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Economic outlook darkens

Alasdair Macleod – 17 April 2014

Many decades of Keynesian-inspired economic and monetary corruption have left advanced economies with a legacy of debt and low savings. In a nutshell, that is the problem which is driving us into another financial crisis. That moment could be drawing upon us, signalled by the recent collapse in bond yields.

This nearly happened in 2008. It was bought off by an open-ended central bank guarantee of infinite quantities of cash and credit, initially by the Fed, rapidly followed by all the other major central banks. Six years later, monetary medicine is still being applied globally in unprecedented quantities. And in some countries bank credit has finally begun expanding more rapidly than before.

The counterpart to bank credit is debt, which is fuelling economic growth wherever it can be found. Even exports are on tick, with the ultimate buyers around the world also heavily dependent on credit. Indeed, the more one looks at the current business cycle, the more its current state resembles 2007-8 and 2000-01 before that.

Credit cycles unbacked by substance start like this: print some money to inflate asset prices. Collateral values then increase, stimulating bank lending. Borrowers buy property and stocks, increasing prices and spreading the feel-good factor. Now that personal balance sheets are “repaired”, they buy new cars, new holidays and second homes, all on tick. Welcome to this point in time: the accumulation of debt has stopped us from increasing demand any further. The progression of events from here varies but the end result is easily predicted: it runs out of steam and turns into a financial crisis.

So how do we get away from this depressing and predictable cycle of events? The answer is simple: stop relying on the expansion of money and credit. We have forgotten that before Keynes told us to borrow to spend, debt was only taken on by entrepreneurs and businesses for very specific purposes as a last and not a first resort, and certainly not for everyday consumption.

This was the reasoning behind Says Law, which states very simply that people produce things so that they can buy other things. Keynes replaced this logic with a different story: there’s no need to make things in order to spend, so long as the state ensures you have the money available.

Understanding Keynes’s mistake is the key to changing course away from repetitive cycles of economic destruction. Instead of printing money and encouraging borrowing, people should instead be encouraged to save. The truth of Say’s Law can then operate, with people only spending what they can truly afford. Instead cash-strapped governments are likely to increase taxes on savings when they should be dropping them altogether.

After six years of monetary and tax policies that could have not been better designed to destroy savings and the savings ethic, you’d think governments might have learned some sort of lesson. They are having none of it. Instead Japan is hell-bent on monetary kamikaze, and the ECB is now warming us up for negative interest rates and/or QE.

The problem is far from being understood: if anything the destruction, even confiscation of savings, and the creation of yet more money are set to accelerate in a futile attempt to buy off the inevitable. And bond yields are telling us to batten down the hatches for the next crisis: it could be worse than 2008.

Gold and bail-ins

Alasdair Macleod – 11 April 2014

I am often asked whether or not western governments are likely to confiscate gold, and my answer has invariably been on the lines of “unlikely at the moment, because so few people own gold”. However given low stock levels in western vaults and that bail-ins are on the agenda the answer to the question should be reconsidered.

I first wrote about the new bail-in provisions after the Cyprus debacle last year. What it means for depositors is succinctly summarised in a current UK Government consultative document on the subject:

“Bail-in involves shareholders of a failing institution being divested of their shares, and creditors of the institution having their claims cancelled or reduced to the extent necessary to restore the institution to financial viability. The shares can then be transferred to affected creditors, as appropriate, to provide compensation.”

On the face of it anyone with an unallocated gold account is at risk. In the past this risk has been dismissed, given that the Bank of England with or without the assistance of other central banks always bails out bullion banks in trouble. However, the ability of western central banks to bail out bullion banks in the future is compromised by the emptiness of their vaults, much of their gold being out on lease. Furthermore, because leased gold is still their legal property, they will have first call, leaving unallocated gold accounts with nothing.

This means that next time there is a market hiatus in gold bullion banks will probably be forced to renege on their gold obligations to customers, settling in currency-cash if they can. Since bullion banks are mostly divisions of larger commercial banks, a failure in the gold market is likely to spill over into a wider banking crisis, and it becomes a moot point whether the solution is bail-in, bail-out, or systemic collapse.

The truth is that western central banks have created a monster out of their long-term management of the gold price. For the last thirty years they have been leasing monetary gold in increasing quantities, all of which has disappeared into the anonymity of Asia. Bullion banks know from experience that every time they get into trouble they can expect to be rescued, a liability for central banks that can no longer be discharged with certainty. So where does that leave bank customers with allocated accounts, or gold such as ETF stocks held for them in custody?

In theory they should be completely ring-fenced. Allocated and custodial gold is clearly the property of customers. But it would be naïve to think that customers’ clearly identified gold is safe in the chaos of a widespread financial crisis. And then there is the well-established precedent that allows any government to seize its citizens’ property by declaring the action to be “in the national interest”. It is even written into European Human Rights legislation.

We normally go through life not worrying about these things, dismissing them as scare-mongering. But the disappearance of the west’s monetary gold into Asia, whichever way you look at it, makes the unimaginable seizure of privately-owned gold by the state considerably more likely.

Renewed estimates of Chinese gold demand

Alasdair Macleod – 04 April 2014

Geopolitical and market background

I have been revisiting estimates of the quantities of gold being absorbed by China, and yet again I have had to revise them upwards. Analysis of the detail discovered in historic information in the context of China’s gold strategy has allowed me for the first time to make reasonable estimates of vaulted gold, comprised of gold accounts at commercial banks, mine output and scrap. There is also compelling evidence mine output and scrap are being accumulated by the government in its own vaults, and not being delivered to satisfy public demand.

