Author Archives: Keith Weiner

     

 

 

Questions and Answers

A reader emailed us, to ask a few pointed questions. Paraphrasing, they are:

 

  1. Who cares if dollars are calculated in gold or gold is calculated in dollars? People care only if their purchasing power has grown.
  2. What is the basis good for? Is it just mathematical play for gold theorists? How does knowing the basis help your readers? Is it just a theoretical explanation of what has already happened?
  3. Prove that if someone has known the basis for the last four years, he has benefited.

 

Tell us about your crystal ball, oh great oracle. Is it any good? Can you divine the future for us and make us all rich? Quick? [PT]

 

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Eternal Spendathon

The Senate just passed a 500-page tax reform bill. Assuming it lives up to its promise, it will cut taxes on corporations and individuals. Predictably, the Left hates it and the Right loves it. I am writing to argue why the Right should hate it (no, not for the reason the Left does, a desire to get the rich).

 

The Federal debtberg has grown beyond all measure since Nixon’s gold default. So has the money supply and the amount of private debt. No-one expects this debt to be paid back ever. The idea that it is payable (without a massive devaluation of the currency) is a kind of illusion we have collectively decided to live with. Government spending perforce leads to capital consumption – while it disturbs the  production structure intra- rather than inter-temporally, it still results in an allocation of scarce resources that is not in line with actual consumer wants. Government bureaus cannot possibly ascertain the opportunity cost of their spending. They are not expected to make profits, economic calculation is not something they even care about. On the contrary, their incentives are often quite perverse: the more lavishly they spend, the better from their perspective, as that is often the best way to ensure they will receive the largest possible budget allocations every year. [PT] – click to enlarge.

 

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Grain of Salt Required

The price of gold fell $7, and that of silver 24 cents. This was a holiday shortened week, due to Thanksgiving on Thursday in the US (and likely thin trading and poor liquidity on Wednesday and Friday). So take the numbers this week, including the basis, with a grain of that once-monetary commodity, salt. We will keep the market action commentary brief.

 

Relatively modern examples of salt money which was widely used in African countries until the early 20th century. The bars were clad in fibers to keep them from breaking up. The specimen at the top and in the bottom left corner were collected in Ethiopia (formerly known as Abyssinia), where they are used as a medium of exchange among nomads living in the Danakil Plains to this day. The salt-filled package made of leaves in the bottom right corner is late 19th century salt money from Angola. [PT]

 

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Reasons to Buy Gold

The price of gold went up $19, and the price of silver 42 cents. The price action occurred on Monday, Wednesday and Friday though so far, only the first two price jumps reversed. We promise to take a look at the intraday action on Friday.

 

File under “reasons to buy gold”: A famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a rather unruly queue in front of a bank in Shanghai in 1949 in the final days of Kuomintang rule. When it dawned on people that the communists couldn’t be stopped, they frantically tried exchange their government-issued paper money for gold. In preparation for its exodus to Taiwan, the Kuomintang regime had forced everyone to exchange their gold, silver and foreign exchange for a new paper currency, the Jingyuanquan in 1948 (“golden yuan”) which it promptly inflated with gay abandon, belying its name. It then tried to combat rising prices with price controls – a strategy that has reliably failed since at least the times of the Roman Empire. It reversed the policy a few months later, as even its main supporters became thoroughly fed up. The people in the picture above were among those who had clearly waited too long to take advantage of this policy reversal. [PT]

 

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A Different Vantage Point

The prices of the metals were up slightly this week. But in between, there was some exciting price action. Monday morning (as reckoned in Arizona), the prices of the metals spiked up, taking silver from under $16.90 to over $17.25. Then, in a series of waves, the price came back down to within pennies of last Friday’s close. The biggest occurred on Friday.

 

Silver ended slightly up on the week after a somewhat bigger rally was rudely interrupted on Friday. These intra-week ups and downs that end up going nowhere have become routine in recent weeks. Remember that industrial demand for silver is strongest in January – that is something short term oriented traders might want to keep in mind, as the effect on prices tends to be very strong on average (the “going nowhere in Q4” trend is also a recurring seasonal phenomenon over the past 45 years). [PT] – click to enlarge.

 

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Big Crunch or Big Chill

Physicists say that the universe is expanding. However, they hotly debate (OK, pun intended as a foreshadowing device) if the rate of expansion is sufficient to overcome gravity—called escape velocity. It may seem like an arcane topic, but the consequences are dire either way.

