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Posts Tagged ‘Gold’

I love a stock-index-to-gold ratio (see my earlier Chart of the DJIA priced in gold). Zero Hedge has calculated the performance of the S&P500 in gold over the last 18 months. It’s scary stuff. Here, in his inimitable style, is Tyler:

It may come as a surprise to some that when the market’s performance is expressed in the opposite of infinitely dilutable paper, we are currently just barely 15% higher than the generational S&P low of 666. As the chart below demonstrates, the S&P expressed in gold is plunging, and has dropped 22% from its 2010 highs, down 18% from the beginning of the year, and just 15% higher than March 5, 2009. As Russia and GLD have been demonstrating so aptly over the past 5 months, gold is not dilutable, and can not be contaminated with various Greek sovereign bond holdings. It is, in summary, pure, and is immune from that strain of 100% lethal, and printerborne, Central Banking syphilis where one’s paper rots off. Which is why the Dow may easily pass 36,000. The issue is that at or about that time, the Dow to Gold ratio will be 1. Note also, the downward channel in the SPX/Gold index: each day this channel is not broken, is another day that Bernanke pops a few extra Ambien.

S&P500 in gold since January 2009:

S&P500 in gold since 2005:

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One of my favorite macro indicators is the long-term Dow:gold ratio. Rolph Winkler of Reuters blog Contingent Capital did the heavy lifting last week to produce a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average priced in gold per ounce since 1900:

The Dow:gold ratio is not everyone’s cup of tea. Paul Kedorosky likens it to measuring yo-yos in meerkats, but says it’s “semi-useful.” I agree. Several semi-useful observations that can be made from the chart include:

  1. Gold has outperformed the DJIA from the late 1990s to the present. In the late 1990s the Dow was more expensive in gold than it had ever been in the preceding 100 years.
  2. In 2009, the gold trade is getting long in the tooth. Most of the really big gains in gold have already been made. It’s no longer obviously cheap relative to equities, however
  3. …it’s probably not over yet. The Dow:gold ratio has traditionally bottomed at a point significantly lower than we have seen this time around. This might suggest that it still has a ways to fall before it reaches the nadir. For the bottom to come in, either gold has to go up, equities have to come down, or some combination of both has to occur. My guess is the latter, however, this is not the only view out there. For example, in the Buttonwood’s notebook column of the Economist, Buttonwood asks, “Is gold the next bubble?

WHAT are the preconditions for a bubble? Perhaps there are four: easy credit conditions, a significant trend-breaking event, the lack of plausible valuation measures and an appealing story.

Gold fulfils most of these conditions. One can argue about the credit conditions; lending is still weak but crucially interest rates are low. That helps given that gold has no yield; in effect, the opportunity cost of holding gold has disappeared. The event that changed minds was the credit crunch, which caused a partial loss of faith in banks. Gold has no valuation issues (no yield or earnings); since people hold it as a store of value, it can be worth whatever they want it to be worth. And it has a plausible backstory; spendthrift governments are monetising their deficits like the Weimar Republic before them.

…whereas one can say, based on historic valuation measures, that Wall Street is currently 40% overvalued, one can make no such bold statement on gold.The next stage of a bubble would be broad-based public interest.

One thing clear to me from the chart is that buying equities from the late 1990s to the present was like running up the down escalator. It was fun, but it wasn’t the easiest way to get to the top. Standing still on the up escalator was an easier ride. This was the point of my Buffett on gold post last week. The change in the Dow:gold ratio for the period 1964 to 1979 makes it clear why Buffett was bested by gold over that period. The change in the ratio for the period from the early 1980s through to the late 1990s, combined with Buffett’s otherworldly ability to identify undervalued equities, also explains the lollapalooza gains made by Berkshire Hathaway during that period. It might also suggest that at some stage in the near future equities will again be the up escalator, but not quite yet, for the reasons below.

