Inaccurate statistics and the threat to bonds

Alasdair Macleod
21 May 2015

Statistics have become very misleading: in particular we are being badly misled into believing that the US is teetering on the edge of price deflation, because the US official rate of inflation is barely positive, a level that US bonds and therefore all other financial markets have priced in without accepting it is actually significantly higher.

There are two possible approaches to assessing the true rate of price inflation. You can either reverse all the tweaks government statisticians have implemented over the decades to reduce the apparent rate, or you can collect a statistically significant sample of price data independently and turn that into an index. John Williams of Shadowstats.com is well known for his work on the former approach, but until recently I was unaware that anyone was attempting the latter. That is until Simon Hunt of Simon Hunt Strategic Services drew my attention to the Chapwood Index, which deserves wider publicity.

This is from the website: “The Chapwood Index reflects the true cost-of-living increase in America. Updated and released twice a year, it reports the unadjusted actual cost and price fluctuation of the top 500 items on which Americans spend their after-tax dollars in the 50 largest cities in the nation.” It is, therefore, statistically significant, and it consistently shows price inflation to be much higher than that indicated by the Consumer Price Index (CPI)

The table below shows this difference since 2011, and how it affects real GDP.


2011 2012 2013 2014 Cumulative
Chapwood Index 9.9% 10.7% 10.2% 9.7% 47.1%
Official CPI 3.0%    1.7% 1.5% 0.8% 7.2%
(Difference) 6.9% 9.0% 8.7% 8.9% 39.9%)
Nominal GDP 3.7% 4.2% 3.7% 5.6% 18.4%
Revised real GDP -6.2% -6.5% -6.5% -4.1% -21.4%

Sources: Chapwood Index, US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis. Figures may not total due to rounding.

The Chapwood number in the table is the simple arithmetic average of the 50 cities. The year-in, year-out 10% inflation rate is notable. Furthermore, Chapwood shows cumulative inflation rate as shown by the CPI for the four years to be understated by 39.9%, and using Chapwood numbers in place of the GDP deflator, real GDP has slumped a cumulative total of 21.4% over the four years.

No wonder the poor in America are suffering: when their wages and benefit increases have been aligned to the CPI, they have fallen nearly 40% in real terms over the last four years. The resulting decline in business on Main Street revealed by these figures explains why Wal-Mart are laying people off and closing stores, and why trade associations continually issue disappointing trading assessments.

Understated price inflation fundamentally distorts everything that is macroeconomic, from monetary policy to economic commentary. It misleads central bankers into thinking they are missing their inflation targets when they are in fact exceeding them by a dangerously wide margin. It misleads analysts into thinking we are on the brink of a deflationary slump with prices maybe about to collapse. And most worryingly of all, bond markets have become more mispriced than even hardened bears realise, something that’s very likely to be corrected through a financial shock.

Just think of all those bonds that the banks have acquired as zero risk investments under Basel III rules¹. If bond markets discounted, as the Chapwood Index suggests they should, a US inflation rate consistently around 10%, the 10-year US Treasury bond should yield at least that, possibly more. The price would halve to meet those redemption yields, and lesser credit-worthy bonds would fall even more, a development for which all financial markets are wholly unprepared, not to mention the knock-on effects on stocks, derivatives and of course, mortgage rates.

¹ Basel III (or the Third Basel Accord) is a global, voluntary regulatory framework on bank capital adequacy, stress testing and market liquidity risk

The trouble with cash

Alasdair Macleod
14 May 2015

When interest rates are zero and it costs a bank to look after your money it becomes an unattractive asset. Banks in some jurisdictions (such as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden) are even charging customers interest on cash and deposits. And if you go to your bank and withdraw large amounts in the form of folding notes to avoid these charges you will be lucky if you are not treated as a sort of pariah. For the moment, at least, these problems do not extend to sound money, in other words gold.

There are two distinct issues involved with government-issued currency: zero-to-negative interest rates, which all but eliminate any interest turn on deposits for the banks, and a systemic issue that arises if too many people withdraw their money from the banking system. The problems with the latter would become significant if enough people decide to effectively opt out of holding money in the banks.

