About the Author
Dimitri Speck is an expert on commodities markets who may actually be familiar to many of our readers as the creator of seasonal charts (which incidentally are the statistically most accurate seasonal charts available). Readers may also recall that we referred to Mr. Speck's work in the past, when speculators were accused in the media of causing hunger in the third world, as their activities were alleged to artificially inflate the prices of agricultural commodities. When we wrote about the topic, the voices of reason were few and far between. Mr. Speck's unique and highly original contributions to the debate certainly took some of the wind out of the sails of the economically illiterate scaremongers in the media and politics.
The Gold Cartel
The English language edition of Mr. Speck's book “Geheime Goldpolitik”, has been published early this year under the title “The Gold Cartel”, in parallel with an updated second German edition. The book has received great praise from many quarters, and it is well-deserved (ironically, even from a central banker, in spite of the fact that central bankers come in for a lot of criticism in the book).
The first few pages of the book right away prove to the discerning reader that the author actually understands gold. Surprisingly, this can often not be taken for granted. A great many analysts continue to regard gold as akin to an industrial commodity, including many working for 'expert' organizations, whose main job it is to publish data and forecasts on the gold and silver markets.
Essentially one could ay that the Gold Cartel consists of three major parts, namely statistical studies, a historical disquisition and a theoretical part that deals with the consequences the adoption of a full-fledged fiat money system has wrought.
Note: This is an abridged and edited version of the review that appeared in issue 92, January/February 2014 of the Hedge Fund Journal.
When Frank Veneroso published a study on gold lending in 1998, many people probably heard the term 'gold carry trade' for the first time. However, it became a staple of deliberations about the gold market in subsequent years. A superficially legitimate (if ultimately slightly dubious) business activity, namely the hedging of future gold output by mining companies, had apparently been turned into a major and potentially explosive financial engineering scheme. However, research was hampered by the fact that the carry trade involved gold held by central banks. It was shrouded in secrecy and its size could only be estimated. While Veneroso's work was path breaking, it was marred by its lack of precision, which partly resulted from the difficulty of obtaining good data.
Central bank accounting for gold was (and in most cases remains) rather peculiar: gold receivables and bullion still in their vaults are treated as a single line item in their balance sheets. This makes it nigh impossible for outsiders to ascertain how much of their gold is actually on loan. Central banks used inter alia the alleged need to protect the trade secrets of their business partners as an excuse to avoid publishing the data. This flimsy pretext naturally fanned speculation about the amounts involved as well as the planners' motives. It was no secret that central banks once upon a time intervened in the gold market quite openly. Given gold's nature as the 'political metal', it didn't seem a big stretch to suspect them of still doing so clandestinely.
Estimates of the size of the carry trade published by researchers varied enormously (the more establishment-friendly they were, the smaller their estimates would be). Enter Dimitri Speck, who has delivered what is to date probably the best such estimate ever produced by an independent gold market analyst, not least because he actually employed sound statistical analysis. His estimate of the amount of gold lent out by Germany's Bundesbank over time, calculated from the meager tidbits of information that could be gleaned from the BuBa's balance sheet, confirmed the soundness of his methods. The BuBa recently relented in the face of public pressure and finally lifted the veil of secrecy from the data, so we know how close the estimate came (the BuBa is no longer lending out gold by the way).
'The Gold Cartel' presents the results of painstaking statistical analysis of the gold market from every conceivable angle. It never gets so technical as to bore the reader – the analysis reads rather like a detective story. It focuses specifically on whether anomalies that point to possible interventions are detectable in the gold market and whether the beginning of these anomalous activities can be dated. Gold's behavior during financial crises, as well as the carry trade and the determination of its overall size are other focal points. There is a refreshing difference in Mr. Speck's approach to the subject compared to that often encountered elsewhere, which we believe makes the book an enjoyable and highly informative read even for people who are skeptical about the intervention thesis. There is very little speculation, instead the focus is strictly on known or knowable facts. Speck lays out a logically consistent and coherent history of the gold market. Some of his conclusions naturally remain open to debate; history is a thymological discipline and as such always leaves room for interpretation. It should be mentioned that although central banks nowadays increasingly strive to provide greater transparency, Speck thoroughly disabuses the reader of the naïve notion that they 'would never intervene clandestinely in markets' by providing hard evidence of past transgressions (which include even the deliberate falsification of data in one instance).
