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The great game accelerates…

Alasdair Macleod – 09 December 2013 In the jigsaw that is the Great Game of Asia pieces which heretofore made little sense on their own are beginning to slot in to give us an idea of the final picture. These disparate pieces are as varied as China’s claim of territorial rights over Japan’s Senkaku Islands,

Gold futures market heading for crisis

Alasdair Macleod – 10 December 2012 I thought I had a good idea what disasters we might face in 2013, and then I saw the most recent US Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s Bank Participation Report for gold and silver. On the basis of recent BPRs these markets are heading for a crisis, which is generally

Book Review: The Money Bubble by James Turk and John Rubino

Alasdair Macleod – 10th January 2014 In reviewing this excellent book I should first declare and deal with vested interests. James Turk with his son founded GoldMoney, and as GoldMoney’s Head of Research he and I are co-writers with similar views. Those who think we have a vested interest in promoting gold would be right,

The Coming Slump

Alasdair Macleod – 25 July 2014

Governments and central banks have made little or no progress in recovering from the Lehman crisis six years ago. The problem is not helped by dependence on statistics which are downright misleading. This is particularly true of real GDP, comprised of nominal GDP deflated by an estimate of price inflation. First, we must discuss the inflation adjustment.

The idea that there is such a thing as a valid measure of price inflation is only true in an econometrician’s imagination. An index which might be theoretically valid at a single point in time is only subsequently valid in the wholly artificial construction of an unchanging, or “evenly rotating economy”: in other words an economy where everyone who is employed remains in the same employment producing at the same rate, retains the same proportion of cash liquidity, and buys exactly the same things in the same quantities. Furthermore business inventory quantities must also be static.

All human choice must be excluded for this condition. Only then can any differences in prices be identified as due to changes in the quantity of money and credit. Besides this fiction, an accurate index cannot then be constructed, because not every economic transaction is reported. Furthermore biases are built into the index, for example to overweight consumer spending relative to capital investment, and to incorporate government activity which is provided to users free of cost or subsidised. Buying art, stockmarket investments or a house are as much economic transactions as buying a loaf of bread, but these activities and many like them are specifically excluded. Worse still, adjustments are often made to conceal price increases in index constituents under one pretext or another.

Economic activities are also only selectively included in GDP, which is supposed to be the total of a country’s transactions over a period of time expressed as a money total. A perfect GDP number would include all economic transactions, and in this case would capture the changes in consumer preferences excluded from a static price index. But there is no way of identifying them to tell the difference between changes due to economic progress and changes due to monetary inflation.

To illustrate this point further, let’s assume that in a nation’s economy there is no change in the quantity of money earned, held in cash, borrowed or repaid between two dates. This being the case, what will be the change in GDP? The answer is obviously zero. People can make and buy different products and offer and pay for different services at different prices, but if the total amount of money spent is unchanged there can be no change in GDP. Instead of measuring economic growth, a meaningless term, it only measures the quantity of money spent.
To summarise so far, governments are using a price index, for which there is no sound theoretical basis, to deflate a money quantity mistakenly believed to represent economic progress. In our haste to dispense with the reality of markets we have substituted half-baked ideas utilising dodgy numbers. The error goes wholly unrecognised by the majority of economists, market commentators and of course the political classes.

It also explains some of the disconnection between monetary and price inflation. Price inflation in this context refers to the increase in prices due to demand enabled by extra money and credit. As already stated, newly issued money today is spent on assets and financial speculation, excluded from both GDP and its deflator.

It stands to reason that actions based on wrong assumptions will not achieve the intended result. The assumption is that money-printing and credit expansion are not having an inflationary effect, because the statistics say so. But as we have seen, the statistics are selective, focusing on current consumption. Objective enquiry about wider consequences is deterred, and nowhere is this truer than when seeking an understanding of the wider effects of monetary inflation. This leads us to the second error: we ignore the fact that monetary inflation is a transfer of wealth from the public to the creators of new money and credit.

