On the Breakdown in the Correlation Between Gold Price And The Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet

Once upon a time there was a strong correlation. Then it broke:

20130921_gold1_0 (1)

Of course, we know that correlation is not and does not imply causation. But I think there was an underlying causation to the relationship that we saw, but it was not a superficial relationship of more asset purchases, higher gold prices. I think the causation arose out of self-confirmation; people noticed that the Fed was printing money, and believed that expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet would lead to price inflation (in ignorance of the fact that the broadest measure of the money supply was still shrinking in spite of all the new money the Fed was injecting into the economy, and the fact that elevated unemployment, weak demand, and plentiful cheap goods make it very hard for strong inflation to emerge). Many others believed that in the wake of 2008 and the shadow banking collapse, the financial system was fundamentally broken, and that the world might have to return to the gold standard. I myself believed that at the very least the West was in a prolonged Japanese style deflationary depression that in the absence of a return to strong growth might only be broken by very high inflation or a liquidationary crash.

Neither of these predictions — of imminent elevated inflation (or hyperinflation), and of imminent catastrophic financial system breakdown — have come to pass. Core inflation is close to its lowest year-on-year rate in history, and further financial system failures have mostly been prevented. So expectations have been shaken and are adjusting. Gold doesn’t produce any yield other than speculative price gains, but when gold is going up in price by around 20% a year it is still an attractive thing to hold to many, especially in an environment where its year-on-year speculative yield vastly outstrips bond yields and rates on savings. Once gold stopped going up by such a margin, investors had to sell their gold to lock in any speculative gain they might be holding onto, resulting in selling. And once gold started to fall, investors faced negative yields on gold, further spurring selling. This has meant gold has faced strong headwinds, and that is why its price has dropped by over 30% since its all-time high in September 2011, even while the Federal Reserve balance sheet continued to soar. Correlation broken. And in a market where the only yields are speculative gains, lost momentum can spell long-term depression as we saw for almost 20 years between 1980 and 2000.

Where gold goes from here is an interesting question. The main spur that pushes gold as an asset is goldbug ideology — the notions that it is the only real money, that it has intrinsic value, that fiat financial systems — and even modern civilisation in general — are fundamentally unmanageable and unsustainable and prone to collapse. As the technologies of capitalism, energy and production improve and advance, these goldbug views have been allayed and pushed to the margins as occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. In my view, their resurgence in the early 21st century stems almost entirely from the fact that real energy prices were rising, and real incomes falling. These two phenomena and their causes are complex and interconnective but essentially the energy infrastructure that brought the world spectacular growth and pushed all boats higher on a rising tide from the early 20th century to the 1990s began to come under strain — cutting into firms’ incomes, and individuals’ living expenses — and it has taken a long while for the market to even begin to equilibriate away from the increasingly-expensive old energy infrastructure and toward new infrastructures (initially increased U.S. production of shale, but going forward renewables especially solar). And while through financialisation and utilising insider-advantage much of the economic and financial elite managed to keep growing their incomes strongly, the vast majority came under stronger financial pressures and were only capable of sustaining their standard of living through debt-acquisition, which itself became a strain due to debt service costs.

As energy prices begin to fall (in what future economists may call a series of technology shocks), as private deleveraging proceeds strongly (with or without higher inflation) and as new cost-cutting technologies such as 3-D printing become more widespread real incomes will probably begin to rise again for the masses indicating a new supercycle of growth and pushing goldbug and other scarcity-concerned views to the fringes once more. We are, I think, moving inexorably to a world of superabundance, whether we like it or not. (Of course, in such a world assets like gold may still have a popular following to some degree, but that is another story for another day).

So even while the Federal Reserve continues to expand its balance sheet into the future in an effort to keep the US financial system liquid and further lubricate private deleveraging (and simultaneously chasing the elusive unemployment-reducing properties of Okun’s Law), the broken gold-Fed correlation is likely to break down even more.

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Will Gold Be a Medium of Exchange Again?

While gold is widely held as a store of purchasing power, and while it is possible to use gold as a unit of account (by converting its floating value to denominate anything in gold terms), gold is no longer widely used as a medium of exchange.

Noah Smith says that gold will never be a widespread medium of exchange again:

In the days when people carried around gold doubloons and whatnot as money, you had a global political system characterized by pockets of stability (the Spanish Empire, or the Chinese Empire, or whatever) scattered among large areas of anarchy. Those stable centers minted and gave out the gold coins. But in the event of a massive modern global catastrophe that brought widespread anarchy, the gold bars buried in your backyard would not be swappable for eggs or butter at the corner store. You’d need some big organization to turn the gold bars into coins of standard weights and purity. And that big organization is not going to do that for you as a free service. More likely, that big organization will simply kill you and take your gold bars, Dungeons and Dragons style.