 

OT – a little cosmology excursion from your editor: Observations so far suggest that the expansion of the universe is indeed accelerating – the “big crunch”, in which the expansion not only stops, but reverses as it is overcome by gravity, is no longer deemed likely. Observation of distant supernovas and their red-shifts in the late 1990s pointed clearly to an accelerating expansion; this was the meantime confirmed by other data as well, such as those on fluctuations in the density of baryonic matter (baryon acoustic oscillations), which are evident in the large scale structures visible in the universe (ever larger structures are discovered, the record is currently held by the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall, which measures an estimated ~3 gigaparsecs or roughly 10 billion light years across). The precise shape of the universe remains open to question, but recent evidence strongly suggests that it is a flat, Euclidian universe (thus, dark energy is assumed to be driving the acceleration of the expansion – a hyperbolic or saddle-shaped universe with a matter density below the critical value would expand forever anyway). The second and third image above show the current ideas about the timeline of the universe since the big bang. It is held that the current era of accelerating expansion started about 7.5 billion years ago. Ever since, all galaxies  – indeed all objects in the universe – are flying apart at continually increasing speed. The last image shows the size of the observable universe, which has a diameter of 28.5 gigaparsecs, or 93 billion light years (i.e., we can “see” 46.5 billion light years in every direction). Readers will notice that this is much larger than the age of the universe would suggest. Shouldn’t the size of the observable universe be limited by the speed of light, and hence correlate roughly with the age of the universe? Actually, on account of the ongoing expansion of space-time, the light from the oldest, most distant galaxies we can currently see comes from objects that have moved much farther away from us in the meantime (a process referred to as “co-movement”). Over time, we will see more rather than fewer galaxies, as light will have had more time to travel and the light from even more distant galaxies will begin to reach us. The observable universe will grow, but there is a strict limit to this. The effect will reverse at an estimated threshold radius of 62 billion light years (compared to the current 46.5 billion), i.e., the maximum diameter of the observable universe will be capped at 124 billion light for all observers, regardless of where in the universe they are (note: all observers subjectively believe that they are at the center of the universe, as all of them can “see” a spherical volume of the same size surrounding them). Once this threshold is reached more galaxies will begin to red-shift out of visibility than will become newly visible, and eventually, darkness will descend on us, or rather, our descendants (trivia: the most remote quasar so far recorded by the Hubble telescope is a dark red blotch 31 billion light years from here). What is there beyond the boundary of  the observable universe? Estimates of the size of the “causally disconnected” part of the universe (which we will never be able to see or interact with) range from 3×1023 times the size of the observable universe, up to a volume 101010122 times larger than what is visible to us. Both the “big rip”, in which the universe becomes cold and dark in a mere 22-50 billion years as the expansion accelerates to such an extent that every shred of matter is literally torn apart, or the “big freeze”, a slow heat death, in which maximum entropy is reached about 100 trillion years from now, remain possible alternatives for the end of everything. As the big freeze approaches its end, the last remains of baryonic matter will begin to degrade at temperatures a mere sliver above absolute zero, with protons and neutrons decaying into electrons and positrons that may form bizarre atoms light years in size (a.k.a. “positronium”), which will orbit each other at the ultimate snail’s pace, moving just one centimeter in a million years – in complete darkness, natch. All of this could still turn out to be wrong: our measurements may well be flawed; misled by effects caused by a relatively low matter density in our own sector of the universe and the nearby voids, which only make it appear as though the entire universe was expanding at an accelerating pace. It is also possible that as result of an unusually inhomogeneous distribution of matter (differences >20%), denser regions are actually already collapsing inward, but their contraction looks similar to an expansion from our perspective, due to the differences in the curvature of space in regions with varying matter density. Note that no “dark energy” would have to be invoked if that were the case. [PT, end of astronomy lesson]  – click to enlarge.

 

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New Chief Monetary Bureaucrat Goes from Good to Bad for Silver

The prices of the metals ended all but unchanged last week, though they hit spike highs on Thursday. Particularly silver his $17.24 before falling back 43 cents, to close at $16.82.

 

Never drop silver carelessly, since it might land on your toes. If you are at loggerheads with gravity for some reason, only try to handle smaller-sized bars than the ones depicted above. The snapshot to the right shows the governor of Nevada before the bar dropped (based on his sanguine facial expression). [PT]

 

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Net Present Value

Warren Buffet famously proposed the analogy of a machine that produces one dollar per year in perpetuity. He asks how much would you pay for this machine? Clearly it is worth something more than $1.00. And it’s equally clear that it’s not worth $1,000. The value is somewhere in between. But where?

 

