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:


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 New Goldbuggery

In my travels across the internet, I often hear a disparaging label being thrown around to describe libertarians and adherents of Austrian economics: goldbug.

The Economist’s Free Exchange column from last July encapsulates this perfectly:

The disappointing thing about Ron Paul’s goldbuggery is the weakness of the analysis behind it. His support seems almost mystic in nature: that gold is money is a law of economics that’s held for 6,000 years! In his defence, this quasi-mystical belief in the sanctity of gold in a monetary system was shared by the world’s financial leaders for much of the industrial period. That’s not much of a defence, though. Gold worship repeatedly drove the economy into ditches and off cliffs, but for a few lucky years in which the pace of new gold discoveries fortuitously matched growth in the global economy.

I can do a pretty good job of analysing and deconstructing that (and indeed have already strongly questioned the claim that it was “gold worship” that drove the economy off a cliff in the 1930s) but in the interests of economic “progress”, I would rather outsource my analysis to China. If it’s good enough for Apple, it’s good enough for me.

More specifically, I want to outsource my analysis to Zhang Jianhua of the People’s Bank of China.

From Forbes:

Analysts believe China bought as much as 490 tons of gold in 2011, double the estimated 245 tons in 2010.  “The thing that’s caught people’s minds is the massive increase in Chinese buying,” remarked Ross Norman of Sharps Pixley, a London gold brokerage, this month.

So who in China is buying all this gold?

The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has been hinting that it is purchasing.  “No asset is safe now,” said the PBOC’s Zhang Jianhua at the end of last month.  “The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency — gold.”  He also said it was smart strategy to buy on market dips.  Analysts naturally jumped on his comment as proof that China, the world’s fifth-largest holder of the metal, is in the market for more.

Wow. This, more or less, is the argument about gold that I advanced last month:

[Gold] doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t create any return. It just sits. It’s a store of long-term purchasing power.

And most importantly it is a hedge against counter-party risk.

What is counter-party risk?

Counter-party risk is the external risk investments face. The counter-party risk to fiat currency is that the counter-party — in this case the government — will fail to deliver a system where that fiat money will be acceptable as payment for goods and services. The counter-party risk to a bond or a derivative or a swap is that the counter-party  will default on their obligations.

Gold — at least the physical form — has negligible counter-party risk. It’s been recognised as valuable for thousands of years.

Counter-party risk is a symptom of dependency. And the global financial system is a paradigm of interdependency: inter-connected leverage, soaring gross derivatives exposure, abstract securitisations.

When everyone in the system owes shedloads of money to everyone else the failure of one can often snowball into the failure of the many.

All-denominated fiat securities are touched by counterparty risk, because of the nature of the hyper-interconnected global financial system. Physical gold will still be physical gold, even after the dust settles, even after all the unpayable debt has liquidated, and after the new global financial order has taken shape. That is what Zhang Jianhua — and presumably the PBOC — have understood. For those who possess physical gold, there will be no haircuts or write-downs on that asset. There are precisely zero historical examples of gold-denominated hyperinflation.

This is an entirely different argument to claiming that the monetary base should solely consist gold, of course. The gold standard doesn’t seem to prevent credit-driven bubbles, because it merely restricts the size of the monetary base.

But gold has retained its moneyness, its for 6,000 years for a reason. While value is subjective, I would suggest that its liquidity, its freedom from counterparty risk, its fungibility, and above all its natural scarcity have played a huge part in that.

Paper vs Gold

Last month I explained why gold is not an asset to hold in every kind of market. But here’s an even more extreme piece of evidence.

During the last 200 years — an era of unprecedented growth and development — paper investments have trounced gold:

Now there are two perspectives on this:

  1. Gold is so far behind because it has no inherent value, it creates no product or new income, or innovation. It just sits.
  2. Gold is so far behind because stocks, bonds and dollars in a humungous, history-shattering bubble.

We shall see which case is correct.

Investors need to remember that the reasons for gold’s present strength — above all else mismanagement of the global economy and international financial system by governments and large financial corporations which has resulted in a low-growth, high unemployment, negative real rate environment — although historically abnormal, will eventually subside, and we will return to the historical norm where gold significantly under-performs paper. That’s because gold just sits, whereas other assets either produce a net return, or are a net liability.

As I explained last month:

I believe that in order to restore growth, what the system needs, and what it is driving toward is restructuring. This can either be accomplished intentionally through explicit haircuts or defaults, through high inflation, through a slow painful private deleveraging process or through strong organic growth.

I don’t know how debt reduction will take place. It could be three months or years away, or it could be another grinding, unemployed and depressed ten years, full of false dawns. Certainly that is what has happened to Japan since its stock market and real estate bubbles burst twenty years ago. Maybe the West will perform better than Japan in the deleveraging trap — maybe new technological innovations like cheap decentralised solar energy will provide the necessary organic growth to overcome the debt problem. Or maybe not.

Until the private debt load is significantly reduced, it will act as a huge weight tying down economic growth, tying down employment, and structurally weakening both the financial system and society. High debt loads require low interest rates to sustain — which with a little inflation means negative real interest rates. Gold has traditionally done very well in low real rate environments.

Once the deleveraging trap has been left behind, it will be the time to ditch gold and plough all of that purchasing power into productive assets: industrial stocks, real estate, farm land, inventory, and labour force.

And gold will once again settle into significantly under-performing stocks.