Inflation as far as the eye can see

July 18, 2017

Many investors pigeon-hole themselves as “inflationists” or “deflationists”, where an inflationist is someone who expects more inflation over the years ahead and a deflationist is someone who expects deflation. I am grudgingly in the inflation camp, because the overall case for more inflation is strong.

I use the word “grudgingly” in the above sentence for two reasons. First, more inflation adds to the existing economic problems and will eventually result in major social upheaval, so when I predict that there will be inflation as far as the eye can see I don’t want to be right. Second, it means that I get lumped together with the perennial forecasters of imminent hyperinflation, even though my only mentions of hyperinflation over the past 17 years were to explain why it had zero probability of happening anytime soon.

With regard to the US situation, the main reason the case for more inflation is strong is that it doesn’t depend on private-sector credit expansion; it depends on the ability and willingness of the Fed to monetise sufficient assets to keep the total supply of money growing. A consistent theme in my commentaries over the 17 years since the birth of the TSI subscription service has been that the Fed could and would keep the inflation going after the private sector became saturated with debt.

Prior to 2008 there was very little in the way of empirical evidence to support the belief that the Fed could keep the inflation going in the face of a private-sector credit contraction, but that’s no longer the case. Thanks to what happened during 2008-2014 we can now be certain that the Fed has the ability to counteract the effects on money supply, asset prices and the so-called “general price level” of widespread private-sector de-leveraging. The only question left open to debate is: will the Fed CHOOSE to do whatever it takes to keep the inflation going in the future?

Based on the publicly-stated views of those who operate the monetary levers as well as on the economic remedies prescribed by today’s most influential economists and financial journalists, there’s a high probability that the answer is yes. At least, there is a high probability that the answer will be yes until the fear of inflation becomes much greater than the fear of deflation. However, the Fed is faced with a difficult challenge. It does not (I assume) want to engineer a steep decline in the dollar’s purchasing power, so every step of the way it tries to do no more than the minimum necessary to ensure a steady and modest rate of purchasing-power loss, with 2%-per-year having become the semi-official target.

The challenge is actually more than difficult; it’s impossible. The impossible-to-solve problem faced by the Fed and all the other central banks is that it can never be determined, in real time, what the aforementioned “minimum” is, because money-supply changes affect the economy in unpredictable ways and with large/variable delays. The economy therefore ends up careening all over the place and we occasionally get deflation scares, which are periods when it seems as if genuine deflation is about to happen. Paradoxically, the deflation scares are highly inflationary because they always prompt the Fed to ramp up the rate of money pumping, but while a deflation scare is in progress it can feel like the deflationists are finally going to be right.

I’m not ruling out the possibility that the deflationists will eventually be right. I hope that they will be right in the not-too-distant future, because more inflation will only add to the economic distortions and lead to an even bigger problem down the track. It’s just that they are, in effect, betting that devotees to the central planning ideology will suddenly realise the error of their ways and let nature take its course. The odds are very much against this bet paying off.

Print This Post Print This Post

Trying to solve the sentiment conundrum

July 3, 2017

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

In a 12th June blog post I revisited the potential pitfalls in using sentiment as a market timing tool. As an example of a pitfall, the post included a chart of the Investors Intelligence (II) bull/bear ratio suggesting that US stock market sentiment had been consistent with a bull-market top for the bulk of the past four years. Even though the chart helped to make my point it is appropriate to question how sentiment, when used as a contrary indicator, could be so wrong for so long.

I’ve come up with a possible explanation for why measures of US stock-market sentiment that worked well as contrary indicators in the past have not been useful of late. The reason relates to the third of the potential pitfalls outlined in the above-linked blog post. Specifically:

…regardless of what sentiment surveys say, there will always be a lot of bears and a lot of bulls in any financial market. It must be this way otherwise there would be no trading and the market would cease to function. As a consequence, if a survey shows that almost all traders are bullish or that almost all traders are bearish then the survey must be dealing with only a small — and possibly not representative — segment of the overall market.

