April 20, 2024

Gold and Debt – What Would Benjamin Franklin Have Said?

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most eloquent wordsmiths in American history, coined one of the most famous quotations of all time in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789.

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Contemplating the nation’s growing indebtedness lead me to wonder what immortal phrase Ben Franklin would conjure up to describe the current state of our financial affairs.

Recently and without much public drama, the national debt ticked up by another trillion dollars.  Including off balance sheet liabilities for social security, medicare and a host of other government guarantees brings the true national debt figure up to around a cool $70 trillion.

The majority of the public is either unable to comprehend how much a trillion is or doesn’t much care.  One way or the other, however, the debt falls upon the backs of American families who are already being crushed by zero rates on savings, job losses, lower income and a higher cost of living.  Viewing the debt burden per household gives us a perspective on how bleak our economic future may become.

The official national debt per America’s approximately 118 million households is $136,000.  Throw in the off balance sheet liabilities and we get up to $593,000.  Consider that the median annual household income is only $49,445 and has been declining for the past 20 years.

Are things really as hopeless as they look?  Doesn’t the United States hold the world’s largest amount of gold reserves?   The good news first – yes the U.S. owns 8,133.5 metric tonnes of gold, more than twice as much as second place Germany with 3,395 metric tonnes.   The bad news is that at today’s undervalued gold price, total U.S. gold reserves are only worth $454 billion.  Gold reserves per American households amount to only $3,847, a fraction (0.65%) of total household debt.

Exactly how the Fed’s Frankenstein experiment in fiat money creation will end, nobody knows – but it won’t end well for most of us.  Right now, increases in both the value of gold and the amount of debt seem as certain as death and taxes.  I wonder how Ben Franklin would have phrased it?

Gold – The Escape From Slavery

By Axel Merk

Vice President Joe Biden was accused of racism when suggesting a Romney administration would “unchain banks” that in turn might put the black audience he was talking to back into “shackles.” The political uproar overshadows a reality that knows no racial boundaries: a person in debt is not a free person; a nation in debt is not a free nation. Does it mean those with large bank accounts are free? Not so fast…

We don’t want to downplay the horrific crime of slavery, but want to provide food for thought: debt is often taken on voluntarily; once taken on, however, one is forced to work to pay off one’s debt. To be unshackled from banks and creditors, investors may want to consider living debt free and owning gold. Let us explain.

Chains and Dollar

Access to credit may fundamentally change one’s lifestyle. On the plus side, it opens the path to home ownership and access to capital goods, be that a car, or these days even a mattress or exercise machine. But it also makes the creditor, rather than oneself the boss. One symptom of the building credit bubble that caught my attention a decade ago was the rise of Spanish language billboards promoting mortgages. Proud immigrants in search of the American dream were lured into mortgages they could ill afford. Rather than focusing on feeding themselves and their family, the focus shifted to serving the bank. That shift only became apparent once the loan became too expensive to service, either because interest rates were resetting to higher levels or because someone lost their job and thus their income, but the debt remained.

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett famously discusses in his annual shareholder letters that the insurance business is a great business to be in, as policyholders pay him to hold money:

“Insurers receive premiums upfront and pay claims later. … This collect-now, pay-later model leaves us holding large sums — money we call ‘float’ — that will eventually go to others. Meanwhile, we get to invest this float for Berkshire’s benefit. …”

Indeed, Buffett has said that he would never allow his firm to be in a situation where he is at the mercy of banks. It doesn’t mean he will never borrow money. But it means that when borrowing money, he always wants to be in a situation where he could pay it back if needed. Consumers have seen all too often that they only qualify for a loan when they don’t really need it. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase has said responsible banks act like mothers: they will decline your loan request if it is too risky for you.

One cannot be a truly free person with debt. While bankruptcy may have been downgraded to a mere business transaction in the U.S., some countries continue to put those that can’t pay into prison. The neighborhood surrounding Dubai’s airport has seen thousands of abandoned cars, often Ferraris or other expensive vehicles, as the formerly rich fled the country after their fortunes turned to avoid debtors prison.

