Satyajit Das on Gold

Well known market observer and commentator Satyajit Das has written an article on gold which has been published at Naked Capitalism. As is usually his wont, he is adopting a very neutral tone of voice, with the occasional barb thrown in almost imperceptibly. Both detractors and fans of gold are ribbed a little bit, while Das enumerates their lines of argument seemingly without passing judgment.

Still, we see the publication of this actually quite non-controversial article as an opportunity to add a few comments. Quite early on in his article, Das relates an anecdote from post war Germany that one would do well to keep in mind. He writes:


As a banker asked an old woman in 1918: “where is the State which guaranteed these securities to you? It is dead.”


Every discussion of the ‘political metal’ gold should probably be prefaced with an anecdote of this sort so as to make clear what the main difference between a market chosen money like gold and government-imposed legal tender actually is: the latter depends on  promises that are rarely kept.

What we would like to comment on are a few of the observations Das makes regarding gold’s investment merits as well as his presentation of the lines of argument forwarded by supporters and detractors of a gold standard. In this article we will discuss the 'gold as an investment' portion of his article. 

 

Gold as an Investment

Das begins by enumerating the various avenues open to people that want to invest in gold today, listing their advantages and disadvantages as well as the associated risk factors. This is an excellent overview that highlights all the important points one should be aware of, but most of these things are probably well known to our readers anyway.

Then he segues into the topic of how tricky gold can be as an investment. Below are a few excerpts with our comments interspersed.


The investment case for gold is mixed. Gold’s tactical value over specific periods is significant.”


Of course the case for every investment asset is ‘mixed’, and every investment asset has ‘significant tactical value over specific time periods’. It is well known that various investment classes are subject to long term cycles. However, this is nevertheless an important point, see also further below. He continues:


“The period from 1999 to 2001 is referred to the “Brown Bottom” of a 20-year bear market during which gold prices declined. The reference is to the ill-fated decision by Gordon Brown, then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer and subsequent Prime Minister, to sell half of the UK’s gold reserves via auction over 1999 and 2002. At the time, the UK’s gold reserves were worth US$ 6.5 billion, constituting around half of the UK’s foreign currency reserves.


[…]


Any investor who purchased the gold sold by the financial astute UK Chancellor would have made a substantial profit.”



Believe it or not, there were actually a number of investors that said so in real time and acted on the recognition that yet another sale of British gold was like a bell ringing. After all, there was a historical precedent: the last time before Brown's sale Britain sold a large amount of gold was in the late 1960's, when it dumped 800 tons at the princely price of $42/oz. – only to watch gold's price soar by 2,400% over the next decade. That was actually a much larger loss for UK tax payers than Gordon Brown's gold sale, especially in real terms (of course, Brown may well still catch up; we fully expect him to). Of course the 'number' of such investors was really very small. It is characteristic of major lows that they occur amid a dearth of interest. Das continues:


“But gold is not itself a great store of value, at least over long time periods.

Gold bugs excitedly speculate about gold prices reaching $2,300. But even at that price gold would merely match its January 1980 peak price after adjusting for inflation; in other words, the holder had earned nothing on the investment over almost 30 years!”


 

Now, this is something we have to take exception to. For one thing, allow us to point out that anyone who bought stocks at the market peak of 1929 had also gained precisely nothing in real terms by the time the low of 1982 arrived. That's a cool 53 years of earning nothing, and although dividends are obviously not included in this calculation, the 'survivor bias' of indexes isn't reflected in them either. Countless companies that were listed in 1929 were long bankrupt when 1982 came around, so a passive approach would have done considerably worse than earning nothing.

Moreover, one must ask here, how are 'real terms' even defined? Presumably Das refers to values deflated by the government's official CPI data.  If we apply a different metric to calculating gold's real value, such as e.g. the Austrian money supply measure TMS-2, then we arrive at a 1980 high equivalent of roughly $3,000 today, not $2,300 ($2,300 is incidentally the very conservative gold price target of our friend Ronald Stoeferle, who writes the excellent annual gold report for Erstegroup).

 

Furthermore, Das adopts here, whether consciously or not, a method always trotted out be assorted gold bears when they try to denigrate gold's investment merits. This is to say, they mention the 1980 peak as the relevant yardstick by which to measure gold's performance, a price that lasted for all but a second and was attained after several days of frantic panic buying when news of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan hit. Gold went from about $550 to $850 within three weeks, was at that price for one second and then collapsed immediately again. How many people actually invested at that peak?