The explanation I’ve come up with is that prior to the past few years the II sentiment survey, which is a survey of investment advisors who regularly publish their views via newsletters, reflected the sentiment of the investing public, but this is not so much the case anymore. Prior to the past few years the advisors and the general public would become increasingly bullish or increasingly bearish together, with high levels of optimism invariably following persistent price strength and high levels of pessimism invariably following either persistent or dramatic price weakness. Over the past few years, however, the perceptions of these two groups took separate paths. Investment advisors became very optimistic in reaction to the strong upward trend in prices, but for the most part the general public remained unenthusiastic about the stock market.

The change described above can be illustrated by comparing the II bullish percentage with the AAII (American Association of Individual Investors) bullish percentage, which has been done on the chart displayed below. The AAII survey is based on the opinions of retail investors, that is, the general public.

The chart shows that prior to 2014 the II (the blue line) and AAII (the black line) bullish percentages typically moved up and down together within a similar range, but that from 2014 onward the II bullish percentage tended to be significantly higher. Furthermore, the distance between the two survey results has increased since early this year, with the II bullish percentage remaining above 50 and the AAII bullish percentage spending most of its time in the 25-35 range. The most recent results show an II bullish percent of 54.9 and an AAII bullish percent of 29.7.

IIvsAAII_030717

It seems that the general public’s stock-market sentiment has not reached an optimistic extreme during the current cycle. Does this mean that there’s a lot more price strength to come or does it mean that the next major price top will happen without the general public having fully embraced the upward trend?

I don’t know, but it’s definitely possible that the public will never fully embrace the latest bullish trend for the simple reason that it is financially incapable of doing so. Having had its savings decimated when earlier Fed-fueled investment booms inevitably collapsed it may not have the financial wherewithal to enthusiastically participate in the Fed’s latest bubble-blowing venture.

Print This Post Print This Post

Addressing Keith Weiner’s objections to “Gold’s True Fundamentals”

June 27, 2017

A 23rd June post at the TSI Blog described the model (the Gold True Fundamentals Model – GTFM) that I developed to indicate the extent to which the fundamental backdrop is bullish for gold. The GTFM is an attempt to determine a single number that incorporates the most important fundamental drivers of the gold price, where I define “fundamental driver” as something that happens in the economy or the financial markets that causes a significant change in the┬ádesire/urgency to own gold in some form. Keith Weiner subsequently posted an article objecting to some of my “fundamental drivers”, which would be fine except that his article contains several misunderstandings of these price drivers and/or how I am using them. The purpose of this post is to address these misunderstandings and provide a little more information on the GTFM’s components.

1. The ‘Real’ Interest Rate

Keith states: “The Real Interest Rate is the Nominal Interest Rate – inflation.” No, that’s not what the real interest rate is, although many people wrongly calculate it that way.

Keith and I agree that it is not possible to calculate the economy-wide change in money purchasing-power (PP), but even if it were possible to come up with a single number that represented prior “inflation” the real interest rate would not be the nominal interest rate minus this number. The reason, to explain using an example, is that the real return that will be obtained by someone who makes a 12-month investment today in an interest-bearing security will have nothing to do with the change in the PP of money over the preceding 12 months. Instead, the real return that will be obtained by this person will be determined by the change in money PP over the ensuing 12 months.

Now, we can obviously never know in advance what the real return on any interest-bearing security or deposit will be, but since the advent of Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) in 2003 it has been possible to roughly determine the real return on Treasury debt expected by the average bond trader. The TIPS yield, which is based on the EXPECTED rate of currency depreciation, is my ‘real’ interest rate proxy.

If there had been a TIPS market in the 1970s then it would probably be apparent that the large gains made by the gold price during that decade were related to a low/falling real interest rate, where the real interest rate is defined as the nominal interest rate minus the expected rate of currency depreciation. In any case, there has definitely been an inverse correlation between the TIPS yield (10-year or 5-year) and the gold price over the past 10 years. Furthermore, the correlation has strengthened over the past 2 years.

By the way, it’s the DIRECTION, not the value, of the TIPS yield that matters to gold and that is taken into account by the GTFM.

The inverse relationship between the TIPS yield and the gold price is far from perfect, the reason being that there are times when other price drivers are more influential. That’s why the ‘real interest rate’ has only a one-seventh weighting in the GTFM.

2. The Yield Curve

There has never been a strong and consistent short-term correlation between the gold price and the yield curve, but near major turning points the yield curve tends to be the dominant driver.