In other words, I think gold is never coming back as a medium of exchange, under any circumstances. It is no more likely than a return of the Holy Roman Empire. Say goodbye forever to gold money.

Well, forever is a very long time. Human history stretches back just six million years. Recorded history suggests that gold has only been used as a medium of exchange for five or six thousand years. But for that tiny sliver of human history, gold became for many cultures entirely synonymous with money, and largely synonymous with wealth. So I think Noah is over egging his case by using the word forever. Societies have drastically changed in the last six thousand years, let alone the last one hundred. We don’t know how human culture and technology and societies will progress in the future. As humans colonise space, we may see a great deal of cultural and social fragmentation; deeper into the future, believers in gold as money may set up their own planetary colonies or space stations.

But what about the near future? Well, central banks are still using gold as a reserve. In the medium term, it is a hedge against the counter-party risks of a global fiat reserve system in flux. But central banks buying and acquiring gold is not the same thing as gold being used as a medium of exchange. Gold as a reserve never went away, and even in the most Keynesian of futures may not fully die for a long time yet.

And what about this great hypothetical scenario that many are obsessed with where the fragile interconnective structure of modern society — including electronics — briefly or not-so-briefly collapses? Such an event could result from a natural disaster like a megatsunami, or extreme climate change, or a solar flare, or from a global war. Well, again, we can’t really say what will or won’t be useful as a medium of exchange under such circumstances. My intuition is that we would experience massive decentralisation, and trade would be conducted predominantly either in terms of barter and theft. If you have gold coins or bars, and want to engage in trade using them — and have a means to protect yourself from theft, like guns and ammunition — then it is foreseeable that these could be bartered. But so too could whiskey, cigarettes, beer, canned food, fuel, water, IOUs and indeed state fiat currencies. If any dominant media of exchange emerges, it is likely to be localised and ad hoc. In the longer run, if modern civilisation does not return swiftly but instead has to be rebuilt from the ground up over generations then it is foreseeable that physical gold (and other precious metals, including silver) could emerge as the de facto medium of exchange, simply because such things are nonperishable, fungible, and relatively difficult to fake. On the other hand, if modern civilisation is swiftly rebuilt, then it is much more foreseeable that precious metal-based media of exchange will not have the time to get off the ground on anything more than the most localised and ad hoc of bases.

Noah concludes:

So when does gold actually pay off? Well, remember that stories do not have to be true for people to believe them. Lots and lots of people believe that gold or gold-backed money in the event of a global social disruption. And so when this story becomes more popular (possibly with the launching of websites like Zero Hedge?), or when large-scale social disruption seems more likely while holding the popularity of the story constant, gold pays off. Gold is like a credit default swap backed by an insolvent counterparty – it has no hope of actually being redeemed, but you can keep it around forever, and it goes up in price whenever people get scared.

In other words, gold pays off when there is an outbreak of goldbug-ism. Gold is a bet that there will be more goldbugs in the future than there are now. And since the “gold will be money again” story is very deep and powerful, based as it is on thousands of years of (no longer applicable) historical experience, it is highly likely that goldbug-ism will break out again someday. So if you’re the gambling type, or if you plan to start the next Zero Hedge, or if your income for some reason goes down when goldbug-ism breaks out, well, go ahead and place a one-way bet on gold.

Noah, of course, is right that gold is valuable when other people are willing to pay for it. The reason why gold became money in the first place was because people chose to use it as a medium of exchange. They liked it, and they used it, and that created demand for it. If that happens again, then gold will be an in-demand medium of exchange again. But for many reasons — including that governments want monetary flexibility — most of the world today has rejected gold as a medium of exchange.

But there is another pathway for gold to pay off. Noah is overlooking the small possibility that gold may at some point become more than a speculative investment based on the future possibility that gold may at some point return as a monetary media. In 2010, scientists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, using their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) collided some gold nuclei, traveling at 99.999% of the speed of light. The plasma that resulted was so energetic that a tiny cube of it with sides measuring about a quarter of the width of a human hair would contain enough energy to power the entire United States for a year. So there exists a possibility that gold could be used at some date in the future as an energy source — completely obliterating any possibility of gold becoming a medium of exchange again. Of course, capturing and storing that energy is another matter entirely, and may prove impossible. In that case — if gold does not become a valuable energy source — it is almost inevitable that some society somewhere at some stage will experiment again with gold as a medium of exchange.

The Gold Top & The Housing Bottom

In April, I noted that I thought the gold bull market is over. Since then, gold has fallen over 10% down to below $1400 today. That’s quite a severe correction.

Today, I found an interesting graphic showing that the gold price peaked out while housing bottomed out, and since then, the two have gone in opposite directions:

gold-125

Correlation, of course, is not causation, but this is an interesting association. Gold flourished on the back of a deep and severe correction in the housing market. Demand for gold as a countercyclical alternative asset proved very strong in the years when very few other assets and asset classes were performing, and prices soared.