The transfer of wealth through monetary inflation is initially selective, before being distributed more generally. The issuers of new currency and credit are governments and the banks, both of which reap the maximum benefit of utilising them before any prices rise. But the ultimate losers are the majority of the population: by the time new money ends up in wider circulation prices have already risen to reflect its existence.

Everywhere, monetary inflation transfers real wealth from ordinary people on fixed salaries or with savings. In the US for example, since the Lehman crisis money on deposit has increased from $5.4 trillion to $12.9 trillion. This gives us an idea of how much the original deposits are being devalued through monetary inflation, a continuing effect gradually revealed through those original deposits’ diminishing purchasing-power. The scale of wealth transfer from the public to both the government and the commercial banks, which is in addition to visible taxes, is strangling economic activity.

The supposed stimulation of an economy by monetary means relies on sloppy analysis and the ignorance of the losers. Unfortunately, it is process once embarked on that is difficult to stop without exposing the true weakness of government finances and the fragility of the banking system. Governments with the burden of public welfare costs are in a debt trap from which they lack the resolve to escape. The transformation of an economy from no monetary discipline into one based on sound-money principals is widely thought by central bankers to risk creating a major banking crisis.

The crisis will indeed come, but it will probably have its origins in the inability of individuals, robbed of the purchasing power of their fixed salaries and savings, to pay the prices demanded from them by businesses. This is called a slump, an old-fashioned term for the simultaneous contraction of production and demand. Not even zero or negative interest rates will save the banks from this increasingly certain event, for a very simple reason: by continuing the transfer of wealth from individuals through monetary inflation, the cure will finally kill the patient.

There is a growing certainty in the global economic outlook that is deeply alarming. The welfare-driven nations continue to impoverish their people by debauching their currencies. As Japan’s desperate monetary expansion now shows, far from improving her economic outlook, she is moving into a deepening slump, for which this article provides the explanation. Unfortunately we are all on the path to the same destructive process.

Monetary discord

Alasdair Macleod – 18th July 2014

Last Monday’s Daily Telegraph carried an interview with Jaime Caruana, the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements (the BIS). As General Manger, Caruana is CEO of the central banks’ central bank. In international monetary affairs the heads of all central banks, with the possible exception of Janet Yellen at the Fed, defer to him. And if any one central bank feels the need to obtain the support of all the others, Caruana is the link-man.

His opinion matters and it differs sharply from the line being pushed by the Fed, ECB, BoJ and BoE. But then he is not in the firing line, with an expectant public wanting to live beyond its means and a government addicted to monetary inflation. However, he points out that debt has continued to increase in the developed nations since the Lehman crisis as well as in most emerging economies. Meanwhile the growing sensitivity of all this debt to rises in interest rates is ignored by financial markets, where risk premiums should be rising, but are falling instead.

From someone in his position this is a stark warning. That he would prefer a return to sound money is revealed in his remark about the IMF’s hint that a few years of inflation would reduce the debt burden: “It must be clearly resisted.”

There is no Plan B offered, only recognition that Plan A has failed and that it should be scrapped. Some think this is already being done in the US, with tapering of QE3. But tapering is having little monetary effect, being replaced by the expansion of the Fed’s reverse repo programme. In a reverse repo the Fed gives the banks short-term US Government debt, paid for by drawing down their excess reserves. The USG paper is used as collateral to back credit creation, while the excess reserves are not in public circulation anyway. Therefore money is created out of thin air by the banks, replacing money created out of thin air by the Fed.

Interestingly Caruana dismisses deflation scares by saying that gently falling prices are benign, which places him firmly in the sound money camp. But he doesn’t actually “come out” and admit to being Austrian in his economics, more an acolyte of Knut Wicksell, the Swedish economist, upon whose work on interest rates much of Austrian business cycle theory is based. This is why Caruana’s approach towards credit booms is being increasingly referred to in some circles as the Mises-Hayek-BIS view.