The book's statistical analysis is buttressed and supplemented by a gripping account of the history of the modern monetary system, beginning with the step-by-step disintegration of the Bretton Woods system in the late 1960s (which culminated in Nixon's gold default in 1971) and encompassing everything that has happened since then, including the creation and first major crisis of the euro. All these events are brought into context with what happened concurrently in the gold market. There is a detailed look at the FOMC meetings of the early 1990s, which show that although gold had been thoroughly 'demonetized' from an official standpoint, it still was very much on the minds of many FOMC members at the time, including then chairman Greenspan. The conversations at these meetings clearly show that there was major concern at the time both over gold's potential as a competitor of the US dollar as a store of value as well as its function as an indicator of inflation expectations.
As Speck explains with respect to the gold carry trade, once gold lending by central banks had grown well beyond the hedging needs of mining firms, the interests of private parties involved in the trade and those of central banks at first increasingly converged, only to diverge again at a later stage. He demonstrates convincingly that once the carry trade exceeded a certain size, the role played by private profit motives must have grown ever larger. In order to keep being able to play the game and avoid losses, bullion banks started putting pressure on central banks to motivate them to continue to sell and lend out ever increasing amounts of gold. For a time, an odd role reversal between bullion banks and central banks took hold with respect to their gold market-related interests.
Speck looks closely at what happened during this phase in the late 1990s. A great many politicians, whose credentials as experts on gold or monetary policy were rather dubious, attempted to influence the climate and official attitudes toward gold. Unwilling central banks such as e.g. the Swiss National Bank were put under great political pressure to agree to gold sales. Many of the events surrounding official gold policy in the late 1990s are largely forgotten today, and Speck does us a great service by rescuing them from the memory hole.
Gordon Brown's famously ill-timed sale of the bulk of the UK gold reserves is of course discussed as well. To this day it remains a bit of a mystery why Brown deliberately chose to perform the sales in a manner that ensured that the UK would get the lowest possible price. Clearly though, there was more to it than just the fact that he was evidently one of the worst market timers of all time. The discussion of the Washington agreement, which effectively froze the carry trade and limited official sales, was especially interesting to us. Few people will remember all the details and announcements that were made just prior and after the agreement was struck, or may never have been aware of them at all. The information Speck provides in this context serves to greatly enhance one's understanding of these events.
In this context, Speck also provides a logical explanation as to why the carry trade never 'blew up' as so many forecasters had expected it to do – in spite of the considerable size it had attained at its peak and in spite of the fact that a bull market in gold began in 1999/2000.
The Giant Credit Bubble
The statistical and historical analysis of the gold market is followed by a theoretical part that deals in great detail and in a highly original manner with the problems the abandonment of gold as an anchor of the monetary system has ultimately brought about. The conceptual approach to the topic will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Austrian School of Economics, even though Speck employs at times a slightly different, somewhat idiosyncratic terminology. The most notable effect of demonetizing gold has been and continues to be the recurrence of numerous sizable booms and busts, although Speck rightly acknowledges that the emergence of credit expansions could not necessarily be completely averted in a gold-based system, although gold would definitely 'serve as a brake', as he puts it.
A detailed description of how credit-financed bubbles begin and are then continuing to grow, driven by their inherent dynamics, is provided. The most important feature of such bubbles is that speculation for some time appears to 'pay for itself', as artificial accounting profits emerge. Wealth is seemingly created ex nihilo, and profits are booked even though no-one has actually produced anything tangible. This explains the enduring popularity of credit-driven bubbles, as it is simply human nature to embrace the 'something for nothing' mirage that is their major characteristic.
