How the fundamental backdrop could turn bullish for gold

December 16, 2016

Here is an excerpt from a TSI commentary that was published about a week ago.

A cottage industry has developed around manipulation-focused gold commentary. In this industry, gold’s price changes are portrayed as the outcome of a never-ending battle between the forces of good and evil, with the evil side constantly trying to beat the price down and the good side constantly buying or holding. Also, in the world imagined by this industry the fundamental backdrop is always gold-bullish. The implication is that all price rises are in accordance with the fundamentals and all price declines are contrary to the fundamentals and likely the result of manipulation by the forces of evil.

In the real world, however, the fundamentals are always in a state of flux — sometimes bullish, sometimes bearish, and sometimes mixed/neutral. Furthermore, our experience has been that gold tracks fundamental developments more closely/accurately than any other market.

When the gold price was topping in July-August of this year, the fundamental backdrop wasn’t gold-bearish; it was neutral. The ‘fundamentals’ therefore didn’t signal a top, but they did indicate that additional gains in the gold price would not have been fundamentally-supported and would therefore have required a further ramp-up in speculative buying.

From early-July through to early-November the ‘true fundamentals’ shifted between being neutral to being slightly-bearish for gold and then back again (we thought they were slightly bearish from mid-September through to mid-October and otherwise neutral). They turned bearish, however, a couple of days after the US Presidential Election and since around mid-November have been their most bearish in at least three years.

The fundamental backdrop is now definitively gold-bearish because we have a) real interest rates in an upward trend and at a 6-month high in the US, b) US credit spreads immersed in a major contraction (indicating rising economic confidence), c) dramatic relative strength in bank stocks (indicating sharply-rising confidence in the banking/financial system), and d) the Dollar Index in a strong upward trend and near a multi-year high. Given these conditions, any analyst/commentator who is now claiming that the ‘fundamentals’ are bullish for gold is either clueless about gold’s true fundamentals or is trying to promote an agenda.

That’s the situation today, but the situation will change. In broad-brushed terms, here are the two most likely ways that the situation could change to become supportive of an intermediate-term gold rally:

1) Rising inflation expectations

US inflation expectations have been rising since 11th February and have been rising at a quickened pace since late-September, but since Trump’s election victory the rate of increase in nominal interest rates has exceeded the rate of increase in inflation expectations. This has brought about a rise in REAL interest rates.

In effect, over the past month economic growth expectations have risen faster than inflation expectations. This doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the plans of the Trump Administration, but when speculating in the financial markets we must deal with ‘what is’ rather than ‘what should be’.

It’s certainly possible that at some point over the next few months the markets will figure out that the combined plans of the US government and the Fed will lead to more “price inflation” than economic growth, resulting in a relatively fast increase in inflation expectations. As well as causing real interest rates to fall, this would result in a weaker US$ and a further steepening of the yield curve. All told, it would result in the fundamental backdrop becoming gold-bullish.

2) A banking crisis in Europe

The major banks around the world are intimately and intricately connected via their massive derivative books, so a banking crisis that began in Europe would not remain confined to Europe. It would lead to concerns about the profitability of US banks, which, in turn, would lead to relative weakness in bank stocks and a general shift towards safety. Interest rates on Treasury debt would fall faster than inflation expectations, resulting in a lower real interest rate in the US. Also, short-term interest rates would fall relative to long-term interest rates due to a flight to liquidity and the market beginning to anticipate a shift in the Fed’s stance, resulting in a steepening of the yield curve. The overall effect would be a fundamental backdrop that was gold-bullish.

Either of the above could happen within the next few months, but neither is happening now.

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The second most overbought market since 1980

December 13, 2016

By one measure, the Dow Industrials Index is now at its second-most ‘overbought’ level since 1980. The measure I’m referring to is the 14-day RSI (Relative Strength Index), a short-term momentum oscillator shown in the bottom section of the following Dow chart.

Dow_LT_121216

Being the most something-or-other (the most overbought/oversold, optimistic/pessimistic, etc.) since a distant past time often isn’t as important as it sounds. For instance, the only time since 1980 that the Dow’s daily RSI(14) was as high as it is today was in November of 1996 (interestingly, almost exactly 20 years ago), but nothing dramatic happened during the days, weeks or months that followed the November-1996 momentum extreme.

As illustrated below, a pullback to the 50-day moving average (MA) got underway within a few days of the momentum extreme, after which the Dow resumed its long-term advance. There was a more significant short-term pullback (to the 200-day MA) a few months later and an intermediate-term correction a few months after that (more than 8 months after the momentum extreme), but the bull market continued for another 3 years.