So it stands to reason that a large number of individuals putting their money into gold in the boom years were putting their money there because of risks and losses in other markets and areas, and because of the belief that gold was a safe, antifragile asset for troubled times. In 2011, according to Gallup, a plurality of Americans considered gold to be the best asset class to own — something of a psychological bubble that has been burst as prices have fallen.

Indeed, in 2013, gold has been knocked off its perch by real estate — a sensational comeback given the depth of the real estate slump. Real estate, of course, was also ranked the safest in 2006 before the bubble burst. What this signifies is that money, credit and sentiment that once upon a time was flowing into gold and alternative investments is now flowing back into more traditional investments like real estate now that prices are rising again.

So long as investments like stocks and housing that produce a yield continue rising in price, the incentive driving this trend will continue to exist. Investments  once thought antifragile — gold, but also AAPL, guns and ammunition,  etc — may prove fragile to a different (and less apocalyptic) economic climate.

The last time a gold bull market ended (1980) the dollar-denominated price remained depressed for over 20 years! Perhaps this time is different, but maybe not…

On the Relationship Between the Size of the Monetary Base and the Price of Gold

The strong correlation between the gold price, and the size of the US monetary base that has existed during the era of quantitative easing appears to be in breakdown:

fredgraph

To emphasise that, look at the correlation over the last year:

inversecorrelation

Of course, in the past the two haven’t always been correlated. Here’s the relationship up to 2000:

2000

So there’s no hard and fast rule that the two should line up.

My belief is that the gold price has been driven by a lot of moderately interconnected factors related to distrust of government, central banks and the financial system — fear of inflation, fear of counterparty risk, fear of financial crashes and panics, fear of banker greed and regulatory incompetence, fear of fiat currency and central banking, belief that only gold (and silver) can be real money and that fiat currencies are destined to fail. The growth in the monetary base is intimately interconnected to some of these — the idea that the Fed is debasing the currency, and that high or hyperinflation or the failure of the global financial system are just around the corner. These are historically-founded fears — after all, financial systems and fiat currencies have failed in the past. Hyperinflation has been a real phenomenon in the past on multiple occasions.

But in this case, five years after 2008 these fears haven’t materialised. The high inflation that was expected hasn’t materialised (at least by the most accurate measure). And in my view this has sharpened the teeth of the anti-gold speculators, who have made increasingly large short sales, as well as the fears of some gold buyers who bought a hedge against something that hasn’t materialised. The global financial system still possesses a great deal of systemic corruption, banker greed and regulatory incompetence, and the potential for future financial crashes and blowups, so many gold bulls will remain undeterred. But with inflation low, and the trend arguably toward deflation (especially considering the shrinkage in M4 — all of that money the Fed printed is just a substitute for shrinkage in the money supply from the deflation of shadow finance!) gold is facing some strong headwinds.

And so a breakdown in the relationship between the monetary base has already occurred. Can it last? Well, that depends very much on individual and market psychology. If inflation stays low and inflation expectations stay low, then it is hard to see the market becoming significantly more bullish in the short or medium term, even in the context of high demand from China and India and BRIC central banks. The last time gold had a downturn like this, the market was depressed for twenty years. Of course, those years were marked by large-scale growth and great technological innovation. If new technologies — particularly in energy, for example if solar energy becomes cheaper than coal — enable a new period of spectacular growth like that which occurred during the last gold bear market, then gold is poised to fall dramatically relative to output.

But even if technology and innovation does not produce new organic growth, gold may not be poised for a return to gains. A new financial crisis would in the short term prove bearish for gold as funds and banks liquidate saleable assets like gold. Only high inflation and very negative real interest rates may prove capable of generating a significant upturn in gold. Some may say that individual, institutional and governmental debt loads are now so high that they can only be inflated away, but the possibility of restructuring also exists even in the absence of organic growth. A combination of strong organic growth and restructuring would likely prove deadly to gold.

Why the Gold Crash? The Failure of Inflation to Take Off

One of the key features of the post-2008 gold boom was the notion that inflation was soon about to take off due to Bernanke’s money printing.

But so far — by the most-complete inflation measure, MIT’s Billion Prices Project — it hasn’t:

AnnualInflation

To me, this signifies that the deflationary forces in the economy have so far far outweighed the inflationary ones (specifically, tripling the monetary base), to such an extent that the Fed is struggling to even meet its 2% inflation target, much less trigger the kind of Weimar or Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation that some gold enthusiasts have projected.

