Crazy days for moneyFeb 11, 2021·Alasdair Macleod
This article anticipates the end of the fiat currency regime and argues why its replacement can only be gold and silver, most likely in the form of fiat money turned into gold substitutes.
It explains why the current fashion for cryptocurrencies, led by bitcoin, are unsuited as future mediums of exchange, and why unsuppressed bitcoin has responded more immediately to the current situation than gold. Furthermore, the US authorities are likely to suppress the bitcoin movement because it is a threat to the dollar and monetary policy.
This article explains why growth in GDP represents growth in the quantity of money and is not representative of activity in the underlying economy. The authorities’ monetary response to the current economic situation is ill-informed, based on a misunderstanding of what GDP represents.
The common belief in the fund management community that rising interest rates are bad for gold exposes a lack of understanding about the consequences of monetary inflation on relative time preferences. Rising interest rates will be with us shortly, and they will burst the bond bubble with negative consequences for all financial assets and the currencies that have inflated them.
In short, we are sitting on a monetary powder-keg, the danger of which is barely understood by policy makers and which could explode at any time.
We have entered a period the likes of which we have never seen before. The collapse of the dollar and dollar assets is growing increasingly certain by the day. The money-printing of the dollar designed to inflate assets will end up destroying the dollar. We know this thanks to the John Law precedent three hundred years ago. I last wrote about this two weeks ago, here. In 1720, it was just France and Law’s livre. Admittedly, the British had their South Sea bubble at about the same time, but it was the Mississippi bubble which proved that if you print money to puff up asset prices, you end up destroying the currency when the bubble bursts. The Bank of England didn’t make that mistake, but today led by the Fed that is precisely what most central banks are doing. John Law has become global.
And then there’s the European Union and its Eurozone. Last week I explained how the TARGET2 settlement system has become thoroughly corrupted by the bad debts throughout the Eurozone, and that the commercial banks have become horribly over-geared and vulnerable to the slightest knocks. That article is here. There can be little doubt that when this systemic corruption is exposed, the ECB and the euro will be finished. Timescale? Who knows — but it could be any day. Just one day. Any time from now, most likely at the same time as the dollar collapses because both events will likely be driven by higher interest rates. And those who are unprepared for it will lose everything.
The speed at which rigged markets unravel can be extremely rapid. Many of us will remember the end of the Berlin Wall. For seventy years, the Soviets suppressed markets, killing dissenters in their tens of millions. On 9 November 1989 if you tried to escape from East Berlin to the West, you were shot. The next day you were free to cross it. The end of communist suppression of markets took just one day.
The equivalent today is when ordinary people no longer accept suppressed markets. It could be triggered by foreigners, suddenly realising they are badly exposed. It could be Europeans, suddenly deciding to take their money out of the banks in somewhere not that significant, such as Greece.
The dollar and the euro share a dangerous characteristic. The Fed and the ECB are printing dollars and euros respectively in massive quantities to finance government deficits which have spiralled out of control. To facilitate this inflationary financing, they have suppressed interest rates and mispriced government debt. Only one thing can happen. Interest rates, which reflect the time preference of money, must rise to compensate holders and users of money for loss of purchasing power. Governments cannot suppress markets for ever — ask the Soviets.
This danger is gradually dawning on the masses. Commodity prices are now rising while tranches of money are being helicoptered into every adult American’s bank account. They will spend much of it when there are not enough goods to match the demand.
Ephemera such as bitcoin and ether have rocketed in price, surely reflecting the debasement of the dollar and other fiat currencies, to the extent that even the financially illiterate now know why they are rising. Small investors, acting as if they are the new professionals, are taking on the new patsies — hedge fund managers who still think they are masters of the Universe. The reversal of roles is nothing short of astonishing, nor is there any sign of ending.
Of one thing we can be certain, and that is after a century of increasing intervention and inflation by the Fed, including fifty years of no gold backing for the dollar at all, it is time for the financial iron curtain to be breeched. The EU and The US between them represent nearly 40% of global GDP. No other country can survive a combined blow-up of these two entities, and we can be certain that when one falls, they both fail and so do we all.
History tells us that when governments lose control of their money, that markets, being the collective expression of human activity, return to sound money chosen by the people as their medium of exchange. And that has always been metallic money — gold, silver and copper.
