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The general equity market had its worst December on record, with the averages down 10% and more. Gold related securities, however, began to prove their worth as an undervalued “safe haven” and an “uncorrelated” asset class. Gold bullion was up 4.9% and the gold mining stocks were up more than double that. One month of outperformance is not enough to establish a new trend, and the gold miners were still down for the entire year, but December does demonstrate how quickly trends can change. For lots of reasons which we outline below, we believe December may have been just the beginning of the resumption in the long-term bull market for gold related securities. The charts below provide a vivid picture of the most important long-term trends, and the prospects for substantial gains in our portfolio of gold mining stocks.                                                                               

While short term fluctuations and volatility can often dominate our thinking, we think the following charts provide valuable long-term context. There is no question that gold related securities are influenced by trends in the general capital markets, viewed as a “safe haven” from a decline in other assets, and heavily influenced by the direction of the US Dollar. The recent strength in the US Dollar, and the continuous rise in the general market have clearly undermined the performance of gold related assets. We believe the charts below show that the S&P average is likely closer to a long term high than a low, that the US Dollar is closer to a high than a low, gold bullion has been “consolidating” for 4-5 years, while gold related securities (represented here by the GDX ETF), are clearly near a long-term low, and may be emerging from its base.

First, the chart below shows the performance of the S&P 500 index, virtually straight up from the bottom in 2009, an unprecedented continuous rise. Most important, of course, is the decline which began in December, the sharpest correction in the last decade, and that has continued the first day of 2019. Should this decline continue, and there are lots of reasons why it should, gold related securities may be one of the very few safe havens.

The next chart is the performance of the DXY, the ETF representing the performance of the US Dollar, since 2005, versus other major trading currencies. You can see that the US Dollar has been trading very near its high and that has no doubt undermined the price of gold bullion in US Dollars. There is a lot of discussion as to whether our Fed, led by Jerome Powell, will be able to raise interest rates further at the same time the Fed balance sheet is reduced, both of which has contributed to the strong US Dollar. Should he decide to back off these programs, which we believe will be the case, that should contribute to a weaker US Dollar, and the chart shows the downside risk over time. A materially weaker US Dollar would be a strong tailwind to the price of gold related securities.

The next chart shows the price of gold bullion, represented by the GLD ETF, since its decline in 2012. You can see that the decline was 39% from the high to low. Since 2013, GLD has been in a trading range of about 20% from a little over 130 to a low of 105.  Right now GLD is trading about 8% below its “breakout” point of just over 130.

The following chart shows the performance of gold mining stocks, represented by the GDX ETF. You can see how substantially GDX has underperformed gold bullion, down 75% from the high of 2012 to the low in late 2015. The “trading range” since 2013 has been a very wide 56%, and you can see that GDX is still a lot closer to its low within the trading range than GLD. The “catchup” in GDX to get back to the high of the trading range in 2016, when GLD was a little over 130, would imply a 48% move, versus only 8% in GLD. We believe that December may have demonstrated the beginning of a positive move in GLD, and the beginning of the inherent upside leverage in GDX. We believe that the gold miners, which declined twice as much as GLD on the downside, could demonstrate even more leverage on the upside from this historically low base. Their December performance begins to demonstrate that potential.

Lastly, we provide a chart of Homestake Mining versus the Dow Jones Average during the depression of the 1930s, so even the prohibition of private gold ownership in 1934 was not sufficient to end that bull market in gold mining companies, even as the official gold price remained at $34./oz.

In terms of current news that supports our long term conviction, both bond and stock markets have had to digest lots of news in recent weeks, and it hasn’t always been pretty. Capital markets don’t like uncertainty, which exist relative to trade tariffs, the clearly slowing economies worldwide (US, Europe, Japan, China), the uncertainty regarding our Fed’s plan relative to interest rates, the exploding US deficits, Mario Draghi’s announcement of an end to QE in Europe, the ongoing political turmoil in and out of the White House, the collapse of Bitcoin and the crypto-currency market. The result has been more volatility, especially in the stock market, than we have seen in years. Intra-day moves of 3-4% have become common place, which in and of itself creates a level of discomfort among investors.

There are major macro developments, within the broad brush concerns above:

  • The new US fiscal year started in October, and the stated (now called “on-budget” by some) deficit was $100.5B in October, versus $63.2B last year. November came in at $205B vs. $139B last year. For two months, the deficit is $305B. vs. $202B, up 51%. The actual debt is up $334B, reflecting “off-budget” items, the largest of which is Social Security obligations. We continue to suggest that the “on-budget” deficit will be closer to $1.5 trillion in the current fiscal year, and the total debt will be well over $1.5 trillion, due to government spending (up 18% so far YTY),  higher interest costs, higher defense spending, higher VA support, health care support, THE WALL, etc. There seems to be rare bipartisan agreement right now regarding an unwillingness to talk about the explosion of the deficit and the debt. It is just too disturbing. All the deficit hawks have put their heads in the ground. THERE IS NO POLITICAL WILL in this area.
  • There is an ongoing move away from the US Dollar, the world’s dominant reserve currency since 1944. China, Russia, and mid-east countries are increasingly using the Yuan and gold for oil trades. There is also a consistent reduction within foreign exchange reserves, of US denominated securities. This has been accompanied by accumulation of physical gold, which can’t be diluted by a computer key-tap.
  • There are many indications that China is accumulating far more gold than they have announced. Recall that three years ago China announced that their Peoples Bank of China (PBOC) had increased ownership to 1600 tons from 1000 tons over the previous five years. Considering that China is the largest miner of gold on the planet, 400 tons per year, and nothing leaves the country, an increase of 600 tons over five years is obviously an understatement. It may be Chinese government agencies other than the PBOC that is holding it, but they are government “affiliates”. Various sources have reported that thousands of incremental tons have moved into the hands of various government agencies in recent years, and we would not be shocked if China announces at some point soon that they own 10,000 tons or more.  This would be substantially more than the 8,400 tons owned by the US, currently assumed to be the largest holder.  This would allow the Chinese to create a trading currency backed in some way by their gold ownership, joining, or even replacing the US Dollar as the primary trading currency worldwide. Surprisingly, based on reported gold holdings, Russia (which continues its aggressive gold purchase program) is in the best position to make their currency convertible into gold. Both China and Russia could have multiple political reasons to link the Ruble or Yuan to gold, provide more credibility to their currency than the US can provide.
  • Jay Powell’s newfound uncertainty over the pace of further rate increase provides the possibility that Quantitative Tightening is slowing down, if not stopping altogether should our economy weaken further. It is now clear that fourth quarter GDP will be more like 2% or so than the 4.5% in Q3. Especially in light of slowing economies elsewhere in the world, which will slow further if interest rates are moved higher, Powell may find that the next important course of action is “QE4” or whatever they choose to call the new monetary accommodation.
  • Since September, foreign purchases of US Treasury securities can no longer be made, financed by low interest (or negative interest) borrowing abroad, with currency hedging providing an overall positive carry. Borrowing costs abroad have gone up modestly, hedging costs as well, so the guaranteed positive return has gone away, removing some material portion of the $5-6 trillion of annual demand for US Treasury securities. Since $5-6T of US Treasury Securities have to be “rolled” over the next twelve months, the $1.5T of incremental government debt has to be financed, and the absence of perhaps $2-3T that was previously invested (and hedged) by foreigners, provide a total of something like an incremental TEN TRILLION of US securities that has to be bought in the next twelve months. People… ($10,000,000,000,000) this is a lot of money and could be a strain on the financial system, to put it really mildly.
  • The market for “leveraged loans” and high yield loans has shown serious signs of strain in just the last sixty days. Wells Fargo and Barclays Bank failed to sell $415 million of debt on Ulterra Drilling Technologies, a manufacturer of drilling bits. Blackstone received their funds to help in their buyout of Ulterra, but WF and BB are hoping to market the debt in a better environment in ’19. There were a number of other deals actually pulled from the market in Europe over the last several weeks. The Financial Times said today that the “’junk bond’ market, whether in loans or bonds – has frozen up, and the US credit markets have ground to a halt….not a single company has borrowed money through the $1.2T US high-yield corporate bond market through mid-December…..we haven’t seen the results at yearend, but if the freeze remained in place, it would be first month since November 2008 that not a single high-yield bond priced in the market..”

Our conclusion from all of the above is that our economy and, indeed, the worldwide economy will have very modest growth, at best. The debt load is too heavy, and the unintended consequences of ten years of monetary promiscuity have yet to play out. Equity investors right now assume that Jay Powell will more or less stick to his plan of generally higher interest rates, even if at a much slower pace. If he “cries wolf”, however, the equity markets would rally, but we don’t think for long. The last recession of ’08-’09 required “monetary heroin” to the tune of $4T in the US alone, but each hit has to be bigger to keep the addict functioning. Once capital markets realize that, a more major downdraft is likely. 

In the long run: we believe there will be a new monetary paradigm, and gold related securities will be an important part of a more disciplined fiscal/monetary approach. The ownership of gold has protected one’s purchasing power for the last five thousand years, the last two hundred years, the last 105 years (since the Fed allowed the US Dollar to be diluted by 98%), the last 47 years (since 1971, when the gold window was closed), the last 18 years (since 2000, when deficit spending accelerated once again).

It is of course true that since 2012 gold and gold related securities have been poor investments, but, in the sweep of history, that is a mere blip. With a new level of financial uncertainty compounded by geopolitical concerns and fiat currency dilution rampant around the world, it is only a matter of time before gold establishes itself again as “the real money”. Gold is not the only hedge against inflation, but, among the possibilities, it is currently the most undervalued.  As James Grant, the preeminent monetary historian has said: “A gold backed monetary system is not perfect, but it is the least imperfect system”. We don’t expect a new gold backed monetary system to be in place any time soon, but any small progress in that direction will allow for substantial appreciation in gold related assets.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year!

Roger Lipton


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