Conversion of bank deposits into physical cash increases reserve ratios, restricting the banks’ ability to create credit. However, while the banks are contractually obliged to supply physical cash to anyone who wants it, a drawdown on bank deposits is a bad thing from a central bank’s point of view. A desire for physical cash is, therefore, discouraged. Instead, if the option of owning physical cash was removed and there was only electronic money, deposits would simply be transferred from one bank to another and any imbalances between the banks resolved through the money markets, with or without the assistance of a central bank. The destabilising effects of bank runs would be eliminated entirely.

In the current financial climate demand for cash does not originate so much from loss of confidence in banks, with some notable exceptions such as in Greece. Instead it is a consequence of ultra-low or even negative interest rates. The desire for cash is therefore an unintended consequence of central banks attempting to inject confidence into the economy. The rights of ordinary individuals to turn deposits into physical cash are therefore resisted by central banks, which are focused instead on managing zero interest rate policies and supressing any side effects.

Central banks can take this logic one step further. Monetary policy is primarily intended to foster investor confidence, so any tendency for investors to liquidate investments is, therefore, to be discouraged. However, with financial markets getting progressively more expensive central bankers will suspect the relative attraction of cash balances are increasing. And because banks are making cash deposits more costly, this is bound to increase demand for physical notes.

Monetary policy has now become like a pressure cooker with a defective safety-valve. Central bankers realise it and investors are slowly beginning to as well. Add into this mix a faltering global economy, a fact that is becoming impossible to ignore, and a dash-for-cash becomes a serious potential risk to both monetary policy and the banking system.

There is an obvious alternative to cash, and that is to buy physical gold. This does not constitute a run on the banking system, because a buyer of gold uses electronic money that transfers to the seller. The problem with physical gold is a separate issue: it challenges the raison d’être of the banking system and of government currencies as well.

This is why we can still buy gold instead of encashing our deposits, for the moment at least. It can only be a matter of time before people realise that with the cash option closing this is the only way to escape an increasingly dysfunctional financial system.

Controlling copper and silver prices

Alasdair Macleod
7 May 2015

There is an unwarranted assumption that market prices are always right, and represent “fair value”. In the case of commodities, particularly metals, this is not necessarily true, because regulated financial markets make it too easy for government agencies and large banks to game the system.

Take the case of a country like China, which is the largest consumer of copper. Does it passively buy its copper through the market? No. Instead it strikes a price with a supplier, such as a Zambian copper mine, based on the London market price, bypassing the market entirely. If China plays no part in setting the reference price in London, the Zambians can be satisfied the price is fair; but if China or her agents suppressed the price of copper in the market before the price is set, the Zambians would be right to be upset.

Now, we do not know if China or her agents drive the copper price down, by placing a relatively small paper order so that the large off-market physical deal is priced favourably, but it is obviously in her interest to do so. Another metal where this could apply is silver.

We need to bear in mind three things about China and silver. She is the world’s largest industrial user, she is almost certainly the world’s largest refiner, and the government owns all the refineries. China imports large quantities of doré 1 and also base metal ores containing silver. So how she goes about this business is highly relevant to the silver price, and the following is an example of how it works.

In the case of foreign silver mines a qualified agent assesses the silver content of concentrates or doré on site and agrees a payment figure with the mine manager. Two further considerations then arise: the mine manager will want payment upfront because he has wages and other costs to meet; and the agent will look for the most cost-effective refining option. The first consideration is addressed by getting a bullion bank to advance the money against delivery of the concentrates or doré when refined, and the second will often involve a government-subsidised Chinese refiner.

There now exists a relationship between the Chinese government and the bullion bank, because the former has to deliver refined silver to the latter, or it must alternatively provide paper cover as may be subsequently agreed between them. As owner of the refining industry, China’s interest is primarily strategic rather than profitability. Whether it is to subsidise the solar cell industry, or to build a strategic stockpile matters not; the temptation to suppress the price is the point.

