Random thoughts on Global Warming

June 2, 2017

1. Intellectual honesty requires that the issue be referred to as “Global Warming” and not “Climate Change”. The theory is that human-generated CO2 is causing the world to warm up, not that humans are causing the climate to change. The climate is always changing. It was changing long before humans existed and will be changing long after humans become extinct.

2. Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is a hot/emotional topic because it is perceived as a potential excuse for more government intervention in the economy, that is, for a more powerful government.

3. Due to the above point, the more libertarian-minded a person the more likely that he will disbelieve the AGW theory and be on the lookout for evidence that refutes or is inconsistent with the theory, whereas the stronger a person’s belief in a big role for government the more likely that he will be a proponent of the AGW theory and on the lookout for evidence that supports the theory.

4. It should be a question for science, not politics, and the science is definitely not settled. There are very knowledgeable people on both sides of the debate, the models that link global temperature to prior changes in the amount atmospheric CO2 have generally not worked, and in any case the science is never settled (it is constantly evolving).

5. The real issue is pollution, not global warming or climate change. Pollution is a serious problem in many parts of the world.

6. Pollution is a property rights issue, or at least it should be. In countries where there is no or minimal respect for private property rights and particularly in countries with very powerful or all-powerful governments, pollution tends to be a bigger problem and the frequency of ecological disasters tends to be greater.

7. In a free country, the amount of pollution that was deemed acceptable would be determined by the law courts, not government regulation. It’s likely that the amount deemed acceptable when dealt with as a property rights issue by the law courts would generally be less than the amount allowed by current government regulations.

8. It is often the case that one side in the debate labels the other side in ways that are designed to make the other side look bad. For example, referring to AGW skeptics as “deniers” or “denialists” and AGW advocates as “alarmists” or “hysterics”. This is a form of ad hominem attack. A person who uses the aforementioned words to describe the other side may as well hold up a sign that reads “I’m not looking at the issue objectively”.

9. Characterising the issue as believers versus non-believers in climate change is a deliberate attempt to mislead (it’s a type of “straw man” argument) because there is no debate as to whether or not the climate is changing. Everyone with a modicum of general knowledge knows that the climate has always been changing and will always change. The issue under debate is the effect of man on the climate.

10. A scientist making an honest and rigorous attempt to determine the effect of man on climate must necessarily analyse the other influences on climate, chief among them being the sun. Furthermore, he must deal with questions like: Given that the Earth’s climate has always been cycling, with long periods of cooling followed by long periods of warming, and that the Earth was warmer during pre-industrialisation periods when human activity could not have had any effect whatsoever on climate, why should the latest warming cycle be attributed primarily to human activity?

11. Even if we assume that Global Warming is still happening, that it is a problem to be reckoned with and that it is caused by Man, the claim that the best solution is for the government to become more involved in policing economic activity is, at best, the triumph of hope and naïveté over experience, logic and good economic theory. If history has taught us anything it is that when the government tries to fix a problem by getting more involved in the economy it either causes the original problem to become worse or creates an even bigger problem elsewhere.

12. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. (Thomas Jefferson)

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The World Gold Council’s gold market analysis is useless

May 30, 2017

A few weeks ago the World Gold Council (WGC) published its “Gold Demand Trends” report for the first quarter of 2017. These reports actually provide no information about gold demand and in my opinion are useless. In fact, they are worse than useless because they are misleading.

It is axiomatic that at any given time the total demand for gold equals the total supply of gold, which, in turn, equals the total aboveground gold inventory. The total aboveground gold inventory is somewhere between 150K and 200K tonnes, so at any given time the total demand for gold lies somewhere between 150K and 200K tonnes.

When new buyers enter the market they draw from the existing aboveground supply. These new buyers cannot possibly increase the total demand, because the increased demand on the part of people who add to their gold ownership will always be exactly offset by the decreased demand on the part of people who reduce their gold ownership.

A balance is maintained by the changing price. For example, if there are more buyers than sellers at a particular price or the buyers are more motivated than the sellers then the price will rise to establish a new balance. Therefore, a price rise is irrefutable evidence of a momentary rise in demand relative to supply and a price decline is irrefutable evidence of a momentary fall in demand relative to supply.