Since financial bubbles have real economic effects, and since their recurrence can seemingly not be averted, the focus of the authorities soon shifted to the question of how the effects of their bursting could be mitigated – a momentous decision, as Speck proceeds to show. The mitigation policy involves governments intervention in the form of a further expansion in debt and credit claims, the very policies that lead to the emergence of bubbles in the first place. Illogical as this is, it almost always seems to 'work' in the short term. As credit claims accumulated in the past are never extinguished, but merely added to, a kind of 'mega-bubble' evolves over time. Private and public sector indebtedness both continue to expand, effectively egging each other on. An ever greater pile of credit claims towers over the real economy. Speck also points out that the vast expansion in public sector liabilities is deeply undemocratic, as it lulls the population into believing that it can get 'something for nothing'. As a result, there are only superficial deliberations over the wisdom of public spending. Ultimately, no-one is taking responsibility while the political class pursues its own narrow interests. Indeed, as official remarks preceding the abandonment of gold in 1971 show, it was precisely the ability to run deficits in quasi-perpetuity that attracted governments to the new monetary system. The ability to increase spending without having to increase taxation is deemed a highly desirable method of achieving short term political goals.
Establishment economists have done us a great disservice by ignoring and/or whitewashing the long term implications of the ever-growing level of financial claims. Ever since the 1987 crash, central bankers have begun to consistently err on the side of easier monetary policy and their focus has increasingly turned toward he chimera of price stability, while the growth in credit claims has been ignored. 'Mitigation of busts' has become the official mantra to this day.
Speck also discusses the question of the long term consequences of this spiral of ever-growing debt. As he points out, the classical denouement of a credit-financed bubble used to be a major deflation, egged on by debt defaults and the associated destruction of deposit liabilities held by banks falling into insolvency. There can however be no guarantee that this outcome will be repeated in modern times. Today, the authorities can and do intervene to avert deflationary reductions in outstanding financial claims. Their countermeasures could eventually result in the exact opposite outcome (i.e., a major inflation). However, other possibilities are just as thinkable (such as e.g. a prolonged period of stagnation as has happened in Japan).
Summary and Conclusion
We highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the gold market. In fact, anyone with an interest in financial markets and/or the economy will undoubtedly benefit from reading it. It provides a solid statistical analysis of every aspect of the gold market, a thoroughly researched and well-presented account of the history of the modern monetary system and a highly original perspective of the growing bubble in debt and credit claims we have experienced since adopting today's system of credit-based money.
Dimitri Speck, The Gold Cartel (link to Amazon)
Dear Readers! We are happy to report that we have reached our turn-of-the-year funding goal and want to extend a special thank you to all of you who have chipped in. We are very grateful for your support! As a general remark, according to usually well informed circles, exercising the donation button in between funding drives is definitely legal and highly appreciated as well.
Bitcoin address: 1DRkVzUmkGaz9xAP81us86zzxh5VMEhNke
One Response to “Book Review: The Gold Cartel by Dimitri Speck”
Most read in the last 20 days:
- How the Welfare State Dies
Hollande Threatens to Ban Protests Brexit has diverted attention from another little drama playing out in Europe. As of the time of writing, if you Google “Hollande threatens to ban protests” or variations thereof, you will find Russian, South African and even Iranian press reports on the topic. Otherwise, it's basically crickets (sole exception: Politico). Gee, we wonder why? They don't like him anymore: 120.000 protesters recently turned Paris into a war zone. All...
- Toward Freedom: Will The UK Write History?
Mutating Promises We are less than one week away from the EU referendum, the moment when the British people will be called upon to make a historic decision – will they vote to “Brexit” or to “Bremain”? Both camps have been going at each other with fierce campaigns to tilt the vote in their direction, but according to the latest polls, with the “Leave” camp’s latest surge still within the margin of error, the outcome is too close to call. The battle lines are...
- A Market Ready to Blow and the Flag of the Conquerors
Bold Prediction MICHAELS, Maryland – The flag in front of our hotel flies at half-mast. The little town of St. Michaels is a tourist and conference destination on the Chesapeake Bay. It is far from Orlando, and even farther from Daesh (a.k.a. ISIL) and the Mideast. St. Michaels, Maryland – the town that fooled the British (they say, today). Photo credit: Fletcher6 Out on the river, a sleek sailboat, with lacquered wood trim, glides by, making hardly a...