Fiat interest rate rises will be unstoppable
Interest rates are bound to rise, reflecting a fall in fiat currencies’ purchasing power. But investors share a common misconception that rising interest are bearish for gold and silver. They point out that the higher the interest rate on fiat currencies, or on investments such as government bonds, the greater the opportunity cost of owning physical metal — which they say pays no interest. The comparison is not valid, because possession of physical gold is the equivalent of physical fiat cash, neither of which pay interest. But gold can be loaned or leased for interest, in the same way as any fiat currency.
The interest rate obtained is determined by the same factors, but the originary rate, that is to say the rate shorn of lending risk factors, is different. This refers to time-preference, the preference of immediate ownership to possession at a future point in time. Since the comparison is between actual possession and the promise of possession in the future, the future value of any form of money is naturally valued at a discount to its current value, and conventionally this is reflected in its originary interest rate.
If a central bank issues additional fiat, a rational holder will assume its purchasing power in future will be less than that of the present. The element of time preference in favour of current possession will increase, reflected in the expectation of a lower future value for the currency, and therefore a higher originary rate of interest to compensate. In a free market, this element of interest rates is marginally set between lenders and borrowers. Similarly, a rate of time preference for gold is decided in free markets. The takeaway is that time preferences for gold and fiat money are independent of each other.
Now let us assume that a central bank embarks on a policy of inflating its fiat currency by a considerable quantity. We can see that this will radically affect perceptions of future purchasing power, leading to materially higher interest rates. But that is resisted by the central bank, which increases its intervention in financial markets to ensure that interest rates remain suppressed. Part of that suppression is to claim that monetary policies will not lead to rising prices. In other words, to a loss of the currency’s purchasing power.
The suppression of the evidence of the consequences of monetary inflation for the purchasing power of currencies describes the current situation, not just for the dollar, but for all other fiat currencies to varying degrees. Now that monetary inflation has been accelerated to new levels, interest rate suppression cannot continue for much longer, because without the recognition of time preference a fiat currency becomes rejected in favour of goods and commodities, which can be expected to retain their value better than the currency. This is why the increase in the quantities of fiat currency is already leading to widespread increases in commodity prices.
When economic actors begin to experience the loss of the currency’s purchasing power, the flight out of fiat money can only be stopped by the central bank realising it must permit interest rates to properly reflect time preference. But with the financing of its government’s deficit in mind the central bank is under pressure to restrain interest rate rises. Meanwhile, the time preference for gold will remain relatively stable, and gold becomes increasingly preferred to fiat so long as interest rates underrepresent fiat’s time preference. This is why in the inflationary 1970s, the gold price started the decade with a price of $35 and a Fed funds rate of 9.25%, and ended the decade at a peak of $850, while the FFR rose to nearly 20%, in contradiction of the erroneous belief that rising interest rates are bad for the gold price.
There are two ways to stop the gold price rising relative to fiat. The obvious one is to stop expanding its quantity in circulation, which will decrease the time preference between current and future ownership of the currency. This is always resisted by neo-Keynesian inflationists. The alternative, deployed by Paul Volcker in 1980—81, is to raise interest rates above the rate of the currency’s time preference to persuade holders to sell gold for fiat.
Clearly, the conditions exist for interest rates to rise significantly, given the current degree of monetary inflation, which is arguably now entering hyperinflationary spirals for the dollar and other fiat currencies. This should not put off ownership of metallic money: indeed, it should encourage it.
Metallic money is universal
The objects in the illustration below were recovered from the Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo, dating from the sixth century, the excavation of which is the subject of a recent Netflix film, The Dig.
After 1400 years, these gold artifacts are as good as the day they were created and illustrate the artistic skills of the people at that time. Gold has always been prized for its durability and ability to be worked into aesthetically valuable items, which are also the qualities required of a widely accepted form of money.
According to Ludwig von Mises’ regression theorem, money takes its utility from our experience of it, which in turn was based on its utility from the past. This way, gold’s use as a medium of exchange can be traced back to its use-value before it was used as money, and this link is obvious from the gold jewellery and iconography predating the end of barter. It continued into paper money and bank balances in the days when they represented gold substitutes and were freely exchangeable into gold coins.
