base a bullish view on its disappearance.

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