Author Archives: Keith Weiner

 

The Swiss Franc Will Collapse

 

I have worked to keep this piece readable, and as brief as possible. My grave diagnosis demands the evidence and reasoning to support it. One cannot explain the collapse of this currency with the conventional view. “They will print money to infinity,” may be popular but it’s not accurate. The coming destruction has nothing to do with the quantity of money. It is a story of what happens when interest rates fall into a black hole.

 

swiss tattered flag

 

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Decades of Falling Rates

The old joke is, “(with a Russian accent) In America, you correct newspaper, but in Soviet Union, newspaper corrects you.” Switzerland is now experiencing the bond market equivalent. In America, the government pays you to borrow but in Switzerland you pay the government. All Swiss bonds have a negative yield out to 9 years. Negative means you pay them to lend them your money. The 10-year Swiss government bond has effectively zero yield. For comparison, the 10-year US Treasury is 1.8%.

Here is a graph of the Swiss yield curve.

 

chart-1-Swiss Yield CurveSwiss yield curve – bond yields to maturity are now negative out to 9 years – click to enlarge.

 

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From Shortage to Ample Supplies

We don’t normally analyze the crude oil market. However, there has been a huge price move (which may not be complete yet). With the endless rumors of deals that explain the move, we thought we would look at the spreads. The data shows a startling picture.

You should approach supply and demand in this market similarly to gold and silver. The difference is that there is very little inventory buffered in the system. Notwithstanding what you read about China “buying up” the oil to take advantage of “cheap” prices, oil requires specialized storage facilities. There is a significant cost to store it, and finite capacity too.

Below is a 3D graph of the futures curve taken at various times, from before the crash through January 9. Each line represents the curve at a given moment. Red lines are where there is backwardation. Yellow is a flat curve. And green indicates contango.

Unlike our regular Supply and Demand Report for gold and silver, this shows just the price of various futures contracts and does not compare to the spot price. So here, backwardation is when a farther-out contract is cheaper than a nearer one. Contango is when the nearer one is cheaper. As with the monetary metals, backwardation is a sign of shortage, and contango is a sign of adequate or abundant supply.

 

chart-1-crude futures curveYou can see backwardation from May through September, with a gradual lessening of the slope. What really stands out is that, abruptly, the backwardation disappeared – click to enlarge.

 

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CPI and the “Wealth Effect”

In Poker, to go all in means to bet everything you have. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that, at least so far as the mainstream audience is concerned, we gold advocates have gone all in. We have made one argument: we should adopt the gold standard, because inflation. By inflation, it is generally meant rising consumer prices (this is not my definition), again at least so far as the mainstream audience goes.

It’s true. Prices have been rising relentlessly since the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. We certainly have made the argument that inflation happens in paper money, but not in gold. I think most people believe that, despite the obfuscations of the diehard apologists for the Fed.

I think people care about inflation—but not that much. People who work for wages mostly get mad at their boss for not giving them a big enough raise. People who are retired on a pension mostly get mad at the politicians for the same reason. They complain that the cost of living adjustment is not enough.

What about the rich? This graph explains why the rich are not at all unhappy.

 

chart-1-stocks-vs-CPIThe SPX vs. CPI, via Monetary Metals, click to enlarge.

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The Problem of Contingent Data

Have you ever been in an argument about whether we should raise taxes and then someone tosses out a real whopper? “The top tax rate for decades after World War II was over 90% and look how the economy boomed!”

Or perhaps you read a Paul Krugman column where he said that, “there’s a big problem with the claim that monetary policy has been too loose: where’s the inflation [he means rising prices]?”

Both the Internet troll and Professor Krugman are making the same mistake. Let me explain.

Economists love to use the Latin phrase ceteris paribus. It means all else being equal. It’s great in a thought experiment. For example, what would happen if we made a change in America today? Suppose we criminalized all use of fossil fuels. We can’t really do that (I hope!) but it can serve a pedagogic purpose.