The introduction of exchange restrictions for gold turned paper money into fiat currencies, backed by nothing other than faith in the issuer. But we still regress to our previous experience of its utility when it was backed by gold. That is, we accept it until the state so obviously abuses its role as guardian of everyone’s means of exchange that we abandon it.
Fiat money is destroyed by its creator
We know, or should know, that modern nation states have been increasingly abusing the privilege of being the people’s guardian of circulating currency since the ending of the era of sound money. That was brought about by the First World War, after which all major nations expanded the quantity of their monies, even under the cover of a gold standard. Some notable European currencies collapsed.
Under the leadership of Benjamin Strong, the Fed along with the commercial banks began to stimulate the US economy in the early 1920s, leading to the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent depression. Inflationists blamed the depression on the gold standard, leading to its replacement over time by purely fiat dollars. For America, and therefore for the rest of us, the important dates were the banning of gold ownership by executive order in 1933 ending convertibility for the American people, and the ending of the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1971, terminating dollar convertibility for the rest of the world’s monetary agents.
These measures were driven by excess government spending on priorities the public would not support with increased taxes. Not only was the solution to abandon the discipline of freely convertible gold, but to work up theories to do away with it. While inflationists were encouraged by governments to give credence to their inflationary policies even before Keynes invented macroeconomics in 1936, his new creed transformed monetary inflation from a recognised evil into a purposeful policy. Governments were now justified in expanding the quantity of money to manage the economy. And the consequence was inevitable: the debasement of fiat currencies has increased over time. Figure 1 shows the effect on the purchasing power relationship between gold and the dollar from the ending of the Bretton Woods Agreement.
Other than the Japanese yen, the other major currencies illustrated have lost over 98% of their purchasing power, measured in gold: it is the peoples’ money being compared with that of their governments. [Before the introduction of the euro, the gold/euro rate is calculated on the basis of its constituents]
Official statistics tell a different story, particularly following the steadying of fiat currencies after the loss of purchasing power in the 1970s. Governments promised to link rising prices to a range of welfare payments and began to issue index-linked bonds, instead of reverting to sound money. It was only a matter of a year or two before it was realised that the cost of inflation compensation would restrict governments from their preferred spending priorities, so the answer was to amend the statistics. Consequently, after subsequent amendments, in recent years the US consumer price index has increased at a heavily subdued rate, most recently 1.4% in 2020, while independent analysts using different methods compute a rate closer to 10%, which they say has varied little since 2010.
Indications of official price inflation now mislead not just the pubic, but policy makers in governments as well.
Pursuing policy errors to destruction
Adjustments to GDP by any measure of price inflation is simply baloney. If it is accepted that the CPI deflator is valid, then using properly constructed independent price indices must be equally valid. Applying the same statistical method, deflation of GDP by 10% annually, which is closer to the price inflation estimates of independent American analysts, would be equally valid. But that would have us believe that in real terms GDP has more than halved over the last eight years, and that over longer periods of time GDP would diminish to insignificance. This is obviously untrue, and therefore deflating GDP by an understated CPI must also be nonsense. Further commentary is therefore warranted to improve our understanding of what GDP actually represents.
Monetary expansion does not increase the quantity of goods and services, but by adding to the GDP total it simply increases prices. Central to this understanding is Say’s law, discarded by the Keynesians because it inconveniently disproves Keynesian macroeconomics. Say’s law states that we produce in order to consume, and money is just the intermediary good that permits us to do so. If the money quantity is varied by factors exogenous to economic activity, such as printed by the state or by varying outstanding bank credit, apart from transitory effects it cannot change the volumes of goods and services produced and consumed. It can only change the prices at which the production is converted into consumption. For this reason, GDP does not measure economic activity, nor do additional quantities of money and credit represent economic growth.
It therefore follows that if you adjust GDP by taking out the growth in money and credit, excepting actual recessions of production you should end up with a straight line approximately at zero. In other words, it is not production and consumption that has changed, but subtracting increases in money supply is the only valid deflator. This conclusion is tested and empirically established in Figure 2.
