SEMI-MONTHLY FISCAL/MONETARY REPORT – DRAMATIC DEVELOPMENTS, WITH PREDICTABLE RAMIFICATIONS!
The capital markets in January were dominated by the action in Gamestop and other heavily shorted stocks, so the Russel 2000 and Nasdaq indexes were up. The larger indexes, the Dow and S&P were down. Gold bullion was down about 3.2%. Gold mining stocks, to be expected, were down about double that. However, the year has just begun, the dollar printing presses are preparing to print trillions of stimulus dollars, and the broad background, as discussed below, is moving in favor of the “real money” (i.e. gold, and it’s “little brother”, silver) on almost a daily basis. Additionally, the populist revolution of Robinhood traders, the last few days spilling over to silver, demonstrates how quickly and dramatically mass psychology can turn. It will take more than a group of young traders to move the gold and silver markets sharply higher but the institutions and computer driven trading programs are odd lotters at heart, chasing momentum rather than fundamentals. Gold related securities have had positive fundamentals for a long time now, so it’s just a question of time until the psychology turns. We discuss just below the analogies between Gamestock and the precious metals before providing an update on the broader fiscal and monetary developments.
FROM GAMESTOP TO GOLD – WHAT’S THE STORY ?
Recent short term trading developments seem far removed from precious metals but there are similarities that could come into play.
First, the buyers of Gamestop, from the trading platforms such as Robinhood, were out to punish the fat cat hedge funds that, as they see it, have gotten rich by shorting low priced stocks into oblivion. The new buying from the “little guys” forced the hedge funds that were short to limit losses by covering at increasingly high prices. A critical technical aspect of this situation is that the total short positions had been allowed (by hedge fund custodians such as Goldman Sachs) to be well over 100% of the shares outstanding, called “naked” shorting, and there was no way, until Robinhood suspended trading, that all the shares that had been shorted could be bought back. It should be noted that, while many commentators expressed concern about the price volatility, almost everyone is sympathetic with the little guy, nobody feeling sorry for the hedge funds that took huge losses. At least a couple of multi-billion dollar hedge funds closed their doors in the wake of the unprecedented upsurge.
Here is the application to the gold and silver markets.
First, the prices of gold related securities are thought by many (including ourselves) to be suppressed similarily as Gamestop. In the case of gold, the suppression is by worldwide politicians and their affiliated bankers, who don’t want a rising gold price to bring attention to the huge dilution of the unbacked paper currencies. Gold related securities, especially the gold mining stocks, for no apparent fundamental reason, have therefore participated very little in the asset inflation of the last seven or eight years. The fact is that several large market makers in gold and silver related securities, including futures and options, have paid fines amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars for manipulation of precious metal markets. There has, therefore, been a distortion in the “price discovery” of precious metals, just as we have described for years.
The other important similarity between Gamestop and Gold is the use by the Gamestop short sellers of “naked shorts” as described above. This “paper” that was over 100% of the total “underlying” created a potential demand, once the stock started going up, that was impossible to satisfy except at much higher prices. The term you will hear is “short squeeze”. The number discussed, relative to Gamestop, is that the total short positions amounted to 140% of the shares outstanding, a ratio of 1.4 to 1. NOW GET THIS ! In the gold market, the “paper”, that is composed of derivatives such as options, futures, ETFs, etc., that reside on top of the physical trading of the “underlying” gold is thought to be something like 100 to 1, that’s ONE HUNDRED TO ONE. We don’t mean to suggest that all of that “exposure” is on the short side, but a great number of positions are built on borrowed money, and no doubt a substantial amount is “short”. In addition, buyers (like the “little guys” at Robinhood) in the gold or silver futures market could require “delivery”, rather than a cash settlement, and the short seller would obviously have a bigger problem than just buying back the paper short and taking the loss. They would have to find a seller of physical metal. It has been reported by dealers of physical gold and silver that there has been a huge increase in demand by retail buyers who expect delivery, not settlement in cash. This spills over into the derivatives market as physical dealers buy options and futures contract to protect their profit between the time they give a customer their “report” and when the dealer receives, then delivers against payment the physical product. A final simplistic point is that it takes ten years to bring on stream a newly discovered gold mine. In the stock market, Gamestop could issue more shares at some point and satisfy some of the demand. As it applies to gold, nobody can “issue” new gold bullion overnight. In fact, there are no new large gold mines scheduled to come on stream for years. If potential physical demand is to be satisfied, it has to come from an existing physical holder, and they will likely require a very much higher price.
As always, the timing of a large move in gold related securities continues to be uncertain, but some of the critical catalysts are similar in nature to those that drove Gamestop so dramatically higher. Everyone agrees that there are no possible fundamentals that could justify the recent price of Gamestop, even at $90, up from $20, let alone at a high of $500. In the case of Gold, we are not suggesting that it should be trading 20-30 times higher, but somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000 an ounce can be rationally jusified. That could take gold mining stocks up by least 10x and would be adequately satisfying.