The impact of these revelations on estimates of total identified demand and the drain on bullion stocks from outside China is likely to be dramatic, but confirms what some of us have suspected but been unable to prove. Western analysts have always lagged in their understanding of Chinese demand and there is now evidence China is deliberately concealing the scale of it from us. Instead, China is happy to let us accept the lower estimates of western analysts, which by identifying gold demand from the retail end of the supply chain give significantly lower figures.

Before 2012 the Shanghai Gold Exchange was keen to advertise its ambitions to become a major gold trading hub. This is no longer the case. The last SGE Annual Report in English was for 2010, and the last Gold Market Report was for 2011. 2013 was a watershed year. Following the Cyprus debacle, western central banks, seemingly unaware of latent Chinese demand embarked on a policy of supplying large quantities of bullion to break the bull market and suppress the price. The resulting expansion in both global and Chinese demand was so rapid that analysts in western capital markets have been caught unawares.

I started following China’s gold strategy over two years ago and was more or less on my own, having been tipped off by a contact that the Chinese government had already accumulated large amounts of gold before actively promoting gold ownership for private individuals. I took the view that the Chinese government acted for good reasons and that it is a mistake to ignore their actions, particularly when gold is involved.

Since then, Koos Jansen of ingoldwetrust.ch has taken a specialised interest in the SGE and Hong Kong’s trade statistics, and his dedication to the issue has helped spread interest and knowledge in the subject. He has been particularly successful in broadcasting market statistics published in Chinese to a western audience, overcoming the lack of information available in English.

I believe that China is well on the way to having gained control of the international gold market, thanks to western central banks suppression of the gold price, which accelerated last year. The basic reasons behind China’s policy are entirely logical:

  • China knew at the outset that gold is the west’s weak spot, with actual monetary reserves massively overstated. For all I know their intelligence services may have had an accurate assessment of how much gold there is left in western vaults, and if they had not, their allies, the Russians, probably did. Representatives of the People’s Bank of China will have attended meetings at the Bank for International Settlements where these issues are presumably openly discussed by central bankers.
  • China has significant currency surpluses under US control. By controlling the gold market China can flip value from US Treasuries into gold as and when it wishes. This gives China ultimate financial leverage over the west if required.
  • By encouraging its population to invest in gold China reduces the need to acquire dollars to control the renminbi/dollar rate. Put another way, gold purchases by the public have helped absorb her trade surplus. Furthermore gold ownership insulates her middle classes from external currency instability which has become an increasing concern since the Lehman crisis.

For its geopolitical strategy to work China must accumulate large quantities of bullion. To this end China has encouraged mine production, making the country the largest producer in the world. It must also have control over the global market for physical gold, and by rapidly developing the SGE and its sister the Shanghai Gold Futures Exchange the groundwork has been completed. If western markets, starved of physical metal, are forced at a future date to declare force majeure when settlements fail, the SGE and SGFE will be in a position to become the world’s market for gold. Interestingly, Arab holders have recently been recasting some of their old gold holdings from the LBMA’s 400 ounce 995 standard into the Chinese one kilo 9999 standard, which insures them against this potential risk.

China appears in a few years to have achieved dominance of the physical gold market. Since January 2008 turnover on the SGE has increased from a quarterly average of 362 tonnes per month to 1,100 tonnes, and deliveries from 44 tonnes per month to 212 tonnes. It is noticeable how activity increased rapidly from April 2013, in the wake of the dramatic fall in the gold price. From January 2008, the SGE has delivered from its vaults into public hands a total of 6,776 tonnes. This is illustrated in the chart below.

SGE gold monthly (kg)

This is only part of the story, the part that is in the public domain. In addition there is gold imported through Hong Kong and fabricated for the Chinese retail market bypassing the SGE, changes of stock levels within the SGE’s network of vaults, the destination of domestic mine output and scrap, government purchases of gold in London and elsewhere, and purchases stored abroad by the wealthy. Furthermore the Chinese diaspora throughout South East Asia competes with China for global gold stocks, and its demand is in addition to that of China’s Mainland and Hong Kong.

The Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE)
The SGE, which is the government-owned and controlled gold exchange monopoly, runs a vaulting system with which westerners will be familiar. Gold in the vaults is fungible, but when it leaves the SGE’s vaults it is no longer so, and in order to re-enter them it is treated as scrap and recast. In 2011 there were 49 vaults in the SGE’s system, and bars and ingots are supplied to SGE specifications by a number of foreign and Chinese refiners. Besides commercial banks, SGE members include refiners, jewellery manufacturers, mines, and investment companies. The SGE’s 2010 Annual Report, the last published in English, states there were 25 commercial banks included in 163 members of the exchange, 6,751 institutional clients accounting for 81% of gold traded, and 1,778,500 clients of the commercial banks with gold accounts. The 2011 Gold Report, the most recent available, stated that the number of commercial bank members had increased to 29 with 2,353,600 clients, and given the rapid expansion of demand since, the number of gold account holders is likely to be considerably greater today.

About 75% of the SGE’s gold turnover is for forward settlement and the balance is for spot delivery. Standard bars are Au99.95 3 kilos (roughly 100 ounces), Au99.99 1 kilo, Au100g and Au50g. The institutional standard has become Au99.99 1 kilo bars, most of which are sourced from Swiss refiners, with the old Au99.95 standard less than 15% of turnover today compared with 65% five years ago. The smaller 100g and 50g bars are generally for retail demand and a very small proportion of the total traded. Public demand for smaller bars is satisfied mainly through branded products provided by commercial banks and other retail entities instead of from SGE-authorised refiners.

