The debate is on! Are we in a liquidity trap and if so what should we do? Why is the financial system depleted of collateral and what does this mean? Should policy makers and central banks be even more “irresponsible”  and conduct more monetized deficit spending? What does a lack of triple A rated/safe haven securities mean and is it real?
All these questions and more have recently gotten a fascinating treatment in the economics debate courtesy, mainly, of this piece by Credit Suisse. FT Alphaville has been given the question extensive and brilliant coverage and now even the IMF has pitched in. I think the issues raised are not only important but likely to form the framework of at least the next decade’s worth of research on macroeconomics, monetary policy and financial market.
So yes my dear reader. This is no time to shy back. Dig in, and dig in hard! In this first post of a series of 3-5 posts, I try to present the building blocks of the argument as I see them an answer the question of why the traditional view on the liquidity trap does not apply in the current situation.
Let me begin with the following key premises for my argument and the state of the global economy and financial system post 2008/09. I will try to develop each of these statements in the posts that follows.
- The crisis of 2008/09 has ushered in what is likely to be a period of severe stress in global sovereign fixed income markets. Sovereign debt distress and defaults are messy and costly affairs and take a long time to deal with. We have now entered a period where the next 10-20 years will see several developed economies default on their sovereign debt. Ageing populations, too low growth and insufficient future income/consumption to push forward mean that the OECD is now at an inflection point. For global financial markets this means that an unprecedented and systemic share of the global fixed income market is likely to be in distress at any given point in time over the next 10-20 years.
- There is an acute shortage of liquid triple A rated government securities. This shortage is structural and capital deepening in emerging economies is too slow and insufficient in size to take up the slack. Pension funds, insurance companies and big real money managagers are now essentially unable to construct their portfolios in such a way to match their future liabilities with a satisfactory (or perhaps even promised) yield. In addition, this leads to mispricings in remaining assets considered the last safe havens. US government bonds, UK Gilts, German Bunds, Danish Mortgage Backed Securities etc.
- Central banks are now acting as international clearing houses for the banking system. This is mainly seen in Europe where the ECB has been forced into taking up slack for an interbank market which has essentially been broken. Lowering of collateral standards, ever higher portions of liquidity and extension of maturities of its open market operations are all signs that the ECB is now effectively not only acting as the lender of last resort, it is de-facto the vehicle through which European banks can access liquidity across all maturities. However, whether the central banks buys government bonds outright or funnels demand through the banking system amounts to the same thing.
- The demand for credit is as much a problem as is the supply. Sifting through the references below, you will find that at least one solution to the problem is that governments must issue even more impaired debt instruments which essentially become assets backed by liabilities created by the central bank. We must understand however that the core of the problem is that there is now a structural lack of solvent sovereign and private credit demand. The argument goes that the higher demand for safe haven triple A rated assets must be met with supply by sovereign debt issuers, but the ability of governments to issue such securities is structurally impaired.
- Central bank monetization of government liabilities either outright or through open market operations providing liquidity to banks are not costless, even in a liquidity trap. Macroeconomic theory is currently informed by the notion that creating unlimited amount of excess bank reserves in the presence of a liquidity trap (zero velocity environment) has no malicious inflationary side effects. I think the evidence from more than three years of monetary experiment among the major central banks forces us to re-visit this conclusion.
The Liquidity Trap Revisited
In order to start somewhere, I will begin with Izabella’s exposé on this paper by Paul McCulley and Zoltan Pozsar. The main points from Monsieurs McCulley and Pozsar’s paper, with some slicing and dicing of quotes, are as follows.
At the macro level, deleveraging must be a managed process: for the private sector to deleverage without causing a depression, the public sector has to move in the opposite direction and re-lever by effectively viewing the balance sheets of the monetary and fiscal authorities as a consolidated whole.
… the operational mandate of a central bank operating in a liquidity trap environment should be changed materially.Rather than “policing the government to keep it from borrowing too much” the central bank should help it “to borrow and invest by targeting to keep long-term interest rates low by monetizing debt, with the aim of killing the fat tail risks of deflation and depression. ”The interests of the fiscal authority and the monetary authority rightfully become entwined. What’s more, the loss of the central bank’s independence should not be seen as a concern.
Critics invoke the orthodoxy that printing money is inflationary. But in a liquidity trap it is not. Money is as money does, and judging from the trillions in excess reserves on banks’ balance sheets, money isn’t doing anything. Printed money is unlikely to become inflationary until after the private sector has finished deleveraging and is bidding for funds again.
Generally, I find it difficult to see what new McCulley and Pozsar brings to the table here. This is liquidity trap and deleveraging economics 1.0, but I feel that we need a version 2.0 to understand what is really going on. The liquidity trap argument of old rightly emphasize that government should weigh against a necessary private deleveraging by running large and perhaps even, on the face of it, irresponsible deficits. This line of argument was, in part, inspired by the Japanese experience and the widely held perception that the BOJ was too timid in the initial phases of the Japanese bust.
I largely agree with this line of argumentation, but if the sovereign is an intrinsic part of the problem the argument breaks down. The problem today consequently runs a step deeper than the original liquidity trap argument.
While the initial symptoms of the financial crisis were rightly identified as too much private debt and reckless credit expansion in a key sector (housing and construction) the subsequent crisis in the euro zone has exposed two additional and critical aspects of the crisis.
Firstly, we have seen how governments will ultimately end up assuming private liabilities onto their balance sheet. Secondly, issues of fiscal sustainability in the OECD have been known for ages, but now time has run out. In my opinion, the crisis has provided a catalyst for the unravelling of the obvious mismatch between governments’ pension and health care promises to their populations and the inability to meet such promises due to ageing population and low growth environments.
