SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY UPDATE – ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, POLITICAL, MONETARY WORLDS ARE IN HOLDING PATTERN, BUT GOLD PERKS UP!!
The general market has been very strong since the election, so there has been less perceived need for a “safe haven” such as gold. Gold bullion was therefore down about 5.7% in November and the mining stocks were down 8-9%. However, it has become increasingly clear over the last week or so that Janet Yellen, the apparently incoming Treasury chief, will be a predictably doveish monetary policy participant. That is one reason that gold and the gold miners have “caught a bid” in the last few days. Perhaps it is dawning on investors that the deficits and spending and debasement of fiat (unbacked) paper currencies around the world will definitely continue. The new administration has been dubbed by some as “Obama 2.0”. Recall that in the first two years of President Obama’s administration gold bullion went up 100% and the gold miners went up over 200%.
We discuss below the recent short term performance, perhaps why gold has been in a consolidation mode over the last four months, and then a longer term discussion. While I understand that many of you don’t want to deal with these details, we like our readers to be as well informed as possible.
FOUR MONTHS OF CONSOLIDATION IN THE GOLD PRICE
The chart just below is over the last several years, and shows how the price of gold has correlated with “real yields”, that is the actual short term interest rate (inverted on the chart) adjusted for inflation. With short term rates less than 0.5% and inflation of 1.5-2.0% the “real yield” is now close to a negative 1.5%. That means that savers, in high quality fixed income securities, are losing purchasing power of 1.5% annually. It also means that, from the standpoint of current real return, investors are 1.5% better off in gold, yielding zero. The chart shows how gold has moved up in price as the real yield became increasingly negative. Over the last four months, however, you can see that the negative real yield (in red) stabilized and actually became a little less negative, so bears on gold speculated that interest rates were moving up, real yields might be rising and gold would be less attractive, so the gold price corrected over 10% from its high in early August.. Lately, however, you can see real interest rates (in red) breaking out on the upside, so the real yield (inverted on the chart) is becoming more negative. Contributing to this situation is over $17 trillion (a new high) of sovereign debt worldwide yielding less than zero. This type of action presaged earlier upward moves in gold bullion, and the miners, so that might well be the case again
The USA is the most powerful nation on earth. The holding pattern we are in before the new administration takes control, as well as the Covid-19 vaccines become widely distributed, has affected the world we live in, on many levels.
At the moment In the capital markets: The stock market chooses to look across the valley, flirting with an all time high as this is written. Traders have lightened up on their gold bullion positions, since a “safe haven” is not considered as necessary. Gold mining stocks have retraced virtually their entire gains since the first of the year. The reasoning in a nutshelll: (1) A new, more comforting, US administration is about to take office (2) Vaccines are on the way (3) There is no alternative to investing in the equity markets (TINA) since interest rates are so low.
Meanwhile: The facts of life include the following discussion points. Take them under consideration, with the cautionary overview that it is very difficult not to be seduced by the madness of crowds.
With that preface:
The central banks around the world continue to stand by, prepared to accommodate further when necessary, which will no doubt be the case, though the form it takes is a bit more uncertain. Overall, the basic situation has not changed, in terms of (1) Negative interest rate debt, which is at an all time high (2) The current deficits and cumulative debt are at record levels (3) Most asset classes have been bid to record levels (4) Governments around the world are searching for sources of funds, and the public will pay (5) Gold is underpriced, the gold mining stocks even more so.
NEGATIVE INTEREST RATES
The total worldwide sovereign debt now selling at negative interest rates has just hit a record of $17 trillion. China, for the first time, recently sold negative yielding debt. Major trading nations compete with each other to raise capital so the fact that German five year bonds sell with a negative .74% yield allowed the Chinese to provide an attractively higher yield at a negative 0.15% on their five year paper. The Chinese issuance was part of a package that yielded a barely positive 0.318% for ten years and 0.665% for fifteen years.
People…this kind of situation has not happened in recorded history, and is not good.
THE DEBT AND THE DEFICITS
As we have written before, the addict needs an increasingly large “hit” to maintain the “high”, though hardly anyone would say that the worldwide economic situation is rocking and rolling (i.e.”high”) While common wisdom these days is that the economy was strong before Covid-19 hit, US GDP (up about 2.5% in calendar ’19) was forecast, before the Covid-19, to grow only about 1.5% in Q1, clearly rolling over. The chart below shows vividly how large the stimulus, worldwide, has been, to get us through the pandemic, compared to the last crisis.