Overall volumes on the SGE are a tiny fraction of those recorded in London, and the market is relatively illiquid, so much so that opportunities for price arbitrage are often apparent rather than real. The obvious difference between the two markets is the large amounts of gold delivered to China’s public. This has fuelled the rapid growth of the Chinese market leading to a parallel increase in vaulted bullion stocks, which for 2013 is likely to have been substantial.

By way of contrast the LBMA is not a regulated market but is overseen by the Bank of England, while the SGE is both controlled and regulated by the People’s Bank of China. The PBOC is also a member of both its own exchange and of the LBMA, and deals actively in non-monetary gold. While the LBMA is at arm’s length from the BoE, the SGE is effectively a department of the PBOC. This allows the Chinese government to control the gold market for its own strategic objectives.

 

Quantifying demand

Identifiable demand is the sum of deliveries to the public withdrawn from SGE vaults, plus the residual gold left in Hong Kong, being the net balance between imports and exports. To this total must be added an estimate of changes in vaulted bullion stocks.

SGE gold deliveries
Gold deliveries from SGE vaults to the general public are listed both weekly and monthly in Chinese. The following chart shows how they have grown on a monthly basis.

SGE gold monthly (kg)

Growth in public demand for physical gold is a reflection of the increased wealth and savings of Chinese citizens, and also reflects advertising campaigns that have encouraged ordinary people to invest in gold. Advertising the attractions of gold investment is consistent with a deliberate government policy of absorbing as much gold as possible from western vaults, including those of central banks.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong provides import, export and re-export figures for gold. All gold is imported, exports refer to gold that has been materially altered in form, and re-exports are of gold transited more or less unaltered. Thus, exports refer mainly to jewellery which in China’s case is sold directly into the Mainland without going through the SGE, and re-exports refer to gold in bar form which we can assume is delivered to the SGE. Some imported gold remains on the island, and some is re-exported from China back to Hong Kong. This gold is either vaulted in Hong Kong or alternatively turned into jewellery and sold mostly to visitors from the Mainland buying tax-free gold.

The mainstream media has reported on the large quantities of gold flowing from Switzerland to Hong Kong, but this is only part of the story. In 2013, Hong Kong imported 916 tonnes from Switzerland, 190 tonnes from the US, 176 tonnes from Australia and 150 tonnes from South Africa as well as significant tonnages from eight other countries, including the UK. She also imported 337 tonnes from Mainland China and exported 211 tonnes of it back to China as fabricated gold.

Hong Kong is not the sole entry port for gold destined for the Mainland. The table below illustrates how Hong Kong’s gold trade with China has grown, and its purpose is to identify gold additional to that supplied via Hong Kong to the SGE. Included in the bottom line, but not separately itemised, is fabricated gold trade with China (both ways), as well as the balance of all imports and exports accruing to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong plus fabricated supplies

The bottom line, “Additional supply from HK” should be added to SGE deliveries and changes in SGE vaulted gold to create known demand for China and Hong Kong.

SGE vaulted gold
The increase in SGE vaulted gold in recent years can only be estimated. However, it was reported in earlier SGE Annual Reports to amount to 519.55 tonnes in 2008, 582.6 tonnes in 2009, and 841.8 tonnes in 2010. There have been no reported vault figures since.

The closest and most logical relationship for vaulted gold is with actual deliveries. After all, public demand is likely to be split between clients maintaining gold accounts at member banks, and clients taking physical possession. The ratios of delivered to vaulted gold were remarkably stable at 1.05, 1.03, and 0.99 for 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. On this basis it seems reasonable to assume that vaulted gold has continued to increase at approximately the same amount as delivered gold on a one-to-one basis. The estimated annual increase in vaulted gold is shown in the table below.

Vaulted gold

The benefits of vault storage, ranging from security from theft to the ability to use it as collateral, seem certain to encourage gold account holders to continue to accumulate vaulted metal rather than take personal possession.

Supply

Supply consists of scrap, domestically mined and imported gold

Scrap
Scrap is almost entirely gold bars, originally delivered from the SGE’s vaults into public hands, and subsequently sold and resubmitted for refining. Consequently scrap supplies tend to increase when gold can be profitably sold by individuals in a rising market, and they decrease on falling prices. There is very little old jewellery scrap and industrial recycling is not relatively significant. Official scrap figures are only available for 2009-2011: 244.5, 256.3 and 405.8 tonnes respectively. I shall therefore assume scrap supplies for 2012 at 430 tonnes and 2013 at 350 tonnes, reflecting gold price movements during those two years.

Scrap is refined entirely by Chinese refiners, and as stated in the discussion concerning mine supply below, the absence of SGE standard kilo bars in Hong Kong is strong evidence that they are withheld from circulation. It is therefore reasonable to assume that scrap should be regarded as vaulted, probably held separately on behalf of the government or its agencies.

Mine supply
China mines more gold than any other nation and it is generally assumed mine supply is sold through the SGE. That is what one would expect, and it is worth noting that a number of mines are members of the SGE and do indeed trade on it. They act as both buyers and sellers, which suggests they frequently use the market for hedging purposes, if nothing else.

