Gold’s “Commercial” Traders Are Different Because Gold is Different
[biiwii comment: From Back to Our Regularly Scheduled (de) Programming: “While there are some quality people out there writing and speaking about gold, others peddle simple answers for other people to consume. Their business is drama, not managing financial markets.” Saville’s post is both simple and undramatic. But that doesn’t sell as well, now does it?
In a typical commodity market the traders known as “commercials” are usually hedging their exposure to the physical commodity when they buy or sell futures contracts. For example, in the oil market the most important “commercials” include oil producers, who are naturally ‘long’ the physical commodity and often sell futures contracts to hedge this exposure, and manufacturers of oil-based products, who are effectively ‘short’ the physical commodity (by virtue of the fact that oil is one of their biggest costs) and often buy futures contracts to hedge this exposure. However, the gold market is different.
Some of the commercial traders operating in the gold market are traditional hedgers. Mining companies and jewellery manufacturers, for example. But given that the existing aboveground stock of gold dwarfs the annual supply of new gold and that the amount of gold that changes hands for store-of-value, investment and speculative purposes dwarfs the amount of gold bought/sold for more traditional commercial uses such as fashion jewellery and electronics, a reasonable and knowledgeable person would expect that traditional commercial traders would play a relatively small role in the gold market. A reasonable and knowledgeable person would be right.
In the gold market the dominant commercials are not traditional hedgers. They are also not speculators, in that they rarely take positions that rely on the gold price moving in a particular direction. They are spread traders, meaning that they make their profits by trading the differences in price between the physical and futures markets.
For example, if speculative buying of gold futures causes the futures price to rise relative to the spot price by a sufficient amount it will create an essentially risk-free arbitrage opportunity for a commercial to sell the futures and buy the physical, and if speculative selling of gold futures causes the futures price to fall relative to the spot price by a sufficient amount it will create an essentially risk-free arbitrage opportunity for a commercial to buy the futures and sell the physical. For another example, if gold buying by hoarders of physical gold causes the cash (physical) price to rise relative to the futures price by a sufficient amount it will create an essentially risk-free arbitrage opportunity for a commercial to sell the physical and buy the futures, and if the ‘dishoarding’ of physical gold causes the cash (physical) price to fall relative to the futures price by a sufficient amount it will create an essentially risk-free arbitrage opportunity for a commercial to buy the physical and sell the futures. In other words, commercial trading in the gold market is mostly about arbitrage.
The difference between commercial trading in the gold market and commercial trading in all other commodity markets is tied to gold’s long history as money. Strangely, many gold ‘experts’ assert that gold is different due to its dominant monetary and store-of-value roles, but then insist on applying a traditional commodity-style method of supply-demand analysis. Unsurprisingly, the result is a pile of hogwash.