October 2, 2022

U.S. Marches Down the Road to Financial Perdition – No One Cares Until It Matters

american-gold-eagleBy: GE Christenson

The reality is relatively simple even though the appearance is complicated and confusing. What are we talking about?

  • Wars that are hugely profitable for a few individuals and businesses
  • Unauditable Pentagon accounting
  • Government debt that will never be repaid
  • Levitation of S&P and bond markets
  • Gold price suppression
  • So much more

We all know “something is wrong” but we keep riding the same corrupt “gravy train” because it works for many powerful people. Consider the interlocking complicity involved in the following:

Iraq and Other Wars

The previous administration produced “evidence” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and then claimed it was necessary to invade Iraq, distribute oil contracts to American and British oil companies, initiate “no-bid” contracts to politically connected American military contractors, massively increase government debt, and create huge profits for selected companies and industries. Those profits flowed back to the financial elite, agreeable congressmen, others in government, and to many American workers.

Even though it is now generally agreed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no means of launching those non-existent weapons against the United States, a great many connected people and businesses benefited financially from the Iraq War. Interlocking complicity worked well to promote the war and to profit from it.

Pentagon Accounting

About 12 years ago, Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld revealed that $2.3 Trillion was “missing” from the Pentagon books. (“War Racket Update” by acting-man.com – site down temporarily)

“A number of knowledgeable observers admitted that the Pentagon’s ‘books are cooked’ and that in essence, a giant cover-up was going on. A mixture of waste and theft on a truly breathtaking scale was and still is underway.”

It has been my experience that bad or fraudulent accounting is enabled, encouraged, or actively created by management. We can safely assume that the many highly intelligent people who work at the Pentagon could more accurately and transparently manage their operations if they wanted to do so. Hence, fraud and theft exist because management wants it – many people benefit while accountability is neither encouraged nor beneficial to those who are actually in charge. The powers-that-be, congress, the administration, and military contractors are complicit in working the system so that all parties benefit, other people pay the costs, there is minimal accountability, and the necessary payoffs are made. Interlocking complicity works well for those in charge of Pentagon funds and for those receiving the funds.

money printing

Government Debt

Congress has not passed a budget in five years and has been deficit spending for decades. The shortfall between revenues and expenses is borrowed with the understanding that the debts will never be paid – just “rolled over.” The financial and political elite benefit, government pays out massive amounts for military contracts, health care, prescription drugs, retirement programs, Social Security payments, Medicare, unemployment, aid to states, and it goes on and on. That explains how the U.S. government is officially in debt over $17 Trillion and has accrued another $100 – $200 Trillion in liabilities that have been promised but are not currently funded. Since most Americans are benefitting from one or more of these government distributions, most Americans are complicit in this giant borrow, spend and print Ponzi scheme. Because so many people benefit, few individuals or businesses want the process materially changed. Of course many people talk about balancing the budget, cutting spending, and fiscal accountability, but it is only talk. Because Congress has been unable to pass a budget in five years and must borrow a $Trillion or so each year there will be no accountability or budget cutting anytime in the near future. Interlocking complicity rules while we ride the giant government gravy train.

mart1

QE and the Levitation of Stock and Bond Markets

Even a quick glance at the last five years of market prices shows that QE has been a huge benefit to the stock and bond markets and that much of the funny money being “created out of thin air” by the Fed finds its way into those markets. Hence the stock and bond markets have been levitated while “main street” and the bottom 90% (those who have little of their net worth in stocks and bonds) have derived minimal or no benefit from QE. However, most of us realize that the US government cannot limit spending to only the revenue it collects, and that QE greatly benefits the financial and political elite. Interlocking complicity dictates that QE will continue as long as possible, even though “printing money” and debasing the currency have never successfully worked throughout history.

mart2

Central Banks and Gold Price Suppression

Central Banks (Bank of England, Federal Reserve, ECB) have sold or “leased” gold into the market, via bullion banks, to suppress the price of gold and to promote the idea of Pound, Dollar and Euro strength. Since central banking rules allow them to claim that gold is still their asset, even though it is physically gone, this process can work until the central banks are unwilling or unable to sell or “lease” additional gold. The Chinese, Indians, and Russians have purchased the gold directly from bullion banks, or taken delivery on futures contracts, shipped the gold to Switzerland where it has been melted down into kilo bars, and then moved it to the Eastern countries. A huge amount of gold has left the west where it is undervalued and now is vaulted in the East where it is better appreciated.

During the past several years the Chinese have vastly increased their gold holdings at favorable prices while dumping some of their depreciating dollars. The Western central banks further the illusion of value in unbacked debt based paper money while claiming gold is in a bubble, gold and the gold standard are barbarous relics, and enabling paper currencies to survive for a while longer. Interlocking complicity in the gold leasing and gold price suppression scheme currently benefits both the eastern and western countries.

Summary

The Pentagon cannot account for $Trillions. Since there is little incentive to stop the fraud, waste, and phony accounting, and since there is a large incentive for it to continue, expect the graft, corruption, black budget items, and payoffs to continue. Interlocking complicity works especially well at the Pentagon.

The US government does not want to cut spending and has a limited ability to increase revenues. Expect borrow and spend politics to dominate until a “reset” occurs and then expect a crisis and many speeches from important politicians who just noticed what has been obvious for decades. Interlocking complicity works well for congressional payoffs, reelection speeches, increasing power to the administrative branch, and, of course, massive profits to the industries that benefit the most from deficit spending, such as military contractors, banking, health care, pharmaceuticals and others.

Gold price suppression benefits western governments and central banks while the Chinese and Russians benefit by purchasing valuable gold with increasingly devalued dollars. Expect gold price suppression to continue until the west runs out of gold that can be melted down and shipped east. However, demand for physical gold is quite strong while supply is limited. Expect gold to trade MUCH higher in the next few years.

Interlocking complicity produces a degree of stability as it helps maintain the status quo, which is very important to the powers-that-be. Interlocking complicity ensures that accountability, oversight, and ethical practices are low priorities, while payoffs and no-bid contracts will maintain their important role in government operations. Interlocking complicity ensures that little change will occur until it is forced upon us.

Ask yourself

  • Are you prepared for a reset of our financial and social systems?
  • The Chinese are trading increasingly less valuable dollars for increasingly more valuable gold and silver. Should you do likewise?
  • Can a government spend more than it collects in revenue – forever?
  • Debasing the currency has never worked well in the past. Will this time be different for Japan, Europe and the United States?
  • Will Wall Street, Congress, military contractors and the pharmaceutical industry lobby for what is good for you or for them?

GE Christenson
aka Deviant Investor

Monetizing Government Debt – Bernanke Says No, Common Sense Says Yes

2013-w-gold-eagleBy: Axel Merk

Fed Chair Bernanke vehemently denies Fed “monetizes the debt,” but our research shows the Fed may be increasingly doing so. We explain why and what the implications may be for the dollar, gold and currencies.

What is debt monetization? A central bank is said to monetize a government’s debt if it helps to finance its deficit. The buying of Treasuries by the Federal Reserve is a clear indication that the Fed is doing just that, except that Bernanke argues the motivation behind Treasury purchases is to help the economy, not the government.

