July 5, 2022

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.

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

The Federal Reserve Can’t Produce Oil, Food Or Jobs But They Will Continue To Produce Dollars

Federal Reserve

No bull market goes straight up without normal price corrections along the way.  The recent sharp pullback in silver prices and the more subdued correction in gold prices are likely to be viewed in hindsight as a superb buying opportunity.

Simple trend line analysis suggests that current prices for gold and silver are in a buying range.  Using the SLV and GLD as proxies for the metals, we can see that the recent sell off has brought prices to trend line support.   Combining the “trend is your friend” theory along with solid fundamental underpinnings for gold and silver, higher prices seem inevitable.  For patient long term investors, especially in the gold market, every pullback of the last decade has simply been another opportunity to exchange depreciating paper dollars into a better store of value.

The SLV recently hit its trend line in the low 30’s.

SLV - COURTESY ETRADE.COM

The GLD’s long term trend line does not even hint of parabolic price movement, contrary to mainstream press reports warning the public of the dangers of gold investing.

GLD - COURTESY ETRADE.COM

Despite the assertions of Fed Chairman Bernanke that inflation is not a problem, any one outside of the academic inner circle of the Federal Reserve sees inflation everywhere they look.  Soaring gasoline and heating costs have decimated family budgets and retail food inflation is projected to hit 4% or higher in 2011.  Constantly higher inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, has prevailed ever since the U.S. officially went off the gold standard in the early 1970’s.  (See also Why Higher Inflation and $5,000 Gold Are Inevitable).

This week we have seen announcements of higher prices by Starbucks, Smucker Co, Nestle, McDonald’s and Whole Foods.  Walmart previously warned that the debasement of the dollar was translating into higher retail prices on imported items.  The upward price spiral in the cost of necessities is especially burdensome since incomes for the majority of Americans are not increasing.

In an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal this week, Ronald McKinnon persuasively suggests that the United States is entering 1970’s type stagflation, the result of high inflation, high unemployment and stagnant demand.  According to Mr. McKinnon,  “the U.S. economy again seems to be entering stagflation. April’s producer price index for finished goods, which excludes services and falling home prices, rose 6.8%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that intermediate goods prices for April were rising at a 9.4% annual clip. Meanwhile the official nationwide unemployment rate is mired close to 9%.”

McKinnon argues that stagflation is being caused by the Fed’s zero interest rate policies (which besides robbing retirees and savers), has cause a global flood of hot money that has resulted in surging inflation in Asia and Latin America and a 40% rise in commodity prices over the past year.

The Federal Reserve’s policy options at this point seem limited to continuing their policies of cheap money and dollar debasement.  The Fed cannot produce oil as Bernanke recently commented.  Nor can the Fed produce food, jobs or higher housing prices.  The one thing the Fed can and has done is to produce paper dollars in extraordinary quantities.  Debt, when allowed to expand to levels that make repayment impossible, leaves the debtor with no good options – a point that we are rapidly approaching. (See also Why There Is No Upside Limit To Gold and Silver Prices).