Is the Gold Price Dependent on China?

China now buys more gold than the Western world:


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.


Enter the Swan

Charles Hugh Smith (along with many, many, many others) thinks there may be a great decoupling as the world sinks deeper into the mire, and that the dollar could be set to benefit:

This “safe haven” status can be discerned in the strengthening U.S. dollar. Despite a central bank (The Federal Reserve) with an avowed goal of weakening the nation’s currency (the U.S. dollar), the USD has been in an long-term uptrend for a year–a trend I have noted many times here, starting in April 2011.

That means a bet in the U.S. bond or stock market is a double bet, as these markets are denominated in U.S. dollars. Even if they go nowhere, the capital invested in them will gain purchasing power as the dollar strengthens.

All this suggests a “decoupling” of the U.S. bond and stock markets from the rest of the globe’s markets. Put yourself in the shoes of someone responsible for safekeeping $100 billion and keeping much of it liquid in treacherous times, and ask yourself: where can you park this money where it won’t blow up the market just from its size? What are the safest, most liquid markets out there?

The answer will very likely point the future direction of global markets.

Smith is going along with one of the most conventional pieces of conventional wisdom: that in risky and troubled times investors will seek out the dollar as a haven. That’s what happened in 2008. That’s what is happening now as rates on treasuries sink to all-time-lows. And that’s what has happened throughout the era of petrodollar hegemony.

But the problem with conventions is that they are there to be broken, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is there to be killed, roasted and served on a silver platter.

The era of petrodollar hegemony is slowly dying, and the assumptions and conventions of that era are dying with it. For now, the shadow of that old world is still flailing on like Wile E. Coyote, hovering in midair.

As I wrote last week:

How did the dollar die? First it died slowly — then all at once.

The shift away from the dollar has quickly manifested itself in bilateral and multilateral agreements between nations to ditch the dollar for bilateral and multilateral trade, beginning with the chief antagonists China and Russia, and continuing through Iran, India, Japan, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

So the ground seems to have fallen out from beneath the petrodollar world order.

Enter the Swan:

We know the U.S. is a big and liquid (though not really very transparent) market. We know that the rest of the world — led by Europe’s myriad issues, and China’s bursting housing bubble — is teetering on the edge of a precipice, and without a miracle will fall (perhaps sooner, rather than later).

But we also know that America is inextricably interconnected to this mess. If Europe (or China or both) disintegrates, triggering (another) global default cascade, America will be stung by its European banking exposures, its exposures to global energy markets and global trade flows. Simply, there cannot be financial decoupling, not in this hyper-connected, hyper-leveraged world.

And would funds surge into US Treasuries even in such an instance? Maybe initially — fund managers have been conditioned by years of convention to do so. But how long  can fund managers accept negative real rates of return? Or — much more importantly — how long will the Fed accept such a surge? The answer is not very long at all. Bernanke’s economic strategy has been focussed  on turning treasuries into a losing investment, on the face of it to “encourage risk-taking” (or — much more significantly — keep the Treasury’s borrowing costs cheap).

All of this suggests a global crash or proto-crash will be followed by a huge global money printing operation, probably spearheaded by the Fed. Don’t let the Europeans fool anyone, either — Germany will not let the Euro crumble for fear of money printing. When push comes to shove they will print and fiscally consolidate to save their pet project (though perhaps demanding gold as collateral, and perhaps kicking out some delinquents). China will spew trillions of stimulus money into more and deeper malinvestment (why have ten ghost cities when you can have fifty? Good news for aggregate demand!).

So Paul Krugman will likely get something much closer to what he claims to want. Problem solved?

Nope. You can’t solve deep-rooted structural problems — malinvestment, social change, deindustrialisation, global trade imbalances, systemic fragility, financialisation, imperial decline, cultural stupefaction (etc, etc, etc) — by throwing money at problems. All throwing more money can do is buy a little more time (and undermine the currency). The problem with that is that a superficial recovery fools policy-makers, investors and citizens into believing that problems are fixed when they are not. Eventually — perhaps slowly, or perhaps quickly — unless the non-monetary problems are truly dealt with (very unlikely), they will boil over again.

As the devaluation heats up things will likely become a huge global game of beggar thy neighbour. A global devaluation will likely increase the growing tensions between the creditor and debtor nations to breaking point. Our current system of huge trade imbalances guarantees that someone (the West) is getting a free lunch , and that someone else (the Rest) is getting screwed. Such a system is fundamentally fragile, and fundamentally unstable. Currency wars will likely give way to economic wars, which may well give way to subterfuge and proxy wars as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to cast off their chains. Good news, then, for weapons contractors and the security state.

There is No Such Thing as a Service Economy

It is often said that prostitution is the oldest profession. This is not true, and I know this with a very high degree of certainty. For a prostitute to subsist, there must be  a medium of exchange, and for a medium of exchange to exist — even in terms of barter — there must be a surplus of production (i.e. a person is producing more than they can consume). Thus, there must be pre-existing productivity, for example food that has been hunted, or gathered or grown, tools that have been created, etc.