If you accept my premise that sovereign debt sustainability is now a systemic part of global financial markets, you will also see that they role they are supposed to fulfill according to the original views on the liquidity trap becomes very difficult. I
Arguing that sovereigns should ramp up the supply of government debt and that central banks should add to the demand for such debt by creating money represents a misinterpretation of the problem. While it may surely mask the underlying issues for a while it cannot hide the fact that we are now at a crucial inflection point in the developed world. OECD governments’ business model is broken due to population ageing and future liabilities which they will not be able to pay off.
The financial system’s ability to create highly liquid and safe fixed income securities depends on current and future income to service such liabilities and traditional suppliers of such safe assets are simply out of time. Asking governments to act as counterweights against private deleveraging by creating even larger quantities of unserviceable debt cannot work. We see this most forcefully in Europe where sovereigns are being brutally cut out of the market, but there is, in principal, not much difference across the entire OECD spectrum.
It is my view then that for such highly liquid and risk free securities to survive and be continuingly issued, in the current environment, central banks must become permanent supporters of their issuance. We may certainly come to the conclusion that this is a warranted use of central banks’ power, but we should be under no illusion that their involvement on this will be, on any plausible definition, temporary. I think this part of the equation has been given far too little credence in the debate so far.
Once you accept this part of the argument, we are ready to move on to the issue of what such substantial central bank involvement in our economy means and and also why the collateral crunch is likely to continue and what it means.
Stay tuned …
 – My readers who are well versed in the research on deleveraging, liquidity traps etc will understand the reference here. In the original literature and thinking about zero nominal interest rate bounds and liquidity traps, the central bank’s ability to act irresponsibly is seen as a key prerequisite for turning the corner on debt deflation.
This may be a targeted and essentially pinpointed move, but looking at the data coming on China in the first quarter of 2012, I think there is plenty more to come as China tries to come to grips with a rapidly slowing economy.
China boosted rural credit by cutting reserve requirements for an additional 379 branches of Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. (601288), the nation’s third-biggest lender by market value.Effective March 25, the ratio falls by 2 percentage points for the branches in the provinces of Heilongjiang, Henan, Hebei and Anhui, the People’s Bank of China said in a statement on its website yesterday. The move expands a trial that previously lowered requirements for 563 branches in eight provinces. The latest move means a total of 23 billion yuan ($3.6 billion) has been freed up, the PBOC said.
Money supply growth has effectively stalled in China and with the recent statement by BHP Billiton that Chinese steel output had flattened what they really meant was that they are now seriously concerned about a severe and lingering slowdown in China. Of course, there are considerable details that must be taken into account here. However, one thing that we must understand is that production capacity (supply) of hard commodities may turn out to have structurally overshot demand even in mighty China.
So far, we must give Chinese authorities the benefit of the doubt and it is almost certain that they will now turn from a focus on inflation to a focus on growth. This is particularly the case as inflation has come down significantly in China and while base effects will be an important part of this story, the sharp retrenchment of liquidity will also have mattered.
In my view, markets are likely to turn to growth in the next months where disappointing data out of China and the US are likely to put a dent in an otherwise strong rally.
The United States trade deficit surged in January to the widest imbalance in more than three years after imports grew faster than exports.
This is not a good sign. The US economy is predicated on false demand, by which I mean that the US, and the citizens thereof, buy a lot of things on credit. One thing that’s true about buying things on credit is that, in general, the credit has to be paid back, usually with interest. As Ian Fletcher noted in Free Trade Doesn’t Work (review forthcoming), the US has bought a lot of foreign goods on foreign credit, and this will have to be repaid, either with goods or with capital. Thus, there are a lot of downright terrifying scenarios implied by the simple fact that the US has run a trade deficit for every year of the recession, and continues to increase its trade deficit even now.
In the first place, it could be that the US is maintaining its trade deficit by essentially offshoring control of its capital. In this case, it would mean that foreign businesses and governments own US land, or US factors of production (factories, e.g., or perhaps natural resources). This means that US policy will quite probably become more pro-foreigners, which does not bode well for maintaining the social fabric that made this country free and wealthy.
In the second place, it could be the case that the US is simply expanding its credit with nary a thought of how it will be repaid. It will either be defaulted on, which has its own obvious negative implications, or it will be inflated out of, which also has its own obvious negative implications.
In the third place, it may simply be that the US is the least-worst place to trade right now, and so foreign producers sell on credit simply because they need to clear their inventories, and all the other potential markets are even less creditworthy than the US. Incidentally, this would imply that the situation in Europe is worse than most suppose, and would also imply that South American and African countries are all a long way from developing into powerful market economies, which does not bode well for lovers of liberty.
No matter how it’s sliced, though, the fact that the US has not run a trade surplus at any point during the recession indicates that a) demand hasn’t reset to its true levels and that b) things are eventually going to get much, much worse.
Was it Popeye’s friend, Wimpy, who kept asking for a hamburger on credit? Today’s credit markets are anything but robust, with reduced demand and supply for borrowed funds. Always eager to find obscure terms for modern dilemmas, economists refer to this condition as a liquidity trap. With a little prodding from Facebook friend and neighbor, Patrick, we’ll give the concept a once over.
Jumping to the conclusion (and resisting the academic approach of a slow, careful warm-up) there is bad news and good news about liquidity traps. The bad news is that they make it difficult for the Federal Reserve to execute monetary policy. Creating 100s of billions of dollars has a muted impact on our economic recovery. The good news is that the liquidity trap dampens the significant inflation we might expect with the creation of all that money.