The no-taper decision increased the Fed’s monetization of US debt. Gold may be more than insurance. Brace yourself for an escalation of Currency Wars.

To what extent does the Fed monetize the debt? The below chart shows that since the onset of the fall of 2008, the Fed has purchased enough Treasuries and Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS), together, “quantitative easing” or (QE) to finance a substantial part of the government deficit. Indeed, by deciding not to “taper” off its purchases, the Fed is engaging in sufficient QE to purchase all debt issued and then some.

Shouldn’t one exclude MBS purchases in analyzing debt monetization? Buying MBS may provide the appearance that the Fed is not monetizing the debt when in fact it is. Don’t take our word for it, but the market’s: in a recent presentation to the CFA society in Melbourne, Merk Senior Economic Adviser and former St. Louis Fed President Bill Poole points out that the spread between 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds have been virtually unchanged as a result of MBS purchases; from 1976 to 2006 the average spread was 1.74%. From May 2011 to April 2012 it averaged 1.76%. As such, the direct impact of QE on spreads has been extremely limited. If it sounds surprising, consider that investors have an array of choices that are highly similar: aside from currency risk, how different are German Treasuries versus U.S. Treasuries? Highly rated U.S. corporate issues versus U.S. Treasuries? They all have distinct risk profiles, but there’s a good reason why absent of issuer-specific news, these securities tend to trade in tandem. As such, the Fed is really just sipping with a straw from the ocean: setting rates may be more a result of communication (the “credibility of the Fed”) rather than the actual purchases.

gold-bullionIf rates are set by words rather than action, doesn’t that prove the point the Fed is not monetizing the debt? We agree that talk is cheap. But talk doesn’t always move the market; as confidence in the Fed’s ability to control rates erodes, policy becomes ever more expensive: cutting rates, emergency rate cuts, Treasury purchases, Operation Twist, and moving to an explicit employment target are all escalations of a policy to “convince” the market to keep rates low. And along the way, the Fed has to spend more money. Ask the Fed, and they’ll tell you their operations are profitable. Clearly, as the Fed creates money out of thin air to buy income-generating fixed income securities, the more the Fed “prints”, the more profitable it is. Except that there’s no free lunch and pigs still can’t fly. By all means, no central bank in their right mind would start out with a policy to monetize debt. But as the chart above shows, the Fed now spends over 150% of government deficit to hold rates down, suggesting that its firing power is eroding. If and when we come to the stage that the Fed were to explicitly monetize the debt, it may need to buy a high multiple of what it currently does and might still fail to keep rates low. It’s a confidence game.

What happened when the Fed decided not to “taper” its bond purchase program? As the chart above shows, something went wrong, very wrong. As tax revenue has picked up throughout the year, government deficits have come down. As such, reducing QE would have been warranted. By choosing not to “taper,” one can argue that QE has actually increased, as the Fed is buying above and beyond newly issued debt. Note the Fed will push back yet again, arguing it cannot buy debt directly from the government only in the secondary market. But that may well be semantics. As a large bond manager has pointed out: in the absence of QE, we might have to sell debt to one another, rather than to the Fed.

rooseveltWhere’s debt monetization heading? The way we see the dynamics playing out, this confidence game will go on for some time, yet we may increasingly be seeing cracks. Lower government deficits may be a short-term phenomenon as over the long-term the cost of entitlements and interest payments may rise substantially, highlighting that deficits may not be sustainable. In 10 years from now, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the U.S. government may be paying $600 billion more a year in interest expense alone; indeed, if the average cost of borrowing went back up to the average cost of borrowing since the 1970s, the government may need to pay $1 trillion more per year in interest expense alone. To us, this suggests the biggest threat we are facing may be economic growth. That’s because the bond market has been most sensitive to good economic data; yet, should the bond market sell off (increasing the cost of borrowing), the cost of financing U.S. government deficits may escalate. We already have a Fed that has indicated interest rates will stay low for an extended period. In some ways, the Fed has all but guaranteed that it will be slow in raising rates. We interpret that as the Fed being slow to rising inflationary pressures that are likely to increase should the economy ever pick up again.

This is all too abstract – how will this play out? If you think this is abstract, think Japan. Let the Japanese be successful with their policies, let them achieve sustained economic growth. What do you think will happen to Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs)? JGBs might plunge, making it difficult, if not impossible, to finance Japan’s massive government debt burden. Few observers doubt that the Bank of Japan (BoJ) may step in to help finance government deficits. That’s debt monetization. We think the valve for Japan will be the yen that won’t survive this. When we discuss this with investors, most agree that this is a real risk for Japan. But don’t kid yourself: even if we may be able to kick the can down the road for longer in the U.S., we think it may be hazardous to one’s wealth to ignore the risks posed to the dollar due to a toxic mix of monetary and fiscal policy.

paper moneyHow do I prepare as an investor? The way we look at the world is in terms of scenarios: if a scenario is sufficiently likely, we think investors should take it into account in their portfolio allocation; professional investors may even have it as their fiduciary duty. To us, the short answer is that there is no such thing anymore as a risk free investment and investors may want to take a diversified approach to something as mundane as cash. Investors may want to consider throwing out the risk free component in their asset allocation. That’s because the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar may be at risk.

Is gold the answer? Gold has performed rather poorly this year and is increasingly being written off. Yet, those writing off gold should think twice about where they see the economy and the Fed heading. If one believes we will return to a “normal” environment and we’ll live happily ever after, maybe those gold naysayers have a point. But keep in mind that incoming Fed Chair Janet Yellen stated during her confirmation hearings that we shall return to a normal Fed policy once the economy is back to normal. To us, that’s an oxymoron: we cannot return to a normal economy when the Fed prevents risk being priced by market forces. To us, gold is more than “insurance” to adverse scenarios as some say, as we find it difficult to see how we’ll be facing positive real interest rates for an extended period over the coming decade.

Is a basket of currencies the answer? The Chinese government diversifies its reserves to a basket of currencies, clearly adding currency risk to their portfolio. Conversely, U.S. investors may want to consider diversifying to a basket of currencies if they believe we ultimately have the better “printing press” than the rest of the world?

But isn’t it more complex than that? In some ways, yes. Governments won’t give up without a fight. We believe policy makers want to do the right thing, except that the road to hell might be paved with good intentions. Just consider if Japan truly has a problem: Japan is no Cyprus, meaning that shockwaves of a Japanese government in turmoil might be felt around the world. Aside from cash not being “safe,” political stability may also continue to erode throughout the world, as citizens worldwide dissatisfied that their wages don’t keep up with an increasing cost of living elect ever more populist politicians. The only good news we can see is that our policy makers may be predictable and an investment strategy based on staying a step ahead of policy makers might be worth considering. Think currency wars, and think diversifying on a more pro-active basis. We are not suggesting investors become day traders, but we think the currency markets may be well suited to take positions on how one believes these dynamics may play out.

Axel Merk
Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments,
Manager of the Merk Funds.

