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Archive for the 'Gold' Category

A Return to the Gold Standard?

Nov. 21st 2010

In my last post, I explored the possibility that the role of the Chinese Yuan (CNY) will expand to the point that it could rival – or even overtake – the US Dollar as the world’s preeminent reserve currency. Ultimately, I concluded that the constraints on widespread foreign ownership of CNY assets are too great, and that as a result, the Dollar’s position is safe for the time being. What about the notion that all currencies are doomed? In this case, the biggest threat to the US Dollar won’t come from China, but rather from gold.

This possibility is no longer hypothetical. James Grant (of the eponymous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer) has for many years tried to advance the case for a return to the Gold Standard. In a much-discussed editorial in the NY Times, Grant reiterated the idea that Central Banker are increasingly out of touch with economic reality, and lack any checks on their ability to print money and debase their respective currencies. Grant singles out the Fed for its non-stop quantitative easing programs, which could lead to hyper-inflation and foment additional asset bubbles. At the very least, it will cause the Dollar to lose even more of its value.

Grant’s editorial coincided perfectly (perhaps deliberately) with a proposal by Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, to reform the global economic system, with the goal of reducing economic imbalances. While most of Zoellick’s ideas are common-sense, his proposal to “build a co-operative monetary system that reflects emerging economic conditions.” and “consider employing gold as an international reference point of…currency values” stood out. While his comments created a veritable firestorm, they were grounded firmly in the reality that gold prices are rising and faith in the current fiat monetary system is declining.

The theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the gold standard have been mooted ad nauseum, and I don’t want to rehash all of them here. In sum, a gold standard is believed to be promote long-term price stability, eliminate hyper-inflation, a check on government debt issuance, and a transfer monetary power from Central Banks to the people (via the markets). Downsides include short-term price volatility, a heightened possibility of deflation, and the repudiation of modern monetary policy. Given the fact that paper currency in circulation vastly exceeds the supply of gold, a transition to the gold standard would be difficult to implement and would probably cause a substantial rise in the price of gold.

Personally, I’m not convinced that a return to the gold standard would promote economic/financial stability any more than the fiat money system. For example, just as large financial institutions dominate the current system, so they would be likely to dominate any other system, leading to the same lack of transparency and democracy. In addition, gold can also be lent out (with interest), leading to a similar propensity for asset bubbles and economic imbalances of every kind.

Just like currencies have relative value today (in terms of other currencies, commodities, assets, labor, etc.), so does gold. In that sense, saying seven units of gold is enough to buy a house is not really that different from saying it costs 10 units of paper currency to buy that same house. For instance, if Chinese producers charge 1 gold coin for their widgets while American producers charge 2, it will still result in a trade imbalance that will only correct when the Chinese standard of living catches up to the US standard of living.

Finally, gold is arbitrary. Why not a platinum standard or an oil standard? Based on the scarcity of those resources, prices would vary accordingly, much as they do under the paper currency system. Not to mention that gold is incredibly unwieldy, which means that it would be digitalized and used electronically just like paper currencies.

You could argue that this is actually a benefit of the gold standard, since it would be compatible with the current economic system, but at least it would lead to financial stability. Maybe I’m in denial like Ben Bernanke, but I just don’t see gold as the solution.  Asset bubbles inflate, and then they collapse. Economic imbalances will persist for as long as they are allowed to. If emerging market exporters get tired of receiving Dollars for their wares, then they will stop accepting it, the Dollar’s value will crash, and the US economy will have to rebalance itself. In a perfect world, there would be no irrational exuberance. In reality, the current system will persist, and life will go on.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Gold, News | 8 Comments »

Currency War Devalues all Currencies…Except for Gold

Oct. 24th 2010

Have you ever heard currency cheerleaders rave about how unique forex is because there is never a bear market? Since all currencies trade relative to each other (when one falls, another must necessarily rise), it couldn’t be possible for the entire market to drop at once, as happens with other financial markets. The ongoing currency war might be turning this logic on its head, as currencies embark on a collective downward spiral. Profiting in this kind of market might involve exiting it altogether, and turning to Gold.

Gold Versus Global Currencies 2010

For those of you who haven’t been following this story, a handful of the world’s largest Central Banks are now battling with each to see who can devalue their currency the fastest. [Of course, this war is being couched in euphemistic terms, but make no mistake: it is indeed a form of battle]. The principal participants are emerging market economies, which worry about the impact of rising currencies on their export sectors. However, industrialized countries have also intervened directly (namely Japan) and indirectly (US, UK).

