Archive for April 2014



Dan Popescu is a Member of the Editorial Team


Switzerland’s Role in the Gold Market





« Switzerland is for gold what Bordeaux is to wine », Gilles Labarthe, Swiss journalist and ethnologist.


When one thinks of Switzerland, banking comes to mind easily but gold doesn’t as much. After all, the relationship between Switzerland and gold is more ancient than the one with paper bank deposits. Certain bankers from Geneva, such as Lombard Odier and Pictet, started in 1800 and have more than 200 years of history. Back then, paper money didn’t exist yet and deposits consisted mainly of gold and silver. Today, still, a full two-thirds of the world’s gold goes through Switzerland and, in an average year, it refines grossly 70% of the world’s gold. Six of the gold refiners on the LBMA Good Delivery list make for 90% of global volume, and four of those are in Switzerland. Up until 1992, the Swiss franc’s 40% backing by gold was written in the country’s Constitution. When Switzerland became a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) it had to abandon this backing by gold. Today, Swiss citizens have asked for a referendum to be called in order to get back to that backing.


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Bad Taste?

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the man rightly credited with Germany's economic renaissance (whose reforms are incidentally in danger) has been a good friend of Russia's president Putin for quite some time. In fact, after leaving politics, Schröder got a job with Gazprom. Recently, Schröder celebrated his 70th birthday in St. Petersburg. Among the guests, none other than Vladimir Putin. Germany's political establishment and mainstream journalists are incensed.  For instance, 'Der Spiegel' writes in an editorial:


There's nothing you can do about your relatives, but you certainly have a choice when it comes to picking your friends. This sage wisdom also applies to Gerhard Schröder, the former German leader and confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He himself can decide whom to embrace and with whom to celebrate his 70th birthday — after all, true friends stick together, even in the toughest of times. Normally, one would call this strength of character.

But when it comes to Schröder and Putin in the context of the Ukraine crisis, things are a little more complicated. Gerhard Schröder ought to know better. If the former German chancellor believes he can continue his friendship as if nothing has happened, it's a mistake. Schröder's own center-left Social Democratic Party is currently the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which is frantically trying to prevent his friend Vladimir from carrying out the policies of a power-drunk hegemon in Eastern Europe. In difficult times like these, a former German leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin.

Dialogue, including with Putin, must continue, and the West must take Moscow's interests into account. It is also perfectly fine for Gerhard Schröder to be friends with Putin — that's his business. But hugging and chumming it up at a party in St. Petersburg against the backdrop of current events is simply tasteless. The event, held in honor of Schröder's 70th birthday on Monday night, was hosted by Nord Stream AG, a subsidiary of Russian gas monopolist Gazprom. The former chancellor is the chairman of the shareholders' committee of the company, which operates a gas pipeline that directly links Russia and Germany.


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Dancing While the Music Plays: “You Will Have No Choice But to Buy”

In mid April, Reuters reported that there hadn't been any trades in 10 year JGBs for a day and a half – shortly after the BoJs holdings of JGBs topped 200 trillion yen for the first time. There once used to be a limit to 'QE' by the BoJ: it wasn't allowed to buy long term JGBs in excess of the amount of yen bank notes in circulation. This rule, which was introduced in 2001, was repealed 'temporarily' with the beginning of Kuroda's massive 'QE' operation, although it had already been broken almost a year earlier. Considering that Japan's bank notes in circulation amount to about 80 trillion yen, the limit has by now obviously been left completely in the dust. In fact, since 1999, the BoJ has gradually repealed all the 'JGB purchase rules' that were put in place in 1967.  Once it couldn't buy a government bond until one year after its issuance for instance, and only 20 issues of 10 and 20 year bonds were eligible. By now, all bonds are eligible, and the 'one year rule' no longer applies. By the end of 2013, the BoJ's long term JGB holdings amounted to 1.5 times bank notes in circulation:


JGB holdings vs. bank notes

BoJ's long term JGB holdings vs. bank notes in circulation – click to enlarge.