With the knowledge that the BIS is not in thrall to Keynes and the monetarists, we can logically expect that Caruana and his colleagues at the BIS will be placing a greater emphasis on the future role of gold in the monetary system. Given the other as yet unstated conclusion of the Mises-Hayek-BIS view, that paper currencies are in a doom-loop that ends with their own destruction, the BIS is on a course to break from the long-standing policy of preserving the dollar’s credibility by supressing gold.

Caruana is not alone in these thoughts. Even though central bankers in the political firing line only know expansionary monetary policies, it is clear that influential opinion in many quarters is building against them. It is too early to talk of a new monetary regime, but not too early to talk of the current one’s demise.

Unwinding unallocated gold accounts.

Alasdair Macleod – 11th July 2014

The debate in precious metal markets today is whether or not the three-year bear market is over and a new uptrend is establishing itself. But assuming for a moment that the gold price has turned the corner, will the bullion banks be able to keep a lid on it? Given the recent jump in their short positions as recorded in the Bank Participation Report on Comex, they presumably think so, and unallocated accounts in London will play an important role.

With an unallocated account the customer doesn’t have an entitlement to any specific bullion bars, and is a creditor of the bullion bank. So long as the customer is happy with the counterparty risk, this is the cheapest way for him to have exposure to gold. From the bank’s point of view, there is no need to hold more gold than required to meet customer withdrawals. Furthermore, even this gold doesn’t have to be bought, merely leased from a central bank, remaining in the Bank of England’s vault unless needed. There can be little doubt that the increase in the quantity of gold held in the Bank’s vaults between 2006 and 2013 reflected, among other factors, physical backing for increasing unallocated accounts during the 2000-2012 bull market.

In the past a bullion bank’s risk to a rising gold price either went unhedged, or was managed through derivatives, using forwards futures and options. Therefore, so long as systemic risk is not regarded as a material factor, the bullion banking community can absorb significant gold demand from investors by expanding unallocated accounts without any physical buying required. However, the investing public’s greater awareness of risk to bank deposits from bail-ins could change this in future. And it was only this week that wealthy German citizens were reminded of deposit risk when its government approved the introduction of bail-in procedures for bank insolvencies.

Increasing awareness of systemic risk by the rich and ultra-rich is likely to lead to a preference for allocated accounts or for vaulted gold held outside the banking system, over unallocated accounts. This being the case, the gold price is likely to rise more quickly for a given degree of increasing demand than it has in the past. For tangible confirmation of this conclusion we need look no further than the action of gold this week, which rose strongly at the same time as European bank shares fell sharply.

There is little evidence that dealers fully appreciate these developing dynamics. The sharp increase in the banks’ net short position on Comex reflected in the current Bank Participation Report suggests not.

Of course, it is possible the gold market is only rallying in an ongoing downtrend, in which case this analysis should be put on ice, but not forgotten. But anyone who believes that gold is still in a bear market should bear in mind that the only time gold has been cheaper relative to the total quantity of fiat dollars in circulation was in the late 1960s when the gold pool failed, and in 1999/2000, when the Bank of England sold half the UK’s gold reserves at the behest of Gordon Brown.

Time for change in the London bullion market

Alasdair Macleod – 08 July 2014

The London bullion market is an over-the-counter unregulated market and has had this status since the mid-1980s. The disadvantage of an OTC market being unregulated is that change often ends up being driven by a cartel of members promoting their own vested interests. Sadly, this has meant London has not kept pace with developments in market standards elsewhere.

The current row is focused on the twice-daily gold fix. The fix has been giving daily reference prices for gold since 1919, useful in the past when dealing was unrecorded and over-the-counter by telephone. The London gold fix could be described as an antiquated deal-based version of the LIBOR fix that has itself been discredited.
It was with this in mind that the House of Commons Treasury Committee called witnesses before it to give evidence on the matter on 2nd July. This dramatically exposed the inconsistences in the current situation, and was summed up by the Chairman Andrew Tyrie as follows: “Is there any reason we should not be treating this as an appalling story?”