With that review of the most current events in the capital markets, below is a continuation of our longer term broad fundamental perspective.
It’s becoming a common refrain: “don’t fight the Fed”, originally coined by the late and great market strategist, Martin Zweig back in the 1980s.
Jerome Powell, Fed Chairman, has made it clear that he will do “whatever it takes” to get back to relatively full employment and balanced economic growth, “balanced” referring to a narrowing of the wealth gap. He has reiterated that he is “not even thinking about thinking about raising interest rates”, signaling that the Fed will continue to expand its balance sheet, keeping interest rates very low, bond markets and the stock markets still supported by the “Fed put”. The Fed’s largesse has no doubt been an important contributing cause of the weakness in the US Dollar, which supports exporting US industries.
A historical footnote: This disillusionment with the US Dollar is similar to 1969 and 1970 when the Europeans, led by France’s Charles DeGaulle, exchanged their predictably diluted Dollars for the US Gold. In the course of just a couple of years, the US Gold holdings were reduced from over 20,000 tons to the 8,400 tons that we still own today. Richard Nixon famously “closed the gold window” in August, 1971, inflation took off, taking Fed Fund Rates to 18%, and the price of gold went from $35. to $850/oz. by January, 1980. An important corollary is that the amount of gold that the US, as well as collective worldwide central banks, own, relative to the paper currency outstanding, is today at roughly the same (7-8%) level it was in 1971.
Back to the current situation:
Enter Powell’s predecessor, Janet Yellen, likely to be confirmed by the Senate as new Treasury Secretary. While the Fed and the administration’s Treasury Secretary are theoretically independent of one another, it has long been the case that the Fed is responsive to political concerns. Interest rates have firmed up a bit in the last two weeks, and the dollar has also bounced off its lows since early January. Some headlines have said that “Yellen does not seek a weaker dollar for competitive purposes”, implying that she will favor a stronger dollar, likely accompanied by higher interest rates. Not exactly. She also said she is in a favor of a “market driven dollar”. All of her remarks indicate that she is agnostic as to where the Dollar trades.
Now let’s see what is going on in the economy and how Fed/Treasury policy will play out.
THE ECONOMY IS WEAK
Retail Sales Are Weak – December sales came in weaker than expected, down 0.7% YTY and November was revised to down 1.4% vs. originally estimated negative 1.1%. Further breakdowns of the overall numbers look even worse. Restaurant sales were down 4.5%, electronics -4.9%, appliances and furniture -0.6%, online sales -5.8% after -1.7% in November. In essence, aside from restaurant sales, “stuff” in demand due to the Covid seems to have run its course. While we don’t doubt that a certain amount of demand will be released when the Covid-related cabin fever breaks, a case can be made that a traumatized consumer, who have saved or paid down credit balances with stimulus checks may well spend less and save more than was the case before the pandemic. From March through November, 2020, American households saved $1.6 trillion more than a year earlier, while credit balances collapsed at a record 14% annual rate.
EMPLOYMENT GAINS HAVE STAGNATED
Jobless claims in December were 965k, versus an estimate of $790k, in spite of Christmas retail hiring, much higher than November which was revised lower by 3k to $784k.
US GDP STILL VERY WEAK
US real GDP is improving relative to the disastrous 2nd and 3rd quarters, but still down very sharply from a year ago. While it is well accepted that 2020 will be a lost year, economists and commentators are quoting “growth of something like 6% in 2021. Goldman Sachs just raised their forecast from 6.4% to 6.6%, fueled by $1.9 trillion (or something close) stimulus’ effect on disposable incomes and government spending. The reality is, however, that the US economy has been growing at a tepid low to mid 2%+ range for twelve years now. It grew at an average of about 2.3% for eight years under President Obama. In the four years of the Trump administration, with the tailwind of lower taxes, major government deficit spending, less governmental regulation, a trillion dollars of repatriated overseas capital and interest rates very close to zero, GDP grew at an average of about 2.5%. This can fairly be called “the law of diminishing returns”, a lower “marginal return on invested capital” or, less charitably a “misallocation of capital”.
At the same time that economic signals are weakening, inflationary signals are more apparent.
The deficit so far this fiscal year, the three months through December, show a deficit 58% higher than a year ago. Unfortunately the new fiscal stimulus package, proposed at $1.9 trillion, will inflate the government spending again this year. Though the amount is negotiable, President Biden has stated that it is only a “downpayment” on future plans. It seems reasonable to expect this fiscal year’s deficit to at least approach the $3.1 trillion of last year, perhaps even exceed it.
We point out again that the debt increases almost every year at much more than the annual deficit would suggest. This is due to “off budget” spending, and those dollars are in large part borrowed from the social security fund. The deficit shown above in ’19 was $984 billion but the debt went up by $219 billion more, $1.2 trillion higher in total. The deficit in the Y/E 9/30/20 was $3.1 trillion but the increase in debt was $4.2 trillion. People….these are not trivial differences, and this huge accelerating debt load will further drag on our economy.