The Term “Easy Janet” Is About to Become Part of the American Lexicon

By: Axel Merk

courtesy: www.michaelianblack.net

courtesy: www.michaelianblack.netBy: Axel Merk

While Democrats and Republicans fight with water pistols, the President may be readying a bazooka by nominating Janet Yellen to succeed Ben Bernanke as Fed Chair. You may want to hold on to your wallet; let me explain.

Our reference to water pistols refers to our assessment that bickering over discretionary spending is distracting from the real issue, entitlement reform. For details as to what we believe will happen if we don’t get entitlement reform done, please read our recent Merk Insight “The Most Predictable Economic Crisis”.

Bernanke Fed

Central banks in developed countries are generally considered independent, even if their members are appointed by politicians. In the U.S., however, there’s an added element: aside from a mandate for price stability, the Federal Reserve is tasked with promoting maximum sustainable employment. This simple concept might have been put in place with the best of intentions – who wouldn’t want to have maximum employment? Central banks that have a single focus on price stability, such as the European Central Bank, point out that the best way to foster sustainable growth is by keeping inflation low. The U.S., even with an employment mandate, had pursued the same practice.

That is, until Ben Bernanke appeared to run out of options to lower borrowing costs. Bernanke’s frame of reference had been the Great Depression; he had frequently cautioned that the biggest mistake during the Great Depression was to raise interest rates too early. After a credit bust, as central banks push against deflationary market forces, premature tightening might undo the progress to reflate the economy. In today’s world, it’s not just short term, but also longer-term interest rates that Bernanke has been concerned about – partially because Bernanke has always considered it important to keep mortgage rates low. To achieve his goal, the Bernanke Fed:

  • Talked down interest rates;
  • Lowered interest rates;
  • Purchased Treasury and Mortgage-Backed Securities
  • Engaged in Operation Twist
  • Introduced an employment target

Introducing an employment target was nothing but an extension of existing policies, as it signals the Fed might keep rates low independent of where inflation might be.

Yellen Fed

With Janet Yellen coming in, the concept of promoting employment is raised to a new level. Long gone is the Great Depression, but what remains may be a conviction that monetary policy should make up for the shortfalls of fiscal policy. That’s problematic for a couple of reasons:

  • When the Fed meddles with fiscal policy, Congress will want to meddle with monetary policy. For example, when the Fed buys mortgage-backed securities it allocates money to a specific sector of the economy (favoring the housing market); that’s not what the Fed ought to do – it’s the role of Congress to channel money through tax and regulatory policy. One can disagree whether even Congress should be picking winners and losers in an economy, but that’s a political determination to be made by elected officials.
  • When the Fed keeps rates low to promote employment, there’s a fair risk that important cues are removed from the market that would encourage Congress to show fiscal restraint. Congress has always loved to have a printing press in the back yard, but an employment target suggests that this printing press is going to be moved into the kitchen. The Eurozone may be proof that policy makers only make the tough decisions when forced to do so by the bond market; if, however, the Fed works hard to prevent this “dialogue” between the bond market and politicians, the most effective incentive to show fiscal restraint might be gone.
  • Inflation is a clear risk when the Fed emphasizes employment. In our assessment, inflation may well be the goal rather than the risk in the eyes of some policy makers, as inflation lowers the value of outstanding government debt.

Hold on to your wallet

In a democracy, it’s all too tempting to introduce ever more entitlements. As obligations mount, however, servicing these obligations might become ever more challenging. It’s nothing new that governments tax their citizens. But when deficits are no longer sustainable, governments may be tempted to engage in trickery. Structural reform, that is taking away entitlements, to lower expenditures would be the most prudent path to regain fiscal sustainability. Raising taxes is all too often the preferred alternative; while politically difficult, raising taxes is a strategy that’s all too often politically viable. Yet the path of least resistance may well be to inflate the debt away. Central banks ought to be independent to take this option away from policy makers. We have seen in the Eurozone that it can be most painful when the printing press is not at the disposal of politicians.

In our assessment, a central bank pursing an employment target is a central bank that has given up its independence. It’s only ironic that outgoing Fed Chair Bernanke recently praised Mexico’s central bank for gaining “independence.”

Whatever happened to the government being the representative of the people? Interests of the government and its citizens are no longer aligned when a government has too much debt. The government’s incentive will be to debase the value of the debt. The U.S. may have an easier time debasing the value of its debt than some other countries, as much U.S. debt is held by foreigners who can’t vote in the U.S. Differently said, promoting a weaker dollar is another potential avenue for U.S. policy makers to kick the can down the road. But fear not, whatever policy is coming to a neighborhood near you shall be done in the name of fostering maximum employment.

Axel Merk
Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments, Manager of the Merk Funds.

More on this topic:

After getting rid of their crazed central bankers, Zimbabwe Achieves Economic Growth by Destroying Ability of Government to Print Money.

obama_zimbabwe

So the good news is that once the economic collapse kicks in and the dollar becomes worthless preventing Hillary Chelsea Clinton Obama III, our 79th President from just printing more money, we too can have an actual economic recovery. Just like Zimbabwe.

“Having a multi-currency economy with no Zimbabwe dollars is primarily good news for Zimbabwe because government can’t print its way out of a deficit,” said John Robertson, an independent economist, in an interview from Harare. “They can’t just print more if they need it, as was happening in 2008.”

So there’s hope for America yet. Our current dictator could learn some lessons from the plight of Zimbabwe, but I suppose destroying the economy is a better means of wealth redistribution, than actually repairing the economy. Until then we’ll go on printing imaginary money.

Collapse of Bernanke’s Credit Bubble Will Destroy the Global Financial System

collapseBy: GE Christenson

The U.S. stock market is near all-time highs, while politicians and economists are blathering about recovery, low inflation, and good times, but instability and danger are clearly visible in our debt based monetary system. To the extent we rely upon the fantasies of ever-increasing debt, money printing, and credit bubbles, we are vulnerable to financial collapses. Perhaps a collapse is not imminent, but it would be foolish to ignore the possibility. Consider what these insightful writers have to say:

The Fantasy of Printing Money To Solve Problems

Bill Fleckenstein:

“Money-printing cannot solve problems. It doesn’t really give us much gross domestic product growth, as we have seen. It hasn’t really helped on the employment front either, as job growth is meager (of course, it is also hampered by other government policies). What money-printing has accomplished is to push the stock market high enough to cause people to once again become delusional in their expectations.”

Egon von Greyerz:

“Debt worldwide is now expanding exponentially. With absolutely no possibility of stopping this debt explosion, we will soon enter a period of unlimited money printing leading to a total destruction of paper currencies. The consequence will be a hyperinflationary depression in most major economies.”

Andy Hoffman:

“No, Larry Summers won’t be able to save the day… The damage is already done; and thus, NOTHING can turn the tide of 42 years of unfettered, global MONEY PRINTING – which as I write, has entered its final, terminal phase.”

Bullion Bulls Canada:

“So the ending is already clear. The U.S.S. Titanic is about to be intentionally sunk (again), and B.S. Bernanke’s ‘fingerprints’ will be planted all over the crime scene.”