OK, back to the beginning. During times of slow or no growth and high unemployment the Federal Reserve can create/inject money, largely by increasing reserves that banks have in their accounts with the Fed. They can do this by buying U.S. treasury bonds on the open market, or even by buying troubled/toxic assets from banks. This increase in the supply of money allows interest rates to fall, which in term spurs demand for more consumption and investment. This is classic monetary policy. With mild downturns this is often enough to increase growth and kick start the economy. For the most recent 2007-2009 recession the Fed took these actions, a number of times in a number of ways, and those actions were not sufficient. Now the target short term interest rate – the Fed Funds rate – is essentially at zero. The Fed can’t lower the interest rates any further. Here’s a graph of the Fed Funds rate since 1980. The big peak at the beginning of the graph was the result of aggressive Fed action to contain inflation. Now, though, the rate has sunk to the very floor.
Fed Funds Rate – St. Louis FRED database
One thing that is happening is that while reserves are building up in our financial system, the banks are holding on to them rather than increasing their lending. Some argue that the banks are using the added funds to improve their balance sheets, which were hurt by the dramatic loss in value of securitized mortgages and other derivative assets, and to build up enough cash to pay executive bonuses. The banks argue that demand for credit by qualified borrowers is low. I don’t put much credence in the latter explanation. One apt analogy for this situation is that the Fed is trying to push on the end of a string, in order to get the economy going.
There is another layer to the liquidity trap concept, and that has to do with the buying public’s (people and business) expectation for inflation. The theory goes that if buyers expect inflation in the future, they will increase buying now. They expect the value of their cash or savings to go down during inflationary times, so they seek to use it now, while its value is still high. This works with traditional monetary policy where an injection of money would be expected to increase inflationary pressures.
On the other hand if purchasers believe that inflation will be controlled, then there is less pressure to buy now. That’s what is happening now. Despite what some politicians suggest, inflation is not right around the corner, and buyers are in no hurry to convert their cash into goods. We see evidence of this with the continuing low interest rates on U.S. bonds. Expectations of high inflation would push those interest rates up. Low inflation expectations, even in the face of increasing money supply is another symptom of a liquidity trap.
This scenario played out, to grim effect, in Japan in the 1990s, as their central bank poured money into the banking system and no one responded. Their “lost decade” was one of almost zero growth.
This paper by a New York Federal Reserve staff economist explains things in more detail, complete with impenetrable equations.
Patrick Chovanec has a fascinating article in Foreign Affairs, titled China’s Real Estate Bubble May Have Just Popped. This is interesting and important from two points of view.
First, bad news for China is bad news for the world economy. We are already in a bleak environment, with difficulties in Europe, Japan, the US, and India. It will not be pretty if China runs into trouble as well. I am reminded of the feeling of carefully watching real
estate in the United States in 2006, with a sense that the future of the world economy was going to turn on how it turned out.
Second, it made me think about real estate in India. As with China, one often sees buyers of real estate in India have the notion that
this is a safe financial asset. This is a questionable proposition. Real estate is perhaps not an asset
class with a positive expected return in the first place; and it is certainly not a convenient asset class with features like liquidity,
transparency, diversification and easy formation of low-volatility diversified portfolios. I find it hard to explain the prominence of
real estate in the portfolios of even educated people in India.
In the article, Chovanec says:
For more than a decade, they have bet on longer-term demand trends by buying up multiple units — often dozens at a time — which they then leave empty with the belief that prices will rise. Estimates of such idle holdings range anywhere from 10 million to 65 million homes; no one really knows the exact number, but the visual impression created by vast `ghost’ districts, filled with row upon row of uninhabited villas and apartment complexes, leaves one with a sense of investments with, literally, nothing inside.
This has not happened in India. So in this sense, the situation in India is not as dire. But his second key message seems uncomfortably
As 2011 progressed, developers scrambled for new lines of financing to keep their overstocked inventories. They first relied on bank loans (until they were cut off), then high-yield bonds in Hong Kong (until the market soured), then private investment vehicles (sponsored by banks as an end run around lending constraints), and finally, in some
cases, loan sharks. By the end of last summer, many Chinese developers had run out of options and were forced to begin liquidating inventory. Hence, the price slashing: 30, 40, and even 50 percent discounts.
Part of this looks familiar. There is a lot of leverage in Indian real estate development and speculation. Real estate speculators and
developers are finding themselves in a bit of a scramble hunting for credit. One hears about very high interest rates being paid by
developers. Other sources of financing are also weak. This reminds me of the dark days before the global crisis, when borrowing by real estate companies was the canary in the coal mine.
If business cycle conditions and financial conditions worsen, the problems of borrowing by real estate developers and speculators will get worse. How might this turn out? Perhaps the borrowers will merely get uncomfortable. Or, a few firms could really get into trouble, and start liquidating inventory. That would have substantial repercussions.
Suppose there is a situation where there are many people who have speculative positions in real estate, but significant selling of
inventory has not yet begun. The longs would then be nervously looking at each other, wondering who would be the first one to sell, to take a better price and exit his position. The ones who sell late would get an inferior price. In such a situation, conditions could change sharply in a short time.
On a longer horizon, I would, of course, be delighted if real estate prices are lower. This would help shift the supply function of
labour, reduce the cost of setting up new businesses, etc. But that’s more about the long-term policy changes, which would remove barriers for converting land into built-up housing, while rising vertically into the sky with FSI in Indian cities ranging from 5 to 25.