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Excess Liquidity

The Dow went up 87 points on Monday. Gold went nowhere. Our guess: Neither stocks nor gold knows where to go from here. The economy is still weak, with mortgage lending at its lowest point in 14 years. But the Fed is still holding interest rates down … and feeding plenty of QE money into the market.

The Fed is expected to continue tapering its QE program next month, taking another $10 billion off its monthly allowance for buying bonds from the private sector. But for the moment, economist Richard Duncan tells us that there’s still enough “excess liquidity” to keep stocks up. Later this year, Duncan says, the trouble should start. Stay tuned …


A Crisis of Capitalism?

On Sunday, we became godparents to a six-month-old girl. A cute little girl, with dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair … and chubby cheeks. Her mother, as near as we can tell, is a descendant of the local Diaguita tribe. The history books tell us that the Spanish tried to exterminate them… but they seem to have failed.

Up here, according to local tradition, landowners are often asked to be godparents to children born on their farms. Who could refuse? We’re not sure what to make of this new and totally unexpected responsibility. But heck, you take things as they come… and do your best.

Meanwhile, we’re dissing a book we haven’t read. Paul Krugman calls Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century a blockbuster. We can’t wait to get our hands on a copy, just to see if Piketty is really the blockhead he seems to be.


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'Energiewende' –  On the Verge of Failure

Switching off all nuclear plants in Germany on account of a tsunami in Japan wasn't only a bad idea because Germany is a lot less tsunami-prone than Nippon. It was a bad decision because it was made in the heat of the moment, an ad-hoc surrender to an age old Green Party demand that made very little economic sense. It also made little sense from a safety perspective, since Germany remains surrounded by countries that do not feel the same urge to decommission all their nuclear power plants at the drop of a hat.

However, Germany has been on a 'green energy' trip well before the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant in Japan. The country has blighted its landscapes with wind power and solar contraptions for many years, in a futile attempt to 'save the planet' (the planet not surprisingly remains completely unsaved, as CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated year after year, from one insignificant amount to another).

Solar energy generation was very generously funded, in spite of the fact that it is hugely expensive and certainly wouldn't even be remotely economically viable in Germany without subsidies. It sure was a boon though for those who were paid the subsidies that invariably go hand in hand with replacing cheap with expensive power generation. Consumers and industry on the other hand have been feeling the pinch.

As the 'No Tricks Zone' reports from Germany, vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has now more or less admitted that the policy is on the verge of failure – and that the subsidization of green energy is drawing to a close.


“In a stunning admission by Germany’s Economics Minister and Vice Chancellor to Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel announced in a recent speech that the country’s once highly ballyhooed transformation to renewable energy, the so called Energiewende, a model that has been adopted by a number of countries worldwide, is “on the verge of failure“.

Speaking at an event at SMA Solar, Germany’s leading manufacturer of solar technology, Gabriel even dropped yet another admission bomb: “The truth is that in all fields we under-estimated the complexity of the Energiewende.

Gabriel is not only the national economics minister and vice chancellor to Angela Merkel, he is also head of Germany’s socialist SPD party, which is now the coalition partner in Angela Merkel’s CDU/SPD grand coalition government. Moreover Gabriel was once the country’s environment minister and a devout believer in global warming and in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. In the speech Gabriel tells the audience how the energy transformation is on the verge of failure:

“Those who are the engines of the transformation to renewable energies, that’s you, you don’t see how close we are to the failure of the energy transformation.”

Gabriel says that major reforms are thus unavoidable, and he calls efforts for energy consumers to get off the grid “pure madness”. That’s not what they want after all. Gabriel is now calling on companies who produce green energy for their own use to ante up as well:

“The complete exemption from paying feed-in tariffs is a model that is wonderful for you as a business model, but is one that is a problem for everyone else.”

The solar energy audience reacts with dead, stunned silence. They can’t believe what they just heard.