Typically, a mine will produce doré which has to be assessed and paid for before it is forwarded to a refinery. Only when it is refined and cast into standard bars can gold be delivered to the market. Broadly, one of the following procedures between doré and the sale of gold bars will occur:

  • The refiner acts on commission from the mine, and the mine sells the finished product on the market. This is inefficient management of cash-flow, though footnotes in the accounts of some mine companies suggest this happens.
  • The refiner buys doré from the mine, refines it and sells it through the SGE. This is inefficient for the refiner, which has to find the capital to buy the doré.
  • A commercial bank, being a member of the SGE, finances the mine from doré to the sale of deliverable gold, paying the mine up-front. This is the way the global mining industry often works.
  • The government, which ultimately directs the mines, refiners and the SGE, buys the mine output at pre-agreed prices and may or may not put the transaction through the market.

I believe the government acquires all mine output, because it is consistent with the geopolitical strategy outlined at the beginning of this article. Furthermore, two of my contacts, one a Swiss refiner with facilities in Hong Kong and the other a vault operator in Hong Kong, tell me they have never seen a Chinese-refined one kilo bar. Admittedly, most one kilo bars in existence bear the stamp of Swiss and other foreign refiners, but nonetheless there must be over two million Chinese-refined kilo bars in existence. Either Chinese customs are completely successful in stopping all ex-vault Chinese-refined one kilo bars leaving the Mainland, or the government takes all domestically refined production for itself, with the exception perhaps of some 100 and 50 gram bars. Logic suggests the latter is true rather than the former.

Since the SGE is effectively a department of the PBOC, it must be at the government’s discretion if domestic mine production is put through the market by the PBOC. Whether or not Chinese mine supply is put through the market is impossible to establish from the available statistics, and is unimportant: no bars end up in circulation because they all remain vaulted. It is material however to the overall supply and demand picture, because global mine supply last year drops to about 2,490 tonnes assuming Chinese production is not available to the market.

Geopolitics suggests that China acquires most, if not all of its own mine and scrap production, which accumulates in the vaulting system. This throws the emphasis back on the figures for vaulted gold, which I have estimated at one-for-one with delivered gold due to gold account holder demand. To this estimate we should now add both Chinese scrap and mine supply. This would explain why vaulted gold is no longer reported, and it would underwrite my estimates of vaulted gold from 2011 onwards.

Further comments on vaulted gold
From the above it can be seen there are three elements to vaulted gold: gold held on behalf of accountholders with the commercial banks, scrap gold and mine supply. The absence of Chinese one kilo bars in circulation leads us to suppose scrap and mine supply accumulate, inflating SGE vault figures, but a moment’s reflection shows this is too simplistic. If it was included in total vaulted gold, then the quantity of gold held by accountholders with the commercial banks, as reported in 2009-11, would have fallen substantially to compensate. This cannot have been the case, as the number of accountholders increased substantially over the period, as did interest in gold investment.

Therefore, scrap and mined gold must be allocated into other vaults not included in the SGE network, and these vaults can only be under the control of the government. It will have been from these vaults that China’s sudden increase in monetary gold of 444 tonnes in the first quarter of 2009 was drawn, which explains why the total recorded in SGE vaults was obviously unaffected. So for the purpose of determining the quantity of vaulted gold, scrap and mined gold must be added to the gold recorded in SGE vaults.

Though it is beyond the scope of this analysis, the existence of government vaults not in the SGE network should be noted, and given cumulative mine production over the last thirty years, scrap supply and possibly other purchases of gold from abroad, the bullion stocks in these government vaults are likely to be very substantial.

Western gold flows to China

We are now in a position to estimate Chinese demand and supply factors in a global context. The result is summarised in the table below.

Global demand and supply

Chinese demand before 2013 had arrived at a plateau, admittedly higher than generally realised, before expanding dramatically following last April’s price drop. Taking the WGC’s figures for the Rest of the World gives us new global demand figures, which throw up a shortfall amounting to 9,461 tonnes since the Lehman crisis, satisfied from existing above-ground stocks.

This figure, though shocking to those unaware of these stock flows, could well be conservative, because we have only been able to address SGE deliveries, vaulted gold and Hong Kong net flows. Missing from our calculations is Chinese government purchases in London, demand from the ultra-rich not routed through the SGE, and gold held by Chinese nationals abroad. It is also likely that demand from the Chinese diaspora in SE Asia and Asian is also underestimated by western analysts.

There are assumptions in this analysis that should be clear to all. But if it only serves to expose the futility of attempts in western capital markets to manage the gold price, the exercise has been worthwhile. For much of 2013 commentators routinely stated that Asian demand was satisfied from ETF redemptions. But as can be seen, ETF sales totalling 881 tonnes covered only one quarter of the west’s shortfall against China, the rest coming mostly from central bank vaults. Anecdotal evidence from Switzerland is that the four major refiners have been working round-the-clock turning LBMA 400 ounce bars into one kilo 9999 bars for China. They are even working with gold bars that are battered and dusty, which suggests the west is not only digging into deep storage to satisfy Chinese demand at current prices, but digging a hole for itself as well.

Chinese shadow banking and commodities

Alasdair Macleod – 28th March 2014

The story that commodities are at the centre of China’s shadow banking system has gained prominence in recent weeks. No firm evidence has been presented to confirm the scale of these activities, bearing in mind China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) clamped down on these activities last May.