What these gold bears usually gloss over is that only four years earlier, in August of 1976, gold could be bought for $108/oz., and that another six years earlier, in 1970, it could be bought at prices ranging from $35 to $42/oz. Why not mention the returns that have accrued to investors in gold since then? Could it be the fact that it turns out that gold actually beat the pants off the stock market?

Besides, it should be pointed out here that gold is actually not an 'investment' in the conventional sense. Obviously it pays no dividend, but why should it? It is money after all.

Don't get us wrong: gold is certainly not money at the moment per the correct definition of money as the general medium of exchange. And yet, the market treats gold as though it were money: while it does not currently fulfill the role of a medium of exchange, it still retains all the characteristics that flow from a commodity that has become a medium of exchange, such as its function as a store of value. The reason for this is simple: although gold has been 'demonetized' by legal tender laws, the markets know that it would be our money in the absence of such laws. It is the market-chosen money commodity that would be used as money in a truly free market. It is also noteworthy in this context that central banks continue to hold some 32,000 tons of gold, obviously for monetary reasons.

 

Given though that gold is currently not a medium of exchange, we may concede that it has become an 'investment asset'. Only, in gold's case one might say: monetary demand equals investment demand. After all, the fundamental backdrop most conducive to rising gold prices is a desire by economic actors to increase their cash balances and savings on account of regime uncertainty, declining economic confidence, coupled with a growing conviction that the fiscal and monetary authorities are about to devalue their liabilities at break-neck speed in a vain and misguided attempt to cover up their previous mistakes by adding fresh mistakes atop them, only on an even greater scale than before.

 

So we should then after all perhaps hearken back to the first sentence of Das' ruminations about gold as an investment mentioned above: there are times when it makes sense to invest in gold and times when it doesn't make sense and one will do better with other types of investments. Obviously, since about the year 2000, it would have been best to have held a very low weighting in equities and a very large weighting in gold.

Das continues:

 


“The gold price adjusted for inflation is the same as the price in the middle ages. Dylan Grice of Société Générale summed up the case for gold as a store of value in the following terms: “A 15th century gold bug who’d stored all his wealth in bullion, bequeathed it to his children and required them to do the same would be more than a little miffed when gazing down from his celestial place of rest to see the real wealth of his lineage decline by nearly 90 per cent over the next 500 years.”


 

First of all, we think it is nigh impossible to make such an estimate. How would we actually know what the 'real price of gold' was in the 15th century? Here is a chart that has been published in the late 1990's that contains such an estimate (note that the 'real values' depicted on the chart all refer to 1999 dollars – today the numbers would all be considerably higher):

 

 


 

 

 

An estimate of the 'real price of gold' over 600 years published in 1999; some of the data seem questionable to us (for instance, we miss the Mississippi and South Seas bubble spikes, as well as the post-revolutionary French hyperinflation  episode in this chart).

 

 


 

 

We do of course know that gold was subject to considerable inflation in the 16th century when Spain's conquistadors flooded the old world with gold they had discovered in the new world. At the time, these additions  due to a higher mine supply actually still made a big difference to the purchasing power of gold, as they were of very large size relative to the then existing stock of gold. So it is credible that there was a big decline in gold's purchasing power during the 16th century.

This is no longer the case; today the mine supply has become largely irrelevant, as we have discussed on several previous occasions. However, one must ask, how much stock should one put in such an estimate anyway? We think it's a good bet that if anyone still has a 15th century gold hoard at home, that it has actually preserved value through the centuries far better than any other type of investment would have (for one thing, the likelihood of still possessing that original store of gold is a good deal better than possessing anything else that one might have invested in during medieval times; also, well preserved medieval gold coins trade at well above their bullion value).

One thing is certain though: against all other forms of money, i.e., state sponsored fiat monies and the debts denominated in them, it is really no contest: a large percentage of the currencies that existed a century ago has been repudiated, some of them more than just once. The promises of the State eventually always wither on the vine. Gold just stays gold.

One should not make the mistake of believing that the current paper money standard is likely to fare any better. Longer-lived though it may be than many of its predecessors, it is still beset by the same flaws. It is a system that was destined for an eventual conflagration on the day it was  born. 

