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…

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Negative Nominal Interest Rates?

A number of economists and economics writers have considered the possibility of allowing the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates below zero in order to make holding onto money costlier and encouraging individuals and firms to spend, spend, spend.

Miles Kimball details one such plan:

The US Federal Reserve’s new determination to keep buying mortgage-backed securities until the economy gets better, better known as quantitative easing, is controversial. Although a few commentators don’t think the economy needs any more stimulus, many others are unnerved because the Fed is using untested tools. (For example, see Michael Snyder’s collection of “10 Shocking Quotes About What QE3 Is Going To Do To America.”) Normally the Fed simply lowers short-term interest rates (and in particular the federal funds rate at which banks lend to each other overnight) by purchasing three-month Treasury bills. But it has basically hit the floor on the federal funds rate. If the Fed could lower the federal funds rate as far as chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues wanted, it would be much less controversial. The monetary policy cognoscenti would be comfortable with a tool they know well, and those who don’t understand monetary policy as well would be more likely to trust that the Fed knew what it was doing. By contrast, buying large quantities of long-term government bonds or mortgage-backed securities is seen as exotic and threatening by monetary policy outsiders; and it gives monetary policy insiders the uneasy feeling that they don’t know their footing and could fall into some unexpected crevasse at any time.

So why can’t the Fed just lower the federal funds rate further? The problem may surprise you: it is those green pieces of paper in your wallet. Because they earn an interest rate of zero, no one is willing to lend at an interest rate more than a hair below zero. In Denmark, the central bank actually set the interest rate to negative -.2 % per year toward the end of August this year, which people might be willing to accept for the convenience of a certificate of deposit instead of a pile of currency, but it would be hard to go much lower before people did prefer a pile of currency. Let me make this concrete. In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.) That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory.  But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.  The fact that people could store paper money and get an interest rate of zero, minus storage costs, has deterred the Fed from bothering to lower the interest rate a bit more and forcing them to store paper money to get the best rate (as Denmark’s central bank may cause people to do).

The bottom line is that all we have to do to give the Fed (and other central banks) unlimited power to lower short-term interest rates is to demote paper currency from its role as a yardstick for prices and other economic values—what economists call the “unit of account” function of money. Paper currency could still continue to exist, but prices would be set in terms of electronic dollars (or abroad, electronic euros or yen), with paper dollars potentially being exchanged at a discount compared to electronic dollars. More and more, people use some form of electronic payment already, with debit cards and credit cards, so this wouldn’t be such a big change. It would be a little less convenient for those who insisted on continuing to use currency, but even there, it would just be a matter of figuring out with a pocket calculator how many extra paper dollars it would take to make up for the fact that each one was worth less than an electronic dollar. That’s it, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the Fed or any other central bank ever again seeming relatively powerless in the face of a long slump.

First of all, I question the feasibility of even producing a negative rate of interest, even via electronic currency. Electronic currency has practically zero storage costs. What is to stop offshore or black market banking entities offering a non-negative interest rate? After all, it is not hard to offer a higher-than-negative rate of interest for the privilege of holding (and leveraging) currency. A true negative interest rate environment may prove as unattainable as division by zero.

But assuming that such a thing is achievable, I think that a negative rate of interest will completely undermine the entire economic system in clear and visible ways that I shall discuss below (“white swans”), and probably also — because such a system has never been tried, and it is a radical departure from the present norms — in unpredictable and emergent ways (“black swans”).

Money has historically had multiple functions; a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of purchasing power. To institute a zero interest rate policy is to disable money’s role as a store of purchasing power. But to institute a negative interest rate policy is to reverse money’s role as a store of purchasing power, and turn money into a drain on purchasing power.

Money evolved organically to possess all three of these characteristics, because all three characteristics have been economically important and useful. To try to strip currency of one of its essential functions is to risk the rejection of that currency.

How would I react in the case of negative nominal interest rates? I’d convert into a liquid medium that was not subject to a negative rate of interest. That could be a nonmonetary asset, a foreign currency, a digital currency or a precious metal. I would actively seek ways to opt out of using the negative-yielding currency at all — if I could get by using alternative currencies, digital currencies, barter, then I would.  I would only ever possess a negative-yielding currency for transactions (e.g. taxes) in which the other party insisted upon the negative-yielding currency, and would then only hold it for a minimal period of time. It seems only reasonable that other individuals — seeking to avoid a draining asset — would maximise their utility by rejecting the draining currency whenever and wherever possible.

In Kimball’s theory, this unwillingness to hold currency is supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging productive economic activity and investment. But is that necessarily true? I don’t think so. So long as there are alternative stores of purchasing power, there is no guarantee that this policy would result in a higher rate of  economic activity.

And it will drive economic activity underground. While governments may relish the prospect of higher tax revenues (due to more economic activity becoming electronic, and therefore trackable and traceable), in the present depressionary environment recorded and taxable economic activity could even fall as more economic activity goes underground to avoid negative rates. Increasingly authoritarian measures might be taken — probably at great cost — to encourage citizens into using the negative-yielding legal tender.