These were strong words and his question remains hanging over the heads of all involved. It would be a mistake to think the Financial Conduct Authority which was given a rough ride by the Committee can ignore this “appalling story”. The FCA will almost certainly seek significant reforms, and reform means greater market transparency and no fix procedure that does not comply with IOSCO’s nineteen principles.

The current fix is thought to comply with only four of them, which is a measure of how things have moved on while the London bullion market has stood still. London effectively remains a cartel between bullion banks and the Bank of England (BoE). It has worked well for London in the past, because the BoE has used its position as the principal custodian of central bank gold to enhance liquidity. And when bailouts are required, the Bank has provided them behind closed doors.

The world has moved on. IOSCO has provided a standard for behaviour not just to cherry-pick, but as a minimum for credibility. China, which we routinely deride for the quality of official information, has a fully functioning gold bullion market which provides turnover and delivery statistics, as well as trade by the ten largest participants by both volume and bar sizes. China has also tied up mine output in Asia, Australia and Africa which now bypasses London completely. Dubai also has ambitions to become a major physical market, being in the centre of middle-eastern bullion stockpiles and with strong links into the Indian market.

Even Singapore sees itself servicing South East Asia and becoming a global centre. These realities are reflected in the 995 LBMA 400oz bar being outdated and being replaced by a new Asian 1kg 9999 standard, with refiners working overtime to affect the transition. London cannot possibly meet these global challenges without major reform.

Central banks are now net buyers of bullion, withdrawing liquidity from the London market instead of adding to it. With the FCA as one of its new responsibilities, the ability of the BoE to act as ringmaster in the LBMA is changing from an interventionist to a regulatory role. If it is to retain the physical gold business, London’s standards, on which users’ trust is ultimately based, must be of the highest order with the maximum levels of information disclosure.

A tale of two certainties

Alasdair Macleod – 04 July

It is common knowledge that Japan is in extreme financial difficulties, and that the currency is most likely to sink and sink. After all, Government debt to GDP is over 250%, and the rate of increase of retirees has exceeded the birth rate for some time. A combination of population demographics, escalating welfare costs, high government debt and the government’s inability in finding a solution to Japan’s ongoing crisis ensures for international speculators that going short of the yen is a no-brainer.

Almost without being noticed, the Japanese yen has already lost about 30% against the US dollar and nearly 40% against the euro over the last two years. The beneficiaries of this trend unsurprisingly are speculators borrowing yen at negligible interest rates to speculate in other markets, expecting to add the yen’s depreciation to their profits. Thank you Mr Abe for allowing us to borrow yen at 1.06 euro-cents two years ago to invest in Spanish 10-year government bonds at 7.5%. Today the bonds yield 2.65% and we can buy back yen at 0.72 euro-cents. Gearing up ten times on an original stake of $10,000,000 has made a clear profit of some $300,000,000 in just two years.

Shorting the yen has not been profitable this year so far, with the US dollar falling against the Japanese yen from 105.3 on December 31st to 101.5 at the half-year, an annualised loss of 7.2%. This gave a negative financing return on all bond carry trades, which in the case of Spanish government debt deal cited above resulted in annualised losses of over 5%, or 50% on a ten times geared position. The trader can either take the view it’s time the yen had another fall, or it’s time to cut the position.

These returns, though dependant on market timing, are by no means unique. Consequently nearly everyone in the hedge fund and investment banking communities has been playing this lucrative carry game at one time or another.

Not only has a weak yen been instrumental to lowering bond yields around the world, it has also been a vehicle for other purchases. On the sale or short side, another commonly agreed certainty has been the imminent collapse of the credit-driven Chinese economy, which will ensure metal prices continue to fall. In this case, gearing is normally obtained through derivatives.