Importantly, the change in price is the ONLY reliable indication of an attempt by demand to rise or fall relative to supply. Any statement to the effect that a price rise was accompanied by reduced demand or that a price decline was accompanied by increased demand is therefore ludicrous.

The effect of the gold-mining industry is to increase the total aboveground gold supply by about 1.5% every year. Actually, as the result of gold mining both the total supply and the total demand increase by about 1.5% every year, since demand and supply must always be equal with price changing to maintain the balance.

Although gold miners are adding new gold to the total supply, the newly-mined gold is no more capable of satisfying current demand than gold that was mined in the distant past. Consequently, gold miners are similar to any other sellers. The one significant difference is that a gold miner will generally take whatever price is on offer, whereas most other owners of gold will have a price in mind at which they will sell (and below which they will not sell). In some cases this price will be a great distance above the current price and in other cases the owner of gold will intend to hold indefinitely regardless of how high the price rises. All of these intentions by the existing holders of gold contribute to the performance of the gold price.

Getting back to the WGC reports, what is being referred to as gold demand is actually just the sum of some easy-to-identify gold flows. In effect, these reports confuse trading volume with demand. Furthermore, they don’t even come close to accounting for all trading volume. What they essentially do is begin with the wrongheaded assumption that the total supply of gold equals the amount of annual mine production plus recycled gold plus producer hedging, or an amount of around 4,000 tonnes. They therefore begin with the assumption that the total supply of gold is about 1/50th of its actual amount. They then come up with a bunch of so-called (but not actual) demand figures, including the amount of gold moving into bullion ETFs and the amount of gold sold in jewellery form, that add up to about 4,000 tonnes.

As an aside, there will usually be a positive correlation between the gold price and the amount of gold moving into gold ETFs, but that’s only because the ETF inventory often FOLLOWS the price. I’ve discussed this in previous blog posts.

Summing up, the gold supply/demand reports put out by the WGC are based on numerous logical errors and misconceptions, such as ignoring the dominant role played by the aboveground gold stock, treating transfers from some sellers to some buyers as indicative of changing overall demand, and assuming that shifts in demand can be determined independently of price. Due to these deficiencies they are worse than useless.

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Why bad economic theories remain popular

May 26, 2017

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, the most prominent “Austrian” economists of the time, anticipated the 1929 stock market crash and correctly predicted the dire consequences of government attempts to artificially stimulate economic growth in the aftermath of the crash. John Maynard Keynes, on the other hand, was totally blindsided by the stock market crash and the economic disaster of the early 1930s. And yet, Keynes’s theories gained enormous popularity during the 1930s whereas the work of Mises and Hayek was largely ignored. Why was it so?

Keynes became popular because he told the politically powerful what they wanted to hear. In particular, he provided power-hungry politicians with intellectual support for the schemes they not only already had in mind, but in many cases were already putting into practice. Despite being riddled with errors, Keynes’ theories also appealed to many economists because the implementation of these theories would confer a lot more influence upon the economics fraternity. The fact is that in a free economy there wouldn’t be much for an economist to do other than teach economics. He/she would certainly never have the opportunity to be involved in the ‘management’ of the economy.

The points outlined in the above paragraph, along with Keynes’ charisma and salesmanship, explain why “Keynesian” economic theories became dominant, but it doesn’t explain how they managed to stay dominant in the face of an ever-growing mountain of evidence indicating that they result in long-term economic decline.

As far as I can tell, the theories have stayed popular for three  main reasons. First, not only do they mesh with the personal goals of almost all current politicians, but also there is now a huge government apparatus in place that depends upon the continued application of these theories. In other words, a large chunk of the population now has a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that the government should ‘manage’ the economy. Second, it usually isn’t possible to disprove an economic theory using data, because the same data can usually be interpreted in different ways and used to justify opposing theories. The hard reality is that in the science of economics you must start with the correct theory in order to correctly interpret the data. Third, Keynesianism is more like a stream of anecdotes than a coherent theory, in that under this so-called theory most things are ‘explained’ by unforeseeable events and unpredictable shifts in “animal spirits”. It is impossible to invalidate an intellectual position that is constantly changing.