Banking would be turned upside down. Lending at a negative rate of interest — and suffering from the likely reality that negative rates discourages deposits — banks would be forced to look to riskier or offshore or black market activities to achieve profits. Even if banks continued to lend at low positive rates, the negative rates of interest offered to depositors would surely lead to a mass depositor exodus (perhaps to offshore or black market banks offering higher rates), probably leading to liquidity crises and banking panics.

As Izabella Kaminska wrote in July:

The simple fact of the matter is that in a negative carry world – or a flat yield environment for that matter  there is no role or purpose for banks because banks are forced into economically destructive practices in order to stay profitable.

Additionally, a negative-yielding environment will result in reduced income for those on a fixed income. One interesting effect of the present zero-interest rate environment is that more elderly people — presumably starved of sufficient retirement income — are returning to the labour force, which is in turn crowding out younger inexperienced workers, who are suffering from very high rates of unemployment and underemployment. A negative-yielding environment would probably exacerbate this effect.

So on the surface, the possibility of negative nominal rates seems deeply problematic.

Japan has spent almost twenty years at the zero bound, in spite of multiple rounds of quantitative easing and stimulus. Yet Japan remains mired in depression. The fact remains that both conventional and unconventional monetary policy has proven ineffective in resuscitating Japanese growth. My hypothesis remains that the real issue is the weight of excessive total debt (Japan’s total debt load remains as precipitously high as ever) and that no amount of rate cuts, quantitative easing or unconventional monetary intervention will prove effective. I hypothesise that a return to growth for a depressionary post-bubble economy requires a substantial chunk of the debt load (and thus future debt service costs) being either liquidated, forgiven or (often very difficult and slow) paid down.

Propping Up The Gold Price?

Izabella Kaminska makes the point that central banks have turned net gold buyers:

Kaminska seems to believe that gold’s price is not just central-bank supported, but its trajectory is downward:

If not for the gold bar/coin frenzy and ETF demand (now substituted by official buying), one might speculate that the collapse in conventional demand (i.e. for industrial and jewelery purposes) may have led to a very different price path for gold post 2008.

Now that ETF demand is waning, however, marginal support for the gold price is actually being provided by the official sector more than ever.

Though, given the gold price reaction of late, clearly even this is not so effective so, either gold and coin buying has started to wane as well – and there is evidencethat this is the case – or it’s taking ever more buying (by official sources) to keep prices supported at the current level.

The recent plateauing of the gold price thus either suggest that today’s spot supply is increasingly catering to tomorrow’s demand expectations, or in the context of more gold being produced all the time, it is taking ever more buying by the official sector to keep prices from falling.

In other words, sans the intervention of central banks on a major level: case bearish.

The obvious thing, though — even if we take central bank buying out of the equation altogether — is that total demand for gold is still increasing. And the price of gold has increased faster than sales, illustrating that the market has struggled and continues to struggle to keep pace with underlying demand. 

And it’s not just demand for gold-denominated paper (i.e. ETFs or other such as-risky-as-anything-you’ll-get-from-MF Global assets) — it’s recently manifested as demand for hard physical gold:

It’s true that central banks are presently supporting the gold price — after years of selling off national wealth at pennies-on-the-dollar into a bear market and thus suppressing prices. Yet it’s not the Western central banks that are pushing demand for gold. It’s the BRICs. As PBOC official Zhang Jianhua noted:

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

And as I noted yesterday, BRICs have founded and legitimate fears of buying even deeper into an increasingly ponzified, over-leveraged, rehypothecated and interconnective paper financial system. The PBOC (and other American creditors) already faces the risk of the US Treasury inflating much of their holdings away; the entire point is to get out of such assets into something much harder to duplicate, and impossible to inflate away.

According to China’s State Council’s Xia Bing:

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar.

No; I don’t think it’s particularly wise to announce to the world that you’re going to get elbow-deep into gold bullion either, but this isn’t just a bluff. China is importing hard-to-fathom quantities of gold:


Ultimately, the surge in demand for gold reflects one thing alone: distrust of the increasingly messy, interconnected, over-leveraged and fraudulent financial system. Whether it is China — fearful of dollar debasement — loading up on bullion, or retail investors in the United States or Europe — fearful of another MF Global (or PFG, or Lehman Brothers) — stacking Krugerrands in their basement, demand for gold reflects distrust in finance, distrust in the financial establishment, distrust in banks, distrust in regulators, distrust in government and distrust in the financial media. And it is that distrust — not (by any stretch of the imagination) central bank interventionism — that is the force moving demand for gold.

The distrust is not going anywhere because the system is still rotten. We all know — even Business Insider readers know deep down, I think — that there is something exceedingly rotten at the heart of the global financial system. We don’t know quite how rotten, how deep the rabbit hole goes, who will be implicated, or how fast. But with every LIBOR-rigging scandal (which the Fed, of course, was aware of), every raided segregated account, every devalued pension fund, every failed speculative “hedge”, every Facebook or Zynga pump-and-dump, we get closer to the truth.

There will be no bear market for physical gold until trust in the financial system and regulators is fixed, until markets trade fundamentals instead of the possibility of the NEW QE, until governments represent the interests of their people instead of the interests of tiny financial elites.