Gold: Contagion

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Despite the possible breakup of the EU, there’s a certain degree of complacency and denial over the political gridlock and lack of leadership on both sides of the ocean. The respite in the euro-crisis lasted only a few months and Europe sits on the edge of collapse after almost two years of political rhetoric and last minute summits. The threat of a Greek exit and escalating borrowing costs in Spain has revived fears of a financial contagion threatening the credibility and viability of the European banking system.

Most of the eurozone’s banks remain on life support and are overexposed to their respective markets and sovereign entities. The IMF itself has had to top up its balance sheet. European policymakers are calling for more austerity, amid signs that its banking system has gone through the last bailout and is in need of more funds. Simply, the fundamental problems were not resolved by the bailouts. The rescue packages merely transferred enormous private liabilities unto the sovereign entities, and their debt load is far too high. Debt on debt does not work.

The Americans too spent more than $3 trillion to bailout Wall Street and debt today is a staggering 100 percent of their gross domestic product. The US consumer already saddled with almost $3 trillion of debt, is a no show in this growth scenario. The federal deficit this year will exceed $1 trillion for the fourth consecutive year in a row. Yet still, money comes into the United States. The threat of the EU unraveling has caused a “dash for cash”, with funds once again piling into US government debt, an even weaker sovereign credit whose debt load is greater than combined debt of the entire eurozone and United Kingdom. Left unsaid is the United States is not too big to fail.

u.s. government debt exceeds entire euro zone and uk combinedThe United States has avoided the European budget cuts because the upcoming presidential election is yet another opportunity for policymakers to forestall making decisions. Mr. Obama’s budget was defeated by both Houses, in a rare show of bipartisan unity making it more than a year without budgetary approval. Then there is the federal debt heading for what Chairman Ben Bernanke calls “a massive fiscal cliff”, when the Bush tax cuts expire and $1.2 of trillion automatic spending cuts hit in January. One party wants tax increases and the other cuts in spending but neither side is looking for compromises or solutions. Instead Mr. Obama tried to impose the “Buffett Rule” which would do very little to erase his budgetary deficit but instead focused attention on the rich. The problem is that leadership is lacking, and while politicians on both sides of the pond are fiddling, the confidence and basic integrity of the world’s financial system is at risk.

Austerity Versus Spending

Meanwhile the political backlash against austerity escalated with the Spanish banking crisis and the election of Socialist Francois Hollande. The pattern is repeating itself right across Europe. To date, seven of seventeen EU leaders have been replaced. Although France shifted to the left, it is not even left versus right, but that French voters were tired like others of being lied to over the biggest of all bailouts which bailed out the bankers leaving voters with the price tag. Indeed these politicians could end up with the fate of the former Icelandic Prime Minister Geirhardt, who was the only politician found guilty of failing to act to avert the 2008 financial crisis.

However, it is not even about growth or austerity. In the past, spending cuts would bring austerity. Not necessarily so since Canada grew despite a cut in spending. President Reagan showed that cutting taxes could also spur growth. Yet politicians today would have us believe that notwithstanding record debt levels across the western world, what is needed is more spending and of course more debt. Slowly Germany and its austerity mantra is being isolated. Similarly one by one, the ratings of the cash strapped eurozone countries are being reduced, with France downgraded to A- from Standard and Poors. Standard Poors also downgraded Spain’s sovereign credit rating by two notches. In 2008, Spain like France enjoyed AAA ratings. Standard and Poors’ concern about the unraveling of the continent is also matched by concerns over Britain which has slipped into another recession. At 89 percent of GDP, Britain indebtedness remains at risk. Should Greece leave the eurozone, it would almost certainly trigger capital controls and a financial contagion threatening the existence of the EU itself.

We believe austerity might have a chance if it wasn’t accompanied by bailouts to the financial predators. Sadly, calling for growth is “code” for more government handouts. If deficit spending was the solution, Spain and Greece would be booming. Rather than get their fiscal houses in order, politicians instead are promoting an illusion of growth of more government spending paid by taxing the so-called rich in a politics of blame. None of this solves the problem of too much debt and deficit spending. Indeed that is what’s behind President Obama’s class warfare which is an ideological war without borders. The advocates of stimulus talk of redistribution is really an illusion of growth without consequences.

Austerity has thus given way to a “policy du jour” of growth as politicians try and sell taxpayers this potent snake oil medicine.