It confirms our thesis that the increase in broad money supply is the single source of GDP growth. This is illustrated more clearly by the green line representing changes in the difference, which until 2019 oscillated tightly around zero. Any significant deviation, such as in 2009, is a genuine contraction in economic activity, which occurred in the wake of the Lehman crisis.
2020 shows that adjusted for the extraordinary increase in M3, economic activity declined much more sharply than following the Lehman crisis of 2008. It shows the economy is in more serious trouble than indicated by GDP alone, because of the offset of monetary expansion. But because the Fed, and every other central bank for that matter does not accept the truth revealed to them by Say’s law, they are basing their monetary policy on dangerous misconceptions. Deflating the GDP number by any price inflation statistic is one critical error, and to confuse growth in the GDP number with genuine economic progress is another.
But by depressing the CPI statistic the Fed has created for itself the temporary leeway to print money at an accelerated rate in order to drive the GDP statistic higher. It amounts to a policy that is rapidly ruining the economy through the wealth transfers arising from monetary debasement — but that is neither recorded nor considered. The consequence will be the hastening of the end of the dollar as a fiat currency. And von Mises’ regression theorem tells us that when the era of fiat money is finally over, the only medium of exchange we can return to is metallic, however long that transition may take.
The relative supply argument, whereby bitcoin has its supply capped at 21 million coins, posits that as we approach the final figure it gets progressively more difficult go issue bitcoin, with over 19 million already existing. This compares with government currencies whose supply is growing rapidly, a point that is widely understood in financial circles and even in sections of the general public. A simple comparison between bitcoin and fiat invites an assumption that bitcoin is a new form of money, with its supporters jumping to the conclusion that it will replace gold as the alternative to fiat, and eventually fiat itself. That central banks are busy inventing their own central bank digital currencies is also seen by enthusiasts to give credibility to the wider crypto concept.
For a cryptocurrency like bitcoin to be accepted as money it must be freely available for transactions and desired to be used as money by ordinary people — and not just the technologically savvy millennials. But if the supposed new money is increasing in purchasing power ad infinitum because of its lack of new supply, who in their right minds will part with it for goods? Who will regard it as the objective value in their transactions? Who will borrow bitcoin to invest in production, when the cost of repaying the principal will guarantee a loss on the project? And how would a bitcoin bond market operate?
Fans of bitcoin as tomorrow’s money are ignoring the characteristics required of a useable form of sound money. All the questions raised in the previous paragraph must be answered positively. But if it is to become the new money, the post-fiat world will be plunged into a permanent depression. By way of contrast gold is sufficiently flexible to operate as money, and furthermore we have a legacy to point to of spectacular economic progress under a gold standard through the nineteenth century until the outbreak of the First World War.
Not only does gold provide satisfactory answers to all those questions in the penultimate paragraph, but most central banks possess some physical gold, but as far as we are aware none have bitcoin. They are also busy inventing their own digital currencies, but they are just fiat by another name. Far from embracing the cryptocurrency concept, it is in the interest of central banks to quash distributed ledger competitors to state-issued currencies.
When fiat currencies fail, the only option will be for them to turn distributed fiat into gold substitutes. For failure to do so will mean that governments will be unable to pay any of their costs, including politicians’ salaries.
Meanwhile, cryptocurrencies are on a tear. The success of bitcoin threatens to be seen as an embarrassing rival to the dollar by the Fed and US Treasury, and now that the Biden administration is getting to grips with the business of government it will be surprising if Ms Yellen, the new Treasury Secretary, doesn’t address the issue soon.
Interestingly, those supposed masters of the universe who recently lost out so spectacularly to Robinhood’s private punters are now making the sort of price forecasts for bitcoin that in previous equity bull markets were made by bellhops, liftboys and taxi drivers, reliably marking the top of the market: 1929 refers. Crazy times indeed!
Why is gold not reflecting hyperinflation of the dollar?
One reason bitcoin hodlers see bitcoin becoming the new money is the gold prices’ muted response to increasing monetary debasement, compared with that of bitcoin. It is also argued that when investors would previously hedge fiat debasement by buying gold, they are now buying bitcoin.
There may be some truth in the deflection of buying from gold into bitcoin. But the argument fails when it is realised that the vast majority of buyers of bitcoin anticipate selling for a profit in the buyers’ base currency. The similarity is not with physical gold, but with investing in mines, ETFs and paper gold.
