The Much-Maligned Paper Gold Market

By Steve Saville

The “paper” gold market is not a problem to be reckoned with

The article “What sets the Gold Price — Is it the Paper Market or Physical Market?” contains some interesting information about the gold market and is worth reading, but it also contains some logical missteps. In this post I’ll zoom in on a couple of the logical missteps.

The following two paragraphs from near the middle of the above-linked article capture the article’s theme and will be my focus:

In essence, trading activity in the London gold market predominantly represents huge synthetic artificial gold supply, where paper gold trading is deriving the price of gold, not physical gold trading. Synthetic gold is just created out of thin air as a book-keeping entry and is executed as a cashflow transaction between the contracting parties. There is no purchase of physical gold in such a transaction, no marginal demand for gold. Synthetic paper gold therefore absorbs demand that would otherwise have flowed into the limited physical gold supply, and the gold price therefore fails to represent this demand because demand has been channelled away from physical gold transactions into synthetic gold.

Likewise, if an entity dumps gold futures contracts on the COMEX platform representing millions of ounces of gold, that entity does not need to have held any physical gold, but that transaction has an immediate effect on the international gold price. This has real world impact, because many physical gold transactions around the world take this international gold price as the basis of their transactions.

The most obvious error in the above excerpt concerns the effect of ‘dumping’ gold futures contracts on the COMEX. While this action could certainly have the immediate effect of pushing the gold price down, the short-sale of a futures contract must subsequently be closed via the purchase of a futures contract. This means that there can be no sustained reduction in the gold price due to the selling of futures contracts.

A related error is one of omission, since the gold price is often boosted by the speculative buying of futures contracts. Again, though, the effect will be temporary, since every purchase of a futures contract must be followed by a sale.

With regard to the massive non-futures paper gold market, the existence of such a market is a consequence of gold’s unique role in the commodity world. Whereas the usefulness of other commodities stems from the desire to consume them in some way, gold is widely considered to be at its most useful when it is sitting dormant in a vault. This means that to get the benefit of owning gold a person doesn’t necessarily need physical access to the gold. In many cases, a paper claim to gold sitting in a vault on the other side of the world will be considered as good as or better than having the physical gold in one’s possession. Furthermore, in many cases a piece of paper that tracks the price of gold will be considered as good as a paper claim to physical gold in a vault.

At the same time, there will be people who want ownership of physical gold — either gold in their own possession or a receipt that guarantees ownership of a specific chunk of metal stored in a vault. The gold demand of such people could not be satisfied by a piece of paper that tracked the gold price and was settled in dollars or some other currency. In other words, demand for physical gold could not be satisfied by the creation of so-called “synthetic artificial” gold.

The reality is that the existence of the massive non-futures-related “paper” gold market effectively results in a lot more gold supply AND a lot more gold demand than would otherwise be the case. To put it more succinctly, it results in a much bigger and more liquid market. This, in turn, makes it more feasible for large-scale speculators to get involved in the gold market and would not necessarily result in the gold price being lower than it would be if trading were limited to physical gold.

On a related matter, there is not a massive non-futures paper market in platinum and yet the platinum price is close to a 50-year low relative to the gold price. Also, the general level of commodity prices, as represented by the GSCI Spot Commodity Index (GNX), made an all-time low relative to gold last year. If the “paper” market is suppressing the gold price, why has gold become so expensive relative to most other commodities?

I view the whole paper-physical debate as a distraction from the true drivers of the gold price. The fact is that gold’s price movements can best be understood by reference to ‘real’ interest rates, currency exchange rates, and indicators of economic and financial-system confidence — what I refer to as gold’s true fundamentals. For example and as illustrated by the following chart, the bond/dollar ratio does a good job of explaining gold’s price trends most of the time.

gold_USBUSD_040417

In conclusion, the “paper” gold market is not a problem to be reckoned with. It is just part of the overall gold situation and, as noted above, a consequence of gold’s historical role. Moreover, it isn’t going anywhere, so it makes no sense to either complain about it or base a bullish view on its disappearance.

“A Glaring Error of Omission”

By Heisenberg

VaR shocks. Taper tantrums.