- Going... Going... Gone! The EU Begins to Splinter
Dark Social Mood Tsunami Washes Ashore Early this morning one might have been forgiven for thinking that Japan had probably just been hit by another tsunami. The Nikkei was down 1,300 points, the yen briefly soared above par. Gold had intermittently gained 100 smackers – if memory serves, the biggest nominal intra-day gain ever recorded (with the possible exception of one or two days in early 1980). Here is a picture of Haruhiko Kuroda in front of his Bloomberg monitor this...
- Rule Britannia
A Glorious Day What a glorious day for Britain and anyone among you who continues to believe in the ideas of liberty, freedom, and sovereign democratic rule. The British people have cast their vote and I have never ever felt so relieved about having been wrong. Against all expectations, the leave camp somehow managed to push the referendum across the center line, with 51.9% of voters counted electing to leave the European Union. Waving good-bye to...
- The Problem with Corporate Debt
Taking Off Like a Rocket There are actually two problems with corporate debt. One is that there is too much of it... the other is that a lot of it appears to be going sour. Harvey had a good time in recent years...well, not so much between mid 2014 and early 2016, but happy days are here again! Cartoon by Frank Modell As a brief report at Marketwatch last week (widely ignored as far as we are aware) informs us: “Businesses racked up debt in the...
- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
A Convocation Of Gamblers The Wall Street Journal and BloombergView have just run articles on the shadow banking system in China. This has put me in a nostalgic mood. About 35 years ago when I was living in Japan, I made a side trip to Hong Kong. Asia's Sin City, Macau Photo credit: Nattee Chalermtiragool I took the hydrofoil to Macau one afternoon and the same service back early the next morning. On the morning trip, I am sure that I saw many of the...
- A Darwin Award for Capital Allocation
Beyond Human Capacity Distilling down and projecting out the economy’s limitless spectrum of interrelationships is near impossible to do with any regular accuracy. The inputs are too vast. The relationships are too erratic. The economy - complex and ever-changing interrelations. Image credit: Andrea Dionne Quite frankly, keeping tabs on it all is beyond human capacity. This also goes for the federal government. Even with all their data gatherers and...
- Janet Yellen’s $200-Trillion Debt Problem
Blame “Brexit” BALTIMORE – The U.S. stock market broke its losing streak on Thursday [and even more so on Monday, ed.]. After five straight losing sessions, the Dow eked out a 92-point gain. The financial media didn’t know what to say about it. So, we ended up with the typical inanities, myths, and claptrap. “Investors” are pushing the DJIA back up again..apparently any excuse will do at the moment. The idea may backfire though, as exactly the same thing happened...
- The Fed’s Doomsday Device
Bezzle BALTIMORE – Barron’s, in a lather, says the market is facing the “Two Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Huh? Only two? There were four last time! Supposedly, the so-called Brexit – the vote in Britain this Thursday on whether to leave or remain in the European Union (EU) – and uncertainty over where the Fed will take U.S. interest rates are cutting down stocks faster than a Z-turn mower. But Brexit is a side show. As our contacts in London...
- Gold and Brexit
Going Up for the Wrong Reason Gold is soaring. It should—and a lot—but in my view not for the reason it is. Indeed gold is insurance for uncertain times, a time that Brexit seems to represent. But insurance is an administrative cost — one must minimize its use. August gold contract, daily – gold has been strong of late, but this seems to be driven by “Brexit” fears - click to enlarge. Moreover, insuring against Brexit might ironically be equivalent...
- Brexit Paranoia Creeps Into the Markets
European Stocks Look Really Bad... Late last week stock markets around the world weakened and it seemed as though recent “Brexit” polls showing that the “leave” campaign has obtained a slight lead provided the trigger. The idea was supported by a notable surge in the British pound's volatility. Battening down the hatches... On the other hand, if one looks at European stocks, one could just as well argue that their bearish trend is simply continuing – and...