In an inflationary environment a business must keep increasing the price of its goods or services just to keep its margins static, and any reinvestment in plant and machinery must be undertaken at increasingly higher prices. If it can’t increase its prices or it doesn’t earn enough to keep up with its maintenance capital expenditure, then it will shrink and risks falling behind any competitor that can. In other words, it has to run up the down escalator, and if it can’t run faster than the escalator, then it’s going backwards. Businesses with no pricing power and low returns-on-equity will therefore suffer in an inflationary environment. While it is true that a business with pricing power and high return-on-equity is better able to protect itself somewhat from inflation, it is not true that inflation is good for this business either. Since I (and, I suspect, most investors) can’t prospectively pick one from the other, perhaps stepping onto the up escalator in such times is not such a bad idea. All gold does is sit there, yes, but it can’t be printed, so it tends to appreciate against the dollar as the dollar is debauched.

Has the dollar been debauched? The Austrian economist in me thinks so. Einhorn, John Paulson, Rogers and Buffett’s commentary on US fiscal and monetary policy can’t all be wrong. Keeping interest rates too low for too long and printing too much money – what Buffett describes as “Greenback emissions” – will result in inflation measurable in the CPI in the not too distant future. (As an aside, I think there is inflation now, but because it’s not running through the CPI yet it doesn’t exist according to the orthodox view, which also happens to be the one in power, and on both sides of politics, for that matter).

What can we deduce from the foregoing? If gold does as it has done in past cycles, it should do well for the foreseeable future. That has to be tempered by the fact that the gold price has run a long way, both in dollar terms and in comparison to equities (as measured against the DJIA). Gold could have a big reversal – in the mid-1970s the DJIA rallied significantly against gold before sinking to its long-term bottom – before it continues onto historical highs. In this regard, Jim Rogers’ recent commentary is instructive [via The Globe and Mail]:

Jim Rogers: I don’t ever like to buy something making all time highs however I’m not selling my gold. Gold is going to go much higher in the course of the bull market. Doesn’t mean it can’t go down 20 per cent next year but during the course of the bull market it is going to go much higher it is certainly not a bubble yet.

Jim you are typically a contrarian investor. If everyone is buying, shouldn’t you be selling?

Jim Rogers : Yes, I should be selling at the top, but I don’t think this is the top. Gold, if you adjust it for its old highs, adjust it for inflation back in 1980, gold should be over $2000 an ounce right now. In my view, in this bull market in commodities gold will make all new highs adjust for inflation.

When will gold hit 2k?

Jim Rogers: I wish I was that smart. You should watch TheStreet.com. They know everything.

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Warren Buffett’s position on gold is well known, if a little difficult to fathom. This is from Buffett’s appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box on March 9, 2009, but could have been taken from any of his commentary over the last fifty years:

BECKY: OK. I want to get to a question that came from an investment club of seventh and eighth graders who invest $1 million in fake money every year. This is the Grizzell Middle School Investment Club in Dublin, Ohio, and the question is, where do you think gold will be in five years and should that be a part of value investing?

BUFFETT: I have no views as to where it will be, but the one thing I can tell you is it won’t do anything between now and then except look at you. Whereas, you know, Coca-Cola will be making money, and I think Wells Fargo will be making a lot of money and there will be a lot–and it’s a lot–it’s a lot better to have a goose that keeps laying eggs than a goose that just sits there and eats insurance and storage and a few things like that. The idea of digging something up out of the ground, you know, in South Africa or someplace and then transporting it to the United States and putting into the ground, you know, in the Federal Reserve of New York, does not strike me as a terrific asset.

Then there’s this comment from Buffett on the relative performance of Berkshire Hathway book value and an ounce of gold over fifteen years in the 1979 letter to shareholders:

One friendly but sharp-eyed commentator on Berkshire has pointed out that our book value at the end of 1964 would have bought about one-half ounce of gold and, fifteen years later, after we have plowed back all earnings along with much blood, sweat and tears, the book value produced will buy about the same half ounce. A similar comparison could be drawn with Middle Eastern oil. The rub has been that government has been exceptionally able in printing money and creating promises, but is unable to print gold or create oil.