I talk about such things a lot. And with good reason.

Investors have a discernible tendency to dismiss discussions of cross-asset correlations as if the subject should be confined to jet propulsion laboratories. All the while, these very same investors fail to see the connection between cross-asset correlations and the simplest of simple investing concepts: the 60/40 stock-bond portfolio.

If you understand why a 60/40 stock-bond portfolio works, then you’re a fan of negative stock/bond return correlations or, alternatively, positive rates/stock correlations. You just didn’t know it.

One of the most reliable market dynamics since the late 90s is the negative stock/bond return correlation.

correlations

(Goldman)

Indeed, the last several months (i.e. the post-election period) have shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you need this correlation to be negative in a rising rate environment.

correlation2

(Goldman)

The main concern here is simple: if rates rise to far, too fast, equities may interpret that as a risk-off signal. If that happens, you get a positive stock/bond return correlation or, alternatively, a negative rates/stock correlation. Then everything sells off at the same time.

For more on this, consider the following out earlier this month from Moody’s.

Via Moody’s

The February 1 FOMC meeting minutes noted two interrelated developments. First, the narrowing by “corporate bond spreads for both investment- and speculative-grade firms” to widths that “were near the bottom of their ranges of the past several years.” Secondly, some FOMC members were struck by how “the low level of implied volatility in equity markets appeared inconsistent with the considerable uncertainty attending the outlook for such policy initiatives.”

Thus, some high-ranking Fed officials sense that market participants are excessively confident in the timely implementation of policy changes that boost after-tax profits. And they may be right, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recent comment that corporate tax reform legislation may not be passed until August 2017 at the earliest. The ongoing delay at remedying the Affordable Care Act warns of a possibly even longer wait for corporate tax reform and other fiscal stimulus measures.

Treasury bond yields declined in quick response to the increased likelihood of a longer wait for fiscal stimulus. Lower benchmark yields will lessen the equity market’s negative response to any downwardly revised outlook for after-tax profits. Provided that profits avoid a replay of their year-to-year contraction of the five quarters ended Q2-2016 and that interest rates do not jump, a deeper than -5% drop by the market value of US common stock should be avoided.

The importance of interest rates to a richly priced and supremely confident equity market cannot be overstated. In fact, the rationale for an unduly low VIX index found in the FOMC’s latest minutes contained a glaring error of omission. Inexplicably, no mention was made of how expectations of a mild and thus manageable rise by interest rates have helped to reduce the equity market’s perception of downside risk. An unexpectedly severe firming of Fed policy would doubtless send the VIX index higher in a hurry.

Why Does the Fed Focus on a Flawed PCE?

By Michael Ashton

The PCE report itself was not surprising. Core PCE came in as-expected, at 1.7%.

On Friday, I was on Bloomberg TV’s “What’d You Miss?” program to talk about the PCE inflation report from Friday morning. You can see most of the interview here.

I like the segment – Scarlet Fu, Oliver Renick, and Julie Hyman asked good questions – but we had to compress a fairly technical discussion into only 5 or 6 minutes. As a result, the segment might be a little “wonky” for some people, and I thought it might be helpful to present and expand the discussion here.

The PCE report itself was not surprising. Core PCE came in as-expected, at 1.7%. This is rising, but remains below the Fed’s 2% target for that index. I think it is interesting to look at how PCE differs from CPI to see why PCE remains below 2%. After all, core PCE is the only inflation index that is still below 2% (see chart, source Bloomberg). And, as we will see, this raises other questions about whether PCE is a reasonable target for Fed policy.

fourmeasuresThere are several differences between CPI and PCE, but the main reasons they differ can be summarized simply: the CPI measures what the consumer buys, out-of-pocket; the PCE measures not only household expenditures but also spending on behalf of consumers, including such things as employer-purchased insurance and some important government expenditures. As pointed out by the BEA on this helpful page, “the CPI is based on a survey of what households are buying; the PCE is based on surveys of what businesses are selling.”

This leads to two major types of differences: weight effects and scope effects.