CREDIT BUBBLE IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY WILL EVENTUALLY COLLAPSE

John Rubino:

“…nothing was fixed after 2008, just as nothing was fixed after the housing, tech stock, and junk bond bubbles burst. The response has been the same each time, only progressively more aggressive and experimental. That the financial, economic and political mainstream think that the system has been reset to ‘normal’ because asset prices are back where they were just before the 2008 crash is, well, crazy. With financial imbalances bigger than ever before – and continuing to expand – the only possible outcome is an even bigger crash.”

Bill Holter:

“THIS is where THE REAL BUBBLE is! The biggest bubble in all of history, (larger than the Tulip mania, South Sea, the Mississippi Bubble, 1929, current global real estate and global stock bubble combined then cubed) is the current and total global financial system. EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE is based on credit. In fact, over 60% of this credit is dollar based and ‘guaranteed’ by the U.S. government. The minor little problem now is that we have reached ‘debt saturation’ levels everywhere. There are no more asset classes left able to take on more credit (air) to inflate the balloon. The other minor detail is that the ‘asset’ that underlies the value of everything (the dollar and thus Treasury securities) is issued by a bankrupt entity. What could possibly go wrong?”

Discussion

Growing and healthy economies mean more people are productively employed. It appears that much of the “growth” in the U.S. economy over the last five years has been in disability income, food stamps (SNAP), unemployment, student loans, welfare, debt, and government jobs – none of which are productive. Examine the following graph of Labor Force Participation Rate – the actual percentage of the populace that is employed. Does this look like a healthy economy experiencing a recovery or a collapse in productive employment?

The damaging effects of 100 years of Fed meddling in the U.S. economy, many expensive wars, 42 years of unbacked debt based currency, and unsustainable growth in credit and debt have left the Western monetary system in a precarious position.

Using common sense, ask yourself:

  1. Can total debt grow much more rapidly than the underlying economy which must support and service that debt? FOREVER?
  2. Can government expenditures grow much more rapidly than government revenues? FOREVER?
  3. Will interest rates remain at multi-generational lows? FOREVER?
  4. Will a fiscally irresponsible congress rein-in an out of control spending system that our fiscally irresponsible congress created?
  5. Is another and larger (than 2008) financial collapse likely and inevitable?
  6. Do you still believe in the fantasies of ever-increasing debt, printing “money” and credit bubbles? Are you personally and financially prepared for a potential financial collapse?
  7. Have you converted some of your digital currencies into real money – physical gold and silver? Is it safely stored outside the banking system and perhaps in a country different from where you live?

Read: The Reality of Gold and the Nightmare of Paper
Read: What You Think is True Might Be False and Costly

GE Christenson
aka Deviant Investor

Gold Will Benefit From The Coming Currency Turmoil

By:  Axel Merk, Merk Investments

Sidetracked by the discussion over the “fiscal cliff” and possibly a New Year’s hangover, it’s time to face 2013 in earnest. Is the yen doomed? Will the euro shine? What about Asian and emerging market currencies? Will gold continue its ascent? And the greenback, will it be in the red?

Before we look too far forward, let’s get some context:

  • “Central banks hope for the best, but plan for the worst” was our theme a year ago. With everyone afraid of the fallout from the Eurozone, printing presses in major markets were working overtime. We argued this would benefit currencies of smaller countries – be that the so-called commodity currencies or select Asian currencies – that feel less of a need to “take out insurance.”
  • While we were positive on the euro when it approached 1.18 versus the U.S. dollar in 2010, arguing the challenges are serious, but ought to be primarily expressed in the spreads of the Eurozone bond market. Then in the fall of 2011, we grew increasingly cautious because of the lack of process: just as it is difficult to value a company if one doesn’t know what management is up to, it’s difficult to value a currency if policy makers have no plan. In the spring of 2012, when we were most negative about the euro, we lamented the lack of process in a Financial Times column. European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi appeared to agree with our concerns, imploring policy makers to define processes, set deadlines, hold people accountable. After his “do whatever it takes” speech in July 2012, he took it upon himself to impose a process on European policy makers in early August 1. We published a piece “Draghi’s genius” where we called for a bottom in the euro. We were inundated with negative feedback in the immediate aftermath of our analysis from professional and retail investors alike, confirming that were not following the herd, nor buying something that’s too expensive.
  • While we liked commodity currencies in the first half of the year because of printing presses in larger economies working overtime, we grew a little cautious as the year moved on, partly because of valuations. Each commodity currency has its own set of dynamics, as well as their own Achilles heel: in the case of the Australian dollar, we had some concerns about its two tier domestic economy (not all of Australia was benefiting from the commodity boom), but also about the perceived slowdown in China.
  • We studied the Chinese leadership transition with great interest; while 2012 may have been a year in transition, more on the dynamics as we see them play out below.
  • Back in the U.S., we squandered another year to get the house in order. The fiscal cliff was a distraction; we need entitlement reform to make deficits sustainable. Europeans have no patent on kicking the can down the road. But unlike Europe, the U.S. has a current account deficit, making it more vulnerable should investors demand more compensation to finance U.S. deficits (that is, higher interest rates).
  • Japan: the more dysfunctional the Japanese government has been, the less it could spend, the less pressure it could exert on the Bank of Japan. Add to that a current account surplus, and all this “bad news” was good news for the yen. Countries with a current account surplus don’t need inflows from abroad to finance government deficits; as a result, the absence of economic growth that keeps foreign investors away is of no detriment to the currency. Conversely, countries with current account deficits tend to pursue policies fostering economic growth to attract capital from abroad. However, in late 2012, we published a piece “Is the Yen Doomed?” What happened? Japan was about to have a strong government. More in the outlook below.

We believe the currency markets are well suited for decision-making based on macro-analysis. Just as throughout 2012 the themes were evolving, please keep in mind that our 2013 outlook may be outdated the moment it is published, as we update our views based on new information or a new analysis of old information. Still, those who have followed us over the years are well aware that we like to shift our views within a framework. Please consider our 2013 outlook in this context:

  • We believe the yen is indeed doomed. We remove the question mark. Prime Minister Abe’s new government sets the stage, but key to watch are:
    • Abe’s government will appoint the three top positions at the Bank of Japan, as the governor and both deputy governors retire. Recent appointees have already been more dovish. Japanese culture is said to prefer talk over action, but the time for dovish talk may finally be over (despite their dovish reputation, the Bank of Japan barely expanded its balance sheet since 2008; in many ways, of the major central banks, only the Reserve Bank of Australia has been more hawkish).
    • Japan’s current account is sliding towards a deficit. That means, deficits will start to matter, eventually pushing up the cost of borrowing, making a 200%+ debt-to-GDP ratio unsustainable.
    • Abe’s government is as determined as it is blind. Abe believes a major spending program is just what Japan needs. As far as the yen is concerned, Abe may be getting far more than he is bargaining for.
    • But isn’t everyone negative on the yen already? Historically, it’s been most painful to short the yen; as such, many have not walked their talk. We expect some fierce rallies in the yen throughout the year. Having said that, the yen looks a lot like Nasdaq in 2000 to us. Not as far as technicals are concerned, but as far as the potential to fall without much reprieve.
  • The euro may be the rock star of 2013. Boring is beautiful. Sure, there are plenty of problems, but the euro is morphing into yet another currency, but is still priced as if it had a contagious disease. While the Fed, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan are all likely to engage in further balance sheet expansion (we refer to it as “printing money” as assets are purchased by central banks, paid for by entries on computer keyboards, creating money out of thin air), there’s a chance the ECB balance sheet may actually shrink. That’s because some banks have indicated they will pay back early part of the €1 trillion in 3-year loans taken from the ECB. Some suggest the ECB might print a boatload of money should the “Outright Monetary Transaction” (OMT) program be activated to buy the debt of peripheral Eurozone countries. Keep in mind that the OMT program would be sterilized, likely by offering interest on deposits at the ECB. As such, the OMT would lower spreads in the Eurozone and, through that, act as a massive stimulus. In our assessment, however, such a stimulus is far less inflationary than central bank action in other regions. It’s no longer a taboo to be positive on the euro, but most we talk to are at best “closet bulls.”
  • The British pound sterling. The Brits are getting a new governor at the Bank of England (BoE) in the summer, the current head of the Bank of Canada (BoC), Carney. One of the first speeches Carney gave after his appointment was made public was about nominal GDP targeting. Carney will have a chance to replace many of the current BoE board members. That’s the good news, as the old men’s club is in need of a makeover. The not-so-good news is for the sterling. British 10 year borrowing costs have just crossed above those of France. We’ll monitor this closely.
  • As the head of the BoC, Carney was particularly apt at talking down the Loonie, the Canadian dollar, whenever it appeared to strengthen. If Macklem, his current deputy, is appointed, we may get a real hawk at the helm of the BoC. We are positive on the Loonie heading into 2013, but will monitor developments closely, as there are economic cross-currents that, for now, Canada appears to be handling very well.
  • Staying with commodity currencies, we are cautiously optimistic on the Australian dollar (China better than expected; monetary policy more hawkish than priced in) and New Zealand dollar (more hawkish monetary policy on better than expected growth). We continue to stay away from the Brazilean real and leave it for masochistic speculators looking for excitement.
  • We are positive on Norway’s currency (joining the above mentioned rock star, with greater volatility), yet cautious on Sweden’s (priced to perfection is not ideal when things are not perfect, even in Sweden).
  • China: the new leadership has indicated that liquidity for the Chinese yuan may be their top currency priority. That’s great news, as we believe it implies policies that attract investment, not just from the outside, but also with regard to a development of a more vibrant domestic fixed income market. We are more positive on China than many; more on that, in an upcoming newsletter (click to sign up to receive Merk Insights)
  • Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan: all positive, benefiting from both internal forces, but also beneficiaries of actions in other large economies. If we have to pick a favorite today, it would be Korea, but keep in mind that the Korean won is the most volatile of these currencies.
  • Singapore: we continue to like the Singapore dollar. A year ago, we started using it as a substitute for the euro (rather than using the U.S. dollar as the safe haven currency). The currency may well lag the euro’s rise, but the lower risk profile of the currency makes it a potentially valuable component in a diversified basket of currencies.
  • Gold. We expect the volatility in gold to be elevated in 2013, but consider it good news, as it keeps the momentum players at bay. We own gold not for the crisis of 2008, not for the potential contagion from Europe, but because there is too much debt in the world. We think inflation is likely a key component of how developed countries will try to deal with their massive debt burdens, even as cultural differences will make dynamics play out rather differently in different countries. Please see merkinvestments.com/gold for more in-depth discussion on our outlook on gold.

And what about the U.S. dollar? While much of the discussion above is relative to the U.S dollar, the greenback itself warrants its own analysis:

  • Investors in the U.S. should fear growth. The spring of 2012 saw the bond market sell off rather sharply as a couple of economic indicators in a row came out positively. Bernanke wants to keep the cost of borrowing low, but can only control the yield curve so much. That’s why, in our assessment, he is emphasizing employment rather than inflation, in an effort to prevent a major sell-off in the bond market before the recovery is firmly established. Growth is dollar negative because the bond market would turn into a bear market: foreigners’ love for U.S. Treasuries might wane, just as it historically often does during early and mid-phases of an economic upturn as the bond market is in a bear market.
  • Good luck to Bernanke to raising rates in 15 minutes, as he promised he could do in a 60 Minutes interview. Sure he can, but because there’s so much leverage in the economy, any tightening would have an amplified effect. At best, we might get a rather volatile monetary policy. But we are promised by the Fed that this is not a concern for 2013.
  • Both of these, however, suggest volatility will rise in the bond market. Remember what got the housing bubble to burst? An uptick in volatility. That’s because leveraged players, momentum players run for the hills when volatility picks up. And a lot of money has chased Treasuries, praised as the best investment for over two decades. We don’t need foreigners to sell their U.S. bonds for there to be a rude awakening in the bond market; we merely need a return to historic levels of volatility. Why is this relevant to a dollar discussion? Because a bond market selloff makes it more expensive for the U.S. to finance its deficits. Please see our recent analysis of the risks posed to the dollar by a bond market selloff for a more in-depth discussion on this topic.

Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments. Merk Investments, Manager of the Merk Funds.

The Fed Is Confiscating The Wealth Of The Middle Class By Destroying The Value Of The Dollar

Americans need to take a serious look at how the purchasing power of the dollar is being destroyed.  Rampant poverty, declining real incomes and higher prices are all the guaranteed results of a Federal Reserve that remains committed to destroying the value of the dollar.   A dollar saved today that has less purchasing power a year from now equates to the “silent” destruction of the dollar, an event which has gone virtually unnoticed and unprotested by the American public.

Act #4 of the Fed’s endless money printing campaign directly monetizes over a half a trillion dollars of U.S. deficit spending annually.  In addition to financing the Federal debt with printed dollars, the Fed has also explicitly endorsed  an inflation rate of 2.5% as being “acceptable.”

Impact Of 2.5% Inflation

Even a relatively “benign” inflation rate of 2.5% rapidly erodes the purchasing power of savings. Over a short 5 years, the purchasing power of $100,000 in savings is reduced to $88,110 at an inflation rate of 2.5%.  At a 5% inflation rate, the value after 5 years is only $77,378.  We don’t even want to look at how much purchasing power would be lost over a decade.

Both consumers and especially savers need to become aware of the wealth depletion caused by purchasing power loss.  From my experience, most people find it conceptually difficult to see a real loss (in purchasing power) when there has been no change in the principal amount of savings.  As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1920, “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.  By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some.  And not one man in a million will detect the theft.”

Incredibly, the desperate attempts of central banks to prop up the over-indebted financial system via inflation and money printing is viewed as beneficial by some misguided economists.  Japan’s decision to go all in with “unlimited quantitative easing” was applauded in a recent Slate commentary.

That’s because Shinzo Abe, the overwhelming favorite to lead the Liberal Democratic Party to victory, is running on a bold platform of unlimited quantitative easing and more inflation. If this works—and the odds are that it will—Abe will not only cure a great deal of what ails Japan, he’ll light a path forward for the rest of the developed world.