Anyone is likely to argue that a nice pile of cash in a bank account will make one feel financially secure – some place that pile at $100,000. Some at a million; as a million bucks isn’t what it used to be, the wealthy often say they are not comfortable if they don’t have $10,000,00 or more. We have met people with very modest means that feel that they are wealthy; and others that have lots of money, but don’t feel wealthy. Aside from the fact that some of them might simply have a distorted sense of reality, the wealthy often also carry a great deal of debt. Those able to manage their debt thrive in this low interest rate environment. But let even a wealthy person with debt hit a road bump, say lose a job (or face an obstacle in refinancing a loan) and such a person may quickly join the lower ranks of the 99%. In our assessment, highly accommodative monetary policy is a greater driver of an increasing wealth gap than the policies of either Democrats of Republicans.

But even with $100 in a bank account, what does one really hold? One owns a promise by the bank to pay $100. The $100 bill is a Federal Reserve Note; it’s a piece of paper issued by the Federal Reserve. That $100 bill could be returned to the Fed; in return the Fed would issue a credit balance to your account (you would have to go through a bank, as the Fed won’t open accounts for individuals). The “resources” of the Fed are without limit: through its various quantitative easing programs, the Fed has increased the credit balances of the financial institutions where it has purchased securities. The Fed literally creates money out of thin air, with the stroke of a keyboard. Even prudent central banks like to see a little bit of inflation; it means that the dollar bills you hold erode in purchasing power, giving you an incentive to put the money to work to make up for the shortfall.

Importantly, the $100 bill in your bank account is really someone else’s loan – the bank’s loan, the Fed’s loan. In fact, if you take out a loan from a bank, you will pay a merchant, who will in turn deposit the proceeds in his or her bank. As such, we talk about credit in a society. For simplicity’s sake, let the banks hold 10% in reserves; $100 in bank reserves with an offsetting $100 in demand deposit liabilities can thus be multiplied into $100 in bank reserves plus $900 in loan assets with an offsetting $1,000 demand deposit liabilities through the leverage of the fractional reserve banking system as banks lend and new deposits are made in a circular fashion. Between the Fed and the banks and the banks and their depositors the system can have a multiplier effect of about 100; that is, $100 created by the Fed can lead to $10,000 in credit. That’s why we sometimes call the credit created by the Fed (the monetary base) super credit. In the current environment, banks have not been aggressive in lending, and as such, we have not seen the “velocity” of money pick up. A key reason why many are concerned about the Fed’s increase in monetary base is because it has the potential to fuel inflation. Indeed, a key reason I personally hold a lot of gold is not because of the environment we are in, but because I am concerned about how all the liquidity that has been created might be mopped up one day. Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke claims he can raise rates in 15 minutes; we think there may be too much leverage in the economy to have the flexibility when the time is needed; the political will to induce a severe recession to root out inflation may not be there.

It’s all about debt. So if one doesn’t want to have debt, what is one to do? The answer is real assets that are free of claims. Real estate held free and clear might be one answer, although keep in mind that governments tax real estate, thus making home owners tenants of the government. As the housing bust since 2008 has shown, the fact that many others owe a lot of money on their property changes the dynamics of this real asset.

The purest form of a debt free asset is gold. Gold is true money, the only form of money that isn’t someone else’s liability. While central banks might be able to lower the gold price by dumping their own reserves, central banks cannot print more gold – it’s very difficult to ramp up gold production. If your bank goes broke, if Greece goes broke, gold will still be there. Some call gold a relic from the past. To us, it’s the purest indicator of monetary policy, precisely because it has little industrial use. We created the cartoon below last year after CNBC’s Steve Liesman suggested to me on the air that gold might not be accepted in a store.

Cash vs. Gold

Mind you, we are not suggesting that everyone should sell all they own and buy gold instead. Everyone should consult with his or her financial adviser for specific investment advice. Specifically, one must be keenly aware of the volatility the price of gold can have relative to the U.S. dollar; given that we have a lot of our expenses in U.S. dollars, one has to be aware of the fluctuating value of the investment relative to the U.S. dollar. But we want to get investors to be keenly aware that we live in a credit driven society. We also believe that the developed world has made too many promises, too much debt has been issued.