However, things don’t seem to be going according to plan for many investment banks and hedge funds, which might presage a change of strategy. Copper, which started off as a profitable short by falling 12.5% to a low of $2.93 per pound, has recovered sharply this week to $3.26 in a sudden short-squeeze. Zinc is up 6.4% over the last six months, and aluminium up 6%. Gold is up 11%, and silver 8.5%. So anyone shorting a portfolio of metal futures is making significant losses, particularly when the position is highly geared through futures.

It may be just coincidence, but stories about multiple rehypothecations of physical metal in China’s warehouses have emanated from sources involved with trading in these metals. These traders have had to take significant losses on the chin on a failed strategy, and may now be moving towards a more bullish stance, because China’s warehouse scandal has not played out as they expected.

So two certainties, the collapse of both the yen and of Chinese economic demand don’t seem to be happening, or at least not happening quickly enough. The pressure is building for a change of investment strategies which is likely to drive markets in new directions in the coming months.

Taming the markets

Alasdair Macleod – 27 June 2014

A recent report by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum (OMFIF) entitled Global Public Investor 2014 discussed the investment strategies of 400 government investors split into 157 central banks, 156 government pension funds and 87 sovereign wealth funds, with $29 trillion at their disposal. We normally assume that government pension and sovereign wealth funds are invested to maximise returns and are not used for political and economic purposes, but the same cannot be said of central banks.

According to the OMFIF report the principal reasons central banks are now investing in a wider range of assets include an appetite for higher returns in a low interest rate environment, and geopolitical reasons, whereby stakes in foreign corporations are acquired for strategic purposes. However, central banks are the conduit for a government’s financial management of an economy, and the function has been generally limited to setting interest rates, currency issuance and overseeing the expansion of bank credit. Foreign currency management and gold dealing have been grey areas, with these functions often managed by a government’s finance ministry in an exchange stabilisation fund. So a central bank investing in equities is clearly a case of mission-creep.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Peoples Bank of China through its $3.9 trillion State Administration of Foreign Exchange Fund is acquiring equity stakes in European and other companies, but we should note that central banks, such as the Swiss, Danish and Italians are also investing significant sums in equities. Other central banks yet to buy equities will be watching with interest, and analysing the potential benefits of equity investment as an ancillary tool for managing markets.

It will be far easier for the Fed, the ECB or the Bank of England to buy equities if the trail is already blazed by other smaller and respectable central banks. Perhaps an analyst at the Bank for International Settlements will open the door by writing paper on the subject. Given the abject failure of monetary policy to stimulate the major advanced economies, surely it is only a matter of time before our “animal spirits” are kept alive with this new tool.

Equity bulls are unlikely to complain. If the ECB can help recapitalise the eurozone’s banks by subscribing to capital issues, what’s not to like? If a failing industrial conglomerate is given a new lease of life by a share support scheme paid for by a central bank, think of all the jobs saved at no apparent cost! By issuing government currency to support industrial investment, Keynes’s dream explicitly stated in the conclusion to his General Theory can finally be realised, with the state replacing despised savers as the source of funding for industrial investment.

The acquisition of equities by central banks, government pension funds and sovereign wealth funds amounts to enormous power to sway markets the state’s way; all that’s required is a bit of inter-departmental cooperation and $29 trillion (and rising) can be fully utilised to this end. This intervention could increase until governments end up as significant shareholders in most major companies. Norway’s Government Pension fund alone is buying 5% of every major listed European company.

So do not under-estimate the potential scope for further government intervention. Politicians and crony-capitalists will relish this new state-sponsored capitalism, which promises to tame bear markets and enhance share options. Unfortunately such idealist thinking is in defiance of economic reality with all the eventual consequences that entails.

 

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Simply put, we’re entering an era when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to obtain the resources we need — at the cost we need — to power the economic activity we need.

The trends of resource depletion, escalating mining & drilling costs, species die-offs, emptying aquifers, declining energy yields and the like are increasingly pitting the world’s 7 billion people (soon to be 9 billion before 2050) against each other in competition for the remaining biomass and minerals that make industry possible.

