Gold and Monetary Thoughts

The latest RBI working paper invites public comments on the topic “Gold Prices and Financial Stability in India“. The paper notes the recent sharp rise in international old prices; examines inter-linkages between desi and international gold prices and finally brings out the emperical observation that the implication of a correction in gold prices on the Indian financial markets is likely to be muted. I also picked up this interesting chart from the paper which compares the real and nominal prices of gold right from 1971. Interesting to note that the precious metal has never “really” breached the USD800/ounce mark, though it came very close to challenging that limit, during 1979/80 and 2011. The nominal price high has been ~$1,900 which came in Nov’11.

Shiploads worth of unaccounted wealth has always kept the demand for gold very high in India, making even someone like John Maynard Keynes liken our desi fixation for it as a ‘ruinous love of a barbaric relic‘. The paper notes this pre-historic Indian yearing for gold but then it makes a point which I don’t quite follow: the authors (of the paper) measure some important macro-economic parameters and restate them in gold terms; and observe that the value of these indicators has actually fallen in gold terms and therefore they conclude that gold must not be in ‘bubble territory’. Duh. Anyways, the paper also notes the fact that the really devastating asset bubbles are the ones that take the banking sector down with it – the dot-com bust has certainly caused lesser damage than the sub-prime crisis. I read up on some literature on the internet on this notion of complicity of the banking sector in global recessions and noted the events that have lead us to today’s line of monetary thinking:

By the 1830s, in England, it was generally believed that the mere legal requirement that the liabilities of the banking system (i.e. public deposits) be convertible to gold on demand was not sufficient to prevent various economic crises. So, in 1844 they introduced the Bank Charter Act which established a currency board – based on gold – to eliminate the banking system’s ability to create fluctuations in money supply. Between prices and money supply, it was firmly believed that prices were the effect and the supply of money was the cause. However, economic crises continued to persist in England in 1847, 1853 and 1865. The prime reason cited for these crises was that the framers of economic policy had not paid much attention to the role of bank deposits in the monetary system.

So, as a result of this, by the 1870s, monetary thinking brought in the concept of the Bank of England being the ‘lender of last resort’ . Gold convertibility was never in question and though financial crises did occur in England from time to time, none involved bank failures. The British experience was well known to observers in the US, where crises involving bank failures were a regular feature of the financial landscape until 1914 – this provided an important impetus for the founding of the Federal Reserve System and there onwards to the following 4 phases:

1. Classical Gold Standard (1880 – 1914): Governments accorded the highest priority to maintaining fixed prices of their currencies in terms of gold.

2. Interwar Gold Exchange Standard (1925 – 39): The techniques developed during the era of convertibility under the gold standard proved insufficient when the need of the hour was to ensure and provide domestic macro stability – ultimately resulting in the Great Depression. Countries cared little about their ‘neighbours’ and freely debased their currencies in order to make exports more attractive in order to grab a slice of the post war economy rebuilding opportunities.

3. The Bretton Woods International Monetary System (1944 – 71): Post WWII, ex Allied nations favoured a regulated system of fixed exchage rates, indirectly disciplined by the USD, which in turn was pegged to gold. All agreed on the need for tight controls. ‘Beggar thy neighbour’ no more. 

4. Managed Float (current): The great inflation of the 70s made policy makers re-emphasize the goal of low inflation and to commit themselves to convertibility-rule like behaviour. USA broke away from the Bretton Wood fetters and freed up the USD from the gold overhang. USD thus became a fully fiat currency.

So the cycle continues and gold (in real terms) has again risen to levels that it earlier saw during the runaway inflation levels of the 70s. Gold has always been central to monetary thinking – even in its divorce from monetary planning in recent times, the need for gold is as important as before – by proxy. When a currency becomes fiat – it derives its value from it’s issuer country’s regulations and policies. The modern economic policy of low inflation and mindless credit expansion has all but effectively debased these fiat currencies (USD and EURO). Therefore, the growing interest (and price increase) in gold under the hope that the current regime of managed float will end and we will move back to the era of tighter monetary regulations backed by gold. According to me, if that happens then fluctuations in the price of gold will most certainly impact prices and financial stability. The probability of occurrence of that happening anytime soon is incomprehensible to me. You need an expert to opine on that – but I’d just say that the world revolves around the USD – fiat or not.