Various commodities, particularly copper but also gold, are allegedly being used as collateral for raising large amounts of cash. The original story concerned onshore leveraged borrowers, which was followed more recently by others implicating offshore investors. Put very simply, a commodity-financed deal requires an offshore bank to issue a letter of credit against physical commodity stocks either in transit or held in bonded warehouses, which can be cashed onshore into local currency. This currency is then invested for a significant yield pick-up over the cost of owning the commodity, and is cheaper than funding this carry trade with US dollars.

It cannot be denied that inventive minds will always find a way round government regulations, but it is unclear how we differentiate these trades from normal trade finance, which also requires letters of credit and similar banking arrangements. The thought that SAFE is not competent to regulate commodity-backed lending and is unaware of its scale is difficult to unquestioningly accept. The foreigners prepared to rashly risk their money in a commodity-financed carry trade are a mystery to rational thought.

Instead, we run into a forest of assumptions. The believers in this story cannot identify the changes in bonded stock levels to support their argument. However, the dubious quality of analysis is even more obvious when it comes to gold.

Use of gold for commodity-based financing has to overcome the Chinese authorities’ strict controls over the gold market. This is not to be confused with normal on-balance sheet facilities offered by the Shanghai Gold Exchange’s member banks. Western analysts often make the mistake of regarding gold simply as another commodity, but signalled by their actions the Chinese government obviously takes a different view. It has effectively cornered the global physical market and simply refuses to let gold leave the mainland, except for licenced jewellery manufacture in Hong Kong and very small amounts in personal possession. The market is tightly controlled through the People’s Bank of China, which in turn controls the SGE. The PBOC is extremely unlikely to tolerate the sort of activity claimed, and the licensees know it.

Exaggerating the scale of commodity-financed shadow banking in China supports a bearish stance, because unwinding these deals is expected by the authors of this story to release a flood of physical metal. Coinciding with China’s economic slowdown, it has already helped drive copper to four-year lows. For gold it has doubtless contributed to the recent fall in the price, favouring bullion banks unable to cover their physical commitments.

It may be too cynical to suggest that vested interests are behind the promotion of this commodity financing story, but the authors do seem to be ignoring the blindingly obvious. China’s copper stocks are backed by real demand and gold is firmly in the grip of the PBOC. China’s government and people value physical gold over superabundant fiat currencies and regard it as a hedge against economic uncertainty, not a victim of it.

Implications of the Ukrainian situation for gold

Alasdair Macleod – 21 March 2014

There is a fascinating story from Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor about his interview with Hank Paulson, who was the US treasury secretary at the time of the Lehman crisis. Paulson said that he was told by the Chinese that they had a message from the Russians suggesting they club together to drive down the prices of Fannie and Freddie “to maximise the turmoil on Wall Street”. The Chinese declined, but in doing so they made sure the Treasury was aware that China and Russia know that between them they have the power to break western capital markets.

This presents a problem for NATO’s geopolitical strategists, exposed by Russia’s unchallenged absorption of Crimea. Assuming military options are a non-starter, the West’s financial condition is too fragile to withstand an alternative financial war with the world’s largest energy exporter and eighth largest economy, let alone a combination of Russia and China working together.
America also has a problem in the Pacific containing China’s territorial ambitions, including attempted possession of the Senkaku Islands from Japan and the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. Unless America punishes Russia adequately for her take-over of Crimea, China may be encouraged to believe that the US is a push-over. At least, that is the worry in Washington.

This is why the US and also the UK would have gone much further than the more parochial EU in imposing sanctions against selected Russians and Ukrainians. The division of interests within NATO has allowed Putin to outmanoeuvre the west. He is now taking the steam out of the situation by stating he has no further plans with respect to other Ukrainian regions. However, this is not believed by the Ukrainian government and the West, nor indeed by the Russian people, who were given a more gung-ho message.

China’s position in this should not be neglected. As co-founder with Russia of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), China is bound to be on Russia’s side or at least to not oppose her, a point driven home by her abstention on a US-led resolution at the UN censuring Russia over Crimea. Only this morning, Putin publicly expressed his gratitude to China.

This means that the West is not just confronting Russia, but potentially China and the other SCO members as well. Russia’s relationship with the SCO brings with it the possibility of using gold as a weapon against the West, because most governments involved with the SCO have been actively buying gold while western central banks have been providing it. So far the SCO members have been content to accumulate the west’s gold on falling prices, being careful not to disrupt the market.

We cannot say the Ukrainian crisis is over. It is more than likely Putin will not be fully satisfied until there is a Russian-friendly government in Kiev. And if a senior Russian politician cares to have another conversation with China over maximising turmoil on Wall Street, driving up the gold price is the obvious financial weapon of choice.

The bursting of China’s credit bubble

Errata

In the article below despatched on Friday, I inadvertently gave the wrong quantity of gold as the equivalent of 5% of $3 trillion. The correct figure should be about 3,400 tonnes. The figure quoted is for the whole $3 trillion.

It should be noted, that given the lack of physical liquidity in western markets, this lower figure does not alter the basic argument.

I apologise for any inconvenience caused, and request that where the article has been reposted it be corrected accordingly.

Alasdair Macleod

16th March 2014

 

Alasdair Macleod – 14 March 2014

According to Garet Garrett in his book “A Bubble that Broke the World” Cheops employed 100,000 men for twenty years to build his great pyramid, “and all he had for 600,000,000 days of human labour was a frozen asset.” Cheops’s distortion of the Nilotic economy was nothing compared with the economy warped by the Chinese government today, which has overseen the construction of empty cities, unused airports, carless highways and bridges to nowhere.