In broad terms, the boom phase of the central-bank-promoted boom-bust cycle is generally associated with a flattening yield curve and the bust phase is generally associated with a steepening yield curve. Gold generally performs better during the bust phase, when the curve is steepening. Somewhat counterintuitively, banks tend to do best during the long periods of yield-curve flattening. This can be demonstrated empirically and makes sense if you understand how the central-bank-promoted boom-bust cycle works.

A major flattening trend in the US yield curve got underway during the second half of 2011 and continues to this day. This flattening trend is associated with a boom, which, in turn, has temporarily helped the banks and reduced the desire to own gold.

3. Credit Spreads

The trend in credit spreads is one of the best measures of the overall trend in economic confidence, with widening spreads (yields on lower-quality bonds rising relative to yields on higher-quality bonds) being indicative of declining economic confidence. Gold tends to do relatively well during periods when economic confidence is on the decline, that is, during periods when credit spreads are widening. I have demonstrated this in the past using charts.

4. The Relative Strength of the Banking Sector

Keith writes: “We haven’t plotted it, but we assume bank stocks will outperform the broader stock market when the yield curve is steeping by way of falling Fed Funds rate. This is when the banks’ net interest margin is rising, and they are getting capital gains on their bond portfolio too. At the same time, credit spreads are narrowing, so the banks are getting capital gains on their junk bonds.

No, that’s not how it works. Refer to my yield curve comments above for a very brief explanation.

The banking sector will often fare poorly during major yield-curve steepening trends because a banking crisis is often a primary cause of the steepening trend. In any case, this indicator is based on the concept that the investment demand for gold will be boosted by declining confidence in the banking system and reduced by rising confidence in the banking system.

5. The US Dollar’s Exchange Rate

More often than not, the US$ gold price trends in the opposite direction to the Dollar Index. However, there are times when a crisis outside the US causes both a rise in the US$ on the FX market and a large rise in the US$ gold price. The fact that the inverse correlation between the gold price and the Dollar Index can break down in a big way at times is why the US dollar’s performance on the FX market only has a one-seventh weighting in the GTFM. To put it another way, if the gold price always moved in the opposite direction to the Dollar Index then there would be no reason for gold traders to consider anything except the Dollar Index.

6. The General Trend in Commodity Prices

I have included the general trend in commodity prices as indicated by the S&P GSCI Commodity Index (GNX) in the GTFM for the practical reason that there are times when it tips the balance. That is, there are times when a strong upward trend in commodity prices enables the US$ gold price to rise despite an otherwise slightly-bearish (for gold) fundamental backdrop and there are times when a strong downward trend in commodity prices causes the US$ gold price to fall despite an otherwise slightly-bullish fundamental backdrop.

7. The Bond/Dollar Ratio

There are fundamental reasons for the existence of a positive correlation between the bond/dollar ratio (the T-Bond price divided by the Dollar Index) and the US$ gold price, but I currently don’t have the time or the inclination to go into these reasons. Instead, for the sake of brevity I present the following chart-based comparison of the gold price and the bond-dollar ratio. The positive correlation is obvious and is evident over much longer periods than the 3-year period covered by this chart.

gold_USBUSD_260617

I hope the above goes at least part of the way towards explaining the components of my gold model.

Print This Post Print This Post

Gold’s True Fundamentals

June 23, 2017

[This post is a modified excerpt from a TSI commentary published a few weeks ago]

To paraphrase Jim Grant, gold’s perceived value in US$ terms is the reciprocal of confidence in the Fed and/or the US economy. Consequently, what I refer to as gold’s true fundamentals are measures of confidence in the Fed and/or the US economy. I’ve been covering these fundamental drivers of the gold price in TSI commentaries for almost 17 years. It doesn’t seem that long, but time flies when you’re having fun.

Note that I use the word “true” to distinguish the actual fundamental drivers of the gold price from the drivers that are regularly cited by gold-market analysts and commentators. According to many pontificators on the gold market, gold’s fundamentals include the volume of metal flowing into the inventories of gold ETFs, China’s gold imports, the volume of gold being transferred out of the Shanghai Futures Exchange inventory, the amount of “registered” gold at the COMEX, India’s monsoon and wedding seasons, jewellery demand, the amount of gold being bought/sold by various central banks, changes in mine production and scrap supply, and wild guesses regarding JP Morgan’s exposure to gold. These aren’t true fundamental price drivers. At best, they are distractions.