It should be pretty obvious that the consequence of shutting off the motors is to shut off production, and people will soon starve. If this isn’t obvious, then you don’t need my blog entry on economic argumentation. You need The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein.

Every economist is aware that in comparing a historical time to the present, or comparing two different countries all else is not equal. There is not one difference between the immediate postwar period and today. There are innumerable differences. You can’t just assume that the one difference you’re debating is the only one that matters.

 

supply and demand

Cartoon via Washington Post

 

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Only Number Two?

A story has been echoing around the financial news for a few weeks. One article about it, It’s official: America is now No. 2 by Brett Arends at MarketWatch, came to my attention. Arends asserts that the Chinese economy is now larger than the economy in the US. Here’s what he said.

 

“We’re no longer No. 1. Today, we’re No. 2. Yes, it’s official. The Chinese economy just overtook the United States economy to become the largest in the world.”

 

With GDP data from the IMF, we can easily see that the US economy is bigger than China’s. The IMF estimates 2014 GDP at $10.4T for China and $17.4T for the USA. So how does Arends claim the contrary? He uses different data that IMF adjusts. By this methodology, the Chinese economy is “really” $17.6T.

 

china-gross-national-productChina’s GDP in hundreds of million yuan

 

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Begging the Question on Minimum Wages

The battle over minimum wages is raging. Emotions are running hot. Some cities are setting the bar very high. For example, Seattle is mandating a $15/hour wage.

Economically, the issue is very simple. Minimum wage laws do not raise anyone’s wage. This is because it’s not sustainable to overpay.

Suppose you run a small tailor shop. Customers are willing to pay $20 to repair a pair of slacks. Why are they willing to pay that, and no more? It’s not just their budget, but also the relative value of fixing their old trousers compared to buying new ones. A higher wage for your employees will have no effect on customer willingness to pay.

You have rent, utilities, insurance, wear and tear on your sewing machines, etc. that add up to $10. Therefore your maximum gross profit is $10. You cannot pay someone $11, much less $15, to do this work. If the law attempts to force you to overpay, then you have to lay off workers or even close your doors. Going out of business is no fun, but it beats losing more money.

This is black and white. Minimum wage law can destroy jobs and businesses but it cannot raise wages. However, many people become very emotional on this issue. So let’s look at the issue from a different angle.

There is an endless outpouring of sympathy and support for the unskilled laborer. How is this poor downtrodden helpless victim supposed to feed a family, cover medical expenses, and save for retirement earning only $7.25 per hour?

I don’t know.

My lack of an answer to this question is no justification for minimum wage laws. This is not even the right question. It is an example of the logical fallacy known as begging the question—when you presume what you should be asking. We should ask if one man’s need creates a duty for anyone else. Then the answer is a lot clearer.

The last time I checked, we had not adopted the Communist Manifesto as our new constitution. There is no law saying that each is to be given according to his need.

 

manifesto1Not quite adopted just yet: the communist manifesto by Marx and Engels.

(Amazingly, they actually charged 40 cents for this)

 

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A Republic – If You Can Keep It

As the famous story goes, when Ben Franklin left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia had a question she wanted answered.

“Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

No one today (well, seemingly other than the current president) wants a monarchy. However, too many call our once-Republic a “democracy”. They love the idea of the will of the people, directly determined by vote and imposed by force of law.

The primary argument against this form of government is that it’s tyranny. A majority has no right to take away the rights of any individual, no matter how unpopular he may be. However, that is precisely the consequence of giving the people the power to vote for anything, with no constitutional limits to the power of government.

 

800px-Benjamin_Franklin_1767

Benjamin Franklin: founding father, prolific inventor, and frequent purveyor of political wisdom.

(Painting by David Martin, 1767)

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A Key Flaw

There is now a very interesting initiative on the Swiss ballot, which will require the Swiss National Bank (SNB) to hold 20 percent of its reserves in gold. The voters will decide on November 30. I won’t predict the vote, but I want to discuss the likely impact of a yes vote.