Among the major currencies, there are only a few that continue to sit on the side-lines, including the Euro (to a certain extent), Canadian Dollar, and Australian Dollar. For as long as the currency war continues, these currencies and the handful of emerging market currencies that have forsworn intervention will be the winners (at least from the point of view of speculators that deliberately bet on them).

Then there are those that believe all currencies will suffer, and that even the currencies that are still rising are actually depreciating in real terms (due to inflation). Those who harbor such beliefs will often try to short the entire currency market, usually by betting on commodities or heavy metals, of which Gold is probably the most prominent.

The price of Gold has risen more than 20% this year (in USD terms). Its backers claim that it is the ultimate store of value (where this derives from is unclear), and defend its lack of utility and inability to accrue interest by arguing that its appreciation is more than enough of a reason to own it. When you look at the performance of gold over the last five years, you begin to wonder if maybe they have a point.

Gold Prices 10 Year Chart 2000-2010
Interest in Gold as an investment has surged in the last couple years (and especially the last few months), as the currency wars have heated up and the Federal Reserve Bank contemplates an expansion of its Quantitative Easing program (dubbed” QE2″). On the one hand, the notion that the only way to defend against real currency devaluation is to own “alternative” currencies is well-founded. On the other hand, regardless of the fact that the Fed has already minted $2 Trillion in cash and that the US national debt is expanding by $1 Trillion per year, inflation in the US is low. In fact, it’s at a 50-year low, and at an annualized .9%, it’s practically non-existent. You would think that with Gold’s unending appreciation, we would be in the midst of hyperinflation, but that’s simply not the case.

In the short-term, then, there’s really not a strong fundamental basis for investing in gold. That’s not to say that it won’t continue to appreciate and that investors will continue to buy into it merely to benefit from what has become self-fulfilling appreciation. From where I’m sitting, though, there’s really no foundation for this appreciation. Consider, for example, that gold investors still have to convert their gold back into paper currency in order for it to to be “used;” otherwise, it offers no benefit to the owner except that it looks pretty (though most investors wouldn’t know, since they buy gold indirectly). Not to mention that if/when the Dollar stops depreciating, there really isn’t really a justification to buy gold as a short-term store of value.

Over the long-term, the picture is certainly more nuanced. I’m not going to explore the viability of fiat currencies here, but suffice it to say that, “Positioning for significantly higher gold prices over the long run demands a very bold strategic bet: that the global monetary system as we know it will completely break down and be replaced with a gold standard.” Regardless of the merits of this point of view, those that invest in Gold should at least understand that this is really the only justifiable reason to hold it. Those who are buying it because of the ongoing currency war will be disappointed.

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Posted by Linda Goin | in Gold, News, Politics & Policy | 2 Comments »

Gold Rises as “Alternative Currency”

Apr. 29th 2010

Everything in forex is relative, right? Actually, it turns out this adage is wrong, as there is now a way you can short the entire forex market! I’m not talking about some innovative new financial product that you’ve never heard of, but rather something that everyone already knows about: Gold.

Before you accuse me of sounding like an infomercial, consider that while gold has been an investable commodity for quite some time, its trading pattern has changed recently, especially in the context of forex. Before, the link between gold and forex was inverse and clear: “When the greenback strengthens…this tends to pressure gold since it reduces the need to buy as a hedge against a soft dollar. Also, a strengthening dollar makes commodities generally more expensive in other currencies.” In other words, a rising Dollar is usually accompanied by falling gold prices, and vice versa.

Over the course of 2010, this relationship has steadily grown weaker and weaker, and in the last month, it has almost completely broken down. To understand the rationale for such a change, one needs not to look any further than the sovereign debt crisis currently facing Greece and indirectly, the Eurozone. This crisis has affected the way that investors think about gold; while previously it was primarily viewed as an inflation hedge, now it is seen as a hedge against fiscal/financial crisis. In this regard, it has assumed the characteristics of a “safe haven” currency, much like the US Dollar.

“Gold is going to move higher regardless of what happens in the currency market, as long as there are fears of problems in Europe. People are starting to have more skepticism to a lot of these sovereign entities,” explained one analyst. At the moment, that means that the inverse correlation between the Dollar and Gold (Dollar Up = Gold Down) appears to have reversed itself, such that a rising Dollar is also accompanied by rising gold. In this case, there may be correlation (since investors are buying both gold AND the Dollar as safe haven vehicles) but there is no causation between the two as there was before.