As a result, massive changes to our way of life are in store. No matter where each of us lives.

This brand-new video shines a bright light on these trends and the risks we face as a result. But it also offers hope. If we take action now, while there’s still time, there’s much we can do not only to reduce our personal vulnerability to these threats, but also to step into this new future with newfound optimism

Blaming deflation

Alasdair Macleod – 20 June 2014

With the Eurozone going to the extreme of negative interest rates and the IMF belatedly revising downwards their expectations of US economic growth, deflation is now the favoured buzzword. It is time to untangle myth from reality and put deflation in context.

Keynesian and monetarist economists commonly use the word to describe the phenomenon of falling prices, or alternatively a rising value for money. Deflation is loosely meant to be the opposite of inflation. But the term inflation originally applied to an increase in the quantities of currency and credit, not to the rise in prices that can be expected to follow. The definition has drifted from cause to supposed effect. Taking its cue from this transfer of definition, deflation is now taken to describe falling prices, usually linked to failing demand, and not a contraction of money in circulation.

Keynes decided that falling prices discourage consumers because they are likely to defer their purchases. He also argued in his Tract on Monetary Reform that deflation benefited the rentier class at the expense of the borrower, calling to mind an image of the idle rich enjoying a windfall at the expense of the hard-working poor. Keynes and his followers subsequently developed this argument against falling prices to justify government intervention as the remedy. No recognition was given to the normal process where stable money leads to lower prices, the hallmark of genuine economic progress. Sound money became tarred with the deflationary brush and ruled out as a desirable objective.

The deflation problem according to another economist, Irving Fisher, is that the losses suffered by businesses from falling prices can lead to collateral being liquidated by the banks, feeding into a debt-liquidation spiral and ultimately banking failure. Fisher was describing the natural response of banks to a widespread slump, and not the normal course of business in a sound money environment.

However, while swallowing Keynes’ and Fisher’s arguments central bankers are ignoring the law of the markets, commonly referred to as Say’s Law. It states that we make things to buy things so you cannot divorce consumption from production, and money is just the temporary lubricant for the process. Tinkering with monetary value solves nothing. This was the accepted wisdom before Keynes turned it on its head in the 1930s. Today governments and central banks think they can do better than markets by monetary intervention and state direction. The result is businesses that should fail are supported and uneconomic activities promoted. And when this support operation shows signs of collapsing, we are told it is deflation.

If the word has any meaning, it is nothing of the sort: markets are merely trying to embrace reality and cleanse themselves of the accumulated distortions. The fact that this cleansing process has been suspended, at least since the Reagan/Thatcher era of the early 1980s, warns us that the accumulation of distortions is great; so great that when they are corrected Irving Fisher’s warning about slumps will be proven to be correct.
The marker of course is the accumulation of debt, which strangles everything. My conclusion is that use of the term deflation is passing off the accumulating problems created by government and monetary interventions as the failure of markets.

Market volatility grinds to a halt

Alasdair Macleod – 13 June 2014

There is uneasiness across a number of markets with moment-to-moment volatility grinding almost to a halt. It contributes to a feeling that this is the calm before a storm. It is not unusual for there to be a summer lull, or for one market to suffer disinterest relative to another, but the current situation across the whole range of capital markets should be a major concern.

The monetary background is also unprecedented, with all western central banks having depressed interest rates to close to zero for a prolonged period, accompanied by massive injections of raw money. This has led to enormous amounts of liquidity bottled up in capital markets. Central banks have also directed how this liquidity is invested: this is what the Fed’s Operation Twist is about, raising long maturity bond prices relative to shorts. And the ECB’s “Securities Markets Programmes” and “Outright Monetary Transactions”, which have succeeded in driving risk premiums out of Eurozone government bonds.