A notable difference between ancient Egypt and modern China is the ability to direct economic activity through the use of credit. The result today is a far larger scale of economically useless projects than the pharaohs could possibly entertain. Government-directed bank lending in China has financed misallocated economic resources to an extraordinary degree, artificially inflating the economy and leaving a legacy of useless property and infrastructure assets, incapable of generating income to service the debt incurred.

The delusion is only sustained for as long as increasing quantities of money and credit are available to insolvent borrowers. That is now ending, because China’s government is trying to restrict credit growth, which is impossible to do without setting off wide-spread debt liquidation. Instead of managing a hoped-for retreat towards order, tighter monetary conditions will almost certainly bankrupt owners of unproductive property assets, piling up bad debts at lending banks. Unlike the Lehman crisis, this time the major banks are government-owned, so China’s currency is at considerable risk, and it is already displaying initial weakness.

There can hardly be a stronger signal that China’s credit bubble is on the edge. Furthermore, China has more than its fair share of financial entrepreneurs who have devised myriad ways to use assets to raise money many times over. In the Chinese version of shadow banking, an asset such as a few thousand tonnes of copper in conjunction with letters of credit is used to raise cash over and over again to spend on property speculation and elsewhere. All sorts of shady deals, some of them downright fraudulent, can be expected to come unstuck, and China seems set to provide an extreme example of this empirical truth.

China’s rich have an estimated equivalent of $3 trillion in personal assets to protect from a credit and currency maelstrom. Inevitably this will lead to huge shifts in asset allocation, and gold bullion is likely to be the outstanding beneficiary. In common with all other Asians the Chinese regard gold as true money, a safe-haven from government currency. And only five per cent of $3 trillion at current prices is 68,000 tonnes of gold, which gives an idea of how dramatic the effect of even a small flight to gold would have on the price.

This is likely to catch Western capital markets on the hop, given the common misconception that gold is little more than a demonetarised commodity. With a credit crisis appearing to be developing in China, this view could face its ultimate test at a time when the West is systemically short of physical gold and silver, and its institutions even short of paper gold as well.
Today’s troubles over Ukraine can come and go, but for gold China is the bigger story by far. So much so, that this could turn out to be a very bad time to own claims on gold instead of physical gold itself.

Elevating markets: A signal of reviving bank lending?

Alasdair Macleod – 07th March 2014

Earlier this week Bill Gross who runs Pimco’s bond fund made a conditional case for investing in high-yielding bonds, even though on first cut the yield benefit appears insufficient to justify the extra risk. Put bluntly, he suggests that investing in bonds issued by insolvent Eurozone governments or second-rank corporate borrowers could be profitable.

Mr Gross is following some other smart and usually sceptical fund managers in appearing to throw in the towel against persistently low bond yields and equity markets that defy gravity. He is unlikely to take this stance without good reasons.

One reason could be value judgements hardly matter in this market. Investors have always bought into mutual funds on the basis that a fund manager will run their money better than they can themselves. By passing their bucks as it were to a professional, investors seem to think they are eliminating investment risk. However, they often confuse the risk that comes from a lack of their own investment skills with the price risk in the markets.

This is why mutual funds are in a tricky position when fundamentals do not support an investment case and the money keeps flowing in. And it is not just bond funds: the chart below shows the S&P 500 index, which since the dot-com bubble burst has entertained us with some pretty wild swings.

S&P 500 monthly

It should be obvious to the man in the street that things are not as good as a near tripling of the S&P since the Lehman Crisis would suggest. Yet his savings still go into stocks and bonds, irrespective of price. And as Mr Gross writes in his newsletter, it all depends on confidence in policymakers and the effectiveness of their policies.

This is a second reason. The fact that fund managers depend on policymakers to not to drop the ball is the same as saying free markets are a myth. Capital markets are no longer where buyers and sellers meet to buy and sell things based on perceptions of value; instead it is all about trends and trusting the Fed.

Asset classes from bonds to fine art are rising, underwritten by zero interest rates. The underlying bubble is the biggest and deliberately synchronised bubble in history, of currency itself. The rate at which it inflates does not appear to be slowing, despite the Fed’s tapering. Otherwise markets would be stalling. Instead the Fed’s tapering programme must be being offset by something like a pick-up in bank lending. If so, then all classes of investment assets can continue to rise in price and the party goes on. Indeed, if the Fed continues to taper, we can take it as a reasonable indication that growth in bank lending is fully compensating.

There is of course a significant danger that a bank credit revival will lead to price inflation before long, but that has always been tomorrow’s problem. There are also huge risks involved with surfing on a credit wave, not least knowing when to get off. For these reasons, the very experienced and well-informed Mr Gross is wise to heavily qualify his new-found optimism.

Gold in 2013: the foundation for 2014

Alasdair Macleod – 28 February 2014

The chronological events of 2013 set the background for gold in 2014. It was a momentous year which should ensure a rise in the gold price in 2014.

Before 2013 demand for physical ETFs was high. At the same time Asian demand, from China, India, Turkey and elsewhere, was accelerating leaving Western bullion markets increasingly short of physical liquidity. Hong Kong and China between them in 2012 had absorbed on official figures 1,458 tonnes, and India a further 988 tonnes, ensuring 2013 kicked off with more global demand than available supply from mines and scrap.

The following is a list of subsequent important developments in 2013.