Lastly, even if gold's 'real value' in 1350 a.d. was estimated to be $2,400/oz. (or even higher in 2012 dollars), what could actually be bought with that gold back then? One sure couldn't buy an iPad in the year 1350 to name an example. In fact, there existed no mass-produced consumer goods at all. Choices were extremely limited even for the select few that actually possessed gold at the time. So how can one say the 'real value' was a number 'X'? It really doesn't seem to make much sense to make such an assertion. The only thing that is certain is what we have already noted above: as far as money goes, gold has almost always managed to preserve the purchasing power of savings – the gold inflation of the 16th century represents a notable one-time exception to this rule. State-produced and administered legal tender money never did and never will.

Das continues:

 


“The gold price can also be very volatile. In late 2011, after reaching record levels, the gold price fell nearly 20% very quickly.

Warren Buffet observed that if stock investors are driven by optimism about prospects then “what motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow.”


 

Let us rephrase that: “equities can also be very volatile. Shortly after having reached record levels in late 2007, they collapsed by 58% into early 2009, with most of the decline happening very quickly indeed.”

 

It is really a non-sequitur. Gold is volatile? Even if it were, why should one be particularly worried about it? As it is, it is actually a lot less volatile than most other commodities and investment assets. A brief look at the bull market from 2000 to date shows this remarkable lack of volatility. It simply makes no sense to even mention gold's volatility unless one wants to specifically stress that it exhibits a distinct lack of it so far:

 

 


 

The recent gold bull market: so far it is one of the least volatile bull markets of all, if not the least volatile one. To complain about gold's 'volatility' strikes us as rather strange – click for better resolution.

 


 

Regarding Warren Buffett's observations on gold, generally they are not worth much. Buffett doesn't like gold, we get it, but then he regularly betrays his utter ignorance about it, so why would one even bother to mention his gold-related bon-mots? The specific quote Das has picked has been well chosen though: when economic confidence is strengthening and the social mood is optimistic, then it is usually better to be invested in stocks than in gold. Gold investors obviously do expect the 'ranks of the fearful to grow', and for very good reasons. The problem is that economic confidence has been on a roller-coaster with a very negative bias since the flaming out of the great stock mania in the year 2000, which is why it was  better to be invested in gold since then, something that continues to hold true in our opinion.


Conclusion

It must be pointed out that gold is certainly no longer the bargain it was at the lows over a decade ago (at which time Warren Buffett undoubtedly hated it just as much as today). This is by no means akin to saying that there is no longer a bull market in force though. The bull market can of course take a breather, even an extended one, at any time. That is something we obviously cannot know for certain – market perceptions are notoriously fickle in the short term.

What seems however extremely unlikely to us is that the long term bull market is anywhere near to being over. After all, the people in charge of  fiscal and monetary policy all over the globe are applying their 'tried and true' recipe to the perceived economic ills of the world in ever bigger gobs of 'more of the same'. Until that changes – and we feel pretty sure that the only thing that can usher in profound change on that score is a crisis of such proportions that the ability of said authorities to keep things under control by employing this recipe is simply overwhelmed – there is no reason not to hold gold in order to insure oneself against their depredations.

As a result of these policies, real interest rates are either negative or minuscule, the money supply is inflated at astonishing speed and the economy is undermined structurally at every turn. It is precisely the environment in which it makes sense to hold gold.

Few holders of gold bullion are likely to be worried over the short to medium term fluctuations in the price of gold, since their motives for holding it are as a rule not comparable to those of short term speculators. Futures traders and gold stock investors obviously must apply a more active approach to managing their exposure. Especially the latter have had very little joy of late, a topic we also plan to discuss again in more detail shortly.   

Lastly, every long term bull market of course ends at some point. However, most of the time the final phases of a long term bull market exhibit certain characteristics that can be observed in a wide variety of markets over and over again. Bull markets don't die with a whimper. They end with major blow-off moves that often occur at a time when the fundamental backdrop is already clearly shifting from bullish to bearish. This is something that has yet to happen in the current gold bull market.

 

 

 

 

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13 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on Gold, Part 1 – Gold as an Investment”

  • nimrod:

    I laugh at the gold confiscation arguements. How can they appropriate a bunch of hand hammered jewelry. I also have a drill that makes nice holes in coins to turn them into necklaces. If you really want to make sure, paint it black, rub off the excess to antique it. Or better yet, combine it with your silver into a silver-gold-silver sandwich. Because of the lower melting point, they will be easy to separate later.

    Finally, there is sure to be a minimal amount allowed, just like the old days, so give some to your family members and others, with the understanding of getting it back later. Issue solved.