Manipulating bond markets and driving perceptions of risk out of them is only the start of deliberate intervention. The belief in central banking circles is that rising stock markets foster the confidence that gets consumers spending again. Falling bond yields are seen as the motor that drives this process. And as interventions have become more widely understood and accepted, investors have complacently concluded markets are solidly underwritten.
Central banks also know that a rising gold price undermines confidence and so have taken action to keep it suppressed. We know this from the enormous flows of physical gold into Asia that can only have come from liquidation of monetary gold. So it’s bull up the good stuff and dumb down the bad.

Market distortions from interventions have been accumulating since the Lehman crisis in 2008, moving ever further away from the path of market reality. Inevitably, private sector investors add to these distortions by anticipating they will continue. Banks and investment funds feel safe investing in Spanish and Italian government bonds at ridiculously low yields knowing that the ECB must underwrite them. Similarly, so confident are investors in US stocks that they are borrowing to buy and have driven up total margin debt on the NYSE to a near record level of $437bn in April. And at the same time these confident investors have taken short sales of gold and silver to new levels.

Cracks in these market distortions are now becoming visible. Regulators are circling around the banks: first it was Libor, now it is forex and gold. The Fed is backing down on QE and China is trying to slow the pace of credit creation, while Japan and the Eurozone are still fighting economic collapse. It amounts to a reality-check for over-extended investors committed to making money out of on-going market intervention. No wonder volatility has slowed to a crawl, and diverse markets are on the point of stalling.

History tells us that attempts to manage markets usually result in crisis, and that time now appears horribly close. If so, the consequence will be a radical reassessment of bond risk, leading to widespread losses in the banking system and the rapid reversal of extended investment positions in a range of markets. Volatility will disrupt complacency and return with a vengeance.

Market positions for gold and silver

Alasdair Macleod – 09 June 2014

The purpose of this note is to draw attention to the extreme technical positions in the market for gold and silver. The information is derived from the weekly Commitment of Traders reports, and the monthly Bank Participation reports. It should be noted that while these are the most complete sets of market reports available they are essentially of hedging and speculative activity, which is not the same as physical demand. Nor do they cover other paper markets, some of which are growing in importance, such the Shanghai Gold Futures Exchange.

The background to these markets has been one of a shortage of physical stock, certainly from the beginning of 2013, if not before, due to escalating Asian demand. The end of the bull markets for precious metals occurred in late 2011 but there was no material liquidation of physical gold in the west until the concerted bear raid in April 2013. Since then ETF physical liquidation has been insufficient to meet growing Asian demand for physical gold, which has been met by central bank sales. The position in silver is more complex given the industrial demand component, but demand patterns for silver investment appear to have broadly coincided with gold.

There have been three bear raids on Comex since April 2013 which have occurred at six-monthly intervals, the first being a year ago today, followed by December, and the third is in progress. The bears appear to be timing their raids to coincide with end-quarter accounting periods, suggesting coordinated manipulation. The question arises as to whether or not the current raid will succeed.

Gold
The most important chart is of short positions in the Managed Money category. These are large speculative traders who are mostly hedge funds, high frequency traders and funds driven by algorithms. In essence they are trend-chasers which look to buy into rising markets and sell into falling markets.

MM Gold shorts 09062014

Note how volatile this measure has become since the hedge funds became convinced gold was in a bear market. In early 2013 insiders became aware a major bear raid was being planned and shorts went over 50,000 contracts for the first time. The first major peak over 75,000 contracts occurred in June 2013, when gold bottomed below $1200. The bears were subsequently squeezed before mounting another attack in early December, again driving gold below $1200. This time gold has held above $1240 and the conditions are in place for a third bear squeeze with shorts approaching the 75,000 contract level.

This chart is telling us is that the Managed Money category is building short positions into the end of the second quarter, expecting another end-quarter price drop, and for the price to move to new lows below $1200.

The other side of this speculative activity is taken by the banks and commercial hedging. The next chart is of US and foreign bank net positions.