The banking sector has very much been in the eye of the storm during the current economic crisis and therefore no one would play blind on a bet that gold may not breach the $900 psychological mark…

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Bling, Bling – But For How Long?

The Glitter of Gold

Does Bappi Lahiri have a golden voice? Well! Thats subjective, but to me he is the golden stud, many times over. He had once walked past me in the Oberoi Mall (Mumbai) during the promos of the film, Chandni Chowk to China and even then the Au aura that emanated from him, piercing the reverential envelope of fans that surrounded him was striking. Bappi da (as he is known to Bollywood) has a penchant for gold. And boy, has be been spot on. I am sure he must be having kilos of the metal and what a climb his portfolio must’ve made during the past 10 years. I can’t wait for the film, Bappida Tusi Great Ho to get released. It’s said that the secret of his attraction for gold will finally get revealed through the film! I don’t care whether his golden sheen works on the silver screen but I think he has delivered a fitting reply to the numerous mocking references that people have made for his affinity for gold. And an awesome investing lesson for many of us. And I have a confession to make: I like listening to Bappi music in my car- esp. the variety from my younger days. But I wonder why did he say,

Yaar bina chain kahaan re. Yaar bina chain kahaan re. Sona nahi, chandi nahi, yaar to mila. Arre pyaar kar le.
[trans: Where’s peace of mind if you are loveless? x2. No gold, no silver, but at least I found love. Let’s love.]

Bappi da has enjoyed a much steeper climb than someone who would’ve been long the NIFTY during the past 10 years. The graph alongside shows the relative performance of Gold vs. the NIFTY over the past 10 years or so. The price of 10 grams of Gold was around 4,000 rupees at the start of the millennium and it is close to 19,000 rupees now. In contrast, 4,000 ‘gold currenncy units’ invested in the representative sample of the Indian economy that is the NIFTY would have fetched you just 6,000 gcus today. I don’t mean XAU when I say gcu – the latter is just a hypothetical contruct to indicate what would happen if metal became our currency and not some signed bill of paper. At one point in time (7Jan’08) it looked as if equities would cross over and start performing better than Gold. That was not to be and the NIFTY turned south from that point in time with the relative performance gap widening from that point till today. I had purchased some Gold (coins) some 4 years back (partly by design since my equity holding had risen quite a bit) and thankfully I have not unwound that trade. Actually I have the tax laws to thank since long term capital gains set in for direct Gold investments only after a holding period of 3 years.

I also took out the index data for the Dow & the NIFTY and restated the two data sets in equivalent gold weight in local currency terms. While the chart above puts out quite a glum picture for the NIFTY if seen through a golden lens, the Dow droop is even more depressing. What the chart alonside tells us is that if one would have done a 10 year swap between the index and gold, he would receive 79% less of gold (by weight) in the US as compared to a drop of 29% in India. The inflection point for the NIFTY stated in gold occurred during the second half of 2003. Differential economic growths and currency movements took the lime green line far away only to come crashing down at the start of 2008.

Indians are known to be voracious consumers of gold. Global gold analyts make it a point to understand a bit about the Indian marriage season and track it expectedly. I did spend a fleeting moment of sympathy on parents of girls of marriageable age. These guys must be getting squeezed tight unless of course, they had the foresight of Bappi da. While the assorted gaggle of relatives and opinion makers that mill around the circuses that are Indian marriages might have knowingly shifted their discussions to the value of the gold lining our marriages (as opposed to the weight), I have a suspicion that Indian mothers-in-law still regard their daughters-in-law by the weight of the gold that the latter brings into the coop. Any suggestions, on how I can get our mothers-in-law-in-waiting to read my site?