Weight effects occur because the PCE is a broader index covering more economic activity. Consider housing, which is one of the more steady components of CPI. Primary rents and owners’-equivalent rent constitute together some 32% of the CPI and those two components have been rising at a blended rate of about 3.4% recently. However, the weight of rent-of-shelter in PCE is only 15.5%. This difference accounts for roughly half of the difference between core CPI and core PCE, and is persistent at the moment because of the strength in housing inflation.

Continue reading Why Does the Fed Focus on a Flawed PCE?

Shooting Blanks

By Michael Ashton

Anything times zero is zero

Almost eight years after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the first of many central bank quantitative easing programs, it appears the expansion – the weakest on record by several measures – is petering out. The Q2 growth rate of GDP was 1.2% annualized, meaning that the last three quarters were +0.9%, +0.8%, +1.2%. That’s not a recession, but it’s also not an expansion to write home about.

But why? Why after all of the quantitative easing? Is the effectiveness waning? Is it time for more?

I read recently about how many economists are expecting the Bank of England to increase asset purchases (QE) this Thursday in an attempt to counteract the depressing effects of Brexit on growth. Some think the increase will be as much as £150 billion. That’s impressive, but will it help?

I also read recently about how the Bank of Japan “disappointed investors” by not increasing asset purchases except incrementally. The analysts said this was disappointing because the BOJ’s action was “not enough to cause growth.”

That’s because no amount of money printing is enough to cause growth. No amount.

It seems like people get confused with this concept, including many economists, because we use units of currency. So let’s try illustrating the point a different way. Suppose I pay you in candy bars for the widgets you produce. Suppose I pay you 10 candy bars, each of which is 10 ounces, for each widget. Now, if I start paying you 11 candy bars instead of 10, then the price has risen and you want to produce more widgets, right? This, indirectly, is what economists are thinking when they think about the effect of monetary policy.

But suppose that I pay you 11 candy bars, but now each candy bar is 9.1 ounces instead of 10 ounces? I suspect you will not be fooled into producing more widgets. You will realize that I am still paying you 100 ounces of candy per widget. You are not fooled by the fact that the unit of account changed in intrinsic value.

Now, when the central bank adds to the money supply, but doesn’t change the amount of stuff the economy produces (they don’t have the power to direct production!), then all that changes is the size of the unit of account – the candy bar, or in this case the dollar – and the number of dollars you need to buy a widget goes up. That’s called inflation. And the only way that printing more money can cause production to increase is if you don’t notice that the value of any given unit of currency has declined. That is, only if I say I’m paying you 11 candy bars – but you haven’t noticed they are smaller – will you respond to the change in terms. This is called “money illusion,” and it is why money printing does not cause growth in theory…and, as it turns out, in practice.[1]

There is nothing terribly strange or unpredictable about what is going on in global growth in terms of the response to monetary policy. The only thing strange is that eight years on, with numerous observations on which to evaluate the efficacy of quantitative easing, the conclusion appears to be that it might not be quite as effective as policymakers had thought. And therefore, we need to do lots more of it, the thought process seems to go. But anything times zero is zero. Central banks are not shooting an inaccurate, awkward weapon in the fight to stimulate growth, which just needs to be fired a lot more so that something eventually hits. They are shooting blanks. And no amount of shooting blanks will bring down the bad guy.

[1] I address this aspect of money, and other aspects that affect inflation, in my book What’s Wrong With Money: The Biggest Bubble of All.

Mining’s Bootstrapper

By Biiwii

chester millar[edit, biiwii comment: in looking at Corex Gold’s stock price reaction after this interview, I am left with several questions and they are not very pleasant ones]

I found this interview with Chester Millar at CEO.CA by way of Bob at 321gold.  What a wonderful interview with a delightful man, who was the founder of Glamis Gold, bought by Goldcorp for $8.6b back in the heady days of the previous gold mining cycle.

Mining’s Bootstrapper

“I am set for life seventeen times and I’m not doing this for the money. I do it because it’s a mental challenge and I like it. Some people play golf, and I start mines.”

There are so many grifters, bullshit artists and know-it-alls professing to be gold mining experts. This guy has it in his veins (pun sort of intended) and was a purveyor of low cost heap leaching to boot.  I love real industry people who do real work, free of the abstractions of the financial sphere.