Gold Imports Surge: Are People Hedging the Risk of Another Demonetisation by Converting Black Money into Gold?

gold

The impact of demonetisation has played out in many ways. Here is one more way: The gold imports between April and July 2017 have been nearly 2.7 times the gold imports during the same period last year.

Let’s take a look at Figure 1 which plots gold imports (in Kgs) over the last few financial years.

Figure 1: 

It is clear from Figure 1 that the gold imports have jumped up big time between April to July 2017, in comparison to last year. In fact, they are the second highest in the last five years. Take a look at Figure 2. Figure 2 plots the money spent on importing gold over the last five years.

Figure 2: 

Even in value terms significantly more gold has been imported this year than last year. The price of gold during the period April to July 2017, averaged at $1257.9 per ounce (one troy ounce equals 31.1 grams). During the same period last year, the price of gold had averaged at $1291.3 per ounce, which was slightly higher.

How do things look if we look at the calendar year instead of the financial year? Between January and July 2017, the total amount of gold imported stands at 6, 61,836 kgs. Between January and July 2016, this had stood at 3,11,938kgs. There is a clear jump in this case as well. In fact, the interesting thing is that the import of gold has been concentrated during the first five months of the calendar year, immediately after demonetisation.

What does this tell us? When and why do people actually buy gold?

The history of economics tells us that people buy gold when the faith in official paper money (in this case the Indian rupee) is low. Take the case of the period between April to July 2013. A lot of gold was bought during this period. The rate of consumer price inflation was at 9-10 per cent. Given this, a section of the population had lost faith in the Indian rupee and was hedging against inflation and buying gold.

What is happening this time around? This time around Indians are buying gold because in the aftermath of demonetisation which was carried out in November 2016, there is a feeling that the government might do it again. Given this, a portion of the black money which was held in the form of cash earlier, is now simply being converted into gold. This seems like the most logical explanation for this surge. The lower price argument doesn’t really hold because prices this year have been more or less similar to prices last year.

Of course, gold is easy to store and has never gone out of fashion. Hence, it can easily be converted into cash at any point of time.

In 2013-2014, people had lost confidence in paper money because of extremely high inflation. This time around, people have lost faith in paper money because of demonetisation. Hence, they are buying gold.

As Indians bought gold in 2013-2014 and a lot of it (close to 4,20,000 kgs, during the first four months of that financial year, as Figure 1 suggests), the demand for dollars went up. India imports almost all of the gold that it consumes. Hence, it buys gold internationally in dollars. As the demand for dollars went up, importers sold rupees and bought dollars. In the process, the rupee lost value rapidly against the dollar.

In April 2013, one dollar was worth Rs 54.23. By August 2013, it was worth Rs 67.4. The rupee simply crashed during the period. It is worth asking here that why a similar situation does not prevail right now. Why hasn’t the rupee crashed like it did when people bought lots of gold between April and July 2013?

This is because while Indians are buying gold, a lot of dollars continue to come to India through the foreign institutional investors route. These investors continue to invest in the Indian stock market and the debt market. Between April and July 2017, the foreign institutional investors have invested a little over Rs 95,000 crore in the stock and the debt market. The foreign institutional investors sell dollars and buy rupees in order to invest in the stock and the debt market. This demand for the Indian rupee has ensured that the dollar has remained stable against the rupee at around Rs 64. Hence, the demand for rupees among these investors is negating the demand for dollars among gold importers. This has led to a stable value of the rupee against the dollar.

What had happened between April and July 2013? While, the demand for gold was very high, the foreign institutional investors were selling out of India. During the period, they encashed close to Rs 27,000 crore from the stock and the debt market. In fact, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and debt worth over Rs 60,000 crore between June and July 2013.

In order to repatriate this money abroad, they had to sell these rupees and buy dollars. This along with heavy gold buying, which was accompanied by selling of rupees and buying of dollars, pushed up the demand for the dollar, and drove down the value of the rupee.

This essentially explains why the value of the rupee had crashed in 2013-2014, and has remained stable during this financial year. Nevertheless, people are buying gold because their faith in the Indian rupee has gone down and they clearly want to hedge against the risk of another round of demonetisation.