Since it’s highly unlikely that you are a prospective mother-in-law, the question that may be on your mind would be: Wither gold? Well, I dont know! But I think that it will continue to climb for some more years to come. People have started looking at gold as an investment option now. The front covers of investment magazines have started displaying the golden glow quite frequently these days. I am sure you must have noticed an increase in the number of ads selling gold backed loans, etc. Since Indians have historically stuffed a lot of gold in bank lockers, under their mattresses, on their noses, etc, it’s a good opportunity for Indians to monetise it for income producing opportunities. I personally cannot relate to gold as an investment theme. While I have added some more gold (in ETF form now) after that past investment of mine, it is largely as a hedge. If you look at the first chart above, the metal (yellow line) has climbed almost on a linear basis. But the chart spans 10 years which is less than the time that I’ve been around investing in the markets. So my sense of patience is not adequate here. In any case, gold does not produce any income – there are no dividends to be had from gold. The utility and power of equity dividends itself is not understood by many, though I do feel that the attention to dividends would be more in the developed economies as compared to India since the yields are low. Perhaps an investigation into this might be a theme of a future post but here what I can say is that the moment the price of gold departs from it’s linear trend and starts to climb at a rate depending on the square of time, then it will be the best time to get out. Parabolas cannot sustain their weight. They need continuous energy to feed it and since equities cannot keep grovelling forever to droop below their book values, there will come a day when gold will sink down. I don’t have the data set, but there are quite a few charts on the internet that depict the 200 year movement of gold (see above). And that will be the day when our statistically challenged mothers-in-law will be happier welcoming more heavily laden daughters-in-law into their fold. Till such time, enjoy the ride.

The Bond Bubble

The bubbling stories going around this week in the financial blogosphere have mostly centered on the heady climb of US treasuries. In fact the topic has been quite hot the past month but the din is getting louder now. Comparisions with the dot com bubble and the housing bubble have started doing the rounds. The yield on the 10 year US paper is currently around 1% now. Which means that if you freeze the frame today, it will take a hundred years for the interest component to add up and match the price you pay for such bonds today. The P/Es (inverse of yield) of the no-brick and no-mortar tech companies were also in the heady hundreds during 1999-00. I don’t have too much of a view since it’s all happening outside of our shores. The Small Investor writes about it here as also the links I’ve listed below: it’s important enough for us to pay attention since we have NOT decoupled ourselves from the west. It’s actually the FII money that’s driving up our local markets here. Hot money.

  • FT Alphaville on the conundrum that equity prices and bond price are now moving in step. i.e. UP!

Logically, I’d guess that the bond market is bigger, more liquid and less amenable to manipulation. So, if the bonds and the stocks are sending out conflicting messages, should one not trust the former?

However, are bond markets better predictors of the economy? I think not: since nominal GDP growth and interest rates are both driven by inflation. Correlation is NOT causality. It’s a mistake many make – if two lines A & B move in tandem, that does not necessarily mean that A and B have a causal relationship. There could be a third factor C which is driving both A & B. So, bond prices are ↑; equity markets are ↑; economic data (US) is ↔. Thats the confusion. 

  • A website called bond-bubble (what else!) has come up and the graph on it’s homepage is quite telling.

It shows the super steep rise of US public debt – almost a parabolic rise. To me this looks similar to the rise of the Chinese stock market. That looked parabolic as well ( y = 4 * A * x↑2) and it could not defy gravity. But can US debt come crashing down? Maybe – if the currency crashes.

  • That seems to be awesome news for the gold bugs! It makes the case that the bursting of the bond bubble will pave the way for a massive upsurge in gold prices. The article notes that the yellow metal shines brightest in three situations – “heightened economical/financial risk; outright inflation and/or deflation”. And therein makes the case for a coming Gold bubble! Marc Faber,  (who keeps telling people to buy gold) has been bearish on treasuries right through the start of April but no one seems to be listening.

 TULIP SOUTH SEA RAILROAD ROARING TWENTIES → POSEIDON → JAPAN → DOT COM → HOUSING → BOND → IS IT GOLD NOW? 

This is making people like me (the “half informed”) even more nervous now. Ignorance is bliss – part knowledge is most painful. Anyways, the local markets are frothing on all the money that’s coming in from the US. The Fed there is busy buying up treasuries and sloshing money in their system (to buy the bonds, the Fed has to release money by paying whoever is holding bonds). They’re doing it by working their printing presses overtime spooking inflation. But I guess the game with inflation is that if you whack it too much too fast, the thing just snaps and the party careens towards deflation. I wish I had paid more attention during my economics classes. But to me it sounds logical that what comes in, goes out. So, this money will go back from where it came (at least in the interim). And all will fall down.

Though there is some more ground for the NIFTY to cover. That’s what the “experts” here are saying. The market isn’t fully stoned yet. It’s just started rolling the weed, maybe a few drags….let’s stop hallucinating. In 2008 so many of our local “experts” were shouting out that India is decoupled and that the housing bubble will not effect us. Even politicians had joined the chorous. De-coupled my moon. We are as joined to the US hip as our big bro in the vicinity.

Maybe I’ll be able to call the top.

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