Dow_1996_121216

A short-term momentum extreme occurred at the price peak that was followed by the October-1987 stock market crash, but it is a lot more common for such extremes to be followed by nothing more serious than a routine multi-week correction. With measures of market breadth pointing to a 6-12 month extension of the bull market we probably won’t get anything more bearish than a routine multi-week correction within the next couple of months, although I admit that the near-vertical rally since the Presidential Election has me ‘on edge’.

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An Australian gold producer sells high and buys low

December 9, 2016

Blackham Resources (BLK.AX), a junior gold producer that has just begun to ramp-up production at a newly-commissioned mine in Western Australia, reported something interesting earlier this week. Having forward-sold about half of next year’s expected gold production a few months ago when the gold price was near its highs for the year, the company recently took advantage of gold’s price decline by closing-out the bulk of its forward sales. It did so by purchasing gold and delivering it into the forward sales contracts, thus realising a cash profit of A$6.3M.

In other words, having sold high during May-September, BLK’s management turned around and bought low over the past couple of weeks. Sell high, buy low. Sounds like a good strategy to me. More gold producers should try it.

gold_A$_081216

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The problem is a single central bank, not a single currency

December 5, 2016

The euro-zone appears to be on target for another banking crisis during 2017. Also, the stage is set for political upheaval in some European countries, a general worsening of economic conditions throughout Europe and widening of the already-large gaps between the performances of the relatively-strong and relatively-weak European economies. It’s a virtual certainty that as was the case in reaction to earlier crises/recessions, blame for the bad situation will wrongly be heaped on Europe’s experiment with a common currency.

The idea that economically and/or politically disparate countries can’t use a common currency without sowing the seeds for major problems is just plain silly. It is loosely based on the fallacy that economic problems can be solved by currency depreciation. According to this line of thinking, countries such as Italy and Greece could recover if only they were using a currency that they could devalue at will. (Note: The destructiveness of the currency devaluation ‘solution’ was covered in a previous blog post.)

The fact is that economically and politically disparate countries throughout the world successfully used a common currency for centuries up to quite recently (in the grand scheme of things). The currency was called gold.

The problem isn’t the euro; it’s the European Central Bank (ECB). To put it another way, the problem isn’t that a bunch of different countries are using a common currency; it’s that a central planning agency is attempting to impose the same monetary policy across a bunch of different countries.

A central planning agency imposing monetary policy within a single country is bad enough, in that it generates false price signals, foments investment bubbles that inevitably end painfully, and reduces the rate of long-term economic progress. The Federal Reserve, for example, has wreaked havoc in the US over the past 15 years, first setting the scene for the collapse of 2007-2009 and then both getting in the way of a genuine recovery and setting the scene for the next collapse. However, when monetary policy (the combination of interest-rate and money-supply manipulations) is implemented across several economically-diverse countries, the resulting imbalances grow and become troublesome more quickly. That’s why Europe is destined to suffer a monetary collapse well ahead of the US.

It should be kept in mind that money is supposed to be neutral — a medium of exchange and a yardstick, not a tool for economic manipulation. 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, a common currency makes international trading and investing more efficient. In particular, eliminating foreign-exchange commissions, hedging costs and the losses that are incurred due to unpredictable exchange-rate fluctuations would free-up resources that could be put to more productive uses.

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 more obvious in the euro-zone.

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Every central bank wants a weaker US$

December 2, 2016

This post is an excerpt from a recent TSI commentary.

Every central bank in the world, including the US Federal Reserve, now wants a weaker US$, which proves that central banks can be overwhelmed by market forces even when they are united in their goals.

Central banks outside the US want a weaker US$ due to the long-term consequences of the actions that they themselves took many years ago to strengthen the US$. To put it another way, they now want to strengthen their own currencies against the US$ because their economies are suffering from the inevitable ill-effects of the currency-depreciation policies implemented at an earlier time. As discussed in the past, currency depreciation/devaluation is always counter-productive because it “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.” It is still a very popular policy, though, because at a superficial level — the level at which most economists and all central bankers operate — it seems practical.

Unfortunately for the central banks that are now trying to prop-up their currencies relative to the US$, a central bank’s ability to weaken its currency is much greater than its ability to bring about currency strength. The reason is that weakening a currency can usually be achieved by increasing its supply, and if there is one thing that central banks are good at it’s creating money out of nothing. Actually, creating money out of nothing, and, in the process, engaging all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, is the ONLY thing they are good at.