But if he (Abe) does manage to stick to his guns, the odds are good that it will work. Monetary expansion should reduce the price of the yen and goose exports. More importantly, it will push domestic real interest rates down and spur investment. Creating firm expectations that yen-denominated prices will be higher in the future than they are today should encourage firms and households alike to acquire real goods sooner rather than later. And all this ought to encourage everyone to be investing and spending more.

Bernanke said Japan’s central bankers needed Rooseveltian resolve, but the moral of the story may be that it takes a politician—a Roosevelt—to have the clout and legitimacy to make central banks act decisively when an economy gets firmly mired at the lower bound. If Abe can be that Roosevelt, he’ll not only be a hero of Japan but possibly of the whole world economy. After all, if America’s old advice to Japan turns out to work in practice as well as in theory, then maybe we’ll finally get around to taking our own advice for ourselves.

Does anyone think that Japan’s temporary benefit of a lower currency will not be met with competitive devaluations by other nations?  Exactly how will Japanese consumers be able to spend more if prices increase and wages remain stagnant due to the limiting effects of wage globalization?  The Slate author firmly espouses the lunacy of currency debasement as a wealth enabler despite the fact that no nation in history has ever printed its way to prosperity.

The fact that central banks have firmly committed themselves to money printing on an unimaginable scale is not a cause for hope but rather a clear signal of desperation.  Policy makers have run out of options and in an attempt to forestall the collapse of the financial system, have turned to the last resort option of unlimited money printing.

The Hidden Risks Of Money Printing

By Axel Merk

While Treasuries are said to have no default risk as the Federal Reserve (Fed) can always print money to pay off the debt, hidden risks might be lurking. As oxymoronic as it may sound, the biggest risk to the economy and the U.S. dollar might be, well, economic growth! Let us explain.

The U.S. government paid an average interest rate of 2.046% on the $11.0 trillion of Treasuries outstanding as of the end of November. Treasuries include Bills, Notes, Bonds and Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). At 2.046%, the cost of carrying the Treasury portfolio currently costs the government $225 billion per annum; about 6% of the federal budget was spent on servicing the national debt. 1

While total government debt has ballooned in recent years, the interest rate paid by the government on its debt has continued on its downward trend:

We only need to go back to the average interest rate paid in 2001, 6.19%, and the annual cost of servicing Treasuries would triple, paying more than Greece as a percentage of the budget. Not only would other government programs be crowded out, the debt service payments might likely be considered unsustainable. Except for the fact that, unlike Greece, the Fed can print its own money, diluting the value of the debt. In doing so, the debt could be nominally paid, although we would expect inflation to be substantially higher in such a scenario.

These numbers are no secret. Yet, absent of a gradual, yet orderly decline of the U.S. dollar over the years – with the occasional rally to make some investors believe the long-term decline of the U.S. dollar may be over – the markets do not appear overly concerned. Reasons the market aren’t particularly concerned include:

  • The average interest rate continues to trend downward. That’s because maturing high-coupon Treasury securities are refinanced with new, lower yielding securities.
  • Treasury Secretary Geithner has diligently lengthened the average duration of U.S. debt from about 4 years when he took office to currently over 5 years.

For the U.S. government, a longer duration suggests less vulnerability to a rise in interest rates, as it will take longer for a rise in borrowing costs to filter through to the average debt outstanding. The opposite is true for investors: the longer the average duration of a bond or a bond portfolio one holds, the greater the interest risk, i.e. the risk that the bonds fall in value as interest rates rise.

Debt management by the Treasury only tells part of the story on interest risk. When the Treasury publishes “debt held by the public,” it includes Treasuries purchased in the open market by the Fed. By engaging in “Operation Twist”, the Federal Reserve stepped onto Timothy Geithner’s turf, manipulating the average duration of debt held by the private sector. Notably, the private sector holds fewer longer-dated bonds, as the Fed has gobbled many of them up.

However, investors may still be exposed to substantial interest risk in their overall fixed income holdings as, in the search of yield, many have doubled down by seeking out longer dated and riskier securities.

The Fed, many are not aware of, employs amortized cost accounting, rather than marking its holdings to market, thus hiding potential losses should interest rates go up and its portfolio of Treasuries and Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) fall in value.

Quantitative easing to increase interest risk

Whenever there’s a warning that all the money created by the Federal Reserve is akin to printing money, some dismiss these concerns as the money created out of thin air to buy securities has not caused banks to lend, but park excess reserves back at the Federal Reserve. As of December 14, 2012, $1.4 trillion in excess reserves is parked at the Fed. Substantial interest risk might be baked into reserves:

Consider that the Fed has been paying about $80 billion in profits to the Treasury in recent years. Think of it this way: the more money the Fed “prints”, the more (Treasury & MBS) securities it buys, the more interest it earns. That’s why Fed Chair Bernanke brags that his policies have not cost taxpayers a cent, even if the activities may put the purchasing power of the currency at risk. Now, Bernanke has also claimed he could raise rates in 15 minutes. In our assessment, it’s most unlikely he would do so by selling long-dated securities; instead, in an effort to keep long-term rates low, the most likely scenario is that the Fed will pay a higher interest rate on reserves. Up until the financial crisis broke out, the Federal Reserve would have intervened in the Treasury market by buying and selling securities to move short-term interest rates. In the fall of 2008, the Fed was granted the authority by Congress to pay interest on reserves.

As interest rates rise, not only will Treasury pay more for debt it issues, it may also receive less from the Fed. Interest rates would have to rise to about 6% for the entire $80 billion in “profits” to be wiped out assuming a constant $1.5 trillion in reserve balances ($1.4 trillion in excess reserves and $0.1 trillion in required reserves that also receive interest); that assumes, the Fed does not grow its balance sheet in the interim (in an effort to generate more “profits” for the Fed) and would not reduce its payouts in the interim as a precaution because bonds held on the Fed’s books may be trading in the market at substantially lower levels.

Should interest rates move up, the Treasury may no longer be able to rely on the Fed to finance the deficit (while the Fed denies the purposes of its policies is to finance the deficit, the Fed is buying a trillion dollars in debt as the government is running a trillion dollar deficit).

Biggest risk: economic growth?

In our surveys, inflation tends to be on top of investors’ minds, no matter how often government surveys show us that inflation is not the problem. Should inflation expectations continue to rise – and a reasonable person may be excused for coming to that conclusion given that the Fed appears to be increasingly focusing on employment rather than inflation – bonds might be selling off, putting upward pressure on the cost of borrowing for the government.

But if we assume inflation is indeed not an imminent concern (keep in mind that the Fed is also buying TIPS and, thus, distorting important inflation gauges in the market), we only need to look back at the spring of this year when a couple of good economic indicators got some investors to conclude that a recovery is finally under way. What happened? The bond market sold off rather sharply! A key reason why the Fed is increasingly moving towards employment targeting is to prevent a recurrence, namely a market-driven tightening, pushing up mortgage costs.

The government should be grateful that we have this “muddle-through” economy. Let some of that money that’s been printed “stick;” let the economy kick into high gear. In that scenario, the “good news” may well be reflected in a bond market that turns into a bear market.

Historically, when interest rates move higher in an economic recovery, the U.S. dollar is no beneficiary because foreigners tend to hold lots of Treasuries: should the bond market turn into a bear market, foreigners historically tend to wait for the end of the tightening cycle before recommitting to U.S. Treasuries.