Fifteen years of blood, sweat and tears from the greatest investor in the world and he just breaks even with gold, which “just sits there and eats insurance and storage and a few things like that.” And still he recommends avoiding gold.

For tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his owne petar.

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Rolfe Winkler of Reuters blog Contingent Capital has a great summary of David Einhorn’s talk to the Value Investing Congress. Despite what we say in the title, Einhorn is hardly fickle (we just couldn’t resist). If anything, he’s stubborn to a fault, so it is interesting that he’s changed his mind so dramatically about the influence of macro events on his traditional bottom-up investment style. In his speech (.pdf via Winkler’s blog), he sets out the rationale behind the change, what he perceives the current macro risks to be, and what he’s doing in response. Apologies in advance for the huge blocks of text. We believe that this is the most important factor influencing the market and the economy, and will be for the next 5-10 years. Ignore it at your peril.

Speaking of his change in attitude to secular macro trends, Einhorn said:

I want to revisit [Greenlight’s 2005 position in MDC Holdings, a homerbuilder] because the loss was not bad luck; it was bad analysis. I down played the importance of what was then an ongoing housing bubble. On the very same day, at the very same conference, a more experienced and wiser investor, Stanley Druckenmiller, explained in gory detail the big picture problem the country faced from a growing housing bubble fueled by a growing debt bubble. At the time, I wondered whether even if he were correct, would it be possible to convert such big picture macro-thinking into successful portfolio management? I thought this was particularly tricky since getting both the timing of big macro changes as well as the market’s recognition of them correct has proven at best a difficult proposition. Smart investors had been complaining about the housing bubble since at least 2001. I ignored Stan, rationalizing that even if he were right, there was no way to know when he would be right. This was an expensive error.

The lesson that I have learned is that it isn’t reasonable to be agnostic about the big picture. For years I had believed that I didn’t need to take a view on the market or the economy because I considered myself to be a “bottom up” investor. Having my eyes open to the big picture doesn’t mean abandoning stock picking, but it does mean managing the longshort exposure ratio more actively, worrying about what may be brewing in certain industries, and when appropriate, buying some just-in-case insurance for foreseeable macro risks even if they are hard to time.

What, according to Einhorn, is the secular macro trend most influencing the market and economy? The inflationary policies of the current administration:

Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly “do whatever it takes” to “solve one problem at a time” and deal with the unintended consequences later. It is too soon for history to evaluate their work, because there hasn’t been time for the unintended consequences of the “do whatever it takes” decision-making to materialize.

Rather than deal with these simple problems with simple, obvious solutions, the official reform plans are complicated, convoluted and designed to only have the veneer of reform while mostly serving the special interests. The complications serve to reduce transparency, preventing the public at large from really seeing the overwhelming influence of the banks in shaping the new regulation.

In dealing with the continued weak economy, our leaders are so determined not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the 1930s that they are risking policies with possibly far worse consequences designed by the same people at the Fed who ran policy with the short term view that asset bubbles don’t matter because the fallout can be managed after they pop. That view created a disaster that required unprecedented intervention for which our leaders congratulated themselves for doing whatever it took to solve. With a sense of mission accomplished, the G-20 proclaimed “it worked.”

We are now being told that the most important thing is to not remove the fiscal and monetary support too soon. Christine Romer, a top advisor to the President, argues that we made a great mistake by withdrawing stimulus in 1937.

An alternative lesson from the double dip the economy took in 1938 is that the GDP created by massive fiscal stimulus is artificial. So whenever it is eventually removed, there will be significant economic fall out. Our choice may be either to maintain large annual deficits until our creditors refuse to finance them or tolerate another leg down in our economy by accepting some measure of fiscal discipline.