(The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 19, 2017).

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The United States is Helping China Buy Gold

gold

In June 2015, China declared having bought 604.34 tonnes of gold. It’s last declaration before this had come in April 2009, when it had declared to having bought 454 tonnes of gold.

It couldn’t have bought such a huge amount of gold all at once given the limited supply of the yellow metal. Between April 2009 and June 2015, China regularly bought gold. It only declared it all at once in June 2015. The country had followed a similar strategy before April 2009, as well. It had last declared having bought 99.5 tonnes of gold in December 2002.

Hence, even though China has been buying gold all along, it has chosen to do so quietly, instead of going public with it. The reason for this was fairly straightforward. Gold is a thinly traded commodity, and hence, it makes sense for China to keep accumulating gold at a slow and regular pace, without making its intentions public and driving up the price.

Having said that since June 2015, there has been a change in strategy. Between July 2015 and February 2016 (the latest data that is available) the country has been making monthly declarations of the purchases it has been making.

These purchases vary from a minimum of 9.95 tonnes in February 2016 to a maximum of 20.84 tonnes in November 2016. Officially, China now has 1,788.4 tonnes of gold. It is the sixth largest gold owner in the world.

 

Tonnes % of reserves**
1 United States 8,133.5 75.3%
2 Germany 3,381.0 69.0%
3 IMF 2,814.0  
4 Italy 2,451.8 68.3%
5 France 2,435.6 63.2%
6 China 1,788.4 2.2%
7 Russia 1,447.0 15.1%
8 Switzerland 1,040.0 6.8%
9 Japan 765.2 2.4%
10 Netherlands 612.5 59.4%
11 India 557.7 6.2%

Source: www.gold.org

While in absolute terms 1,788.4 tonnes of gold sounds quite a lot, when it comes to gold as a percentage of reserves, the country still needs to catch up with other countries. As can be seen from the above table, China’s gold hoard as a percentage of its reserves is the lowest among the top eleven hoarders of gold.

While officially China may have 1,788.4 tonnes of gold, experts who are in the know of such things, suggest, that China has more gold than it is currently showing.

As James Rickards writes in The New Case for Gold: “The most interesting case is China…We know from various reliable sources including mining production and import statistics that their actual gold stock is close to 4000 tonnes. I’ve spoken to refineries and secure logistics firms—people who actually handle physical gold—in addition to official sources, and included their information in my estimates. On the whole, there is enough credible information available to support this estimate at a minimum. It is also entirely possible that China has considerably more than 4000 tonnes.”

So what this means is that the Chinese government’s real gold hoard is at least 2.2 times its official one.

In fact, Rickards in his book The Death of Money explains how China has gone about accumulating gold over the years. The country buys gold through secret agents based out of London. These agents are known to be very disciplined, and they buy gold whenever the gold price falls significantly. The gold these agents buy is paid for by the State Administration for Foreign Exchange (SAFE), one of China’s sovereign wealth funds.

The gold bought by SAFE is later transferred to the People’s Bank of China, the Chinese central bank. China also buys gold from mines directly. During April to June 2013, when the price of gold had reached a low of $1,200 per ounce, the country bought 600 tonnes of gold directly from Australia’s Perth Mint.

Also, China is now the largest producer of gold in the world. The disadvantage with China’s gold production is that it does not really have any big gold mines and a lot of gold that it produces comes as a by-product in the mining of other base metals. The Chinese government buys gold from the mines within China but does not report these buys. These reasons also explain why China’s gold hoard is actually significantly bigger than what it is telling the world.

In fact, China’s gold hoard maybe more than 4000 tonnes because Rickards seems to have made this estimate in July 2015, when China’s official gold hoard was at 1,658 tonnes. Since then, the number has officially risen to 1,788.4 tonnes.

The question is why is China buying gold? As Rickards explains in The New Case for Gold: “China’s acquisition of more than three thousand tonnes of gold in the past seven years represents almost 10 percent of all the official gold in the world…China is trying to acquire enough gold so that when the international monetary collapse comes and the world has to recut the deal, China will have a prime seat at the table. Countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, with small gold-to-GDP ratios will be seated away from the table.”