The mood at SMA Solar, which has been a huge benefactor of the renewable energy subsidies brought on by Germany’s EEG feed-in act, was somber and shock and Gabriel delivered the reality. Many in attendance seemed unable to fathom what Gabriel was unloading: the heady days at the green energy feeding trough are over – live with it.”



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A Unique Aspect of the Relationship Between Russia and the Ukraine Comes to Light

It is well known that much of the Ukraine's heavy industry is concentrated in the eastern regions of the country, as is the bulk of the Ukraine's own gas reserves. Hence the reluctance of the government in Kiev to let go of control over these regions. One must also not forget that every Ukrainian government, including the latest incarnation, is allied with certain 'oligarchs'. In fact, when former president Yanukovich lost the support of oligarchs previously allied with him, the end of his rule came within hailing distance. It can be assumed that many of said oligarchs have business interests in the eastern regions.

However, it turns out that there is something else that makes the Ukraine's East especially important – for Russia. Back when the Ukraine split from the Soviet Union, it took some 30% of the country's industry with it – inter alia a big chunk of its defense industry. As pointed out in an article in the FT by Jan Cienski, Russia's military-industrial complex remains highly dependent on spare parts produced by Ukrainian factories – and their deliveries have not surprisingly recently been halted. This sheds new light on the backdrop to the previous gas discounts and the sudden decision to threaten a delivery stop unless the Ukrainian government pays its debts to Gazprom. Tit for tat. However, there are additional implications. Cienski writes:


“The Motor Sich plant in Zaporozhia, 230km west of Donetsk, makes the engines for most Russian military helicopters, including the Mi-24, which has been used to patrol the border with Ukraine in the recent troop build-up. But the Russian air force’s dependence on the Motor Sich plant is causing concern for military strategists.“It is difficult to overestimate the significance of Motor Sich for our aviation,” wrote Vladimir Voronov, a military analyst, in Sovershenno Sekretno, a Russian investigative magazine. Motor Sich is part of Ukraine’s military-industrial complex, which has close ties with Russia and, until recently, was uncontroversial.

However, following last month’s annexation of Crimea by Russia and the build-up of tension in the east, Ukraine has suspended all military deliveries to Russia. The freeze, by Ukroboronprom, the arms export monopoly, also affects Russia’s military exports because many weapons incorporate Ukrainian elements.

As well as the Mi-24s, Ukrainian factories, mainly located in the east and south, also produce the R-27 medium-range air-to-air missiles for the Russian air force and many critical components.

These include drogue parachutes, used to slow aircraft landings, and hydraulics for fighter jets, according to a new report by the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defence think-tank. Ukraine also makes the gears used in many Russian ships and transport planes at the Antonov factory in Kiev. The Yuzhmash factory in Dnipropetrovsk, in south-central Ukraine, designs, produces and maintains Russia’s SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as components for its space rockets.

Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who was an adviser to the Kremlin in the 1990s and to Ukraine a decade ago, says the reliance on Ukraine could be a factor in any Russian invasion.

“The military-industrial complex in Russia has been very strongly in favour of incursion into Ukraine and wants to annex southeast Ukraine to take control of those plants,” said Mr Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Without engines from Motor Sich, Russia’s plans of adding as many as 1,000 attack helicopters to its fleet becomes much more difficult. Russia has been working to develop its own engine plants, but is still heavily dependent on Ukrainian production.

Ukraine was a core part of the Soviet Union’s industrial might. After the collapse of the USSR, about a third of the Soviet defence industry was left in Ukraine. Today, about 40 per cent of Ukraine’s exports to Russia consist of machinery and armaments, according to Mr Aslund.”



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The Blessings of Political Competition

In the US, it is frequently demonstrated why political competition is so much better than the 'tax harmonization' and similar centralization plans pursued by the socialist bureaucrats of the EU.

A recent example is provided by the fact that Toyota has just decided to fold its tent in high-tax, high regulation California in order move to the far friendlier business climes of Texas. And it is not the only company that has come to this decision:


“Toyota Motor Corp. is moving substantial parts of its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California, to suburban Dallasas the world’s largest automaker seeks savings from its U.S. sales unit, people familiar with the matter said.