Jay Taylor believes the biggest challenge facing the U.S.—deflation—could mean a better year, or even decade, for junior gold stocks. Taylor, editor of Jay Taylor’s Gold, Energy & Tech Stocks, has ridden some equities to the bottom of this punishing market and is ready to pile more cash into small gold companies. In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, he explains why market sentiment hasn’t shaken his faith.
The Gold Report: In the Nov. 4 edition of Hotline, you note that America’s ratio of debt to gross domestic product (GDP) is north of 350%. Our total debt as a society is somewhere around $57 trillion (T). That’s worse than Greece. Is deflation America’s biggest economic threat?
Jay Taylor: I believe it is, however, most of my goldbug friends wouldn’t agree. It is important to realize that the U.S. is not a third-world country. It still has the world’s reserve currency. The central bank, the Federal Reserve, doesn’t put money into the hands of the masses. It puts money in banks. It’s all about credit extension. That is very difficult to do now. With the debt-to-GDP ratio as it is, it’s unsustainable. The markets are telling us that—not only in the U.S., but clearly in Europe as well. We are undergoing one of the largest debt-deleveraging periods in a long time, which may be much larger than what we went through in the 1930s.
TGR: You believe there should be no more bailouts, let this debt wrench itself out of the system and let bankruptcies occur.
JT: Absolutely. Most people don’t understand the reason we’re in trouble is because the good times that we had were false. They weren’t based on savings and investment. They were based on money creation through credit extension. The nice homes, the big office buildings, fancy cars, everything—it wasn’t earned, it was based on debt. Now that the debt cannot be repaid, the expansion goes into a contraction. That process has a long way to go.
TGR: Bob Prechter of the financial forecasting firm Elliott Wave International is predicting that gold and silver “should decline in conjunction with the stock market selloff. Gold should work down toward $1,300 an ounce (oz), while silver should fall into the low $20/oz area.” What’s your position?
JT: If you believe that we’re in a deflationary environment, the nominal price of gold could go down and the purchasing power of it could go up a lot. The real price of gold is most important for gold mining companies. Before the Lehman Brothers failure in July 2008, an ounce of gold would have bought only 17% of the Rogers Raw Materials Fund. It rose to 44% by March 2009, but came back a bit to 30%. It was recently up to a new high of 47.5%. Gold’s purchasing power is rising much more dramatically than its nominal price. Gold has fallen off its highs and is around $1,700/oz. As Ian McAvity has said, an ounce of gold is an ounce of gold. A barrel of oil is a barrel of oil. What is a dollar? It’s a meaningless measure because Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke can create trillions of dollars out of thin air.
TGR: Silver’s purchasing power on the Rogers Raw Materials Fund hasn’t experienced quite the same gain. In June 2008 it was just below 1%. Now it’s just below 3%.
JT: Silver has done very well, but it’s much more volatile. It has outperformed gold in general since Lehman Brothers’ collapse, however.
TGR: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has agreed to throw the Eurozone countries a lifeline of about $0.5T. Will that be enough?
JT: My view on Europe is the same as on the U.S.—the kindest, gentlest thing to do would be to allow the debt to implode immediately. We’re allowing sick entities to survive and eat up resources. It’s contrary to free market capitalism. It’s really fascism. Large corporate interests are being protected because of their cozy relationships with government. A half trillion is not going to be enough. Where does the IMF get its money? Is the U.S. going to be asked to pony up more money for Europe? Probably. Are they going to sell the rest of the gold they have? Perhaps. That’s what the Soviet Union did before it collapsed.
TGR: You’re biased toward credit market deflation, but you continue to be partial toward gold and gold mining stocks. What are the reasons for that?
JT: Margins are widening. There is an explosion of profits for major mining companies in production before 2008: Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. (AEM:TSX; AEM:NYSE), AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. (AU:NYSE; AU:JSE; AGG:ASX; AGD:LSE), Barrick Gold Corp. (ABX:TSX; ABX:NYSE), Goldcorp Inc. (G:TSX; GG:NYSE), Kinross Gold Corp. (K:TSX; KGC:NYSE), Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM:NYSE) and Yamana Gold Inc. (YRI:TSX; AUY:NYSE; YAU:LSE).
In 2008, those companies recorded $5.77 billion (B) of earnings collectively. In 2009, that jumped to $7.05B. In 2010, it jumped to $13.62B. The analyst consensus is that it’s going to go to $20.22B in 2011 and $28.28B for 2012. Margins have increased in this deflationary environment because the real price of gold has risen relative to the cost of mining it.
Bob Hoy, a technical analyst in Vancouver, figures we are in the sixth large credit contraction in the last 300 years. In every case, the real price of gold has risen over 15 to 20 years. The real price of gold started to rise in 2007. We could be in the early days of a super bull market for gold mining shares.
TGR: Those majors probably average $500/oz in cash costs. However, you have a buy rating on small Australian producer Crocodile Gold Corp. (CRK:TSX; CROCF:OTCQX), which just reported a loss of about $6 million for the quarter. Its cash costs are above $1,400/oz and its stock is down about 80% this year. Why on earth would you still have a buy rating on Crocodile Gold?
JT: I believe in the long-term prospects of this company. It’s had a lot of problems. Its costs were $250/oz higher than projected this year because of lower-than-expected grades from its open-pit projects. Clearly, that’s a black eye for management because something went wrong. But I still believe that this company has extraordinary exploration potential and will get costs under control.