Governments with too much debt may a) engage in austerity to pay off their debt; b) default outright; c) default though inflation. All scenarios suggest to us to hold assets that are debt free. We see gold playing a very important part in portfolios that take the risk into account that our policy makers continue to spend and “print” more money than is prudent. We don’t need actual money to be printed – credit creation through quantitative easing – is far more powerful.

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

Federal Reserve May Cause Stampede Into Gold and Silver This Week

At the end of a two day Federal Reserve policy meeting, Fed Chairman Bernanke has scheduled a news conference on Wednesday that has the potential to rattle markets worldwide.   Every analyst and investor at the news conference is certain to focus their questions on Fed plans after the scheduled completion of QE2  in June.

Current market expectations are that the Fed will not announce a new program of asset purchases and will initiate steps to slowly reduce the size of its bloated $2.5 trillion balance sheet.  Through the end of June, the Fed will have purchased $600 billion of treasury debt using newly created dollars, after having purchased $1.7 trillion of assets under QE1.

The Federal Reserve has been supporting the skyrocketing federal deficit by purchasing 85% of all new treasury debt since QE2 was initiated.   Some analysts think that interest rates on US debt will increase once the largest buyer of treasury debt steps aside.  The withdrawal of massive stimulus by the Fed could also cause a sell off in stocks and bonds, and result in lower housing prices and higher unemployment.  Under this scenario, another round of quantitative easing by the Fed would become inevitable.

Chairman Bernanke’s comments on the Federal Reserve’s exit strategy from a super easy monetary policy could cause major moves in many markets, especially precious metals.  If the markets sense that the Fed may need to initiate another round of quantitative easing, gold and silver prices will explode to the upside.  This prediction is based on the results of the current QE2 program which benefited certain asset categories but did little to help the average American.

Since last August when it became clear that the Fed would initiate QE2, we have witnessed the following results.

  • Home prices have continued to decline.
  • The 30 year mortgage rate has increased from 4.2% to 4.8%.
  • New housing starts declined to all time lows.
  • The 10 year treasury note rate has increased from 2.6% to 3.4%.

The Fed has continued its policy of near zero short term interest rates at the expense of consumers who receive virtually no return on savings.  Banks, meanwhile have increased US treasury and agency securities to a massive $1.7 trillion, benefiting from the spread between short and long rates.

The Fed’s policy of overt currency debasement, while helping to increase exports and earnings for multinational corporations has resulted in the dollar declining to the all time lows reached in early 2008.   Foreign countries with dollar reserves are protecting themselves by diversifying out of dollars and into other currencies and hard assets.

The lower value of the US dollar, while helping multinational corporations, has resulted in higher oil and food costs which has put  additional strains on consumers already burdened with excessive levels of debt and declining incomes.

Unemployment has remained stubbornly high despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus.  The Fed can print money but it cannot directly create an increase in real incomes for the average American family.  Nor can the Fed fool the people – recent Gallup polls show that almost half of the public has little faith in the Federal Reserve’s ability to do the right thing.

The Fed’s explicit policies of dollar debasement and zero interest rates risks triggering a major collapse in the value of the dollar.   Since last summer the dollar has seen a decline of 16% as investors do the logical thing and dump dollars.

Huge US  budget deficits, uncontrolled spending  and money printing by the Fed resulted in a warning by S&P that a credit downgrade on US debt was possible, putting further pressure on the US dollar.

QE2 liquidity did result in higher stock and precious metal prices benefiting a minority of Americans while doing nothing to solve the problem of too much debt and too little income.  Reliance on the Fed to come to the rescue with ever increasing amounts of cheap money has become the last resort, self defeating option.

The gold and silver markets are reflecting the failure of  unsustainable fiscal and monetary policies which virtually guarantee further appreciation in the precious metals sector.  Any pullback in prices should be viewed as a long term buying opportunity.