The problem they are now facing is that once confidence in the currency has been lost, bringing about currency strength or at least a semblance of stability will generally require either a very long period of politically-unpopular monetary prudence or a deflationary depression. There is no quick-and-easy way to obtain the desired result.

The crux of the matter is that there is very little that central banks outside the US can now do in the short-term to stop the US$ from rising. The best they can do is to NOT inflate. Other than that, they should simply avoid the temptation to ‘do something’ and instead just wait for the current trends to exhaust themselves.

The US central bank also wants a weaker US$. This is because the senior members of the Fed operate at the same superficial level as their counterparts throughout the world. They see the direct, short-term positives that a weaker currency would bring to some parts of the economy, but are incapable of seeing the broader, longer-term and indirect negatives.

The difference is that the Fed actually has the power to create short-term weakness in the US$. It could, for example, surprise the world by not hiking its targeted interest rate in December. That would knock the Dollar Index down by at least a couple of points. To build on the decline it could then start emphasising the sluggishness of US industrial production and dropping hints that another QE program is coming.

Doing so would, however, be a reckless course of action even by Keynesian standards. The US dollar’s upward trend would be over, but at the cost of a total loss of credibility on the part of the Fed and breathtaking instability in the financial markets.

Once lost, confidence is difficult for a central bank to regain. The Fed is therefore now backed into a corner where for the sake of appearances it will have to take small steps in the direction of tighter monetary policy, even though it would prefer a weaker US$.

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An economy can’t be modeled by simple equations

November 29, 2016

A modern economy typically involves millions of individuals making decisions about consumption, production and investment based on a myriad of personal preferences. It should be obvious that such a ‘system’ could never be properly described by any mathematical equation, let alone a simple one-line equation. And yet, many economists and other commentators on economics-related matters base their analyses on simple equations.

One of the most popular of these simple equations is also one of the most misleading. I’m referring to the following GDP formula:

GDP = C + I + G + X – Z, where C is consumer expenditure, I is investment, G is government expenditure, X is exports, and Z is imports.

This equation has numerous problems, beginning with the fact that GDP, itself, is a fatally-flawed measure of economic performance in that it treats a dollar of counter-productive spending as if it were just as good as a dollar of productive spending. In essence, it measures activity without considering whether the activity adds to or subtracts from total wealth. But rather than dealing with all of this equation’s problems, I’ll zoom in on its implication that an economy can be boosted via an increase in government spending (G). This implication is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.

Government spending involves taking (stealing or borrowing) money that would have been used by the private sector and then directing the money towards politically-motivated, as opposed to economically-motivated, uses.

Even if we put aside the most basic problems with the GDP concept and the above equation, there’s no good reason to believe that an increase in G will lead to an increase in GDP. This is because C, I and G are not independent variables. In particular, since the government obtains all of its resources from the private sector it is reasonable to expect that an increase in G would lead to an offsetting reduction in C+I. Furthermore, this reasonable expectation is supported by historical data, which reveal a long-term inverse correlation between government-spending growth and GDP growth.

Moving on, another of the most popular of the economics profession’s simple equations is also misleading. I’m referring to the famous equation of exchange, which can be expressed as M*V = P*Q where M is the money supply, V is the velocity of money, Q is the total quantity of transactions in the economy and P is the average price per transaction.

There are numerous problems with this equation, starting with the fact that it says nothing other than the total monetary value of all transactions in the economy equals the total monetary value of all transactions in the economy. In other words, it’s a tautology. As such, it provides no useful information.

In this tautological equation, V (velocity) is nothing more than a fudge factor that makes one side equal to the other side. V doesn’t exist outside of this equation, meaning that it has no relationship to the real world.

In the real world there is money supply and there is money demand. There is no “money velocity”. It makes no more sense to talk about the velocity of money than it does to talk about the velocity of gold or the velocity of bonds or the velocity of bananas or the velocity of houses.

Some of the people who talk about “money velocity” as if it were a genuine economic driver probably mean “money demand”, in which case they should say “money demand”. Money demand is certainly both real and important, but it can’t be calculated via a simple equation.

For more on the Equation of Exchange and the irrelevance of Money Velocity, please refer to my June-2015 blog post on the topic.

In conclusion, when a piece of analysis treats equations such as the ones mentioned above as if they were realistic models of how the economy works, at a superficial level it can make the analysis seem more scientific. However, it actually makes the analysis less scientific.

Using mathematical models that don’t reflect reality is part of why the economics profession has such a dismal track record and is generally held in low regard.