The problem with price suppression is that it only works when buyers stand aside. But as we saw in the 30 months following October 2008 when the silver price ran up from under $9 to nearly $50, when buyers step in huge price moves can occur relatively quickly.

To the extent such price suppression does occur, today’s commodities must be under-priced, just as bond and stock prices have become overpriced through central banks and other government agencies interfering with the markets. In any event investor opinion is bearish for commodities and bullish for the US dollar. Therefore, in a general market correction of valuation extremes commodities should recover strongly, how strongly will depend on whether or not prices have been artificially suppressed in the way described in this article.

Deflationists should take note: when markets crack, after initial confusion the prices of key commodities such as silver could rise more strongly than imaginable if they have been artificially suppressed, making them the only game in town.

 

1 A doré bar is a semi-pure alloy of gold and silver, usually created at the site of a mine. It is then transported to a refinery for further purification.

Why deflation is unlikely

Alasdair Macleod
30 April 2015

Financial markets are becoming aware that the US economy is stalling, so  investors increasingly take the view that with demand likely to stagnate or even fall, prices for goods and services will soften. This is already threatening to be the situation in a number of other advanced nations, with negative interest rates to combat it becoming commonplace. For this reason, gold and silver priced in dollars are expected by many traders to drift lower.

Putting the prices of precious metals to one side for a moment, there are some serious issues with this analysis. Let us assume for a moment that the US economy does stall; the text-books tell us supply and demand for goods and services will rebalance at lower prices. This was what effectively happened in the wake of the Lehman Crisis, when energy, metals and precious metal prices all fell sharply and large discounts for manufactured capital goods became available. This does not mean that second time round (and a sliding US economy could create the sort of financial strains that make Lehman look like a walk in the park), the same thing will happen again. Indeed, for next time the central banks already have a plan to contain the situation based on their experience in the Lehman Crisis. It involves the rapid expansion of money, which to the Federal Reserve System (“Fed”) at least has been proven on recent experience to have little or no inflationary consequences whatever.

We therefore know something we did not know in the wake of August 2008, when the imminent collapse of the global banking system drove everyone to increase their cash balances. This time we know that last time’s guarantees of $13 trillion, or whatever sum you care to think of, will yet again be provided by the Fed, backed by hard cash on demand. Forget bail-ins; they are for dealing with one-off bank insolvencies, not a wider systemic crisis.

Of course it’s tempting to think that a new financial and economic crisis will drive us towards selling anything we can for cash. However, this has not necessarily been the experience of previous monetary inflations: after printing money fails to raise the animal spirits, the consensus often expects a fall in prices, only for the opposite to happen. This was certainly the case in Germany and Austria after the First World War, when economic burdens from the combined destruction of infrastructure and wealth, the loss of productive lives, the end of military spending and the burden of reparations were all expected to overwhelm their respective economies. The result was people briefly preferred to hold onto their savings rather than spend. How wrong they were.

The political situation then was very different from that of today, but there was an important economic similarity. The rapid acceleration of growth in money supply failed to stimulate the Germanic economies in the preceding seven years. It’s the same today. The mistake is the one identified by Frederik Bastiat nearly 200 years ago with his fallacy of the broken window. We see the dynamics of a failing economy and draw our conclusions from that observation alone. We disregard the previous monetary inflation, and we have yet to see the more rapid expansion of money and credit to come. This is why we do not anticipate the growing certainty that the purchasing power of money will fall and not increase, embarking on the same value-path as the German mark and Austrian crown in 1920-23.

If a financial crisis is to be averted, the best we can hope for is an economy moving sideways rather than expanding. But there are dangers to this hope, partly from markets that are dangerously over-valued, and partly from the limitations on further private sector debt creation. In short, we are living with a situation that is highly vulnerable to an exogenous shock.