INFLATIONARY SIGNALS ARE APPEARING, though it still may be a way off
First, the parabolic increase in the M2 money supply has to be some cause for concern.
Secondly, reported import and export prices for December are cause for inflationary concern, and this could be one contributing factor to the rise in interest rates and the US Dollar. December import prices were up 0.9% instead of the expected 0.6%. November was revised slightly upward, from 0.1% to 0.2%. Export prices were also up much more than the expected 0.6% in December to 0.9%. November was also revised upward by 0.1% to 0.2%.
Lastly, the seemingly inevitable move to a nationwide $15 minimum wage could also contribute. While it is true that perhaps only 3 or 4 percent of the workforce earn the $7.25 minimum wage, with the lowest paid sector (leisure/hospitality) earning $17/hr, a higher minimum could well provide upward pressure. That $17/hr worker might not be happy earning just over the acknowledged subsistence level, and expect a bit more. Its also true that employers will attempt to hold the pricing line by absorbing labor increases by way curbing expenses elsewhere, but a great deal of that may already be in place. In any event, we haven’t seen any arguments that a higher national minimum wage will be deflationary.
In spite of the factors provided above, the month to month CPI report doesn’t show much yet, up 0.4% in December but up just 1.4% for the twelve months ending December. The so called core-CPI, less food and energy, was up just 0.1% in December, up 1.6% for twelve months. The Fed, of course, has clearly stated a policy to allow inflation to run higher than 2% annually for a while because it has been under 2% for so long. Keep in mind that, while prices of goods and services (except for major expenses like education and health care) have been stable, asset price inflation has been huge. There is a reason why very rich people are paying over $100M for a residence or a rare painting. They want to own anything but cash. They don’t know what that Van Gogh or oceanfront property will sell for, but they know their cash will lose a lot of purchasing power. As always, inflation is the cruelest tax, affecting the rich the least. They have their land, homes, art, stock and stock options, gold, etc. It’s the lower and middle class that gets hurt, left to wonder why they are making more in nominal terms but have to work harder to make ends meet.
Inflation is in our future, guaranteed, with governments around the world printing currency at an unprecedented rate, with a stated goal of creating of something over 2% for a long time. Short term, however, there is a lot of under-utilized manufacturing capacity, consumer spending is still restrained, and rents (“rent equivalent” is over 25% of the CPI index) are stagnant as city dwellers move out. Education and Healthcare, two of the largest family expenditures, are not in the CPI that is most often quoted by officials. The CPI, also, does not reflect the inflation in asset prices, including speculations such as Bitcoin and Gamestop. For these reasons, the reported CPI may not take off for a while but inflation in the real world is inescapable.
THE RESULTANT FEDERAL RESERVE/TREASURY DILEMNA
The Federal Reserve and the supposedly independent US Treasury, as a result of at least forty years of fiscal/monetary promiscuity have incompatible masters to serve.
On one hand they are supposed to keep inflation at a tolerable level, these days no higher than a “symmetrical” 2%, At some point that will call for higher interest rates, and normalization to 150-200 bp above the rate of inflation, a range of 3.5-4.0%, providing a “real” return to savers. Unfortunately that would add an unacceptable $800-900 billion of annual interest to government expenses, blowing the deficit even higher, exacerbated further yet because tax receipts would contract as businesses cope with higher interest rates. So….interest rates might edge up, but not by much.
On the other hand the Fed’s second mandate is to foster full employment. This requires relatively low interest rates and continued government fiscal stimulus, which along with a weaker dollar will support US business activities. These policies problematically foster the inflation that they don’t want to get out of control.
The objectives are inconsistent.
When in doubt, the policymakers will pursue the inflation every time. The public, especially the lower and middle class, doesn’t quite understand why they have to work harder and longer to make ends meet. It is very apparent, on the other hand, when interest rates and/or taxes are going up and unemployment is rising. Far better for the incumbent politicians to stimulate the economy by way of government spending, low interest rates, and a lower dollar. Somebody else can deal with the inflation later on. Paul Volker came along in 1979 and Ronald Reagan stuck with him, enduring the higher interest rates of the early 1980s to squeeze out inflation, but there is no Paul Volker or Ronald Reagan these days and the problems (the deficits, the debt, the tepid economy, the already very low interest rates) are an order of magnitude larger.
The recent runup in speculative securities such as Gamestop could be a forerunner of a similar explosion in gold and gold mining stocks. As discussed above, the disdain for “the fat cats” is driving a populist revolt (with sympathy from both sides of the political aisle) that has driven heavily shorted stocks up by ten times and more in a matter of weeks. The stage could well be set, for a lot of the same reasons as discussed above for precious metal related assets. The Gamestop crowd, at the end of their recent run, broadened their focus to silver and silver miners, and gold rose in sympathy a couple of days ago. As attention is drawn to fiat currency alternatives, the price action of gold, silver, and the miners could start to reflect the compelling fundamentals.