Much of the analysis of this initiative is about the price of gold. A typical prediction is that it will go up, as SNB buying will exceed supply. However Mike Shedlock notes that, “Nearly all of the gold ever mined is available…”

That’s because gold is not consumed. The SNB is small compared to worldwide gold inventories, so it won’t move the price much. Shedlock adds, “It is entirely possible that SNB purchases could significantly alter perceptions…” I agree sentiment is ripe for a change.

The price isn’t very interesting, unless you’re a gold trader. It’s much more important that the referendum brings the first positive monetary change in decades. It reintroduces a link between gold and banking, and imposes a barrier to currency debasement. For this, the Swiss are heroes.

There is a key flaw in our system of floating currencies. Every financial asset is someone’s liability. When a currency moves, it creates winners and losers. Big moves can harm banks with loan portfolios outside their home.

That’s why the SNB currently doesn’t allow the euro to fall below 1.2 francs. To maintain this currency peg, the central bank sells francs and buys euros. There is no limit to this deliberate franc devaluation, which robs Swiss savers, investors, and businesses.

Big exporters, like Swatch and Nestle, may have lobbied for a weaker franc, hoping to make their products more competitive, but that’s a sideshow. The real purpose of franc devaluation is to shield the Swiss banks from euro devaluation.

They’re vulnerable, because they do a lot of lending outside the country. They have assets denominated in euros and liabilities denominated in francs. They suffer losses when the euro falls, or the franc rises.

 

EUR-CHF

EUR-CHF exchange rate – pegged at a 1.20 minimum floor by the SNB since September 2011 – via StockCharts, click to enlarge.

 

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Drivers of Financial Implosion

I proposed seven drivers of financial implosion in my dissertation. My recent writing has focused on two of them. One is the falling rate of interest on the 10-year government bond. As interest falls, the burden of debt rises. Since the falling rate incentivized more and more people to borrow, the number of indebted people, businesses, corporations, and of course governments is large. When the rate gets to zero, the burden of debt becomes theoretically infinite.

In the US, the downward trend is still in a deceptively mild phase (though there was a vicious spike down on Oct 15 to 1.87%). The rate on the 10-year Treasury is 2.3% today. In Germany, it is down to 0.82% and in Japan the metastatic cancer is much closer to causing multiple organ failures, with a yield of just 0.46%.

Two is gold backwardation, which has also been quiescent of late. Although it is worth noting that with these lower gold prices, temporary backwardation has returned. The December gold cobasis is over +0.2%).

I haven’t written much about a third indicator yet. What proportion of government bond issuance does the central bank have to buy? I theorized that when the central bank is buying all of the bonds issued by the government, that this is another sign of imminent collapse. I phrased it, as with the other indicators, as a value that is falling. Collapse happens when it hits zero, if not earlier. Here is what I wrote:

 

“The average amount of new Treasury bond issuance minus new central bank Treasury bonds falling towards zero (i.e. the central bank is buying a greater and greater proportion of Treasury bonds issued).”

 

Bloomberg recently published an article about the Bank of Japan’s announcement of a new bond-buying program. Bloomberg presents two facts. One, the Bank plans to buy ¥8 to ¥12 trillion per month. Two, the government is selling ¥10 trillion per month in new bonds. This is an astonishing development.

The Bank of Japan will buy 100 percent of the new government bond issuance.

 

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Monetary Metals Supply and Demand Report: 2 Nov, 2014

Woe unto the gold speculators, and a curse laid upon the house of silver.

At least, that’s how it may feel. In more clinical terms, the gold price fell from $1,230.90 to $1,172.59, or $58.31. The drop this week was 4.7%. The price closed the week below the level set after the crash of 2013, which was $1180 (by the way, an intraday dip). The gold price has never closed a day below $1188 since 2010.

The silver price fell from $17.17 to $16.13. $1.04 is 6.1%. It’s never been lower in years, except briefly in 2010.

On April 9, we said:

“The neutral price of silver is in the $16’s today. If the price overshoots as far to the downside as it is now stretched to the upside, we could see silver with a 12 handle.”

We got hate mail.