TGR: For example, silver producer Great Panther Silver Ltd. (GPR:TSX; GPL:NYSE.A). As of Nov. 18, it was up 355% since you took your initial position. Great Panther is down almost 20% this year despite a strong Q311, however. What’s your outlook for Great Panther?
JT: Its decline is in line with the general market decline. It keeps improving on a fundamental basis and expanding its resource. It’s a fine operation that’s earning money.
TGR: What other smaller gold and silver miners are you interested in?
JT: My favorite might be Sandstorm Gold Ltd. (SSL:TSX.V), which is a royalty play. It has one of the best looking charts in a horrible market. Sandstorm provides the capital to get companies into production and then it gets a royalty. It usually gets the chance to buy maybe 15% or 20% of a project’s production for the life of that project at cost. It has several properties that are producing now. Its projects are getting bigger and production is growing. This is a company that’s going to continue to earn more and more very rapidly. There are fewer risks involved in this model than if it was an operator, too.
TGR: Its production forecast for this year is from 16–18 thousand ounces (Koz). However, that will increase to more than 50 Koz by 2014. That’s certainly strong growth.
JT: The gold price, where it is relative to the cost of mining and the expansion of production, means that earnings are going to grow very rapidly, if not exponentially.
TGR: Do you think that too many royalty plays kill the goose?
JT: That could be the case. With increased competition, they might be paying too much for the deals that they strike. However, I’m not concerned about that with Sandstorm at this point. Royalty plays, like Sandstorm, Silver Wheaton Corp. (SLW:TSX; SLW:NYSE), Royal Gold Inc. (RGL:TSX; RGLD:NASDAQ) and others, generally sell at much higher multiples than mining companies because there’s less risk involved. An operator can have any number of things go wrong and have to put in more capital to get things moving again.
TGR: It’s more of a matter of vetting these projects and being sure the geological model works and the metallurgy is good.
JT: Yes. I have a high regard for the management of Sandstorm. They’re really sharp. They get involved in projects that have enormous upside potential. It’s not just the ounces that might be in a bankable feasibility study. They look at the exploration potential and the expansion of production, too.
TGR: Let’s move down the food chain to the explorers. The portfolio scorecard in each edition of Hotline doesn’t paint a very kind picture of gold and silver exploration plays lately.
JT: Nope, not this year.
TGR: As of Nov. 18, only 8 of 50 exploration companies on that list, or 16%, were up: American Bonanza Gold Corp. (BZA:TSX), Metanor Resources Inc. (MTO:TSX.V), Prodigy Gold Inc. (PDG:TSX.V), Aurvista Gold Corp. (AVA:TSX.V), Meadow Bay Gold Corp. (MAY:TSX.V; MAYGF:OTCQX), Pretium Resources Inc. (PVG:TSX), Nautilus Minerals Inc. (NUS:TSX) and Rye Patch Gold Corp. (RPM:TSX.V; RPMGF:OTCQX). You still have buy ratings on the other 42 companies, however. Why are you still recommending small-cap companies exploring for precious metals?
JT: I believe in the sector. I can’t explain why the markets have treated the sector badly this year. The majors’ profits are up very sharply, yet the share prices haven’t even begun to keep up. It tells me that most of the players in the equity markets don’t recognize this as a gold bull market and they don’t see the potential for turnaround. They don’t realize, as Bob Hoy points out, that there’s probably another 15 years to go.
Gold is going to be strong for a long time because the financial sector, deleveraging and the loss of confidence in fiat money is going to keep the real price of gold and real earnings high. I told my subscribers when things started to turn that they should build some profits and keep some cash on the sidelines because the entire sector is likely to decline in price along with the general market.
The gold sector is being hurt badly and that’s an extraordinary opportunity. Why would I sell companies that I believe in even if, like Crocodile Gold, they’ve lost 80%? It would be a stupid time to sell. It would be a great time to take some of that cash that I suggested investors put aside and start to buy some of these companies as they decline. I don’t see any reason to jump ship now because I believe so firmly in the fundamentals of this industry.
TGR: The biggest gainer on the list of the companies that are up this year is American Bonanza Gold. It’s up about 70% this year, but about 232% since you took your initial position. Why is that junior performing so well?
JT: It’s on the verge of production at the Copperstone gold mine in Arizona. There were a lot of skeptics and the stock was extremely cheap. The costs are very low. It’s not a big mine and the production levels are fairly small, but it has really good exploration potential that can be built into a much bigger mining operation over the long term.
TGR: When is initial production expected?
JT: I believe in Q112.
TGR: American Bonanza should be generating some cash flow at that point.
JT: It should, with the caveat that more often than not startup operations have some kinks to work out. However, this was a previously producing mine. That reduces some of the metallurgical risk and other risks of a new startup. I’m confident it’s going to get the job done.
TGR: You recently interviewed management from Merrex Gold Inc. (MXI:TSX.V; MXGIF:OTCQX), which is not doing too badly this year. What did you learn about Merrex?
JT: Merrex is exploring the Siribaya deposit mine in Mali with IAMGOLD Corporation (IMG:TSX; IAG:NYSE) as its 50% joint venture partner and largest shareholder. IAMGOLD is there because it believes this is going to be a multimillion ounce deposit. And IAMGOLD is committed—it spent about $10 million to earn a 50% interest.
It has about 460 Koz from a relative high-grade open pit at a quarter grams per ton. However, that’s based on less than 5% of the total strike length of two major zones, plus another zone was discovered, too.
Moreover, some of the assays recently from the south end of the zone that was drilled have been much higher grades. The average grade may be even higher than 2.25 grams.