The failure of inflation to take off (and thus lower real interest rates) is probably the greatest reason why gold’s price stagnated from 2011 and why gold has gone into liquidation the last week. With inflation low, investors became more cautious about holding gold. With the price stagnant, the huge gains that characterised gold’s rise from 1999 dried up, leaving more and more long-term investors and particularly institutional investors leaving the gold game to hunt elsewhere for yield.

I myself am an inflation agnostic, with deflationista tendencies. While I tend to lean toward the notion of deeply-depressed Japan-style price levels during a deleveraging trap, price levels are also a nonlinear phenomenon and could both accelerate or decelerate based on irrational psychological factors as much as the level of the money supply, or the total debt level, or the level of deleveraging. And high inflation could certainly take off as a result of an exogenous shock like a war, or series of natural disasters. But certainly, betting the farm on a trade tied to very high inflation expectations when the underlying trend is largely deflationary was a very bad idea, and those who did like John Paulson are being punished pretty brutally.

The extent to which this may continue is uncertain. Gold today fell beneath its 200-week moving average for the first time since 2001. How investors, and particularly institutional investors react to this is uncertain, but I tend to expect the pendulum to swing very far toward liquidation. After all, in 2011 most Americans named gold the safest investment, and now that psychological bubble is bursting. That means that for every goldbug buying the dip, many more may panic and sell their gold. This could easily turn to a rout, and gold may fall as low as the cost of production ($900), or even lower (especially considering gold’s high stock-to-flow ratio). Gold is a speculation in that it produces no return other than price rises. The last time gold got stuck in a rut, it was stuck there for almost 20 years.

However, my case for physical gold as a small part of a diverse portfolio to act as a hedge against systemic and counterparty risks (default cascades, Corzine-style vaporisation, etc) still stands, and lower prices are only good news in that regard. The financial system retains very many of its pre-2008 fragilities as the deregulated megabanks acting on margin continue to speculate in ways that systematise risk through balance sheet interconnectivity. Another financial crisis may initially lower the price of gold on margin calls, but in the long run may result in renewed inflows into gold and a price trend reversal. Gold is very much a barometer of distrust in the financial, governmental and corporate establishment, and as middle class incomes continue to stagnate and income inequality continues to soar there remain grave questions over these establishments’ abilities to foster systemic prosperity.

The Gold Bull Market Is Over

I tweeted on Friday morning:

Unfortunately, I didn’t start writing immediately. But between then and now, the market fell to a new recent-low:

gold_30_day_o_b_usd

So, what’s up with gold?

Well, gold tends to really do well when real interest rates are heavily negative:

fredgraph (20)

Right now they’re higher than they’ve been since 2011.

And a lot of gold buying has been based on the assumption that massive inflation is coming. Now inflation could really take off in the coming years. But the predictions that quantitative easing would heavily raise inflation (and thus lower the real interest rate) haven’t come true yet. That may well be because most of the quantitative easing money hasn’t really found its way into the wider financial system — banks are sitting on massive excess reserves. Or it may be because of the innate deflationary bias in the economy due to deleveraging effects. Eventually, so long as excess reserves are sitting there the chance of it multiplying out into the wider financial system and generating some significant inflation approaches 1. But for now, people who bought gold for inflation (or more accurately negative real interest rate) protection bought insurance against something that hasn’t happened yet. So nobody should be surprised to see a pretty significant selloff.

Of course, gold is lots of other things to purchasers. It’s a shiny tangible semi-liquid asset, and insurance against counterparty, financial system risks. BRIC central banks are still buying it, because they claim to want to insure against counterparty and financial system risks. Maybe in a few years if there’s another systemic financial crisis (something which is more likely than not) all that gold people were buying in the $1400s, and maybe $1300s or $1200s may end up looking super-cheap. But that would be a whole new bull market from the bull market that took gold from less than $300 in 1999 to over $1900 in 2011. The run is over. The price floor for gold in the medium-term without some intervening event like a massive financial crisis or a war or a global catastrophe is production cost. And right now, that’s just over $900.

And if there was a stock market crash or systemic crisis today (as some indicators are implying) gold’s price would almost certainly go down and not up as it did during the crisis in 2008 as gold-holders (e.g. hedge funds, investment banks) liquidate to cash to  settle other liabilities. Only afterward could we see significant gains.

Now, I think gold is an important part of the global financial system. The fact that it has retained its status as a store of purchasing power and as a kind of reserve currency for over 5,000 years is pretty amazing. That doesn’t mean that it’s immune to bear markets, though.

There were signs in 2011 that there was a psychological bubble in gold when a plurality of Americans named it the safest investment type.

For people holding physical gold as a long-term investment or insurance policy, all of this may be irrelevant. If your plan is to hold it until there’s a seismic shift in the global financial system, then this is totally irrelevant. An ounce of gold is an ounce of gold. On the other hand for people trading for dollar-denominated gains, the jig is up.