Meanwhile, the prices of gold and silver reflect the deflationary view to the exclusion of the likely outcome. There is no doubt that many dealers believe that gold and silver are merely commodities, otherwise they would be chasing their prices upwards in a dash for cash. Future historians should be puzzled. Perhaps someone will write a history with a snappy title, such as “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.”[i]

[i] Already written by Charles Mackay and published in 1851. Updates will doubtless be required.

Gold, the SDR and BRICS

Alasdair Macleod
23 April 2015

Last Monday there was a meeting in Washington hosted by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) to discuss the future relationship, if any, of gold with the Special Drawing Rights[1] (SDR). Also on the agenda was the inclusion of the Chinese renminbi, which seems certain to be included in the SDR basket in this year’s revision, assuming that the United States doesn’t try to block it.

This is not the first time the subject has come up. OMFIF’s chairman, Lord Desai wrote a paper about it after the last Washington meeting on gold and the SDR exactly four years ago. The inclusion of the renminbi in the SDR was rejected in 2010 because of inadequate liquidity and is due to be reconsidered this year.

Desai pointed out in his paper that there are difficulties when it comes to including gold, because (and I think this is what he was trying to say) none of the SDR’s paper constituents are convertible into gold, but gold’s inclusion in the SDR would make them convertible through the back door. However, Desai seemed keen to re-examine the case for gold.

It should be pointed out that if gold is included in SDRs the arrangement cannot be long-lasting so long as the major central banks insist on printing money as an economic cure-all. However, China’s position with respect to gold and her own currency could be a different matter.

The Chinese government has almost certainly accumulated large amounts of gold yet to be included in her reserves, and she has also encouraged her own citizens to own gold as well. We can therefore be certain that China sees a monetary role for gold while at the same time she is pushing for the renminbi to be included in the SDR basket. There is no doubt, if you read the IMF papers from the last SDR review in 2010 that the renminbi does now fulfil the criteria for inclusion today. So the question then is will the advanced nations, which dominate the IMF’s membership, permit the renminbi’s inclusion, and will the US, which has dragged its heels on giving China and the other BRICS nations a greater shareholding in the IMF, relent and permit these reforms, which were accepted by the other members back in 2010?

The Americans’ blocking of reform signals her desire to preserve the dollar’s hegemony; but given she lost out spectacularly over the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, IMF reform could become the next serious threat to the dollar’s dominance. And if America does not back down over the IMF and the SDR, she will have no fall-back position; China on the other hand still has some aces up her sleeve.

One of them is gold, and another is her role in a rival organisation established by the BRICS. The New Development Bank (NDB) is in the final stages of being set up, driven by frustration at America’s attempts to protect the dollar’s role and to keep the IMF as an exclusive club for advanced nations. Instead, the NDB could easily issue its own version of the SDR with the gold lining Desai referred to in his original paper.

The reason this would work is very simple. The BRICS members, unencumbered by the cost burden of modern welfare states could exercise the monetary restraint required to tie their currencies to gold, perhaps running a Bretton-Woods-style[2] gold-exchange arrangement between member central banks to stabilise their currencies.

However, the NDB would almost certainly want to see the gold price considerably higher if it is to play any part in a new rival to the SDR. Other BRICS members would be encouraged to make sure they have sufficient gold on board by selling US dollar reserves to buy gold, ahead of any decision to go ahead with a new super-currency.

It would appear the era of the dollar’s global domination as a reserve currency is coming to an end, and the stage is now being set for gold to be officially accepted as the ultimate reserve money once again, this time by the next generation of advanced nations.

[1] The SDR is an international reserve asset, created by the IMF in 1969 to supplement its member countries’ official reserves. Its value is based on a basket of four key international currencies, and SDRs can be exchanged for freely usable currencies. As of March 17, 2015, 204 billion SDRs were created and allocated to members (equivalent to about $280 billion).

[2] A now defunct system of monetary management that established the rules for commercial and financial relations among the world’s major industrial states. In 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated convertibility of the US dollar to gold, effectively bringing the Bretton Woods system to an end and rendering the dollar a fiat currency; many fixed currencies (such as the pound sterling, for example), also became free-floating at the same time.