Hey Big Spender

too big to fail 10 year govt. bond yield 2012But let’s look more closely at this so-called growth solution which calls for the state to grow even more. Greece already spends 50.1 percent of GDP. Germany? The author of austerity spent 47 percent of GDP. France is a bigger spender, spending some 56 percent of GDP and also has the highest tax rates. Yet their economy is still in a funk. Mr. Hollande proposes to boost taxes even higher. It is not about austerity, it’s about endless spending. But if governments can’t increase spending, could they boost consumption? That is something that Obama tried, giving everybody cash to buy solar panels, cars in an ill-fated “cars for clunkers” scheme and “shovel ready” projects. The economy received a short term jolt but there was no long term impact. And of course no investment or wealth was created. Unemployment is still high despite billions going into infrastructure spending. The economy remains mired in a Japanese-style funk with weak demand amid the housing boom and bust of yesteryear. Or then there is the example of profligate Ontario with a $16 billion deficit deciding to cap spending by targeting its doctors and teachers, and still the rating agencies downgraded Ontario because the so-called caps were just more or less guidance.

There is simply no alternative to austerity. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it. The consequences of deleveraging are long lasting and possible severe. Austerity must shape the economic environment and policy decisions, no matter the political stripe. Spending, whether it is deficit spending or not, is illusory. Someone has to pay the bills, and the taxpayer is the only backstop for governments today. Gold is a good thing to have.

The Pain in Spain

Spain’s teetering financial system and a run on Greek banks have focused attention on the clear and present danger of the under-capitalised banking system. Bank reform has given way to concern over the financial integrity of the banking system. At issue is who is to take the necessary haircuts and provide the capital to the struggling and cash strapped banks that filled the void in the last bailout. The history of sovereign debt and banking crises has taught us that nationalization of the banks leads to disastrous consequences as Dublin’s mistake showed the folly when sovereign nations take on mammoth private obligations. According to the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), lenders in German, France and the UK hold some $1.19 trillion of claims on Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, The French banks alone have more than $50 billion exposure to the Greeks. The dilemma is similar to when Obama rescued Wall Street after the mortgage debacle in 2008. Trillions later, we are back to square one. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Not Too Big To Fail

Of more concern, is the health of central banks’ surrogates like the financial engineers and alchemists who were incentivized with cheap money to arbitrage sovereign debts using derivatives. The big investment banks and hedge funds are the same group that lobbied hard to keep the casino-like over-the-counter market in credit derivatives unregulated. The Bank for International Settlements’ estimate for derivatives is some $600 trillion or ten times the size of the global economy. Greece’s departure from the eurozone alone would impact some $500 billion of foreign liabilities. Default fears have already spooked the market.

The unholy combination of bailouts and banking led to a symbiotic relationship with the banking system dependent upon central bank policy, leaving the industry undercapitalized today. To fill the financing gap, many resorted to trading their capital using structured products like derivatives. At yearend, four US banks, Citibank, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan accounted for 94 percent of all outstanding trading derivatives or some $217 trillion. The banks went from simple hedging programs like selling forward gold reserves to protection from country defaults using insurance which morphed into risky esoteric products providing big profits and big bonuses. There’s more. Trading revenues soon became larger than lending revenues.

To hedge their massive European credit portfolio, JP Morgan, the world’s largest derivative player, took a whale sized $2 billion mark to market loss causing a loss of over $20 billion in JP Morgan’s market cap. That these financial derivatives (CDS in particular) could damage another firm less than four years after the demise of Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers shows the need for the Volcker Rule and the re-imposition of the Glass Steagall Act which separated the investment and commercial banks in 1933. The last time credit default swaps were in the headlines was the housing debacle in 2008 when the global financial system was similarly on the brink of destruction. Then JP Morgan lost $9 billion and in March 2008, took over the remnants of Bear Stearns. JP Morgan’s loss points to the inherent risks of these complex and largely unfettered derivatives. Even worse, JP Morgan’s problems mirror that of the wider global financial system.

Inflation Is Back

In flooding the world with ever cheaper currencies, central bankers in essence devalue and pay down that debt with diminished purchasing power. Inflation thus works its magic through depreciating currencies, reduces the purchasing power giving money an illusion of wealth. Inflation penalizes savers but helps borrowers like sovereign debtors and bankers. What policymakers and politicians miss then is that savers can always transfer wealth to more secure and less tax sheltered areas. Targeting the rich means that the rich will just simply move wealth rather than allow it to be destroyed by inflation or politicians.

So the inflation of debt is simply the lesser of all evils. In the inflationary seventies, gold reached $850 an ounce as the prices of goods and services exploded. Inflation was stopped by Chairman Volcker. And then twenty years later, the prices for financial assets skyrocketed to bubble levels which was ended of course by defaulting mortgages and the near collapse of Wall Street in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Today, we have had a decade rise in the inflation of hard assets at the expense of financial assets. Gold reached $1950 an ounce and has been up for eleven years in row. Yet the Fed and its central bank counterparts keep creating credit by purchasing government securities with newly minted dollars, euros, or yen. Through these purchases, the Fed keeps interest rates low, bidding up both bond prices and the prices of hard assets. And the Fed has become a significant buyer of debt, purchasing some 75 percent of US Treasuries last year because there were no other buyers. Today what ballasts the Fed’s balance sheet and US monetary system is debt.