Is Bitcoin A Bubble?

One key hallmark of Bitcoin’s price rise from the beginning of 2013 to now, where it has just crept above $240 a coin — up $100 a coin from the last time I wrote about Bitcoin — has been the oft-repeated mantra that Bitcoin is in a speculative bubble, and its price may be due to imminently collapse. This has spawned article after article after article after article — people were calling Bitcoin a bubble at $30 a coin, at $60 a coin — yet the price keeps climbing (and those who were discouraged from investing at lower prices missed out on spectacular gains). It is certain that at some stage the sellers will outnumber the bidders and the price will fall or crash. But when?

I ended my last article on Bitcoin joking that Bitcoin had a much better chance of being part of the monetary future than Groupon did being part of the future of commerce, and that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bitcoin at some stage trading at Groupon’s record market cap — enough to price Bitcoin at $2,000 a coin. But this was a joke. Bitcoin and Groupon are fundamentally different investments; Bitcoin is an experimental deflationary crypto-currency instrument and anonymous payments system, while Groupon is the equity in an experimental company. That means Bitcoin is a whole new asset class. And not a fantasy asset class, but one that is rapidly permeating the spheres of human consciousness, an idea that is replicating and multiplying at a rate far beyond its original audience of crypto-anarchists, heterodox monetary theorists, and black marketeers.

I don’t really see Bitcoin (and its crypto-currency siblings) facilitating trade a great deal in the future (although, its deflationary-nature might make it attractive to merchants who wish to hoard it). During Bitcoin’s recent run (or more accurately, hyper-deflation) Bitcoin’s velocity has actually fallen sharply as its rising value has encouraged hoarding. Gresham’s Law implies that whenever possible Bitcoin’s deflationary nature will subordinate it to fiat currency for transactions. State-backed currencies tend to depreciate year-on-year, encouraging spending and discouraging saving. That is treated by central bankers as an imperative of monetary policy. Yet Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages the opposite, implying that Bitcoin is not a threat to state-backed fiat but a complementary currency, an intangible, anonymous, global and infinitely mobile counterpart to tangibles like gold.

Gold remains a part of the global financial system, a savings instrument alongside its tiny role as an industrial metal and its larger role as jewellery. Credit-Suisse estimated that total global financial assets in 2012 were $223 trillion, of which gold makes up 0.6%, translating to a $1.338 trillion market cap for gold as a financial asset, (although a larger amount of gold — around $8 trillion total at current prices — exists in other forms like jewellery).

There are no fundamental ways to estimate the value of assets like gold or bitcoin, and their values are entirely in the eye of the beholder. But we know Bitcoin is presently vastly outperforming gold as a speculative savings vehicle, and in spite of the fundamental differences (particularly that one is tangible, and one is not) this may drive more and more investors — including institutional investors and funds looking to diversify into something slightly futuristic — into Bitcoin. If Bitcoin’s market cap were to rise to equal that of gold’s as a percentage of global GDP today, that would imply a price of $160,650 per Bitcoin, far, far higher than any price target I have yet seen. Even if Bitcoin were only to rise to 10% of gold’s market cap, that would imply a Bitcoin price of $16,065, still far higher than any price target I have seen. Even at 1% of gold’s market cap, Bitcoin would still fetch $1607 per coin, an almost-sevenfold increase over today’s price.

And gold is by no means a widely-held asset in today’s global financial system. If Bitcoin grew to 1% of the global financial system today each each coin would reach $267,600 in price.

These are, of course, fantasy figures based on back-of-an-envelope calculations, and should not be taken seriously. But what they show is that if the idea of Bitcoin continues to flourish — and if fund managers, and institutional investors begin to hunger for a slice of yield — then there is more than enough liquidity out there today to drive Bitcoin far, far higher.

On the other hand, if Bitcoin is outlawed worldwide by governments (perhaps due to concerns over money laundering and tax evasion) then of course any chance of it beginning to attract any such levels of interest are nil.  But the current government approach to Bitcoin so far appears to be one of attempted regulation rather than outright warfare.

At some stage Bitcoin may be supplanted by competitor crypto-currencies, but so far it is by far the most widely-adopted, and cryptography experts agree that its cryptography is sound, so there is no reason to assume that this may occur anytime soon. But judging by the birthrate and deathrate of social networks in recent years, a fast birthrate and deathrate for crypto-currencies is by no means out of the question. Technology is a fast-paced world where yesterday’s prize-pig is today’s turkey, and already there exist currencies built on similar technology to Bitcoin trading at much lower levels — Litecoin, Namecoin, Freicoin, PPCoin, Novacoin, etc. Whether these act as supplements or competitors remains to be seen, but it may be helpful to remember that while social networking sites today remain hugely popular, the early leaders in that field like MySpace and Friendster are nowhere to be seen. Is it possible that Bitcoin is the MySpace of decentralised crypto-currencies, and that the Facebook and Twitter are just around the corner? Yes — perhaps a platform with a more consumer-friendly interface than Bitcoin will come to dominate the field, making up a sizeable chunk of global financial assets, and Bitcoin itself will dwindle.  Certainly, the source code is available to larger organisations (Facebook? Google? Amazon? Banks?) who may wish to experiment with their own decentralised crypto-currency systems.