The only real downside is that the company has to rely on diesel fuel for now. There’s some vulnerability to spiking oil prices.
TGR: IAMGOLD is effectively using Merrex as an exploration arm.
JT: IAMGOLD is the operator of the project. It has a joint committee that decides on the strategy and drill programs. In fact, one of the management members of Merrex who I was with in Switzerland was going to Toronto on his return to talk to IAMGOLD about the next drill program.
TGR: You also have a buy rating on Calico Resources Corp. (CKB:TSX.V; CVXHF:OTCQX), which is drilling the Grassy Mountain gold project in Oregon. Oregon is generally not considered the most mining-friendly state. Why does Calico make your scorecard with a buy rating?
JT: Washington is probably considered one of the most difficult states in the country for mining. California had been very difficult, but it’s getting tougher everywhere. Calico management discovered by doing research that Oregon is no more difficult than any other Western state.
Politicians with common sense know the local people want jobs. Where are the jobs going to come from? Mining is a wealth-creating activity. It’s not going to be easy. Getting permits moved through the pipeline can be difficult, but I have confidence in the management team at Calico led by Chairman Buck Morrow, for whom I have a high regard.
Grassy Mountain was worked on during the last gold bull market. The potential there is extraordinary. It has gotten some really nice assays back.
TGR: What are some other precious metals explorers that you’re following closely and remain excited about?
JT: I love Rye Patch Gold in Nevada. It has 3.1 million ounces (Moz) gold, but it has 3.9 Moz gold equivalent including silver. Rye Patch clearly has a shot at building something much bigger than that with its good management and miniscule market cap.
I also like Metanor Resources a lot. Since Sandstorm provided capital, the company has been focusing on its underground Bachelor Lake mine in Le Sueur, northeast of Val d’Or, Québec. Bachelor Lake is going to be put into production within the next six months to a year. It should do very well with that. It also has the Barry deposit, which has the potential to be a very large deposit similar to Osisko Mining Corp. (OSK:TSX).
Québec is one of the best provinces in which to run, explore and develop projects. Aurvista Gold in Québec has 2 Moz and huge exploration potential. Pretium Resources also has a huge deposit up there next to Seabridge Gold Inc.’s (SEA:TSX; SA:NYSE.A) gold-silver deposit. Pretium is headed by Bob Quartermain and a very strong management team. It’s actually been one of the winners this year.
TGR: Do you have any parting thoughts?
JT: It’s painful sitting with stocks in this kind of a market, but that’s the nature of the beast. You hold a junior mining company and all of a sudden it takes off. You just don’t know when. You have to believe in the fundamentals of the story and the chance to come up with something big. A couple of times I’ve walked out of a stock and a day or two later the company made a great discovery—that is really painful.
TGR: How would you respond to someone like Rick Rule who says it’s not about the 80% you lost, it’s about what you do with the 20% that you have left?
JT: I suppose that’s right. Rick is a very conservative investor. He really likes to buy stocks when they’re cheap. He’s a very disciplined trader. You want to protect that 20%. When you get a market that’s on the upside, you can make that 80% back very quickly if you’re in the right stocks.
Of course, I’d never recommend that investors back up the truck and bet the farm on any one company. I have a lot of companies on my list because I believe in diversification. These little penny mining companies, the miniscule market-cap companies, can be tenbaggers in a hurry if they’re successful. Whenever you invest in a deal, you can lose 100%, but you can’t lose 1,000%. The upside is limitless.
With 20/20 hindsight I should have sold everything and waited until now to buy, but I didn’t know for sure how the markets were going to treat gold stocks this year. But I’ve been telling investors to build some cash for this kind of environment. Now is the time to be buying.
TGR: Thank you.
As he followed the demolition of the U.S. gold standard and the rapid rise in the national debt, Jay Taylor’s interest in U.S. monetary and fiscal policy grew, particularly as it related to gold. He began publishing North American Gold Mining Stocks in 1981. In 1997, he decided to pursue his avocation as a new full-time career—including publication of his weekly Gold, Energy & Tech Stocks newsletter. He also has a radio program, “Turning Hard Times Into Good Times.”
The demand for gold is vastly underestimated. About 18 months ago I wrote about Euro Gold and the Euro Zone and Euro Evaporation Leading To Credit Default Swaps and IMF Gold. One key excerpt was:
The Euro is broken. This was its destiny. This is the destiny of all fiat currencies. These bureau-rats cannot stop this anymore than Cnut the Great could command the tide to halt.
And here we are.
THE GREAT CREDIT CONTRACTION
The Great Credit Contraction has been in relentless advance for years. This is a massively deflationary period as capital, both real and fictitious, burrows down the liquidity pyramid into safer and more liquid assets. The fictitious capital that does not move fast enough evaporates. Poof goes trillions of wealth!
In the Information Age bank runs happen with the click of a mouse and not lines outside the physical branches.
FRACTIONAL RESERVE BANKING
Fractional Reserve Banking is the banking practice in which banks keep only a fraction of their deposits in reserve (as cash and other highly liquid assets) and lend out the remainder while maintaining the simultaneous obligation to redeem all these deposits upon demand.
Fractional reserve banking occurs when banks lend out any fraction of the funds received from demand deposits. Despite being a form of embezzlement and fraud this practice is universal in modern banking.
This mismatch between time, borrowing short-term and lending long-term, is what creates the potential for a bank run. But an even larger looming problem lurks in ‘cash and cash equivalents’. Yes, those pesky Tier I, II and III distinctions.