The point we are making is that for bonds to sell off and the dollar to be under pressure, we don’t need inflation to show its ugly head; we don’t need China or Japan to engage in financial warfare by dumping their Treasury holdings. All we may need is economic growth! And while Timothy Geithner has studiously been trying to extend the average duration of U.S. debt, Ben Bernanke at the Fed has thrown him a curveball.

Perception is reality

One only needs to look at Spain to see that a long average duration of government debt is no guarantor against a debt crisis. Spain has an average maturity of government debt of 6 years, yet it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that borrowing at 6% in the market is not sustainable given the total debt burden. As such, markets tend to shiver when confidence is lost, even if, technically, governments could cling on for a while when the cost of borrowing surges.

History may repeat itself

It was only 11 years ago that the US government paid and average of 6% on its debt. Sure the average cost of borrowing has been coming down. But no matter what scenarios we paint, if the average cost of borrowing can come down to almost 2% from 6%, we believe it is entirely possible to have the reverse take place over the next 11 years. Given the additional risks the Fed’s actions have introduced, the timing could well be condensed. But even if not, we believe it is irresponsible for policy makers to pretend interest rates may stay low forever (except, maybe, Tim Geithner’s steps to increase the average maturity of government debt; but as pointed out, his efforts may be overwhelmed by those of the Fed).

Fiscal Cliff

What’s so sad about the discussion about the so-called fiscal cliff is that even the initial Republican proposal results in approximately $800 billion deficits each year. Financed at an average 2%, this would add over $900 billion in interest expenses over ten years; financed at an average 4%, it would add almost $2 trillion in interest expense over ten years. Mind you, this is a politically unrealistic, conservative proposal. Democrats pretend we don’t even have a long-term sustainability problem, only that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share.

In our humble opinion, both Republicans and Democrats are distracted. In many ways, the simultaneous increase in taxes and cut in expenditures of the fiscal cliff is akin to European style austerity: if the cliff were to take place in its entirety, we would a) suffer a significant economic slow down; b) continue to run deficits exceeding 3% of GDP before factoring in any slowdown; and c) still not have fixed entitlements.

Entitlements

While our discussion focused on $11 trillion in Treasury securities, the so-called “unfunded liabilities” go much further than the $5 trillion in accounting liabilities set aside. Depending on the actuarial assumptions, unfunded liabilities may be as high as $50 trillion to $200 trillion or higher.

In our assessment, the only way to tame the explosion of government liabilities over the medium term is to tame entitlements. But it is very difficult to cut back on promises made. As Europe has shown us, the only language that policy makers understand may be that of the bond market. As such, unless and until the bond market imposes entitlement reform, we are rather pessimistic that our budget will be put on a sustainable footing. Put another way, things are not bad enough for policy makers to make the tough decisions.

Different from Europe, however, the U.S. has a current account deficit. As a result, a misbehaving bond market may have far greater negative ramifications for the dollar than the strains in the Eurozone bond markets had for the Euro. In the Eurozone, the current account is roughly in balance; while there was a flight out of weaker Eurozone countries, that flight was mostly intra-Eurozone towards Germany and Northern European countries.

So while the default risk of U.S. Treasuries may be less than that of Eurozone members, the risks to the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar might be substantially higher. On that note, while the Fed has indicated to buy another approximately $1 trillion in assets over the next year, we would not be surprised to see the balance sheet of the more demand-driven European Central Bank shrink as some banks pay back loans from the Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) early.

In early January, we will be publishing our outlook for 2013; Please also sign up for our newsletter to be informed as we discuss global dynamics and their impact on gold and currencies. Additionally, please join us for our upcoming Webinar on Tuesday, January 15th, 2013.

Axel Merk

Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments.

Gold and Stocks Diverge As Central Banks Pledge Unlimited Money Printing

Both the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have gone all in with their attempts to revive weak, debt burdened economies with a pledge of unlimited money printing.

Japan’s incoming Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who ran on a platform of unlimited quantitative easing and higher inflation, has quickly forced capitulation by the Bank of Japan to surrender its independence from political influence.

The Bank of Japan pledged Thursday to review its price stability goal, admitting that the move was partly in response to incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aggressive calls for the central bank to step up its fight against deflation.

At its two-day policy board meeting, the BOJ decided to expand the size of its asset-purchase program—the main tool of monetary easing with interest rates near zero—and promised to review next month its current inflation goal, something Mr. Abe demanded during Japan’s parliamentary campaign.

Countering speculation that the board’s decision-making process is being driven by politicians, Gov. Masaaki Shirakawa said the bank reviews its price goal every year. But he acknowledged that the policy board had taken Mr. Abe’s request into account.

The Bank of Japan’s quick surrender of monetary policy independence reflected the fact that they had little choice in the matter.  Mr. Abe had previously threatened a  “law revision to take away the BOJ’s independence if it didn’t comply with his demands.  Mr. Abe said the election shows that his views have the support of the people, and, on the night of his victory, he specifically said he expected the BOJ to do something at this week’s meeting.”

The policy of unlimited money printing by Japan came shortly after similar actions were announced by the U.S. Federal Reserve in early December.  Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, architect of the U.S. “economic recovery” announced that the Fed would purchase $45 billion of US Treasuries every month in addition to the open ended monthly purchase of $40 billion of mortgage backed securities.  The Fed’s expanded “asset purchase programs” will be monetizing over $1 trillion of assets annually, effectively funding a large portion of the U.S. government’s annual deficit with printed money.

The impact of blatantly unlimited money printing by two of the world’s largest economies surprised many gold investors as the price of stocks and gold quickly diverged, with gold selling off and stocks (especially in Japan) gaining.

Why would gold, the only currency with intrinsic value that cannot be debased by governments, sell off as governments pledged to flood the world with freshly printed paper currencies?  Here’s one insight from John Mauldin.

When you reduce the amount of leverage in the system, you’re actually reducing the total money supply. So the Fed can come in and print money, and the money supply – the total amount of credit and leverage and material that’s going through the system – really hasn’t increased.

A lot of monetary economic theories say “the money supply is directly related to inflation.”

It is, but the amount of leverage and credit in the system is also directly related to inflation. It becomes a much more complicated mix. What happens at the end of the debt supercycle, as you’re reducing that leverage, you’re actually in a deflationary world. That is the whole debate between deflation and inflation.

If you read the polls in the United States, we’re just totally dysfunctional. We want to pay less taxes and we want more health care – that doesn’t work. We are going to have to be adults and recognize that problem.

The reason is the Fed is going to do everything they can to fight deflation. The only thing they can do is to print money. They’re going to be able to print more money than any of us can possibly imagine and get away with it without having inflation.

Mr. Mauldin may have a valid point, but a more likely explanation is the suppression of gold prices by governments and central banks as voluminously documented by GATA.

“Those who follow GATA may not be surprised when the monetary metals markets don’t make sense, since they really aren’t markets at all but the targets of constant intervention by governments.”