It is really hard to say what ultimately will occur, but Bitcoin does demonstrate the principle that anonymous, deflationary crypto-currency can be an attractive complementary proposition in a world where inflationary state-backed fiat currency has become the norm. I would caution that holders of Bitcoins — particularly those sitting on large long-term profits — should seek to diversify both into real-world assets like real estate, productive assets like farmland and factories, and index funds, as well as into new crypto-currencies as they emerge, particularly ones built with more consumer-friendly interfaces that may come to dominate the market. Bitcoin could easily end the year below its current price, but as Bitcoin grows in the public awareness this is decreasingly likely. In the long-term, a market cap target of 1% of gold’s market cap (currently, that would yield a price of $1607 per coin) seems viable, especially if larger players including institutions begin to experiment in the strange new world of crypto-currency.

Of Bitcoin & the State

Bitcoin is very much in ascendancy. While it has for over three years existed as a decentralised and anonymous electronics payments system and medium of exchange for online black markets and gambling, more attempts to integrate Bitcoin into the wider economic system — most notably the integration of Bitpay with Amazon.com — have brought Bitcoin to the attention of a wider segment of the population. Alongside this, the egregious spectacle of depositor haircuts in Cyprus, and the spectre that depositor haircuts might happen elsewhere seems to have spurred a great new interest in alternatives to bank deposits in particular and state fiat currency in general. Consequently, the price is soaring — pushing up above $140 per bitcoin at the time of writing. Of course, this is still far less than a single ounce of gold currently priced at $1572.

There are many similarities between Bitcoin and gold. Gold is cooked up in the heart of supernovae, and is therefore exceedingly rare on Earth. It has a distinctive colouring, is non-perishable, fungible, portable, hard-to-counterfeit, and even today so expensive to synthesise that the supply is naturally limited. That made it a leading medium-of-exchange and store of purchasing power. Even today, in an age where it has been eclipsed in practice as a medium-of-exchange and as a unit-of-account for debts by state-backed fiat monies, it remains an enduring store of purchasing power.

Bitcoin is an even more limited currency — limited by the algorithms that control its mining. The maximum number of Bitcoins permitted by the code is 21 million (and in practice will gradually fall lower than this due to lost coins). Gold has been mined for over 5000 years, yet there is still gold in the ground today. Bitcoin’s mining will be (in theory) complete in a little over ten years — all the Bitcoins that there will ever be are projected to exist by 2025. True, there are already additional new currencies like Namecoin based on the Bitcoin technology but these do not trade at par with Bitcoin. This implies that Bitcoin will have a deflationary bias, as opposed to modern fiat currencies which tend toward inflation.

Many people have been attracted to the Bitcoin project by the notion of moving exchange outside of the scope of the state. Bitcoin has already begun to facilitate many activities that the state prohibits. More importantly, Bitcoin transactions are anonymous, and denominated outside of state fiat currency, so the state’s power to tax this economic activity is limited. As the range of Bitcoin-denominated merchants grows, it may become increasingly plausible to leave state  fiat currency behind altogether, and lead an anonymous economic life online fuelled by Bitcoins.

So is Bitcoin really a challenge to state power? And if it is, is it inevitable that the state will try to destroy Bitcoin? Some believe there can only be one survivor — the expansive modern state, with fiat currency, central banking, taxation and redistribution, or Bitcoin, the decentralised cryptographic currency.

The 21st Century is looking increasingly likely to be defined by decentralisation. In energy markets, homes are becoming able to generate their own (increasingly cheap!) decentralised energy through solar panels and other alternative and renewable energy sources. 3-D printing is looking to do the same thing for manufacturing. The internet has already decentralised information, learning and communication. Bitcoin is looking to do the same thing for money and savings.

But I don’t think that conflict is inevitable, and I certainly don’t foresee Bitcoin destroying the state. The state will have to change and adapt, but these changes will be gradual. Bitcoin today is not a competitor to state fiat money, but a complement. It would be very difficult today to convert all your state fiat currency into Bitcoins, and live a purely Bitcoin-oriented life, just as it would be very difficult to convert into gold or silver and life a gold or silver-oriented life. This is a manifestation of Gresham’s law — the idea that depreciating money drives out the appreciating money as a medium of exchange. Certainly, with Bitcoin rampaging upward in price — (a trend that Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages — holders will want to hold onto it rather than trade it for goods and services. If I had $1000 of Bitcoin, and $1000 of Federal reserve notes, I’d be far more likely to spend my FRNs on food and fuel and shelter than my Bitcoin, which might be worth $1001 of goods and services (or at current rates of increase, $1500 of goods and services) next week.