Consequently the greenback is fast losing its role as the world’s currency except for Asia where there are a huge accumulation of dollars. However China, once the largest holder of Treasuries has slipped to number two behind the US Treasury as it diversifies its huge $3.2 trillion of foreign reserves. The Bank of China recently suggested that the dollar be replaced as the world’s currency by a basket of currencies and to underline that point, China has diversified by buying oil, gold and even euros. In turn, other central banks have shifted from the dollar with twelve central banks buying gold last month. With the risk of the dollar losing its reserve status, there is no question that alternatives are becoming more attractive.

Gold Is Money

Despite the recent pullback in gold, we believe the case for higher prices remain in place. We remain bullish as ever. Gold is not consumed and is a traditional destination for risk averse investors. Despite Warren Buffett’s musings, it protects wealth. Gold has been accepted as a medium of exchange for well over four thousand years, outlasting governments, various fiat money systems and monetary standards. The break-up of the euro would not be the first or even last ( the last time was the Russian breakup in 1992). Gold simply is the ultimate store of value in both good and the worst of times.

Historically gold was money, protecting purchasing power particularly when there was massive fiat paper dilution. Today it is the creation of too much money and loss of store of value that is the heart of the problem. Central banks originally were supposed to be stewards of money but over the last few decades have become creators of money, that has the diluted the purchasing power of currencies. These central banks were forced to print money in order to allow their over-spending profligate governments to live beyond their means.

At the heart of this system is the battle between the fiat system of paper money versus gold. The world was on a gold standard until Bretton Woods in 1944 when gold was fixed at $35 per ounce. Then the gold system gave way to a dollar system and successive presidents paid for tax cuts and the Vietnam War but had spent so much that in 1971, President Nixon closed the gold window officially making the dollar the world’s reserve currency. And, to pay for those bills, Nixon devalued the dollar, giving way to runaway inflation that Fed Chairman Volcker stopped by ratcheting interest rates to double digit levels. Gold hit $850 an ounce. And similarly, the ultimate creators of money, the Fed and other central banks have today paid for the collapse of Wall Street, successive quantitative easing programmes and EU bailouts with trillions of paper currency. If one superimposes the creation of derivatives, we have a forty year global monetary system awash with paper currencies backed largely by the debt issued by the same banks that created this paper. We continue to believe this time, gold will reach $3,000 an ounce.

Despite hundreds of millions spent on worldwide exploration, new mine production remains flat. China is the world’s largest producer but the majority of its mines are open pit and thus of limited life. On the demand side, strong investment demand from central banks, ETFs and investors continues. In total, central banks are the among largest holders with some 33,000 tonnes of about 175,000 tonnes of above ground supplies. However, we estimate that the top dozen gold producers hold almost 23,000 tonnes of in-situ of reserves in the ground, equivalent to almost 80 percent of central banks reserves today. Those reserves are valued at less than $400 an ounce, an overly large discount to the gold price believe and thus are the cheapest ounces and only meaningful source of new supplies. Gold stocks anyone?

Gold Is the Antidote to the World’s Problems

Gold currently is second after dollars in the total international monetary system and the only commodity held by central banks as money. Financial panics are all too common today because the 40 year global monetary system is broke with trillions of obligations and soaring debt to gross domestic product ratios which are funded increasingly by central banks instead of the private sector. Debt loads have become simply unsustainable. With governments keeping real interest rates at near zero levels after deducting the inflation rate, real interest rates are negative which is always bullish for gold. Gold is a good thing to have.

Needed today is a standard that everybody can trust. The gold standard survived because it controlled money supply and governments. A new currency system based on gold and a basket of new currencies is thus inevitable. But to be sure, all countries will need some sort of gold based standard in order to stop this blind creation of credit. China produced 360 tonnes of gold last year, however, China will consume almost 1,000 tonnes this year. China is a believer in self-sufficiency and we believe that despite slower growth, China will be adding to its modest reserves of 1,054 tonnes or 1.8 percent of their reserves which compares to the 10 percent average of most major economies. The Bank of China last announced an increase in its gold reserves over two years ago and is believed to be quietly accumulating gold. While China is the largest producer in the world, it only holds the world’s fifth largest gold reserve. We believe that China has a target of 4,000 tonnes or more than two years of world production. Backing the yuan with gold would be a big step towards making the yuan a major international currency.

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About John R Ing