    Nimrod

    • worldend666:

      Good luck with giving it to your family Nimrod. I think I will pass on that one :)

    • JasonEmery:

      Nimrod–Did you ever read the book ’1984′? Remember the ‘telescreen’? Considering when the book was written, isn’t it amazing how accurately Orwell described the internet, which did not even exist at the time, lol.

      Anyway, you seem to be confused about the purpose of the internet. The sheeple people believe that its purpose is to share information. That is the lure, to draw people in. The REAL purpose of the internet is the same as Orwell’s telescreen, to GATHER information. The fact that you have figured out how to post on the internet insures that THEY, whoever ‘they’ are,know more about you than you do, including the name of the agent that will be picking up your gold, and harvesting your organs if you cause any trouble in the collection process, lol.

      So, do I have any gold? Yeah, a little. But mostly I’m developing a diverse portfolio of tangible items of dozens of different types, to see me through the coming hyperinflation.

  • Jay:

    Why should we have to “adjust gold for inflation” at all Gold adjusts for inflation all by itself, continually and automatically.

  • GaryP:

    georgew,
    I agree that confiscation of wealth is also coming.
    IRA/401K’s are vulnerable to confiscation and replacement by a ‘public pension’ (happened in Argentina recently).
    Alternately, one may be forced to ‘invest’ some or all of these funds in sovereign debt (was discussed during the Clinton administration and revived under Obama administration recently).
    A wealth tax will probably be introduced soon (so many percent of all holdings each year) and/or a Tobin Tax on all financial transactions (in place or being discussed worldwide) is certainly under discussion. The Tobin Tax may be beaten back by the Banker’s Lobby.
    Interesting times!

    • JasonEmery:

      Gary-A future gold confiscation is pretty much a slam dunk. For one thing, does anybody really believe the USA still has the 13,000 tonnes of gold that is on the books? I don’t. They might propose an attractive fiat offer to make the exchange peaceful, or they may not.

      They are running GAAP deficits of $6 trillion per year, so the end is near. This level of money creation is already at hyper inflation levels, so all we need is the trigger. If last summer’s drought lasts as little as one more year, that should do the trick. Many other things could act as triggers, though. Go to stockcharts.com and put in symbols $corn, $soyb, and $wheat!!!! (look at 3 full years of data)

      Therefore, the wise course of action, I believe, is to build up a diversified portfolio of tangible goods, including gold, silver, lumber, fruit trees, compost, scrap base metals, pipe fittings, copper, brass, dry food, seeds, etc.

      Probably similar to Argentina in outcome. Everybody wakes up on a Sunday morning to the announcement that only $50/day may be taken out of bank accounts, and zero from money market or brokerage accounts. A few days later they roll out the new currency, with a few zeros lopped of the old one.

      • jimmyjames:

        Hey Jason-

        How does a drought and the price of wheat etc. cause hyper-inflation?
        If you look at a 20 year chart-the price of wheat is back at 1996 levels (without looking)
        I doubt we’re anywhere near hyper-inflation and I would venture to say we are likely to see deflation before we see hyper-inflation-in fact I will go further and say we’ve already had hyper-inflation if you take in account the amount of credit money that’s been injected into the system-but of course-very few look at that side of the money supply and if they did-they would realize how tiny the cash supply is and all it’s doing is accumulating in bank reserves and has basically zero velocity-

        • JasonEmery:

          Hi Jimmy, you asked “How does a drought and the price of wheat etc. cause hyper-inflation?”

          The worldwide price of food is influenced very heavily by the ups and downs of the USA dollar, and by the success or failure of the American harvest, since we are the world’s leader in grain production (I think).

          Worldwide grain stocks are very low, and another poor harvest will push food prices way up. In the USA this is a negative, but we have the safety net of food stamps. Besides, for most Americans, the food budget is a small fraction of the typical household budget.

          For most of the world, however, the food budget is half, or more, of the typical household budget. A significant rise in worldwide food prices will force food importing countries, including China, to allow their currencies to strengthen, to avoid mass starvation. Food exporting countries, such as the USA, will be powerless to maintain the purchasing power of their currencies.

          • jimmyjames:

            For most of the world, however, the food budget is half, or more, of the typical household budget. A significant rise in worldwide food prices will force food importing countries, including China, to allow their currencies to strengthen, to avoid mass starvation. Food exporting countries, such as the USA, will be powerless to maintain the purchasing power of their currencies.