Bitcoin, then, is emerging as a savings instrument, an alternative to the ultra-low interest rates in the dollar-denominated world, the risks of equities, and a recent slump in the prices of gold and silver which have in the past decade acted in a similar role to that which Bitcoin is emerging into. (This does not mean that Bitcoin is a threat to gold and silver, as there are some fundamental differences, not least that the metals are tangibles and Bitcoin is not).

This means that the state is far more likely to attempt to regulate Bitcoin rather than destroy it. The key is to make Bitcoin-denominated income taxable. This means regulating and taxing the entry-and-exit points — the points where people convert from state fiat currency into Bitcoin.

This is so-far the approach that the US Federal government has chosen to take:

The federal agency charged with enforcing the nation’s laws against money laundering has issued new guidelines suggesting that several parties in the Bitcoin economy qualify as Money Services Businesses under US law. Money Services Businesses (MSBs) must register with the federal government, collect information about their customers, and take steps to combat money laundering by their customers.

The new guidelines do not mention Bitcoin by name, but there’s little doubt which “de-centralized virtual currency” the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) had in mind when it drafted the new guidelines. A FinCEN spokesman told Bank Technology News last year that “we are aware of Bitcoin and other similar operations, and we are studying the mechanism behind Bitcoin.”

America’s anti-money-laundering laws require financial institutions to collect information on potentially suspicious transactions by their customers and report these to the federal government. Among the institutions subject to these regulatory requirements are “money services businesses,” including “money transmitters.” Until now, it wasn’t clear who in the Bitcoin network qualified as a money transmitter under the law.

For a centralized virtual currency like Facebook credits, the issuer of the currency (in this case, Facebook) must register as an MSB, because the act of buying the virtual currency transfers value from one location (the user’s conventional bank account) to another (the user’s virtual currency account). The same logic would apply to Bitcoin exchanges such as Mt. Gox. Allowing people to buy and sell bitcoins for dollars constitutes money transmission and therefore makes these businesses subject to federal regulation.

Of course, the Bitcoin network is fully decentralized. No single party has the power to issue new Bitcoins or approve Bitcoin transactions. Rather, the nodes in the Bitcoin network maintain a shared transaction register called the blockchain. Nodes called “miners” race to solve a cryptographic puzzle; the winner of each race is allowed to create the next entry in the blockchain. As a reward for its effort, the winning miner gets to credit itself a standard amount, currently 25 Bitcoins. Given that Bitcoins are now worth more than $50 and a new block is created every 10 minutes, Bitcoin mining has emerged as a significant business.

If a lot of economic activity were to move totally into Bitcoin, then the state might react more aggressively, seeking to tax transactions within the Bitcoin network (which may or may not be technically possible given Bitcoin’s anonymous nature) rather than just at the entry and exit points. There are, of course, risks for those wishing to move their entire economic life into Bitcoin — not just Gresham’s law, but transaction risks (Bitcoin has no clearing house, so all transactions are uninsured), and the risk that Bitcoin will be superseded (perhaps via the cryptography being rendered obsolete by some black swan advance in processing power, mathematics or cryptography?)

This current boom, where awareness of Bitcoin is growing considerably and many more individuals are joining the network, may soon be over. It is inevitable that at some stage the number of profit-takers seeking to cash out of Bitcoin into a currency where they can spend their profits will exceed the number of new investors trying to buy Bitcoin. At that stage, the price will fall. Just how much it falls will impact to what extent Bitcoin establishes itself as a decentralised and trusted store of purchasing power.

The last consolidation phase in Bitcoin’s price — between 2011 and 2013 — was not overwhelmingly encouraging, as prices remained far below the 2011 peak for a long while:

bitcoin

Yet they remained far above the pre-2011 levels. And while the 2011 boom was marked by curious scepticism, this boom seems to be marked by the notion of decentralised virtual currency going viral. Due to this increased awareness, it is highly probable that Bitcoin will end 2013 above whether it started it, even if the present prices do not prove sustainable. Ultimately, Bitcoin has no fundamentals (P/E, EBITDA, cash flow, etc) and so is worth what people will pay for it. And as Max Keiser, an early champion of Bitcoin put it:

In my view, Bitcoin has a much better chance of being part of the future of money than Groupon ever did of being part of the future of commerce.

Is the Gold Price Dependent on China?

China now buys more gold than the Western world:

Gold_Demand_China_WGC

Does that mean, as some commentators are suggesting, that future price growth for the gold price depends on China? That if the Chinese economy weakens and has a hard landing or a recession that gold will fall steeply?