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Which of these markets is wrong?

November 23, 2016

The US$ oil price and the Canadian Dollar (C$) have tracked each other closely over the past 2 years. When divergences have happened they have always been eliminated within a couple of months, usually by the oil market falling into line with the currency market.

In a 25th May blog post I wrote that an interesting divergence had developed over the preceding few weeks between these markets, with the C$ having turned downward at the beginning of May and the oil price having continued to rise. This suggested that either the currency market was wrong or the oil market was wrong. As I stated at the time, my money was on the oil market being wrong. In other words, I expected the divergence to be eliminated via a decline in the oil price.

The oil price was $49 at the time. Over the ensuing two weeks it moved a little higher (to $51) and then dropped by 20% within the space of two months. The result was that by early-August the gap between the oil price and the C$ had been fully closed.

The oil price and the C$ then traded in line with each other for about 6 weeks before another divergence began to develop. Again it was the oil market showing more strength than was justified by the currency market, and by early-October it was again likely that there would be a gap-closing decline in the oil price.

As expected, there was a significant decline in the oil price from mid-October through to early-November. However, the following chart shows that the gap was only partially eliminated and that a rebound in the oil price over the past 1-2 weeks has potentially set the stage for another significant gap-closing move.

I won’t be surprised if the oil price trades a bit higher within the coming two weeks, but my guess is that it will drop to the $30s within the coming three months.

oil_C$_221116

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Where did all the money go?

November 21, 2016

The prices of US government debt securities have been falling since early-July and plunged over the past two weeks. This prompts the question: Where did all the money that came out of the bond market go?

It’s a trick question, because not a single dollar has left the bond market. The reason is that for every sale there has been an exactly offsetting purchase. For example, if Bill sells $100M of T-Bonds, then $100M of cash gets transferred from the account of the buyer (let’s call him Fred) to Bill’s account. After the transaction, Bill has $100M more cash and $100M less bonds while Fred has $100M less cash and $100M more bonds. There has been no net flow of money out of or into the bond market.

In general terms, no money ever goes into or out of any market. A market, after all, is just a place where people go to trade. A market can grow or shrink, but it is not an entity that receives or disgorges money. Furthermore, every transaction in a market involves an increase in demand and an exactly offsetting decrease in demand. For example, in the case of the hypothetical bond traders mentioned above, the transaction involved an increase in the demand for bonds on the part of Fred and an exactly offsetting decrease in the demand for bonds on the part of Bill. Or, looking at it from a different angle, it involved an increase in the demand for money on the part of Bill and an exactly offsetting decrease in the demand for money on the part of Fred.

Related to the fact that no money ever goes into or out of any market is the fact that apart from a relatively small physical float, all of the money in the economy is always in the banking system*. It just gets shuffled around between the accounts of buyers and sellers. This, by the way, is why the “cash on the sidelines” argument that is regularly made to support a bullish stock market forecast is nonsense. In effect, all of the money in the economy is always on the sidelines.

Why, then, do market prices rise and fall?

Market prices rise and fall because one side (the buyers or the sellers) become more eager than the other side. If buyers are generally more eager than sellers then the price will rise by the amount required to encourage enough new sellers and/or discourage enough buyers so that a balance is established, whereas if sellers are generally more eager than buyers then the price will fall by the amount required to encourage enough new buyers and/or discourage enough sellers to establish a balance.

That’s why it sometimes happens that the prices of ‘everything’ (equities, bonds, gold, commodities) trend upward or downward together. One price doesn’t have to go down in order for another price to go up, and prices in one market going down will never be the direct cause of prices in another market going up. Although it is certainly the case that rising/falling prices in one market can alter the motivations of buyers and sellers in another market. The price of gold, for example, is determined mostly by what’s happening to prices in the bond, currency and stock markets.

Clearly, then, US government bond prices have fallen simply because, on average, bond sellers over the past few months have been more eager/motivated than bond buyers, not because any money has come out of the bond market. The reason for the change in motivation is a good topic for a separate post.

*If governments and banks get their way, at some point in the not-too-distant future there will be no physical float and 100% of the money supply will be in the banking system.

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Gold and the Real Interest Rate

November 16, 2016

The real interest rate is one of gold’s true fundamentals, with a rising real interest rate exerting downward pressure on the gold price and a falling real interest rate exerting upward pressure on the gold price. However, it is important to keep in mind that the real interest rate is just one of several fundamental drivers of the gold price.