The real reason for gold’s underperformance is the establishment’s long-established antipathy towards it, something that should serve as a warning to hodlers of bitcoin. To regard gold as sound money is to turn one’s back to Keynesian macroeconomics, something the US Government, with its interest of promoting and retaining dollar hegemony has actively discouraged. In order to absorb demand for physical gold it has fostered the growth of paper markets, which can be expanded by the bullion banks at will. This policy goes beyond precious metals and includes base metals and other industrial raw materials as well, allowing the dollar to retain a more stable value measured against them than would otherwise be the case.
Consequently, bullion banks take the short side in the futures market, hedging long positions in London’s forward market. But today, the physical liquidity in London has virtually disappeared, replaced with unallocated gold, amounting to gold claims on the bullion banks. Other than the drip feed of mining supplies and scrap metal, the principal supply of physical is from leasing by the central banks which store gold in the Bank of England’s vault. But in these overtly inflationary times, it is likely that central banks will place greater emphasis on having their gold reserves both earmarked and unencumbered.
The precariousness of the situation was revealed in January 2020, when the bullion bank cohort made a determined effort to collapse open interest on Comex futures from a record 799,541 contracts on 15 January 2020. They succeeded, bringing open interest down to 469,893 contracts in early June. But while they managed to reduce open interest, they failed to reduce the monetary value of their short position. Figure 3 shows the distribution of Comex gold contracts of 100 ounces each and the changes between the Commitment of Traders figures on 15 January 2020 and the most recent position today.
Before we examine the statistics in Figure 3 it will be helpful to those unfamiliar with the Comex futures market to offer some explanation. They are presented to show the positions of non-speculators, defined in two categories: Swaps, which represent the bullion banks trading desks, and Producers and Merchants, which are mines, refiners and processors.
The speculators are Managed Money, mostly hedge funds and algorithmic traders, Other Reportable, being those who do not fit in the other categories, and Non-Reported who are traders small enough to be non-reportable.
The non-speculator’s net position always balances those of the speculators, and the tables in Figure 3 reflect it, and looking at the changes between two dates can impart valuable information. In addition, we should know that on 14 January 2020 the gold price closed at $1546, and on 2 February this year it closed at $1837. Despite the Swaps success in reducing open interest overall and reducing their net shorts by 14,849 contracts, their net exposure measured on dollars has actually increased from $32.261bn to $35.61bn.
Analysts have traditionally regarded this gold contract as a tussle between the Managed Money category and the Swaps, with the hedge funds taking the long side. When they are very long, reflecting a preference for gold over dollars, they have proved vulnerable to bear raids by the Swaps, who know the stop loss positions and can actively trigger them. Furthermore, very few hedge funds are interested in delivery of physical metal, which makes them vulnerable to pressure to close their positions as contract expiry nears.
So successful have these manoeuvres by the Swaps been in the past that what happens to the gold price is secondary to the level of hedge fund bullish exposure. The history of it is illustrated in Figure 4.
The correlation is directional, with rises and falls in the Manged Money net position rising and falling with the gold price. This is because bullion banks control the market. When the hedge funds are long, they are forced to sell into a falling market, driving the price lower which allows the Swaps to cover their short positions profitably. And when they have recovered their shorts, they allow the price to run up, encouraging the hedge funds to go long again so that this highly profitable exercise can be repeated. The hedge funds are cast as the useful idiots and they have fallen for it every time. That is until recently.
The table in Figure 3 above shows a remarkable change. Between January 2020 and today, the hedge funds have reduced their proportion of the total speculator’s position from 60% to 37%. This is all the more remarkable, because their net longs have fallen by 142,681 contracts. Instead, the Other Reported category has increased its share of the total from 26% to 47%, amounting to an increase in their net longs of 80,572 contracts. It is this Comex category which has been increasing its net longs and standing for physical delivery at contract expiry. This is a headache for the Swaps, because in the past they were only occasionally required to deliver physical metal. The problem now is that the Other Reported category is hoovering up scarce bullion which the bullion banks don’t have. They are not the useful idiots with which the Swaps have become accustomed.