Employees will be informed of the plan today, said the people, who asked not to be identified disclosing private conversations. Steve Curtis, a Toyota spokesman, didn’t return a call on the matter.

The surprise move is a blow to the Golden State, the biggest U.S. auto market and proponent of the strictest clean-air rules. Toyota’s Prius hybrid has been California’s top-selling model for the past two years and helped secure a leading 22 percent market share. It also represents a victory for Texas Governor Rick Perry, who’s made repeated visits to California to lure businesses to his state with promises of lower taxes and easier regulations.

“It would be very consequential for Southern California,” said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for vehicle-price data service Kelley Blue Book inIrvine, California. “There might be some brain drain and tumult for employees, though it should be largely seamless to the consumer. This kind of thing can create some disruption of momentum.”


In February, Occidental Petroleum Corp. said it was splitting its operations, keeping a portion in California and setting up a new unit in Houston. Raytheon Co., a technology company that specializes in defense, last year moved its space and airborne systems unit to McKinney, Texas, from southern California.”


(emphasis added)

The news from Toyota are especially significant, considering it has been in California since 1957. California runs the risk of running into the very problem Margaret Thatcher famously associated with socialism: sooner or later, you run out of other people's money to pay for it. When said paying bodies can easily remove themselves to a nearby jurisdiction that treats them better, it happens all the more quickly.

Consider that California has introduced such inanities as a unilateral CO2 reduction plan that is absolutely certain not to alter “global warming” by one iota, even if the worst case apocalyptic AGW fantasies were to actually be true (which they are obviously not). Global human CO2 emissions will be reduced by 0.4% in the best case (which is like a pimple on a pimple on a pimple on an elephant's behind, since human CO2 emissions produced globally represent only 5.25% of all CO2 the planet produces every year. So global CO2 output will actually be lowered by 0.0021%, or about a quarter of a middling volcano belch) – at an estimated total cost to the economy of $450 billion by 2020, measured in constant 2012 dollars. California's citizens are going to be accordingly poorer – in service of a complete mirage.

California is also well known for being a state that is – apart from property taxes which have been frozen by a referendum – charging its citizens extremely high sales and income taxes, which when added to the federal tax burden reach truly punitive levels. Just to illustrate the effect  – not for Toyota the company, which will save a small fortune –  consider that some of Toyota's employees who decide to move with Toyota to Texas will save one million dollars in taxes and in many cases even more over their working lives.  A few examples via Forbes:


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Gold vs the CRB Commodity Index



Let me tell you the story of the gold prospector who met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. When told his occupation, St. Peter said, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry. You seem to meet all the tests to get into Heaven. But we’ve got a terrible problem. See that pen over there? That’s where we keep the gold prospectors waiting to get into Heaven. And it’s filled – we haven’t got room for even one more.’ The gold prospector thought for a minute and said, ‘Would you mind if I just said four words to those folks?’ ‘I can’t see any harm in that,’ said St. Peter. So the old-timer cupped his hands and yelled out, ‘Gold discovered in Hell!’ Immediately, the gold prospectors wrenched the lock off the door of the pen and out they flew, flapping their wings as hard as they could for the lower regions. ‘You know, that’s a pretty good trick,’ St. Peter said. ‘Move in. The place is yours. You’ve got plenty of room.’ The old fellow scratched his head and said, ‘No. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go along with the rest of them. There may be some truth to that rumor after all.’


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Why Care Who Misgoverns the Steppes?


What Ezra Pound exposed in The Cantos is the monstrous aberration of a world in which reality is distorted, down to a degree never so comprehensively indicated before, by the pull of a fictitious money. It is a noble subject and may be the only possible one for a long poem in our age.

