Does the monetary base drive the gold price?

October 10, 2014

Two weeks ago I discussed the claim that the US debt/GDP ratio (the debt of the US federal government divided by US GDP) drove the gold price, with a rising debt/GDP ratio resulting in a higher gold price and a falling debt/GDP ratio resulting in a lower gold price. I explained that the claim was misleading, and that a chart purporting to demonstrate this relationship was both an example of data mining (in this case, cherry-picking a timescale over which the relationship worked while ignoring more relevant timescales over which it didn’t work) and an example of confusing correlation with causation. I also mentioned in passing that there was a similar misleading claim doing the rounds regarding the relationship between gold and the US monetary base (MB). Considering that the failure of the gold price to follow the US MB higher over the past two years is being cited by the usual suspects as evidence of gold-market manipulation, I’ll now briefly address the question: Does the US monetary base drive the gold price?

Those who believe that the answer to the question is “yes” will sometimes show a chart like the one presented below to prove the correctness of their belief. Clearly, if you were armed only with this chart and the conviction that a substantial rise in the US MB should always go hand-in-hand with a rallying gold price, then you would likely take the happenings of the past two years as definitive evidence of artificial gold-price suppression. Of course, you would also have to put aside the fact that the gold price rose 300% from its 2001 low to its early-2008 peak with only a minor increase in the US MB, but this wouldn’t be a problem because it is always easy to come up with a fundamental reason for a large rise in the gold price. It’s only a large price decline that needs to be explained-away by a manipulation theory.

So, is gold’s divergence over the past two years from the on-going rise in the US MB strange or suspicious, such that it can be best explained by market manipulation?

The answer is no. As is the case with the relationship between the gold price and the debt/GDP ratio, the visually-appealing positive correlation of the past several years disappears when the gold-MB relationship is viewed over a much longer timescale. Specifically, the following chart shows that the only period over the past 45 years during which there was a strong positive correlation between the gold price and the monetary base was the three-year period from late-2008 through to late-2011.

I wish that anticipating the performance of the US$ gold price were as easy as monitoring the US monetary base or the Fed’s balance sheet (the monetary base is controlled by the Fed via the expansion/contraction of its balance sheet), but unfortunately the gold market isn’t that simple. The reality is that like a rising debt/GDP ratio, a sharply rising monetary base can be a valid part of a bullish gold story. However, this is 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.

I think that the first leg of the next substantial multi-year rally in the gold price will be linked to the Fed’s efforts to stabilise or contract the monetary base, because these efforts will expose the mal-investments of the past few years.

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How can ‘the Commercials’ be so dumb in the currency market and so smart in the gold market?

October 7, 2014

In June of 2012, when there appeared to be a serious threat that Europe’s monetary union would unravel, the Speculative net-short position and the offsetting Commercial net-long position in euro futures reached an all-time high. The following chart from shows that over the past two months the Speculative net-short and Commercial net-long positions got almost as high as their 2012 extremes, despite the absence of an existential threat to the euro.

The COT situation tells us that euro-related sentiment is ‘in the toilet’ and that there is a lot of speculative-short-covering fuel to power a euro rally. However, the main reason for including this chart is to show that the Speculative net-short and the Commercial net-long positions had already reached unusually high levels in August when the euro was trading at 1.34. This means that the bulk of the euro’s decline occurred AFTER the Commercials became massively net-long in the futures market. The question is: How could the Commercials be so dumb in the currency market and at the same time be so smart in the gold market?

The answer is that the Commercials are neither dumb in the currency market nor smart in the gold market. As I’ve explained in the past, the Commercial net-position in the futures market is simply a mathematical offset of the Speculative net-position, with Speculators being the driving force behind short-term price trends. The Commercials only appear to have been wrong based on their recent positioning in euro futures and right based on their recent positioning in gold futures because euro speculators (as a group) have recently been right and gold speculators (as a group) have recently been wrong.

It is also worth reiterating that the Commercial position in the futures market does not generally reflect the overall Commercial position. For example, a Commercial that is net-short in the futures market could be either flat or net-long when all positions are taken into account. In fact, a Commercial that establishes a large net-short position in the futures market is probably doing so BECAUSE it has a large net-long position to hedge in the cash market.