A good example of how the same data can be interpreted in different ways in order to support conflicting theories is provided by the 1937-1939 collapse of the US economy. According to the “Austrians”, the fact that the US federal government propped up prices, drastically increased its spending, inflated the money supply, began interfering with many industries and generally did whatever it could to prevent the corrective process from running its course following the 1929 stock market crash guaranteed that all signs of economic recovery would quickly disappear as soon as the artificial support was scaled back. The mistake, according to the “Austrians”, was to provide the artificial support. According to the “Keynesians”, however, the mistake was to remove the artificial support prematurely. They argue that the government and the Fed should have continued to do whatever was needed to postpone a collapse, the idea being that with enough government assistance in the form of new money, new regulations, handouts, price controls and job-creating public works projects the economy would eventually gain enough strength to become self-supporting.

Unfortunately, when throwing ‘Keynesian stimulus’ in the form of more government spending, more credit and more monetary inflation at an economic downturn doesn’t lead to a self-sustaining recovery, the followers of Keynes will always have two comebacks. They can always assert that the stimulus would have worked if only it had been done more aggressively and/or that as bad as the economy has performed it would have performed even worse if not for the stimulus.

You can’t argue with that. At least, it’s an assertion that can never be unequivocally invalidated because it is never possible to go back in time and show what would have happened with different policies.

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What is a bull market?

May 22, 2017

[This post is a slightly-modified excerpt from a recent TSI commentary]

A reasonable definition of a bull market must be practical. This means that it must take into account the fact that what people really want from an investment is an increase in purchasing power, not just an increase in price. Figuring out whether or not an investment is in a bull market is therefore not as straightforward as observing its long-term trend in nominal currency terms.

Here’s a great example of why looking only at nominal price change doesn’t necessarily indicate whether or not something is in a bull market: Ten years ago, the price of everything in the world was in a powerful upward trend when price was expressed in terms of the Zimbabwe dollar. Obviously, it was far more reasonable in this case to say that the Zimbabwe dollar was in a bear market than to say that everything else was in a bull market.

The Zimbabwe example is extreme, but the fact is that all of today’s official currencies are losing purchasing power (PP). They are losing PP at different rates and some are losing PP quite slowly at the present time, but not one of them is likely to be a good measuring stick over a long period.

Unfortunately, determining whether or not an investment is gaining value in real terms is problematic due to the impossibility of coming up with a single number that reflects the economy-wide PP of money. We have a method of adjusting for the effects of monetary inflation that should be ‘in the right ballpark’ over periods of more than 5 years, but our method could be wildly inaccurate over periods of less than 2 years. Inflation-adjusting using the official CPI, on the other hand, is likely to be inaccurate over all periods and wildly inaccurate over the long-term.

In a world where the official currencies make poor measuring sticks due to their relentless and variable depreciation, looking at the relative performances of different investments is probably the best way to determine which ones are in bull markets. Furthermore, because they are effectively at opposite ends of an investment seesaw, with one doing best when confidence in money, central banking and government is rising and the other doing best when confidence in money, central banking and government is falling, this is a concept that works especially well for gold bullion and the S&P500 Index (SPX).

There will be times when both gold and the SPX are rising in US$ terms, but it should be possible to tell the one that is in a genuine bull market because it will be the one that is the stronger. More specifically, if the SPX/gold ratio is in a multi-year upward trend then the SPX is in a bull market and gold is not, whereas if the SPX/gold ratio is in a multi-year downward trend then gold is in a bull market and the SPX is not. There will naturally be periods of a year or longer when it will be impossible to determine whether a multi-year trend has reversed or is consolidating (we are now in the midst of such a period), but there is a moving-average crossover* that can be used to confirm a reversal in timely fashion.

In conclusion, it is reasonable to say that an investment is in a bull market if it is in a multi-year upward trend in nominal currency terms AND relative to its main competition.

*Crosses of the 200-week moving average by either the SPX/gold ratio or the gold/SPX ratio have confirmed bull-bear transitions with only two false signals since the early-1970s.

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