Weak Dollar Policies Could Result In Trade Wars and Higher Consumer Prices

By Axel Merk

Our leaders want a weaker dollar and a stronger Chinese renminbi (RMB). That’s our assessment based on recent comments by President Obama, presidential hopeful Romney and Federal Reserve (Fed) Chair Bernanke. If you join them in that call, OK, just be careful what you wish for, or at least consider taking action to protect your portfolio.

In the past few weeks, Bernanke has become ever more vocal in encouraging emerging market countries to allow their currencies to appreciate against the dollar; and Obama and Romney have both been advocating for a weaker dollar versus specifically the Chinese RMB. In the recent presidential debates Romney continued his call for declaring China a currency manipulator, and Obama proudly stated that the RMB had appreciated 11% against the dollar since he took office. It has actually been about 9% according to the data we look at; nevertheless, the point that both were clearly trying to make is that a weaker U.S. dollar is in our economic best interests. Likewise, in an IMF speech Bernanke essentially admitted that accommodative monetary policy in the U.S. causes upward pressure on foreign exchange rates between emerging market currencies and the dollar, and suggested that foreign central banks allow that dollar depreciation to take hold, rather than intervene to prevent it.

It may be superficially plausible that RMB appreciation is the key to alleviating our economic woes, by promoting exports and therefore jobs in the U.S. However, while lowering one’s currency might give a boost to corporate earnings for the next quarter (as foreign earnings are translated into higher U.S. dollar gains), it is difficult to imagine that the U.S. can truly compete on price – the day we export sneakers to Vietnam will hopefully never come. An advanced economy, in our assessment, must compete on value, not price. Without discussing the merits of this argument in more detail, let’s look at the flip side of a stronger RMB, which is a weaker dollar and potentially higher prices for goods imported from China. Notice that there is a lot of table pounding about China stealing manufacturing jobs, but no protest when it comes to the low prices consumers enjoy as a result of China trade. After all, not all Americans are producers of export goods, but certainly all are consumers of goods in general, many of which are imported from China and emerging Asia.

Even if we accept the argument that a weaker dollar may be good for certain sectors and perhaps for the U.S. economy at large, not all will benefit, in particular, not retirees facing diminished purchasing power. Retirees would not see the nominal wage increases that the active labor force could expect to experience, meaning rising costs of living without an offsetting rise in income, which may only be coming from a fixed-income portfolio still earning zero interest as Bernanke has made it clear that “policy accommodation will remain even as the economy picks up.”

We agree with our policy makers to the extent that the dollar may be generally overvalued and many Asian currencies undervalued; and therefore the path of least resistance may lead to Asian currencies grinding higher across the board. The below chart illustrates this trend. China’s appetite for currency appreciation against the dollar may have a good deal to do with its currency’s relative strength or weakness compared to its Asian neighbors, who are export competitors. As these other Asian currencies appreciate they provide the RMB more room to appreciate as well.

Asian Currency Relative to Dollar

While many Asian currencies may rise over the coming years, we think Asian countries like China, that are moving up the value-added chain, are in a better position to handle more rapid currency appreciation than others. As production processes become more complex, it is harder for low-price competitors to easily replicate that output. As such, higher value-added products provide China’s exporters with greater pricing power in the global market, limiting the need and effectiveness of a cheap currency policy. Additionally, over the medium to longer term, as the Chinese economy continues to grow and the middle class becomes wealthier, domestic consumption will play a larger and larger role in their GDP, and that shift away from economic reliance on the American consumer will also diminish the need for an export oriented currency policy. In fact, we believe a stronger RMB will be beneficial for the Chinese consumer and help that transition along.

The gradual shift towards greater domestic consumption is occurring in many other Asian countries that have been following the export growth model and, as Bernanke puts it, that “systematically resist currency appreciation.” As we can see in the above chart many Asian currencies haven’t been resisting appreciation as much as you might think, and this gets to Obama’s point on the RMB appreciation since he took office. From an investment standpoint, 9% in four years isn’t a bad return in this environment; it would take over 78 years to reach that return rolling 3-month T-bills at their current yield of 0.11%.

American consumers (and Chinese exporters) have been subsidized by the artificially weak Chinese currency, to the detriment of Chinese consumers who have faced stunted purchasing power. However, we believe this dynamic will continue to change and suggest that a stronger RMB is very likely not only on Bernanke, Obama, and Romney’s wish list, but increasingly in China’s own interest. That would mean the tables getting turned on the American consumer.

By the way, there is a good reason no President has called China a currency manipulator. Once China is labeled a currency manipulator, it sets in motion a process in which Congress takes up the matter. Without going into detail, our recent Presidents have preferred to seize rather than delegate power: by calling China a currency manipulator, the President would essentially tell Congress to have a stab at the issue; whereas the President has far more flexibility at the executive branch in dealing with China without consulting with Congress. Once Congress gets involved, the threat of a trade war does become more likely. Even if Romney is correct that China may have more to lose in a trade war, our analysis shows that the currency of a country with a trade deficit may be under more strain in a trade war. That may well be what Romney wants to achieve, but again, be careful what you wish for.

If part of what investors consume is produced in another region, then holding some local currency or local currency denominated assets may be prudent. American consumers should ultimately not be concerned with the number of dollars in the bank, but rather with what those dollars can buy in terms of real goods and services. We suggest that Bernanke may be the currency manipulator to be more afraid of, and moreover, that our de-facto weak dollar policy may be reason to take the purchasing power risk of the dollar into account.

Please register for our Webinar on Thursday, November 8th, 2012, where we will dive into implications of US policies on China and Asian currencies in more detail. Also sign up to our newsletter to be informed as we discuss global dynamics and their impact on gold and currencies.

Axel Merk

Axel Merk is President and Chief Investment Officer, Merk Investments

Big Money Is Bullish On Gold

Big money managers are bullish on gold according to the pros interviewed in Barron’s latest fall survey.  A resounding 69% of big money managers are bullish on gold and 22% forecast that precious metals will be the best performing asset class over the next six to twelve months.

Courtesy Barron’s

The big money is bearish on Federal Reserve strategy with over 60% of poll respondents disapproving of the Fed’s current interest rate policy.  Reinforcing their low opinion of Fed strategy, an overwhelming 78% of the pros believe that additional Fed easing policies will be counter productive.  Summing up the general opinion on Ben Bernanke’s money printing schemes, one money pro said “The Fed is well past the point of interest-rate policy having any meaningful impact on the economy.  Bernanke & Co. now risk damage to both the dollar and the Fed’s own balance sheet.  This is the biggest misallocation of capital in the history of mankind.”

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming consensus (89%) of the big money pros think that treasuries are severely overvalued.  Although the pros don’t see interest rates rising significantly in the next six months, Barron’s notes that even a small increase in interest rates would result in losses to bondholders.  The Fed has manipulated interest rates to such a low level, that few money pros see any value in treasuries.  One money pro noted that without massive security purchases by the Fed, the 10 year bond would currently yield 5%, representing a real yield of 2% plus 3% for inflation.   Absent Fed efforts to suppress free market yields on treasuries, bondholders would be faced with shocking losses as interest rates rose.

The big money bearish sentiment on Bernanke and bullish forecast for gold tells us that the pros don’t expect implementation of sound monetary policy by the Fed any time soon.