When the euro’s short-term trend reverses upward, the Speculators will be on the wrong side of the market and the Commercials will start to look right.

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The ECB’s monetary machinations

October 3, 2014

The ECB recently launched a two-pronged attack aimed at boosting bank lending to the private sector. These ‘prongs’ are the TLTRO (Targeted Longer Term Refinancing Operation), which got underway on 18th September, and the ABS (Asset Backed Security) and Covered Bond Purchase Program, which will soon get underway. Will these schemes be successful?

That depends on what constitutes success. The schemes cannot possibly foster economic progress, because creating money and credit out of nothing distorts price signals, redistributes wealth from savers to speculators and generally makes the economy less efficient. So, if success is defined as bringing about a stronger economy then failure is guaranteed. However, if success is defined as increasing the size of the ECB’s balance sheet by 1 trillion euros and adding 1 trillion euros to the money supply, then the schemes will probably, but not necessarily, be successful.

The challenge faced by the ECB as it tries to prod the commercial banks into lending more money to the private sector is the dearth of lending opportunities open to the banks. Due to the after-effects of the credit bubble that blew-up in 2008 and the ensuing years during which wealth was siphoned out of the real economy to prevent the holders of government bonds from suffering any losses (part of what we referred to back in 2010 as “the no bondholder left behind policy”), the euro-zone’s pool of willing and qualified private-sector borrowers has experienced severe shrinkage.

The new ABS purchase program is supposed to encourage the commercial banks to be more aggressive in their search for lending opportunities, in that the ECB is effectively saying “if you securitise it, we will buy it”. In other words, the ECB is effectively saying to the banks: “If you make new loans and bundle the loans into a security that can be sold, then you will definitely have a buyer for the security at an attractive price. You will therefore be able to shift the risk from your balance sheet to our balance sheet.” The extent to which the commercial banks will take advantage of this ‘generous’ offer is unknown.

The new ABS purchase program appears to have a better chance than the TLTRO of promoting increased bank lending to the private sector. The reason is that the ABS program enables banks to shift the risk of loan default to someone else (to the ECB and ultimately to tax-payers throughout the euro-zone), whereas the TLTRO is supposed to encourage banks to add risk to their own balance sheets. The TLTRO could still work, though, because the senior managements of banks are often guided by the same type of short-term thinking as most politicians. Just like the average politician is focused on doing/saying whatever it takes to win the next election, the average bank CEO is focused on doing whatever it takes to make the next quarterly and annual earnings reports look good.

Some analysts and commentators are concerned that the ECB’s new money-and-credit creation schemes won’t do enough to bring about the “inflation” that — according to their crackpot theories — the euro-zone needs. Therefore, they believe that the ECB should resort to Fed-style QE (outright large-scale monetisation of government bonds). This prompts me to address the question: Why hasn’t the ECB resorted to Fed-style QE? After all, it is blatantly obvious that Mario Draghi is as ignorant about economics as his Federal Reserve counterpart.

It’s first worth noting that the ECB does not appear to be facing a legal obstacle to the sort of QE programs implemented by the Fed. The ECB is legally prohibited from buying government bonds directly from any euro-zone government, but it is able to buy government bonds in the secondary market. In this respect it is in the same boat as the Fed. Like the ECB, the Fed is legally prohibited from buying US Treasury bonds directly from the US government, but it can buy as many Treasury bonds as it wants from Primary Dealers.

Rather than being legally constrained, the ECB appears to be politically constrained. Whereas some euro-zone governments and national central banks would be in favour of a full-blown QE program, other euro-zone governments and central banks, most notably the German government and the Bundesbank, would be very much against it. That’s why the ECB is coming up with half-measures. At this stage Draghi & Co. can’t get approval for the large-scale monetisation of government bonds, but they can get approval for a monetisation program that will supposedly result in additional credit to private businesses.

Lastly, if the ECB is determined to add 1 trillion euros to its balance sheet and the money supply over the coming 12 months then it will almost certainly find a way of doing so. If the ABS purchase program and the TLTRO don’t do the trick, then some other method will be concocted.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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