We are not sure why Warren Buffett invoked a money printing machine of all things – another interesting way of looking at the concept is by e.g. considering land. Why does land have a finite value? After all, a piece of land that can be used to grow wheat can conceivably do so in perpetuity (even if it is merely valued as standing room, such as a plot of land on 5th Avenue in NYC, it can render that service forever. The only important attribute is that the land in question be capable of generating rents, or is at least expected to become capable of doing so in the future). Why then isn’t it worth an infinite amount? Land values are appraised the same way the values of other factors of production are appraised, namely (to paraphrase Mises) according to the services they will render at various future time periods, with time preference taken into account (if society-wide time preference is high, the natural interest rate will be high as well and land values will be affected negatively; conversely, land values will tend to increase amid declining time preference and falling interest rates). By applying a discount to a series of consecutive future time periods, one will arrive at a sequence of values converging to zero, hence the price of land is finite (sub-marginal land that cannot conceivably yield any rents will have no value at all, or at best a speculative value). This is just considering the basic ceteris paribus (or equilibrium) framework, as in the ever-changing real economy numerous other factors will also influence the appraisal of land values; still, it is fair to say that the quality of the land concerned (how much output it is expected to produce per input of labor and capital) and time preference (which determines the height of the interest rate used in the discounting procedure) are the most important factors (and it is important to recognize that they are distinct factors, completely independent of each other. Originary interest is not a function of productivity). Other factors can of course overwhelm these basic considerations – these concern mainly various types of government intervention in the economy (such taxes levied directly on land or on land rents, the security of property rights, etc.), or other developments that impact expectations (for instance, if a major volcano outbreak is expected to be imminent, the value of land in the vicinity will probably decline quite a bit). As Keith explains below, time preference is a fundamental pillar of all human action. We are mortal and in our perception of time, there is always a “sooner” and a “later”. Therefore time preference will always exist and be positive. It cannot be any other way, as all provisioning for the future would otherwise cease. Thinking of time preference declining to zero or becoming negative is akin to attempting division by zero, i.e., it simply makes no sense whatsoever. If it actually were to happen, we would consume all existing capital and slowly die of hunger thereafter. [PT]

Photo credit: Bob Embleton

 

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Rumors Driving Short Term Price Swings

The prices of the metals dropped a bit more this week, -$7 and -$0.16. We all know the dollar is going down, that it is the stated policy of the Federal Reserve to make it go down. We all know that gold has been valued for thousands of years. So why do we measure the timeless metal in terms of paper currency?

 

Money – sound and unsound [PT]

 

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Amassing Unproductive Debt

Last week, we discussed the marginal productivity of debt. This is how much each newly-borrowed dollar adds to GDP. And ever since the interest rate began its falling trend in 1981, marginal productivity of debt has tightly correlated with interest. The lower the interest rate, the less productive additional borrowing has in fact become.

 

Left: the first IKEA store located in Älmhult in Sweden, near the residence of the company’s founder (nowadays the store is a museum); right: a Task Rabbit car. Given the valuations at which TaskRabbit was able to raise funds recently, it is a good bet IKEA paid a small fortune to take it over (waiting for the QE-induced bubble to burst may have been cheaper). [PT]

 

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Chart Patterns

The prices of the metals dropped $20 and $0.39, a downhill slide interrupted on Thursday by speculation fueled by some economic data (as we covered in our special report), and which resumed on Friday.

 

Gold over the past two years. The blue rectangle outlines the pattern discussed below. It doesn’t really work well as a head and shoulders (H&S) pattern in gold, since the neckline would be beyond skewed. We should also mention that this pattern is really not what seems to be commonly believed nowadays. In its original meaning, an H&S pattern can only occur at the end of an extended trend, with the “head” marking a major price peak. The recent “head” would be below the peak seen last year, so it is disqualified based on this definition. Similarly, an inverse H&S pattern occurs only at a major low, not somewhere in the middle of a trend. Gold has moved sidewaysin a series of overlapping waves since rallying from late 2015 to mid-2016. In other words, this some sort of (complex) corrective formation is being built. Given that it has been two years since the price low (in non-dollar currencies the low was made 3 to 5 years ago), it seems highly unlikely that this is a corrective wave in a primary bear market. It is not impossible, but it isn’t likely. In USD terms gold trades 23% above its 2015 low – and it does so despite a fundamental macro backdrop that is at best neutral with a bearish tilt. All of this points to a beginning cyclical bull market. [PT] – click to enlarge.

 

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Claim-Less Delirium

Yesterday, the Department of Labor announced that initial jobless claims dropped. Quite a lot. So naturally, markets reacted. The stock market began to rise. The euro rose, at least for a while.

 

Initial weekly unenjoyment claims over the past 20 years. Can you say “contrary indicator”? The most recent palpitations in this measure were driven by assorted named hurricanes making landfall – a very similar effect could be observed in 2005 when Katrina devastated New Orleans. What is most remarkable though is that in the QE-distorted bubble economy initial claims have actually been driven way below the levels of early 2000, which were long considered modern-day extremes. In fact, comparable numbers were last seen shortly after Nixon’s “temporary” gold default – nearly 50 years ago. Anyone holding or planning to buy stocks should ponder the correlation of this indicator with stock prices – its history suggests that right now is probably one of the worst times ever to buy stocks. The same conditions tend to midwife long term upward trends in gold. Don’t let the current boom-driven distortions fool you into believing everything is fine. Consider this example: from 1920 until late 1922 Germany’s unemployment rate stood at less than 2%, as the Reichsbank ran the printing presses at full throttle day and night. One year later it had surged to 25%. We obviously don’t want to insinuate that a replay of Weimar is underway; we only want to make the point that economic conditions created by massive money printing are an illusion invariably fated to be shattered. [PT] – click to enlarge.

 

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