Gold Bank Net Position 09062014

For the last three and a half years non-US banks have maintained an even net short position of 40,000 contracts. This one would expect, because market makers, which is effectively the role bullion banks take, normally run a short book. Before the market peak in September 2011 US banks (usually three or four in number) were badly squeezed by the bullish trend, reflected in the rapid expansion in demand for synthetic gold ETFs, until the price trend turned negative in 2012.

The price smash in April 2013 allowed US banks to actually go long futures, and they remain net long to this day (just). This indicates that the US banks are relatively neutral about market outcomes, while non-US banks are jobbing normally on the bear tack and short 32,818 contracts, the equivalent of about 100 tonnes of gold.

The next chart is of non-bank commercials. These are mines and scrap merchants hedging production and refiners and other commercial buyers hedging their estimated future demand.

NonBank Commercials Gold 09062014

The deeply short position in the run-up to late 2011 reflected hedging activity by the mines. Predictably they used improving margins over mining costs to lock in profits. Mines came under pressure from shareholders to reduce hedging, which they did until April 2013 when this chart went briefly positive. The price smash that month changed investor sentiment in western capital markets and mines began to hedge again and processers delayed purchases. However, as prices moved closer to cost-of-production, commercial hedging lessened to the point where non-bank commercials are now net long about 30 tonnes.

This is an unusual position in the futures market. It tells us there is no net primary supply at these prices, justifying the US banks maintaining a level-to-positive book. Non-US banks can see free-world mine supply of about 8 tonnes as a daily average, so their shorts are the equivalent of about two or three weeks of this supply.

Conclusion
We are heading for another bear squeeze which is potentially more violent than the previous two, because of the lack of counterbalancing liquidity from commercial hedges. It all depends on the US banks and whether they wish to go short again at these levels. They are not ignorant of the escalation in Asian demand and are unlikely to increase their shorts significantly. And with the London market coming under intense regulatory scrutiny and with the future of the daily fix in doubt, bullion banks are likely to be more cautious over taking aggressive positions.

Silver
Now let us look at silver, using the same market data. The shock comes with our first chart, which is of Managed Money short positions.

MM Silver Shorts 09062014

These trend-chasers have got themselves into a potential trap, with short positions totalling 214,020,000 ounces, equivalent to 25% of annual global mine output. Whether or not they can extricate themselves from this position will depend on the banks and commercial hedgers providing the liquidity for them to do so.

To some extent this extreme bear position has been balanced by an increase in Managed Money longs. These include synthetic ETFs so the net position is nearly always long: that is until the current bear raid which has turned this investor category net short 7,638 contracts. The impending run-off of the July contract will have an important effect in the next two weeks, with some 97,000 contracts to be closed or rolled.

Next we look at the net position of the banks taken from the Bank Participation Report.

Silver Bank net 09062014

The interesting feature in this chart is that the two or three US banks in this market have reduced their net short position to the lowest level of the last four years. Furthermore, non-US banks have reduced their net shorts to about 10,000 contracts. This suggests that as a group banks take the view silver is unlikely to go much lower in the medium term.

The next chart is of non-bank commercials.

NonBank Commercials Silver 09062014

With the banks stripped out, miners, refiners and industrial users have maintained a net long position since October 2012, when according to the CTFC, a commercial dealer with a large short position was reclassified as a bank. After taking account of this adjustment non-bank commercials have tended to run a balanced position, with industrial users currently buying forwards to a greater extent than mines hedging directly into the market.

Conclusion
The managed money silver shorts are far too large relative to offsetting liquidity from the banks and commercial users of the market. By definition they are more speculative than managed money longs, which have increased to a lesser degree. If we make the reasonable assumption that banks will take the opportunity to squeeze the managed money speculators, silver has the potential to move sharply higher very quickly. In which case, a bear squeeze in this relatively illiquid market could accelerate a corresponding bear squeeze in gold. However, the expiry of the July contract could make the precise timing unpredictable.

The first week in July, if not sooner, should see a significant recovery in gold and silver prices, based on the technical market position on Comex, and may well mark the point from which prices go considerably higher, given the extremes of negative sentiment in the managed money categories.