            **********
            Jason-I don’t follow your logic-
            I agree with drought conditions pushing prices higher but that is not a negative to the producing countries such as # 1 USA..
            That scenario would strengthen the dollar-imo-

            Also–China and in fact the USA have little or no control over where their currencies trade against each other-unless like China who pegs and who knows what direction that hyper inflated overbuilt/credit wrecked economies currency will go-if they let it float-they’re all trying to competitively devalue and it isn’t working…currencies float and compete-
            Of course all paper currencies are heading to zero-but they’re all going south more or less in sync (at this point)
            So how does one currency hyper-inflate against another when they’re all doing the same thing?
            One major will croak sooner or later but I doubt it will be the US first and it doesn’t really matter which one goes first-they will all have their day of reckoning in a hurry when/if that happens-imo-

  • georgew:

    GaryP, I feel similarly to you (about all the points in the post and your response to it) and would like to see a discussion on that as well. However, I feel that the risk you are discussing is systemic, and not specific to precious metals, especially gold. As Govt becomes desperate it looks for the most politically expedient means to continue its parasitic feeding off of the citizenry. To the Politician or Sr. bureaucrat, we all appear as full coat sheep to be sheered (or fat lambs to be slaughtered if you prefer). I see risk in 401ks being nationalized “for the good of the people”, etc.

  • GaryP:

    Disclosure: I own paper gold but only for trading purposes.

    I disagree with none of your points about the weakness of the referenced article’s arguments.

    I even agree that the current fiat regime is doomed and at some distant, post-collapse point in the future, I expect that sound money, almost certainly based on precious metals, will be re-established after the stupidity of trusting governments and central banks to manage the money supply in the best interests of the economy is finally forced into the consciousness of even the most rabid statists (I believe the gold-haters most often worship the state as the source of all that is good and, correctly, see gold, and solid money, as a restraint on the power of the state).

    However, I have one question about gold that most gold bugs refuse to answer or even consider.

    What are the chances that the gold you purchase today will be of any benefit to you or your current family members when the expected collapse of fiat currency occurs?

    On the first occasion of great economic stress (the Great Depression) in the US where gold confiscation was really feasible (because it was no longer in common circulation as currency) and in which extreme statists were in power (the New Dealers), gold was confiscated and made illegal for almost half a century. Many living people remember when gold–other than jewelry or collectable objects–was illegal to own.

    I assert that this will certainly happen again as soon as it is evident that the fiat regime is beginning to collapse. The current climate is much, much, much more statist than 1932. Private ownership of gold will not be possible soon and will be banned for generations.

    Regardless of the arguments for owning gold, this is the one argument against gold–not against its value, but about the political risks to gold–that I personally cannot refute. Can you?

    • jimmyjames:

      However, I have one question about gold that most gold bugs refuse to answer or even consider.

      What are the chances that the gold you purchase today will be of any benefit to you or your current family members when the expected collapse of fiat currency occurs?

      On the first occasion of great economic stress (the Great Depression) in the US where gold confiscation was really feasible (because it was no longer in common circulation as currency) and in which extreme statists were in power (the New Dealers), gold was confiscated and made illegal for almost half a century. Many living people remember when gold–other than jewelry or collectable objects–was illegal to own.

      I assert that this will certainly happen again as soon as it is evident that the fiat regime is beginning to collapse. The current climate is much, much, much more statist than 1932. Private ownership of gold will not be possible soon and will be banned for generations.

      Regardless of the arguments for owning gold, this is the one argument against gold–not against its value, but about the political risks to gold–that I personally cannot refute. Can you?

      ***********

      I have never seen a post by you claiming this before and sure I can refute it-
      When confiscation happened in the 30′s..gold was redeemable for paper and the reason it was made illegal was the fear of bank runs via “gold” redemption (the banks had loaned out more gold than they had reserves to cover in a bank run)
      Today that is not possible since the closing of the gold window and guess what else?

      http://www.acting-man.com/blog/media/2010/10/Gold-percentage-of-financial-assets.png

      No one owns gold–so why bother making it illegal-

      Also-I doubt that we’ll see a major currency collapse because it will never be allowed to happen-
      The first major that starts to die in a hurry will be weighted to gold and the first currency that weights to gold will be the demise of any currency not competitive with the gold weighting-
      Governments/Central banks bidding for gold on the open market in a panic in order to halt their currency from collapsing….
      The last thing they would want to do is drive gold underground- away from the market by making it illegal-

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