People….there has to be a hangover after this fiscal/monetary party.
MOST ASSET CLASSES ARE AT RECORD HIGHS
Ben Bernanke, Fed Chairman ten years ago, made it clear that his Fed’s objective was to support asset prices, which in turn would hopefully create a trickle down wealth effect for the broad economy. Janet Yellen, and now Jerome Powell have continued in the same vein. Moreover the mandate has evolved, as described by Powell, to achieve a “symmetrical” two percent inflation rate (tolerating above 2% for a while) and, most recently, economic growth that will benefit all segments of the economy, clearly targeting the wealth gap. This policy, echoed by central banks worldwide, has produced negligible interest rates of fixed income securities (all the way out to thirty years), supporting the stock market because TINA (there is no alternative). The chart just below shows vividly how US equities (the S&P 500, ex financials) are selling at 49x free cash flow, almost 50% higher than at the top of the dotcom bubble.
People…..safe to say we are closer to a top than a bottom.
GOVERNMENTS NEED HELP, AND IT’S ON THE WAY, FROM US !!
First, we should understand that the minimal, or even negative, interest rates, are a form of wealth transfer. Fixed income security holders earn nothing, losing ground to even minimal inflation, and the government benefits from negligible interest cost on Treasury securities.
Additionally, though President-elect Biden publicly dances around the subject, it is clear that tax rates in the US will go up under his administration. It won’t be close to filling the cash flow gap but will be designed as acceptable to the public while the can (cash flow gap) gets kicked down the road. There has been a lot of discussion in the United Kingdom on this subject and our policies tend to mirror theirs. Rather than a Value Added Tax (VAT) which would raise the most money but tax everyone, taxes targeting the rich alone are more politically preferable. This could include a tax on homes with a value above a certain level, much higher capital gains taxes, higher estate taxes, and higher rates on large incomes. The charts below show the long term trends in tax rates both in the UK and the US. Tax rates in the future may not match the 90%+ as shown in the charts, but higher than today they will be.
People…..it won’t be enough to materially reduce deficits, but everyone will be paying a more “fair share”.
GOLD IS UNDERPRICED, THE GOLD MINERS EVEN MORE SO
The price of gold has historically correlated strongly with the U.S. debt buildup, the growth in money supply, the buildup in negative yield debt, and Central Bank asset buildup. It has also protected purchasing power both during inflation (as in the 1970s) and deflation (as in the 1930s). By every measure, the price of gold should be a multiple of its current price. Central Banks around the world, who are most attuned to long term monetary trends, have been collectively buying over 400 tons of gold every year in the last ten. Though central bankers never admit to liking gold as an asset class, since a gold standard limits the ability of central banks to create more currency, this is a classic case of “do as I do, not as I say”. Gold mining stocks, whose earnings are leveraged to the price of gold, are even more underpriced than gold bullion itself. With the gold price almost the same as the $1900 high of 2011, the gold mining stocks are 50-60% below those levels. This undervaluation is underlined because, as the chart below shows, they have flipped from a negative cash flow position to free cash flow generators. One can only imagine how much cash they will generate as the price of gold (their end product) catches up with other asset classes. Dividends are already being steadily raised by many of the major miners, just as they were in the 1930s, when Homestake Mining, between 1929 and 1936, paid out dividends worth three times the 1929 stock price.
People….it’s not a question of IF, more a question of WHEN.
We see no constructive movement, in terms of dealing with economic imbalances and fiscal/monetary distortions. The problems are an order of magnitude impossible to comprehend, let alone deal with, and have been created over decades, The current crop of politicians, worldwide, give no indication of a willingness to directly confront the situation.
We continually search for the flaws in our long term investment argument. If the facts, and important trends have changed, we would gladly adjust our approach. This is not the case, however. The fiscal/monetary influences on the worldwide economy have been on a parabolic ascent in recent decades. Stagflation, as in the seventies but worse, is the best outcome we can hope for in the foreseeable future. Events will at some point force the necessary financial, political and social changes necessary to encourage long term productive economic growth. The operative phrase is AT SOME POINT…..