As a bank’s assets evaporate their ability to make new loans, even extremely short-term loans like overnight, becomes impaired. When an entire banking system knows that all the major players have assets on their balance sheets, assets which are not accurately priced or accounted for, then there is an extreme reluctance to lend.
This is what happened when Lehman Brothers evaporated. The credit markets seized up. People acting in their own self-interest according to principles of praxeology moved into safe and liquid assets and refused to lend.
Liquidity dried up overnight. Mortgage backed securities, auction rate securities and plenty of other assets which had for decades been treated as ‘cash equivalents’ were suddenly shunned. The bid evaporated from a loss of confidence, the prices plunged, investors were snookered and bank balance sheets were massively damaged.
The gears of industry are seizing up.
EUROPE’S WORTHLESS BANK DEPOSITS
The European banks have balance sheets with trillions of Euros in value recorded but assets which every rational non-ignorant person knows are severely impaired. The credit markets are freezing, trust is evaporating and as a result liquidity is drying up.
Sure, the central banks of the world have joined in a massive illegal effort to lubricate the system but it will fail. Years ago when QE1 was announced I wrote The Federal Reserve Will Fail With Quantitative Easing. They are still failing just on a grander scale.
To recapitalize and lubricate the European banking and financial system would take at least €25 trillion and maybe upwards of €100 trillion. The failure is a mathematical certainty. The gears of industry are seizing up.
The Greek and Italian democracies were assassinated by banksters Lucas Papademos, Mario Monti and Mario Draghi who will attempt to prolong the failed banking and financial system by privatizing the gains and socializing the losses with inflationary tactics and bailouts in a vain attempt to prevent the credit liquidation. They will only succeed in prolonging and exacerbating the necessary correction.
What holders of capital should understand is that European bank balance sheets are caught in an unrecoverable credit contraction spin, the appropriate emergency maneuver is to Run To Gold and only a few will make it with their purchasing power intact.
The vast majority of assets will become charred wreckage as their purchasing power evaporates into worthlessness. Sure, there may be a few near miss recoveries between now and the ultimate failure but why take the risk?
LATENT GOLD DEMAND
There is massive latent gold demand as a ‘cash or cash equivalent’ asset. Why should a holder of capital store their wealth in bank deposits with counter-party risk when they can completely eliminate it by moving into unencumbered physical gold bullion?
Plus, by moving into physical gold bullion they eliminate the risk associated with fiat currency becoming worthless through the deflationary event called hyperinflation. Really, hyperinflation is just the next step in The Great Credit Contraction after capital has moved almost entirely down the liquidity pyramid.
The money managers allocating trillions of FRNs, Euros, Yen, etc. have not even begun moving into the monetary metals. In most cases it is only beginning to become acceptable to speak of them. Some fallaciously argue there is not enough gold to go around.
Sure, there is enough gold for it to be used as the world reserve currency but it is only a matter of price. A price that Jim Rickards argues the case for in Currency Wars of being between $8,000 and $54,000+ per ounce.
The European banking and financial system is imploding before our eyes in a massive credit contraction which is just the latest wave in The Great Credit Contraction. The European banks are in an unrecoverable deflationary spin. There is only one acceptable emergency recovery procedure and that is to Run To Gold.
Because so few have, therefore, the real gold demand is completely hidden and obscured from view. It will come when people lose confidence in the current banking and financial system by turning to and using alternatives that do not possess the same kinds of risks. In the Information Age bank runs happen with the click of a mouse and not lines outside the physical branches.
DISCLOSURES: Long physical gold, silver and platinum with no interest in DOW, S&P 500, the problematic SLV ETF, gold ETF or the platinum ETFs.
Thomas E. Ricks (in Foreign Policy) and Lawrence Wright (in New Yorker) on Pakistan.
C. Rangarajan on the debate about the debt management office and about inflation targeting (the latter is an interview with Tamal Bandyopadhyay).
Saurabh Mishra, Susanna Lundstrom and Rahul Anand have a fascinating piece on the sophistication of India’s service exports. Many people suffer from what I call `the widget illusion’, where somehow it is good to make tangible things, and making intangible things is considered wrong. It is high time we get away from such notions.
Kenya’s experience with mobile phones and payments is important for us in India. Read William Jack and Tavneet Suri on this, on voxEU.
I found there are interesting links between this article in The Economist, and the ideas on system-driven credit in a UID world in
this committee report.
Do you use up the power of monetary policy to stabilise inflation, or do you use up this power to manipulate the exchange rate? Some
people think that manipulating exchange rates, and thus fueling export growth, is a shortcut to high GDP growth. Nicolas Magud and
Sebastian Sosa (on voxEU) say that the potential payoff from exchange rate misalignment is small.
A working paper: Liquidity considerations in estimating implied volatility by Rohini Grover and Susan Thomas.
A working paper: Improving the legal process in enforcement at SEBI by Dharmishta Raval.
A working paper: Has India emerged? Business cycle facts from a transitioning economy by Chetan Ghate, Radhika Pandey, and Ila Patnaik.
Mobile trucks that sell food, and link up to customers using twitter: is India is ready for this? See Caroline McCarthy on CNet News.
A first response on the killing of UBL by Steve Coll.
Robert S. Boynton has an article in the Atlantic about how modern communication technology is actually making a small difference to breaking down the North Korean government.
Henry Shukman has a great story in Outside magazine about the 3000 square kilometres of `Chernobyl Exclusion Zone’ which has turned into a miracle for biodiversity. I often wonder what would happen if 3000 square kilometres of prime Gangetic land became true forest.
Perhaps 10% of blind men can teach themselves how to see.