Over the last couple of years we have adopted a policy of private profits and socialized risks. We are transferring many private obligations onto the national ledger. Although our leaders ought to make some serious choices, they appear too trapped in short-termism and special interests to make them. Taking no action is an action.

In the nearer-term the deficit on a cash basis is about $1.6 trillion or 11% of GDP. President Obama forecasts $1.4 trillion next year, and with an optimistic economic outlook, $9 trillion over the next decade. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research recently published a study that indicated that “by all relevant debt indicators, the U.S. fiscal scenario will soon approximate the economic scenario for countries on the verge of a sovereign debt default.”

Further, the Federal Open Market Committee members may not recognize inflation when they see it, as looking at inflation solely through the prices of goods and services, while ignoring asset inflation, can lead to a repeat of the last policy error of holding rates too low for too long.

At the same time, the Treasury has dramatically shortened the duration of the government debt. As a result, higher rates become a fiscal issue, not just a monetary one. The Fed could reach the point where it perceives doing whatever it takes requires it to become the buyer of Treasuries of first and last resort.

I believe there is a real possibility that the collapse of any of the major currencies could have a similar domino effect on re-assessing the credit risk of the other fiat currencies run by countries with structural deficits and large, unfunded commitments to aging populations.

I believe that the conventional view that government bonds should be “risk free” and tied to nominal GDP is at risk of changing. Periodically, high quality corporate bonds have traded at lower yields than sovereign debt. That could happen again.

His response has been to buy physical gold “as insurance against sovereign default(s).”

Now, the question for us as investors is how to manage some of these possible risks. Four years ago I spoke at this conference and said that I favored my Grandma Cookie’s investment style of investing in stocks like Nike, IBM, McDonalds and Walgreens over my Grandpa Ben’s style of buying gold bullion and gold stocks. He feared the economic ruin of our country through a paper money and deficit driven hyper inflation. I explained how Grandma Cookie had been right for the last thirty years and would probably be right for the next thirty as well. I subscribed to Warren Buffett’s old criticism that gold just sits there with no yield and viewed gold’s long-term value as difficult to assess.

However, the recent crisis has changed my view. The question can be flipped: how does one know what the dollar is worth given that dollars can be created out of thin air or dropped from helicopters? Just because something hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t. Yes, we should continue to buy stocks in great companies, but there is room for Grandpa Ben’s view as well.

I have seen many people debate whether gold is a bet on inflation or deflation. As I see it, it is neither. Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they appear sensible. Gold did very well during the Great Depression when FDR debased the currency. It did well again in the money printing 1970s, but collapsed in response to Paul Volcker’s austerity. It ultimately made a bottom around 2001 when the excitement about our future budget surpluses peaked.

Prospectively, gold should do fine unless our leaders implement much greater fiscal and monetary restraint than appears likely. Of course, gold should do very well if there is a sovereign debt default or currency crisis.

A few weeks ago, the Office of Inspector General called out the Treasury Department for misrepresenting the position of the banks last fall. The Treasury’s response was an unapologetic expression that amounted to saying that at that point “doing whatever it takes” meant pulling a Colonel Jessup: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” At least we know what we are dealing with.

When I watch Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Geithner and Mr. Summers on TV, read speeches written by the Fed Governors, observe the “stimulus” black hole, and think about our short-termism and lack of fiscal discipline and political will, my instinct is to want to short the dollar. But then I look at the other major currencies. The Euro, the Yen, and the British Pound might be worse. So, I conclude that picking one these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure. And I decide holding gold is better than holding cash, especially now, where both earn no yield.

For years, the discussion has been that our deficit spending will pass the costs onto “our grandchildren.” I believe that this is no longer the case and that the consequences will be seen during the lifetime of the leaders who have pursued short-term popularity over our solvency. The recent economic crisis and our response has brought forward the eventual reconciliation into a window that is near enough that it makes sense for investors to buy some insurance to protect themselves from a possible systemic event. To slightly modify Alexis de Tocqueville: Events can move from the impossible to the inevitable without ever stopping at the probable.

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