  1. Germany’s Bundesbank announced in January that it would recall 300 tonnes of its gold stored at the New York Fed by 2020. The Bundesbank was criticised for this decision, since gold held in New York amounted to 1,536 tonnes, so why take seven years to repatriate less than 20% of it? In the event by the year-end only five tonnes had been repatriated, fuelling rumours that it didn’t actually exist other than as a book entry.
  2. The Cyprus bail-in debacle in February alerted everyone to the new bail-in procedures being adopted by all G20 member states. Wealthy depositors in the Eurozone suddenly realised their deposits were at risk of confiscation. Governments were no longer going to bail out large euro depositors, let alone those with bullion accounts.
  3. The new bail-in regime was followed by ABN-AMRO and Rabobank’s refusal to deliver physical gold to their account-holders, offering currency settlement instead. Many interpreted this as evidence of long-term holders attempting to withdraw physical bullion.
  4. By end-March it was becoming clear that growing demand for physical bullion was a potential systemic problem. This was followed in April by a co-ordinated attack on the gold price to persuade the investing public that gold was in a bear market.
  5. The result was liquidation by weak holders in ETF gold funds. However, lower prices also triggered unprecedented physical demand, particularly from China and India but also across the whole Asian continent. Gold coin sales broke records. None of this escalating demand appears to have been expected by Western central banks, which by elimination had to be the principal source of maintained liquidity.
  6. In July I discovered that in the four months following its 28th February year-end the Bank of England appeared to have delivered up to 1,300 tonnes of gold from its vaults. This amount tied in with record Asian demand in the wake of the April price drop, far greater than can have been satisfied from other known sources such as ETF liquidation.
  7. The new Governor at the Reserve Band of India, Raghuram Rajan, who was once the IMF’s Chief Economist, introduced restrictions on India’s gold imports blaming them for the trade deficit. This overturned official policies which led to the liberation of the gold market in the early 1990s, fuelling suspicions that this move was orchestrated by Western central banks.
  8. Premiums in India rocketed and smuggling escalated to meet demand.
  9. Ben Bernanke in his testimony to Congress in mid-July said “No one really understands gold prices, and I don’t either.” Was he admitting to a policy failure over gold management?
  10. In October both the Swedish and Finnish central banks announced the location of their gold reserves. Additionally, the Finnish central bank’s Head of Communications added further information in Finnish in a blog run on the Bank’s website, to the effect that all 25 tonnes held at the Bank of England was “invested” (i.e. leased or swapped), and that “Gold investment activities are common for central banks”. This appears to be an admission that significant amounts of monetary gold have been sold into the market. Question: How do they get it back, when Asian demand alone absorbs the equivalent of all global mine and scrap supply?
  11. Chinese public demand through the Shanghai Gold Exchange and Hong Kong rose to 2,668 tonnes over the whole year. Add in 50 tonnes of coin, and it amounts to 2,718 tonnes in all. We know this because these are firm figures issued by the SGE and the Hong Kong Government, not the result of surveys, aiming to identify end-users.
  12. We can assume that China’s own mine production of 430 tonnes is not in these figures, on the basis that the government buys all domestic mine production and is unlikely to put gold production from mines it controls through commercial brokers on the SGE. This being the case, Chinese mine production should be added to total demand figures, raising the total to 3,148 tonnes. Furthermore available statistics do not include gold bought outside China by the Government and wealthy citizens and either imported or held in vaults abroad, so we can probably regard this figure as a minimum, even though the SGE deliveries includes scrap of a few hundred tonnes.
  13. Meanwhile the China Gold Association reports gold “consumed” of 1100 tonnes, and the WGC reports identified Chinese demand of 1,066 tonnes. These are the figures commonly accepted by Western analysts as total demand.

 

In conclusion

The events of 2013 persuaded investors in western capital markets that gold’s bull market had definitely been broken, and that gold would probably go lower or at best move sideways in 2014. The underlying reality is very different, with China in particular managing to corner the physical market with trend-following Western analysts caught unawares.

So far, instead of continuing to fall the gold price actually bottomed on 31 December at $1182, and since then has rallied over 13% to $1340. The position today is that some hedge funds which were short have closed their positions and there are more yet to do so. There is growing evidence for the trend-chasers that the price is entering a new bull phase, with the 50-day and the 200-day moving averages both rising and about to complete a golden cross.

Central banks appear to be facing a problem of their own making. The lesson from Germany’s attempt to repatriate her gold appears to have provided prima face evidence that central banks have little or no physical liquidity left. Minor central banks, such as Finland’s, must now be wondering if gold out on lease will ever be returned to them, so may be increasingly reluctant to make their gold available for further leasing. Instead they are likely to end current leasing agreements as they mature rather than extend them.

In 2014 there is likely to be a growing realisation that the vaults in the West are very low on stock.

2014 should be an interesting year.

All currencies are an inverse pyramid based on the dollar

Alasdair Macleod – 21st February 2014

When US money supply measured by M2 stood at $11 trillion in December 2013, I calculate that total broad money of the next largest 50 countries ranked by GDP amounted to the equivalent of a further US$67 trillion at current exchange rates. And that’s only on-balance sheet: we must add in global shadow banking, estimated by the Financial Stability Board to have been an extra $67 trillion in 2011, probably about $75 trillion today, given its recent rapid growth in China. So when we look at US broad money supply, we should be aware there is a further mountain of money thirteen times as big ultimately based on the dollar.

As long as bank lending, industrial investment and consumption are all expanding, the sun smiles. It’s when it stops that problems arise, and why markets reacted badly to the idea of tapering and are increasingly nervous about China’s credit bubble and attempts to rein it in.

