Most seasoned investors have some allocation to precious metals in their portfolios, most often gold. They believe that such an allocation protects them, as it is a hedge, or an insurance policy, against the proliferation of paper (fiat) money by the world’s largest central banks. Fiat money is not backed by real physical assets. In concept, I agree with this sentiment. Most investors who invest in precious metals ETFs, such as the SPDR Gold Trust ETF (NYSEARCA:GLD), through the supposedly regulated stock exchanges (“paper gold”) believe that they actually have a hedge against future inflation. In what follows, I will try to explain why they may not, and why their investments in paper gold may just be speculation.
On February 5, 1981, then Fed Chairman Paul Volcker said that the Fed had made a “commitment to a monetary policy consistent with reducing inflation…” Contrast that with the statement of outgoing Fed Chairman Bernanke on December 18, 2013: “We are very committed to making sure that inflation does not stay too low…”
During 2013, the price of gold fell more than 28% (from $165.17/oz. to $118.36/oz.) despite the fact that other assets like real estate and equities each rose at double-digit rates. It is perplexing that the price of the hedge against inflation is falling in the face of a money-printing orgy at all of the world’s major central banks. Despite the fact that these central banks have fought the inflation scourge for half of a century, suddenly they have all adopted policies that espouse inflation as something desirable. The fall in the price of gold is even more perplexing because there are reports of record demand for physical gold, especially in Asia, and that some of the mints can’t keep up with the demand for standardized product. In his year-end missive, John Hathaway of Tocqueville.com says that “the manager of one of the largest Swiss refiners stated that after almost doubling capacity this year, ‘they put on three shifts, they’re working 24 hours a day…and every time [we] think it’s going to slow down, [we] get more orders…70% of the kilo bar fabrication is going to China.'”
One would also think that the price of gold should be rising because of a growing loss of confidence in fiat currencies. Here are some indicators:
The growing interest in Bitcoin as an alternative to government-issued currencies. One should ask, why did the price of Bitcoin rise from $13.51 on December 31, 2012 to $754.76 on December 30, 2013 while the price of gold fell? As you will see later in this essay, the answer lies in leverage. The gold market is leveraged; Bitcoin is not (at least, not yet).
The volatility that the Fed has caused in emerging market economies by flooding the world with dollars at zero interest is another reason the price of gold should be rising. The Fed’s announced zero-rate policy with a time horizon caused huge capital flows into emerging market economies by hedge funds looking for yield. The inflows caused disruption to the immature financial systems in those emerging markets. And then, with the utterance of a single word, “tapering,” all of the hedge funds headed for the exits at once. The Indian rupee, for example, which was trading around 53 rupees/dollar in May 2013, fell to 69 near the end of August, a 30% loss of value. Such behavior has stirred up new interest on the part of major international players (China, Russia) to have an alternative to the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Don’t dismiss this as political posturing. It is based on irresponsible Fed policy in its role as the caretaker of the world’s reserve currency. As the world moves toward an alternative reserve currency, the dollar will weaken significantly relative to other currencies, and, theoretically, to gold (and even Bitcoin).
The loss of confidence on the part of some sovereign nations that the gold they have stored in foreign bank vaults is safe. Two examples immediately come to mind: Venezuela and Germany. In August of 2011, the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, demanded that the London bullion banks that were holding Venezuela’s gold ship it to Caracas. (Again, don’t dismiss this as political posturing.) Despite the fact that the shipment could have been carried on a single cargo plane, it took until late January 2012 (17 months), for the London banks to completely comply. One should wonder why. Then, the German Bundesbank asked for an audit of its gold holdings at the Fed. One knows how the Fed has resisted audits from Congress, so why should a request from a German bank meet with any different result? After political escalation, a German minister was permitted to see a room full of gold at the New York Fed. In early 2013, the Bundesbank publicly announced that its intent was to repatriate its gold from the vaults in Paris, London, and New York. We have now learned that it will take seven years for the New York Fed to ship the gold earmarked as belonging to Germany in the Fed’s vaults. One should wonder why such a long delay.
In the face of all of this — unparalleled money printing, the rise in the prices of real estate and equities in 2013, and the creeping suspicions regarding the real value of fiat currencies — how is it that the price of gold fell 28% in 2013? The answer lies in leverage and hypothecation, the modus operandi of Wall Street, London, and financiers worldwide. The paper gold market, the one that trades the ETFs such as the SPDR Gold Trust, is 92 times bigger than the physical supply of gold according to Tocqueville’s John Hathaway. Think about that. It means that each physical ounce of gold that actually exists has been loaned, pledged, and re-loaned 92 times on average. Each holder in the paper gold market thinks that the ounce of paper gold held in the brokerage account is backed by an ounce of real gold. But there are, on average, 92 others who apparently have a claim on the same real, physical ounce.
The answer to the question, why did gold fall 28% in 2013 when, theoretically, it should have risen, is that Wall Street, London, and hedge funds have turned the paper gold market into a market of speculation, where the price rises or falls, not based on the purchasing power of currencies (the hedging characteristic of gold), but on such things as whether or not the Fed will taper, what impact Iranian nuclear talks will have on oil flows, if the interest rates in the eurozone periphery are likely to rise or fall, etc.
In my next article, I will explain how all of this occurred, and what investors who want to hedge and not speculate should do.
Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. Barone is a former director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and is currently a director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Co., where he chairs the investment committee.
Contact Robert Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone and Andrea Knapp) who are available to discuss client investment needs. Call them at 775-284-7778.
Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.