There’s no doubt that the run-up that gold has experienced in recent years is associated with the rise in demand for gold from emerging markets and their central banks. And indeed, the BRIC central banks have been quite transparent about their gold acquisition and the reasons for it.

Zhang Jianhua of the People’s Bank of China said:

No asset is safe now. The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency — gold.

Indeed, this trend recently led the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard to declare that the world was on the road to “a new gold standard” — a tripartite reserve currency system of gold, dollars and euros:

The world is moving step by step towards a de facto Gold Standard, without any meetings of G20 leaders to announce the idea or bless the project.

Some readers will already have seen the GFMS Gold Survey for 2012 which reported that central banks around the world bought more bullion last year in terms of tonnage than at any time in almost half a century.

They added a net 536 tonnes in 2012 as they diversified fresh reserves away from the four fiat suspects: dollar, euro, sterling, and yen.

The countries driving the movement toward gold as a reserve currency by building their gold reserves is that they are broadly creditor nations whose dollar-denominated assets have been relatively hurt by over a decade of low and negative real interest rates. The idea that gold does well during periods of  falling or negative real rates held even before the globalisation of U.S. Treasury debt.

The blue line is real interest rates on the 10-year Treasury, the red line change in the gold price from a year ago:

fredgraph (15)

The historical relationship between real interest rates and the gold price shows that it is likely not “China” per se that has been driving the gold price so much as creditors and creditor states in general who are disappointed or frustrated with the negative real interest rate environment in dollar-denominated assets. What a slowdown in the Chinese economy (or indeed the BRICs in general) would mean for the gold price remains to be seen. While it is widely assumed that a Chinese slowdown might reduce demand for gold, it is quite plausible that the opposite could be true. For instance, an inflationary crisis in China could drive the Chinese public and financial sector into buying more gold to insulate themselves against falling or negative real rates.

Of course, this is only one factor. That are no hard and fast rules about what drives markets, especially markets like the gold market where many different market participants have many different motivations for participating — some see gold as an inflation hedge, some (like the PBOC) as a hedge against counterparty risk and global contagion, some as a buffer against negative real interest rates, some as a tangible form of wealth, etc.

And with the global monetary system in a state of flux — with many nations creating bilateral and multilateral trade agreements to trade in non-dollar currencies, including gold — emerging market central banks see gold — the oldest existing form of money — as an insurance policy against unpredictable changes, and as a way to win global monetary influence.

So while emerging markets and particularly China have certainly been driving gold, while U.S. real interest rates remain negative or very low, and while the global monetary system remains in a state of flux, these nations will likely continue to gradually drive the gold price upward.

The Platinum Coin

plat_liberty_fron

Is this how the debt ceiling issue will be resolved?

Last year, Republicans in Congress resisted lifting the debt ceiling until the last minute — and then only in exchange for spending cuts. Panic ensued. So what happens if there’s another showdown this year?

Enter the platinum coins. Thanks to an odd loophole in current law, the U.S. Treasury is technically allowed to mint as many coins made of platinum as it wants and can assign them whatever value it pleases.

Under this scenario, the U.S. Mint would produce (say) a pair of trillion-dollar platinum coins. The president orders the coins to be deposited at the Federal Reserve. The Fed then moves this money into Treasury’s accounts. And just like that, Treasury suddenly has an extra $2 trillion to pay off its obligations for the next two years — without needing to issue new debt. The ceiling is no longer an issue.

It seems to be entirely in accordance with the letter (if not the spirit) of the law. So while it is more likely that Boehner and Obama (the Boner-Droner connection) will work something out (as they did on the “fiscal cliff”, and in 2011 on the debt ceiling), the Platinum Coin Option is the ace up Obama’s sleeve if negotiations break down.

I don’t think it would have any real immediate effects different to just raising the debt ceiling through an Act of Congress. It is just opening a loophole to continue doing what America has been doing for the last four years (and Japan for the last twenty) — aggressively offsetting the private debt deleveraging with public debt.

The American government is a strange, multi-headed creature. One of its (partially private) heads — the Federal Reserve — retains the exclusive right (delegated from the Treasury by an Act of Congress) to create money. The rest of the American government pretends to be revenue-constrained, and subject to a debt ceiling.

This is obviously a charade. If one part of the government is not subject to a debt ceiling, then none of the government is subject to a debt ceiling. Loopholes — whether they are platinum coins, or something else — can be found.

The key component of any fiat system is trust. What the Platinum Coin Option would demonstrate is a lack of coherency and a state of fiscal disarray, which could easily in the longer term lead to a loss of trust, and further moves — beyond those already initiated by the BRIC nations — away from the dollar as a reserve currency.