The truth is that prostitution (or perhaps soldiery) is probably the oldest service profession.

What is a service profession? Well broadly there are two kinds of professions: goods-producing, and services-producing. Goods-producing professions produce things. Services-producing professions do things without producing any definable goods. Prostitution is a very good example. So is legal work, consulting, lobbying, graphic design, sales work, soldiery, musicianship, acting, etc. And yes — while I feel that writing creates a good — it too is widely considered a service.

At present, the Western economies are dominated by services.

From the World Bank:

Joe Sitglitz’s article in Vanity Fair late last year argued that we need to move even further into a service-led economy:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want—into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

Now I’m not accusing Stiglitz of anything other than a misplaced zeal for fixing the American economy. His suggestion is merely emblematic of a wider misconception.

Service jobs come into existence as there are bigger surpluses of production. In an isolated national economy, the services sector will only grow if the productive sector grows in proportion. But in a global economy, with flows of trade and goods, illusions are possible.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a service economy. Our economy today (other than in places like, say, North Korea) is truly global. All of those service workers — and every cent of “services” GDP — is supported by real-world productivity, much of which takes place outside the West — the productivity of the transport system, the productivity of manufacturers, the productivity of agriculture.

The continued prosperity of the West is dependent on the continued flow of goods and services into the West.

This is an intentionally zany example (but certainly no less zany than Krugman’s babysitting co-op) of how moving to a “service-based” (pun-intended, you’ll see) economy can prove detrimental:

Imagine the centrally-planned society of War-is-Peace-Land, occupying one half of a large island, and led by an absolute King. The kingdom is very successful in warfare, and maintains a great advantage over its sole neighbour. 50% of its working subjects are conscripted into the military, in various roles — soldiery, tactics, smithing, horsemanship, etc. Of the other half of the population 30% work in collective agriculture, 10% work in light industry (e.g. making candles) and 10% are personal servants to the King (or in the case of females part of his large harem). Now, the King does not like the fact that his harem is not as large as it could be; he does not like that there are women and girls toiling the fields when they could be in his harem. Nor does he like that there are men toiling in the fields when they could instead be conscripted into the military.

Fortunately in the neighbouring kingdom of Productivity Land, they have huge surpluses of agriculture and productivity, as only 30% of their population is conscripted into the military, while 40% work in agriculture, and 20% in light industry. As they make such huge surpluses, they are willing to make up for any shortfall in War-is-Peace-Land. As a result of this, more and more workers in War-is-Peace-Land can be moved from agriculture to serving the King, either as a manservant (carrying his Royal chair, beating up anyone who insults him, tending to his elaborate gardens) or as a member of his harem. In return for this, the King sends promissory notes — which are often promptly lent back —  from Productivity Land to pay for their products. Productivity Land uses this money to acquire natural resources from other islands.

Eventually, the King decides that his pleasure gardens need to be greatly expanded, and so he moves the entire non-military workforce out of agriculture, and into manufacture terra cotta and bronze statues, to decorate his pleasure gardens. Of course, War-is-Peace Land has built up a humungous debt over the years, and Productivity Land feels short-changed in sending its productive output across to the other half of the island in exchange for increasingly-devalued pieces of fiat paper that buy increasingly less and less resources. But the King of Productivity Land is very smart. He recognises that winning a military confrontation with War-is-Peace Land will still be difficult, so he agrees to continue this arrangement so as to make War-is-Peace Land even more deeply dependent upon the produce of Productivity Land. 

One day, the King of War-is-Peace Land was out frolicking gaily in his pleasure gardens, smoking his pipe and contemplating a lazy afternoon molesting his harem. Alas, no. A messenger from Productivity Land arrived at the Palace to inform him that Productivity Land was sick of his devalued fiat currency, and so would no longer send agricultural products or other produce. That was it — War-is-Peace Land had no intent to pay back their debt, so they were out in the cold.

Nonsense!” cried the King, and promptly had the messenger arrested, tortured and killed. He rallied his generals, and declared war against Productivity Land. Alas, they did not get very far. It took three days for the army to be rallied together into a fighting force, and by that time War-is-Peace Land was running low on food and fuel. Armies — no matter how well-equipped — cannot march on an empty stomach. The tired and weary soldiers of War-is-Peace Land were more numerous and better equipped, but their hunger and subsequent tiredness got the better of them and they were massacred and beaten back. The King tried to escape, but was captured by Productivity Land’s forces and promptly executed.

Readers can read whatever they like into the above story; it is purely fictitious, and of course massively simplified. But I think it captures the essence of the problem of  outsourcing your productivity to foreign lands who might not always be as friendly as they appear to be today.

The bottom line here is that any proposals regarding transitioning to an economy even more dependent on services assumes that goods and productivity will keep flowing into the West, even though there is no guarantee of such a thing.

Governments in the West would do better to worry about the West’s (lack of) energy and resource independence.