Michael Lewis has a persuasive sounding article, about how a Richter 7.9 earthquake that hits Tokyo will devastate the world
economy. This was written in 1989. By and large, these things did not happen in the recent Richter 9.0 earthquake. Yes, the
recent quake did not frontally hit Tokyo, but then Richter 9.0 is way bigger than 7.9 (this is log scale). It is a useful exercise,
for everyone interested in finance, to read this article and understand how such journalistic thinking goes wrong.
Is research funding going into randomised trials yielding a good bang for the buck? My personal view is that a better use of money is to build datasets like this which are then placed into the public domain, and used by hundreds of researchers.
Those interested in this issue, which I have covered in this
post, will find FOFOA’s latest post
FOFOA agrees with Marx that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” but says that he got the classes wrong:
The two classes are not the Labour and the Capital, the rich and the poor, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, or the workers and the elite. The two classes are the Debtors and the Savers. “The soft money camp” and “the hard money camp”. History reveals the story of these two groups, over and over and over again. Always one is in power, and always the other one desires the power.
What is the relevance of this to gold? FOFOA argues that:
… when the soft money guys are in power the transfer of wealth happens slowly and gradually, and wealth flows from the Savers to the Debtors. But when “soft money” collapses – and it ALWAYS collapses – there is a very RAPID transfer of wealth in the other direction, from the Debtors back to the Savers.
… By selling your debt-financed paper savings and buying physical gold today you are making the conscious CHOICE to join the camp of the true Savers.
One of my good friends who runs a small investment boutique pointed me towards today’s chart of the day from Bloomberg showing the flight phoenix of US corporates’ profit margins.
I know that the chart is difficult to read but you only really need to look at the trend and thus the fact that profit margins recently have defied gravity. However, the old tale of Icarus may turn out to be cautionary here and the coverage by Bloomberg (and the reason my friend put it forward) also flags the fact that the current level of corporate margins essentially is a lagging indicator and the real issue is that profit margins tend to be mean reverting over time.
Profit margins for U.S. companies are likely to tumble from last quarter’s record, a decline that will lead to much lower earnings than analysts expect, according to economist Andrew Smithers. “The corporate sector’s outlook is extremely bad,” Smithers, founder and chairman of the investment-advisory firm of Smithers & Co., said last week in an interview. “I can’t see any way out of it.”
As the CHART OF THE DAY shows, profit before interest, taxes and depreciation — accounting adjustments for wear and tear on buildings and equipment — amounted to 36.4 percent of U.S. corporate output in the first quarter. The calculation was based on data compiled by the Commerce Department. The percentage was the highest since the department’s quarterly data started in 1947, as the chart depicts. Smithers, whose firm counsels more than 100 clients on international asset allocation, included a similar illustration in a June 18 report.
So, what is the problem here? Well it makes sense if you think a little about it that profit margins might be in for a correction since much of the gain in the past 1 1/2 years has been due to cost cutting. Market pundits have had this debate before as stock markets soared in 2009 while unemployment kept on climbing. In this sense, the underlying point is quite simple. The first leg of the recovery for corporates (and thus in some sense their stock value) came through trimming the cost side and now, the second leg should start to kick in in the form of increasing final demand to beef up margins , but If the underlying demand is not there, well; herin lies the rub.
In this way, it was always going to be an issue as to where final demand would come from once government stepped back its spending binge and companies had exhausted their initial trimmings on the cost side. As such, we are only now returning to “normal” where we will see what the cruising speed of our economies (in this case the US economy) really is and what Mr. Smithers really points to here is that this implies a much slimmer margin on earnings and thus, strictu sensu, a lower stock price. Personally, I don’t expect a double-dip in the US in 2010, but there might well be one in 2011 which would square off nicely with the points made above. The meta theme I am working with here is that we are going to experience lower trend growth and higher volatility of growth going forward which, by definition, means more frequent moves into negative territory. Coming back to the issue of mean reverting profit margins, my friend makes the following remark;
I think the process has to do with the fact that companies did slash costs right away, faster than selling prices. Now reality catches up. Either final demand does not recover enough and companies are forced to lower prices and compete with little further room for cost cutting or demand recovers and companies have to replenish part of their cost.
Now, based on this argument and coming back to the main rule of thumb, profit margins should start to trend down on mean reverting alone and this remains a very strong empirical fact to think about in this context. Recently, Edward Harrisson made a similar point worth pointing out in the context of a slowdown or perhaps even a recession in 2011.
Long-story short: high margins mean-revert as do P/E ratios. That means share prices will be doubly under pressure in the next recession. Moreover, with households also likely to pull back given still high debt levels, there is a lot of downside for shares going into that downturn which I believe could begin as early as 2011.
Not very comforting this and as a final perspective on this topic I thought that I would mention a recent report by Fitch (login required) in which the rating agency is much less sanguine about a record low high yield default rate in 2010 attributing it to much of the same reasons above.
Fitch Ratings finds that fundamental and rating trends support the contraction in defaults, but the extent to which defaults have fallen is also a product of other dynamics. These include the timing of the recession’s impact on corporate credit quality; the strong demand for yield product in a low interest rate environment which has greatly benefited corporate borrowers seeking to refinance debt; and the deliberate and quick action on the part of U.S. companies to cut costs and boost liquidity in response to the downturn and deep fears of a prolonged period of sluggish growth.
The perspective from credit markets is interesting since it remains one transmission through which mean reversion of profit margins would materialize. In the end then, it seems that while profit margins for now may be defying gravity they, like the proverbial apple, will eventually come down to earth with a corresponding effect on stock prices.