In no particular order, the gold market’s six most important fundamental price drivers are the trends in 1) the real interest rate, 2) the yield curve, 3) credit spreads, 4) the relative strength of the banking sector, 5) the US dollar’s exchange rate and 6) commodity prices in general. Even though it creates some duplication, the bond/dollar ratio should also be included.

Until recently I took the above-mentioned price drivers into account to arrive at a qualitative assessment of whether the fundamental backdrop was bullish, bearish or neutral for gold. However, to remove all subjectivity and also to enable changes in the overall fundamental backdrop to be charted over time, I have developed a model that combines the above-mentioned seven influences to arrive at a number that indicates the extent to which the fundamental backdrop is gold-bullish.

Specifically, for each of the seven fundamental drivers/influences I determined the weekly moving average (MA) for which a MA crossover catches the most trend changes in timely fashion with the least number of ‘whipsaws’. It’s a trade-off, because the shorter the MA the sooner it will be crossed following a genuine trend change but the more false trend-change signals it will cause to be generated. I then assign a value of 100 or 0 to the driver depending on whether its position relative to the MA is gold-bullish or gold-bearish. For example, if the yield-curve indicator is ABOVE its pre-determined weekly MA then it will be assigned a value of 100 by the model, because being above the MA points to a steepening yield-curve trend (bullish for gold). Otherwise, it will be zero. For another example, if the real interest rate indicator is BELOW its pre-determined weekly MA then it will be assigned a value of 100 by the model, because being below the MA points to a falling real-interest-rate trend (bullish for gold). Otherwise, it will be zero.

The seven numbers, each of which is either 0 or 100, are then averaged to arrive at a single number that indicates the extent to which the fundamental backdrop is gold-bullish, with 100 indicating maximum bullishness and 0 indicating minimum bullishness (maximum bearishness). The neutral level is 50, but the model’s output will always be either above 50 (bullish) or below 50 (bearish). That’s simply a function of having an odd number of inputs.

Before showing a chart of the Gold True Fundamentals Model (GTFM) it’s worth noting that:

1) The fundamental situation should be viewed as pressure, with a bullish situation putting upward pressure on the price and a bearish situation putting downward pressure on the price. It is certainly possible for the price to move counter to the fundamental pressure for a while, although it’s extremely likely that a large price advance will coincide with the GTFM being in bullish territory most of the time and that a large price decline will coincide with the GTFM being in bearish territory most of the time.

2) The effectiveness of fundamental pressure will be strongly influenced by sentiment (as primarily indicated by the COT data) and relative valuation (as primarily indicated by the gold/commodity ratio). For example, if the fundamental backdrop is bullish and at the same time the gold/commodity ratio is high and the COT data indicate that speculators are aggressively betting on a higher gold price then it is likely that the bullish fundamental backdrop has been factored into the current price and that the remaining upside potential is minimal. The best buying opportunities therefore occur when a bullish fundamental backdrop coincides with pessimistic sentiment and a low gold/commodity ratio.

Getting down to brass tacks, here is a weekly chart comparing the GTFM with the US$ gold price since the beginning of 2011.

GTFM_blog_230617

A positive correlation between the GTFM and the gold price is apparent on the above chart, which, of course, should be the case if the GTFM is a valid model. If you look closely it should also be apparent that the fundamentals (as represented by the GTFM) tend to lead the gold price at important turning points. For example, the GTFM turned down in advance of the gold price during 2011-2012 and turned up in advance of the gold price in 2015 (the GTFM bottomed in mid-2015 whereas the gold price didn’t bottom until December-2015).

The tendency for gold to react to, rather than anticipate, changes in the fundamentals is not a new development, as evidenced by gold’s delayed reaction to a major fundamental change in the late-1970s. I’m referring to the fact that by the second half of 1978 the monetary environment had turned decisively gold-bearish, but the gold price subsequently experienced a massive rally that didn’t culminate until January-1980.

The GTFM was slightly bearish over the past two weeks, but three of the model’s seven components are close to tipping points so it wouldn’t take much from here to bring about a shift into bullish territory or a further shift into bearish territory. The former is the more likely and could occur as soon as today (23rd June).

Print This Post Print This Post