More specifically the danger arises from a slow-down and possible reversal of cross-border investment, particularly with emerging economies. Between 2000 and 2007 investment from advanced economies into emerging markets grew at an annual compound rate of about 18%, and between 2008 and 2011 it slowed to about 5% (McKinsey, 2013). The beneficiaries of this investment, global financial assets (all equities, bonds and loans) averaged growth of only 1.9% annually in dollar terms between 2007 and 2011. If we could measure it today the overall return would probably be a big fat zero.

So whatever analysis of individual countries might tell us, it has been easy to miss the threat of a deepening global recession, a risk increased by diminishing cross-border flows. What a time for the Fed and the Peoples Bank of China to decide to reduce the rate of monetary expansion for the two largest economies! These actions are too late to achieve the hoped-for orderly exit from excessive monetary expansion.

If cross-border investment flows reverse, as they are now threatening to do, banks and multinational businesses will run for cover and the carry-trade will rapidly unwind. And when fear of losses finally triumphs over greed for profits the weaker currencies are usually the first to suffer.

The relationship between these currencies and the dollar is now being tested in the markets. Eventually, of course, the Fed will have to resume unlimited monetary expansion to buy off a global economic and financial crisis. In doing so it will probably take comfort in the precedent set when dealing with Lehman. We cannot be so certain of the effects of China’s future monetary policy, other than knowing that in troubled times Chinese citizens turn to gold, along with all the other Asian peoples acutely aware of gold’s ability to store wealth through difficult times.

The last crisis was just the banks. This time we are looking at a potential popping of a full-blown global currency bubble, which was generated as the solution to the last crisis. And this new bubble is all supported on an inflated US monetary base of $3.8 trillion. That’s bubbly gearing of nearly 40 times, or 163 times the monetary base on the eve of the Lehman crisis.

China’s gold demand

Alasdair Macleod – 14th February 2014

The China Gold Association this week released estimates for China’s “gold consumption” for 2013 at 1,176 tonnes. Furthermore the CGA reported China’s own gold production at 428 tonnes.

The CGA’s figures were significantly less than recorded imports into China from Hong Kong. Instead, on my analysis, the CGA figures do not represent total demand, but presumably only that portion reported to it by its members at the retail level. The purpose of this article is to set the record straight.

There are very few figures coming out of China that you can rely upon, and this is particularly true of gold imports. Instead, you have to take what is available and apply a judicious mix of logic and deduction. Mainland China does not publish imports and exports. The only figures for gold supplied to the Chinese public are of gold delivered through the Shanghai Gold Exchange and out of their registered vaults, which for 2013 totalled 2,197 tonnes. Most of this I have reason to believe is imported, only some of which is through Hong Kong. And to think that gold is only imported through Hong Kong is a mistake.

Hong Kong releases import, export and re-export statistics monthly. Exports are goods and raw materials processed locally, and re-exports are imported materials and goods subsequently exported unaltered, such as gold bars to SGE specifications.

The table below shows my calculations for total Chinese and Hong Kong demand.

Identifiable gold demand for China and Hong Kong - 2013

All gold that changes hands in China is meant to go through the SGE. However, mine output is thought to be bought up by the government, most probably directly from the mines bypassing the SGE. All circumstantial evidence including government policy towards physical gold tells us this is true. And it is naïve to think a communist government – any government for that matter – would route gold from mines it controls through the market, whatever the market “rules” are.

The SGE has a network of registered vaults. The definition of deliveries applies to gold withdrawn from the vaulting system, which is why deliveries equate to public demand. This is not to be confused with gold delivered between SGE member firms and kept within the vaulting system.

Bars withdrawn from SGE-registered vaults and subsequently sold back into the market are recast into new bars and are classed as scrap. At current prices, this supply is likely to have diminished from over four hundred tonnes annually to perhaps two or three hundred tonnes in 2013.

So of the 2,197 tonne total, assuming all mine supply bypasses the market into government hands and scrap is a few hundred tonnes, we can conclude that roughly 2,000 tonnes is imported into China’s Mainland, only some of which comes from Hong Kong.

 

Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s exports of 211 tonnes to China are fabricated gold not destined for the SGE (see the table above). In addition there are 1,284 tonnes of re-exports, which we can assume are bars for onward delivery to the SGE so are included in the SGE delivery total. Hong Kong also imports gold from China (337 tonnes), most of which is sold as jewellery to Chinese visitors from the mainland avoiding Chinese sales taxes. Hong Kong also acts as a regional hub, exporting and re-exporting gold to Taiwan, Thailand, India etc., which in 2013 amounted to 54 and 93 tonnes respectively.

Total demand in China and Hong Kong adjusted for these factors is therefore the bottom-line figure of 2,668 tonnes. This does not include gold imported directly through Mainland China and gold not sold through the SGE. Furthermore, ultra-rich Chinese can buy gold outside China and there is no way this additional demand can be estimated. Nor can we estimate any gold bought in London and elsewhere by the Chinese government.

Lastly, these figures do not include the net 48.5 tonnes of gold coin imported into China via Hong Kong, which if included takes known gold demand up to 2,716.5 tonnes. This is easily more than double the Chinese Gold Association figure for “gold consumption”.

While we cannot pin down gold imports precisely, the monopoly market for physical gold in China allows us to accurately define public demand on the mainland. Together with Hong Kong trade figures we get a far more accurate picture than that given by any other means. It should be noted that even this approach misses the activities of the government itself and of the very rich able to bypass the system.

It is a pity this is not more widely appreciated by analysts in Western capital markets.