In the first place, one would hope that people don’t shoot at messengers. We are of the firm belief that gold and silver are money, and the paper issued by the Fed is not. At the same time, we argue that this view is not a trading strategy. For trading, we look to market data.

Second, we were right. While other analysts called every blip with renewed forecasts of $50 and $250, the silver price has spoken. It had a false breakout in June, and has been falling steadily since then. It has traded with a 15 handle this week. Incredibly, the fundamental price we calculate for silver is still below the market price.

To see the fundamentals, read on …

 

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Fans of Central Banking Have an Achilles Heel

Most of my writing about the gold standard is about how it works, and how the paper dollar standard doesn’t. A casual conversation I had with someone recently underscored that there is an even stronger argument.

Our opponents, those who support central banking and irredeemable paper money, have to make two cases. One is to defend the theory and practice of central banking, that central bankers are wise and honest and that their debt-based paper money works. They have to argue that the dollar does everything you want money to do, such as hold its value, enable proper accounting, encourage savings, support a stable economy, etc. Well, they can go through the motions and fool the ignorant.

The other is that they have to defend the use of force against innocent people.

 

five year plan in four

Full speed ahead for the fourth and final year of the five year plan! (this poster was made when Stalin decided the 5 year plan had to be fulfilled in four years)

 

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False Assumptions and Wrong Predictions

An interesting article on MarketWatch today caught my attention. The subhead is the money quote, “Back in April every economist in a survey thought yields would rise. Guess what they did next.”

Every? The article refers to 67 economists polled by Bloomberg, all of whom would seem to believe in the quantity theory of money. This means they believe a rising money supply causes rising prices. That means they think the bond market expects inflation. Which means they expect the interest rate to rise, because investors will somehow demand more.

It didn’t happen because every assumption in that chain is false.

Many people also expect interest rates to rise after the Fed’s bond buying program—quantitative easing—ends. Let’s take a look at the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond from 1981 through today. This graph is courtesy of Yahoo Finance, though I have labeled it as carefully as I could for the three rounds of QE so far.

 

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The Post Gold Default World

After President Nixon’s gold default in 1971, many people advocated a return to the gold standard. One argument has been repeated: consumer prices are rising. While this is true, it wasn’t compelling in the 1970’s and it certainly doesn’t fire people up today. Rising prices—what most people think of as inflation—is a dead-end, politically. People care about rising prices, but not that much.

There is a greater danger to fixating on this one argument. What if you make a really bad prediction? The Fed did massively increase the money supply in response to the crisis of 2008. Many gold advocates predicted skyrocketing prices—even hyperinflation. Obviously, this has failed to materialize so far.

Preachers of imminent dollar collapse have lost credibility. Worse yet, they have poisoned the well. People who were once receptive to the benefits of gold have lost interest (their selling has exacerbated and extended the falling gold price trend). And why shouldn’t they walk away? They can see that some Armageddon peddlers have a conflict of interest, as they are also gold and silver bullion dealers.

 

Dollar IndexUS dollar – still alive, for now – click to enlarge.

 

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The Wrong Idea About Inflation

Here is a post I made to Facebook yesterday.

 

chart-1-crude oil

 

I was making two points. One, virtually all commodities are in falling trends now (except certain foods affected by the government-create drought conditions in California). Two, it has nothing to do with the money supply.

Some comments on the thread reminded me most people accept the idea that changes in the money supply lead to changes in prices (though not necessarily evenly or instantaneously). This idea is tempting, convenient, and it seems only “common sense”. However, it is facile.

I decided to write this post to add some context. Since 2008, there has been a massive increase in the money supply. M0 has increased from about $875B to $4T. It is now 3.5X what it was. M1 went from $1.4T to $2.8T, or 2X. M2 went from $7.8T to $11.4, or about 1.5X.

Prices haven’t done any such thing. The Bloomberg Commodity Index fell from about 175 to 118 today. In other words, the commodity index is 0.67X what it was.

How do we explain this? I have offered my theory of interest and prices. To condense 12,000 words into a sentence: rising interest rates and rising prices go together.

 

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