Due to the relationship between gold and the real interest rate, the gold price will often trend in the opposite direction to the 10-year TIPS yield. This is because the TIPS yield is a practical, albeit not theoretically correct, proxy for the real interest rate. For example, the sharp rise in the TIPS yield between March and November of 2008 (Period A on the following chart) coincided with a substantial downward correction in the gold price, and the multi-year decline in the TIPS yield from its November-2008 peak coincided with a powerful upward trend in the gold price.

Note, though, that the downward trend in the TIPS yield continued until September of 2012 whereas the gold price peaked in September of 2011. The period of divergence is labeled “B” on the following chart.

That the gold price stopped trending with the real interest rate for 12 months beginning in September of 2011 is related to the real interest rate being only one of several (six, to be specific) fundamental drivers of the gold price*. Other fundamental price drivers turned bearish during the second half of 2011 or the first half of 2012, thus counteracting the bullish influence of the declining real interest rate. That being said, substantial weakness in the gold price didn’t show up until after the real interest rate began to trend upward.

The real interest rate reached its post-2011 peak in December of 2015 — at around the same time that the Fed made its initial rate hike. The December-2015 downward reversal in the real interest rate marked the start of an intermediate-term rally in the gold price.

The most recent low in the real interest rate occurred in early-July (the end of Period C on the following chart) and coincided almost to the day with gold’s price top.

TIPSyield_LT_151116

Prior to the Trump election victory there was no way of knowing whether the choppy sideways move in the real interest rate since early-July was a ‘pause for breath’ within a continuing downward trend or the start of a new upward trend. Prior to last week I therefore viewed this particular gold-market fundamental as neutral. It had stopped being a tailwind, but it hadn’t become a headwind.

The next chart shows that one consequence of last week’s post-election volatility was an upside breakout by the 10-year TIPS yield from its 4-month range. This means that the ‘real interest rate’ has temporarily become a headwind for gold.

TIPSyield_ST_151116

The TIPS yield is just one of six true fundamental drivers of the US$ gold price, but the post-election shift in this one indicator tipped (no pun intended) the overall fundamental balance from neutral to slightly-bearish for gold. This won’t prevent a multi-week rebound in the gold price, but the next major rally won’t begin until the fundamental backdrop has become more supportive.

*The other fundamental drivers of the gold price are the US yield curve (as indicated by the 10yr-2yr yield spread), credit spreads (as indicated by the IEF/HYG ratio), the relative strength of the banking sector (as indicated by the BKX/SPX ratio), the US dollar’s exchange rate and the overall trend for commodity prices.

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Update on the Comex fear-mongering

November 7, 2016

Over the past few years there has been a lot of irrational fear-mongering within the gold commentariat regarding the potential for the Comex to default due to having insufficient physical gold in its coffers. I most recently addressed this topic in a post on 6th May.

I’m not going to repeat all the information contained in earlier posts such as the one linked above. However, here’s a very brief recap:

1) The ratio of Comex Open Interest (OI) to “Registered” gold inventory that Zero Hedge et al employed to create the impression of high default risk was not, in any way, shape or form, a valid indicator of such risk.

2) The amount of gold available for delivery at any time is the TOTAL amount of gold in the “Registered” and “Eligible” categories, not just the amount of “Registered” gold, since it is a quick and easy process to convert between “Eligible” and “Registered”.

3) The maximum amount of gold that can be demanded for delivery is the amount of OI in the nearest futures contract, not the total OI across all futures contracts.

In the above-linked post I included a chart showing that the amount of gold delivered to futures ‘longs’ over the preceding two years was much less in both absolute and relative terms than at any other time over the past decade. The chart made it clear that as the gold price fell, the desire of futures traders to ‘stop’ a contract and take delivery of physical gold also fell.

This meant that the unusually-small amount of gold in the “Registered” category was almost certainly related to an unusually-low desire on the part of futures ‘longs’ to take delivery. To put it another way, the unusually-small amount of gold in the “Registered” category was nothing more than a natural consequence of bearish sentiment.

Here was my conclusion at that time:

It’s a good bet that if a multi-year gold rally began last December (I think it did) then the desire to take delivery will increase over the next couple of years, prompting a larger amount of gold to be held in the Registered category.

Finally, here are charts from goldchartsrus.com showing that this year’s strength in the gold price led to 1) an increase in the desire of futures ‘longs’ to take delivery and 2) a related and substantial increase in the amount of “Registered” gold.

Exactly as expected.

gold_COMEXdeliv_071116

RegisteredGoldStock_071116

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