With this information can now deduce why the price of gold has not reflected the change in monetary inflation from March 2020 as much as it might have, when the Fed cut its funds rate to zero and began an accelerated quantitative easing of $120 every month. The bullion banks have failed in their attempt to cut their short positions. Instead, they have become desperate to sit on the price for fear of greater losses. But with hedge fund participation diminished, their only hope is to somehow shake out the Other Reported longs. Their attempts to do so have repeatedly failed and are likely to continue to do so. Figure 5 shows how the Other Reported net longs have kept on climbing since mid-2018, during the time hedge funds have collectively given up.
It is only a matter of limited time before the Swaps’ dangerous position leads to a run against them, and perhaps silver will become the catalyst.
Silver turns the screw on the paper system
Flushed with their success from causing losses to the hedge funds careless enough to short illiquid stocks, two weeks ago Robinhood’s traders turned their attention to silver, and more specifically the SLV ETF as a means of squeezing the bullion banks. Between 28 January and the small hours of 1 February Eastern Standard Time, they forced the price of silver up $4.75 dollars to a high of $30.10. At the same time, gold rose $36, platinum rose $64, and even the oil price began to rise, with WTI going from under $52 to $58 currently. Perhaps not all of this can be attributed to Robinhood traders, but they certainly upset the applecart.
The SLV’s authorised participants (those licenced by SLV to submit physical metal and in return have shares created) have been forced to find over 2,850 tonnes of silver to deliver to the custodian, JPMorgan London. According to Ronan Manly of Bullionstar, total ETF silver holdings in London are 28,649 tonnes, over 85% of all vaulted silver in the LBMA’s bailiwick.[i] With much of the rest held in custody for other parties, there is virtually no liquidity, nor, so far as we can gather is there any liquidity in Switzerland either.
What the Robinhood crowd appears to have done is to alert the world to the shortage of silver. As a catalyst, they might even succeed where the Hunt brothers failed to corner the market in 1980. Initially, the bullion banks managed to slam the paper price back to $26 last Thursday, since which silver appears to be resuming its climb.
This inversion whereby a crowd of small investors can threaten to destabilise markets is yet further evidence of the fragility of markets.
Summary and conclusion
Physical gold and silver bullion are the only protection available against the ending of fiat currencies. By the following reasons we can summarise why they should be hoarded by individuals to protect themselves from the end of fiat money.
- A collapse in the dollar’s purchasing power together with its Fed-inflated financial asset bubble, and of the euro as a consequence of thoroughly corrupted settlement and banking systems are increasingly difficult to defer.
- Other central banks around the world are accelerating the destruction of their fiat currencies by accelerating their money supplies. Furthermore, their reserves are overwhelmingly comprised of dollars and euros, which are increasingly likely to turn out to be valueless.
- Il-founded macroeconomic beliefs have led to increasing levels of misguided monetary policies. Central bankers do not understand the difference between GDP and economic progress, and government statisticians supress evidence of price inflation to justify inflationist policies.
- The true scale of the damage being caused by monetary policies is becoming understood by the public, reflected in the flight into bitcoin. A collapse of fiat currencies will not come as a total surprise.
- The belief that bitcoin is the post-fiat future money does not take into account the requirements of a functioning medium of exchange. It is not suited to the challenge, and it will be increasingly seen by governments as the enemy of their fiat currencies.
- The gold price has been suppressed, originally as a matter of monetary policy so as to not expose the consequences of inflationism, but today because the futures and forwards markets have run out of physical liquidity to back them. They are acting like a dam holding back the floodwaters. That dam could burst at any moment.
- And when that dam bursts, it will be part of a wider problem involving the bursting of bond bubbles and the collapse of the world’s fiat currency regime. The sheer scale of the financial change presents a worrying parallel to the fall of the Soviet system in its potential suddenness.
The only protection is to hoard physical sound money, vaulted outside the banking system. Price is immaterial. Those who have no physical gold or silver are unlikely to have the opportunity to correct their error.
[i] See https://www.bullionstar.com/blogs/ronan-manly/houston-we-have-a-problem-85-of-silver-in-london-already-held-by-etfs/ This goes at the end of every post (Updates, Analysis, Insights)
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