  • C.H. Sisson”


r > g – We’ll come back to that provocative notation in a moment …

US stocks sold off on Friday. Gold rose. Tensions in Ukraine were said to be driving both markets. Maybe so. But why would the politics of Ukraine make Procter & Gamble or Nestlé or Boeing less valuable? Why would the shareholders of RJ Reynolds care who misgoverns the Steppes?

But a lot of investors are just gamblers … betting on whether the price of the stock will go up or down, based on the news. And the big financial firms have their own gamblers – many of them very clever. Some of them get the news … then have high-speed computer programs anticipate how the other gamblers will react … and send their trades a fraction of a second faster than everyone else.

Dear readers are advised to stay away – from the news and the gambling. Except for their entertainment value, both are a waste of time.


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Geneva Accord Falters Completely

As we have previously noted, it is probably an error to assume that Russia has the power to turn the revolt in the Eastern Ukraine on and off at will. This seems to be a case of projection: since the West has 'turned on' the revolt against Yanukovich, it is assumed that Russia is doing the same in the Donbass. This may be correct inasmuch as Russia is probably providing clandestine support to the separatists. However, in both cases there could not have been a revolt without popular support and consent. Keep in mind that the first attempt by Kiev to regain control  of the eastern regions by means of force failed to work because hundreds of unarmed civilians surrounded tanks and armored vehicles. The soldiers refused to shoot at them and either defected on the spot or accepted the humiliation of being sent back to base without their weapons.

The great weakness of the Geneva agreement was that it proceeded from the erroneous assumption that any agreements could be concluded without asking the main players what their opinion was. No-one asked the separatists (or federalists, as actual separatists are likely to be a minority) what they wanted, and if they agreed with the idea that they should vacate buildings or relinquish any of the administrative functions they have apparently taken over.

Note also, an attempt by the US State Department to pin the separatist insurrection on Russia with the help of a few grainy photographs went completely haywire within hours. In other words, since they have no proof, they are simply making it up. In spite of the fact that the State Department's claims have been thoroughly debunked, John Kerry has decided to simply continue to lie about them.


cossack-slavyanskThe 'famous bearded guy' from Slavyansk: Alexander Mozhaev. His friends reportedly broke out in hearty laughter when they heard he was supposed to be a member of 'Russian special forces'.

(Photo via


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The Move Toward 'Safety' Continues

This is a brief update on the technical backdrop in the US stock market. In spite of the recent rebound, the move from 'growth' to safety has continued. We use the XLU-QQQ ratio to follow this trend, but one could e.g. also employ consumer staples instead of the XLU and would see the same trend. This week we will get more 'tapering' from the Fed as well as the payrolls data, both events that could be short term triggers for the next short term move in stocks.

A noteworthy detail is that the market was weak on Friday. Weakness on Fridays indicates growing uncertainty (traders don't want to remain long over the weekend). In this particular case it was widely reported that the continuing trouble in the eastern Ukraine triggered market weakness, but no-one actually knows what would have happened in the absence of such news. Trouble in the Ukraine is not exactly 'new' news after all. It's been going on for months.


XLU-QQQ ratio

The XLU-QQQ ratio's uptrend that started earlier this year is unbroken – click to enlarge.


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Universal Principles

As T. Boone Pickens used to say, “money is just a way of keeping score in life.” Of course, there’s more to life than just money. So, you could have a winning money score … and still be a loser in life. Many rich people are.

Our goal at Bonner & Partners is to help you not to be a loser – in money … or in life. And we aim to do that by helping you create wealth, preserve it … and use it to build strong, healthy, happy and durable families.

The nature of happiness is too subtle and too nuanced for this manifesto, so let’s focus on the simple part: money.

How do you get wealth? How do you hold onto it? Some of the answer is luck. A child born in Detroit in 1940 was almost certain to be better off in the Motor City than a child born in Mumbai or Lagos.

But in every culture … in every place … there are some people who do much better than average and some families who hold onto their wealth for generations.

There may be many reasons for this in individual cases and in particular circumstances. But here are some principles I believe have nearly universal application.


Time, Pickens

T. Boone Pickens: Keeping score


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