At the moment, the correct interpretation is that anything is preferable to the Euro (whose sovereign debt problems are the most pressing). Thus, gold prices are rising at basically the same rate as the Euro as falling, and gold prices in local currency (EUR, CHF, GBP) terms are already at record levels.

Euro Versus Gold - 2010

As for the future, however, many are betting that gold will distance itself from the Dollar as well, if/when the fiscal “problems” of the US escalate to the level of a Greek-style crisis. At this point, Gold will start to trade as an alternative to the entire forex market! In fact, gold contracts denominated in US Dollars have also been rising, which means that investors already perceive it as more than just an alternative to the Euro. (If this was the case, one would expect gold to appreciate in terms of Euros, but to remain constant or even fall when priced in Dollars. This clearly hasn’t happened).

Admittedly, gold is outside of my expertise, so I’ll refrain from personally making any predictions. According to Deutsche Bank, “If the correlation re-establishes itself before July, either the dollar must continue to decline or investment into bullion-backed funds must pick up in order to avoid erosion in gold prices.”

Regardless of what happens, my intention here is simply to point out the emergence of this trend, for its own sake. While it doesn’t have any serious implications about the internal dynamics of forex markets, it most certainly is important insofar as it reflects what investors (forex and otherwise) are generally thinking about. In this case, it signals that concern over the ongoing sovereign debt crisis isn’t going to abate anytime soon.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Gold, News | 1 Comment »

Gold and the Euro? I thought it was Gold and the Dollar?!

Jan. 24th 2010

Let me preface this post, by noting that I try to avoid writing about gold, since there are some many other excellent analysts out there writing about the subject. But when there is a such a strong overlap between gold and forex markets, well, I just can’t resist!

Recently, gold prices have collapsed at virtually the same rate as the Euro, with the result being a near-record high short-term correlation between EUR/USD and gold prices. This has caused no shortage of confusion among gold-watchers, which are accustomed to seeing the strongest (inverse) correlation with the US Dollar. This change is causing everyone to rethink some classically held assumptions about gold prices.

Gold versus the EUR-USD
The foremost of which is that gold is chiefly a hedge against the Dollar, which is a symbol for inflation and erosion of value. [In fact, analysts argue that gold has little real purpose (besides a handful of trivial practical uses, such as jewelry), especially since holders of gold don’t receive interest, there is little reason to own it other than as a store of value].  Thus, as the Dollar has declined over the last five years, gold has soared. Investors who are nervous about perennial budget deficits in the US and the skyrocketing national debt, have turned to Gold because of the belief  it will continue to hold its value even (or especially) if the US government is forced to devalue its debt by devaluing the Dollar. While this tenet underlies the gold/Dollar inverse relationship, the long and short of it is that investors typically buy gold when the Dollar falls, and vice versa. Thus, when the credit crisis struck and the Dollar rallied, gold prices fell, despite the fact that the US was now more likely to default on its debt.

In the last month, however, the Euro has taken center stage in dictating the price of gold. This is most likely because of the sovereign debt problems of certain EU countries. A not insignificant number of which well exceed the budget (not to exceed 3% of GDP per year) and debt (not to exceed 60% of GDP) limitations imposed on them by their membership in the EU. Recent credit rating downgrades have underscored an increasing likelihood of default, which has been duly noted both by the forex and gold markets. As the Euro has dropped (quite dramatically in fact), so has gold.

According to the current paradigm, this is not wholly unsurprising, since the Euro’s fall has naturally been mirrored by a rise in the Dollar. Thus, if you continue to look at gold prices in terms of the Dollar, it seems naturally that a rising Dollar is being accompanied by falling gold. On the other hand, the fact that the Dollar is suddenly rising has little to do with a change in US fundamentals, and instead reflects the fact that in forex, it’s impossible to short all currencies simultaneously, even if sometimes fundamentals would justify such an approach.

In other words, that certain EU member states are more likely to default on their respective debt obligations has limited bearing on whether the US will also default. [If anything, it increases the likelihood, since a default in the EU would likely send sovereign borrowing costs higher around the world, straining the ability of the US to continue borrowing]. By extension, the current drop in the price of gold is fundamentally irrational, especially when viewed relative to currency markets.  To borrow a hackneyed expression, perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Gold, News | 3 Comments »

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