Currently, the global financial system revolves around the dollar. Given that so much of it has been printed (or rather created digitally) in the last few years, there is the threat of the current financial system collapsing due to high inflation.

When the time for the new financial system comes around, China wants to be in the driver’s seat along with the United States, Germany and Russia, countries which have a significant amount of gold.

It needs to be mentioned here that China owns a significant amount of US treasury securities. These are bonds issued by the US government to finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends. As of end February 2016, China owned $1.25 trillion of the total $6 trillion worth of treasury securities owned by foreign investors.

As I mentioned earlier, the United States has printed a huge amount of dollars over the last few years. This has led to a situation where the chances of a high inflation scenario remain. If something like this were to happen, then the value of the Chinese investment in US treasury securities will fall.

Hence, there is a quid pro quo which is currently at work. As Rickards writes: “The compromise between the Fed’s desire for inflation and China’s desire to protect its reserves is for China to buy cheap gold. That way, if inflation is low, China’s gold won’t go up much, but the value of its paper Treasury reserves is preserved. If the United States gets the inflation it wants, China’s Treasuries will be worth less, yet its gold will be worth much more. Having Treasuries and gold is a hedged position that protects China’s wealth.”

As Ricakrds further points out: “What remains is a strange condominium of interests where the [American] Treasury and China are in agreement that China needs more gold and the price cannot be too high or else China could not easily afford all it needs…The United States is letting China manipulate the market so China can buy gold more cheaply. The Fed occasionally manipulates the market as well so that any price rise isn’t disorderly.”

The question is when will this manipulation end?

The column was published on the Vivek Kaul Diary on April 22, 2016

The Govt Should Ignore Jewellers’ Strike

gold

The jewellers went on a strike on March 2, 2016. On March 20, it was reported that they had called off their strike after suffering losses of Rs 18,,000 crore. But that did not turn out to be the case. Media reports suggest that on March 21, a section of the jewellers continued to strike.

A PTI reports suggests that: “Most jewellery shops and establishments in the national capital remained shut on Monday despite government’s assurance that there will be no harassment by excise officials. Some jewellers kept their shops shut in Mumbai as well.”

Meanwhile the strike has caused a lot of trouble and heartburn for brides to be. A recent report in The Hindustan Times discusses the plight of women who are about to get married and do not have their gold jewellery in place. The report quotes one such bride to be as saying: “I’m hoping this strike will come to an end soon otherwise I have to go for imitation jewellery on my D-day.”

The brides to be have been left in limbo because the gold jewellers have been on a strike for close to three weeks. The jewellers are striking against an excise duty of 1% on “articles of jewellery [excluding silver jewellery, other than studded with diamonds and some other precious stones]” that the finance minister Arun Jaitley proposed in the budget of the government, for 2016-2017, that he presented last month.

The jewellers are also protesting against the mandatory quoting of the Permanent Account Number(PAN) for cash transactions of Rs 2 lakh or more. This change came into effect from January 1, 2016, and hence, has been place for well over two months. Before this, quoting the PAN was necessary for cash transactions of Rs 5 lakh or more.

Media reports now suggest that the jewellers are claiming that this change has had a huge impact on their sales. Given this, they want the Rs 5 lakh limit to be reinstated.

So what is it that the jewellers fear? They want the government to withdraw the 1% excise duty because they fear harassment by excise inspectors. While this is a legitimate concern, the government has asked excise officials not to make factory visits. A section of the jewellers called off the strike on this assurance from the government. Also, it is important to understand that the 1% duty will generate an extra audit trail.

Further, it is important to understand that gold in its various forms remains an important conduit for black money. Black money is essentially income which has been earned but on which taxes have not been paid.

As the White Paper on Black Money released by the ministry of finance in 2012 points out: “Cash sales in the gold and jewellery trade are quite common and serve two purposes. The purchase allows the buyer the option of converting black money into gold and bullion, while it gives the trader the option of keeping his unaccounted wealth in the form of stock, not disclosed in the books or valued at less than market price.”

The beauty of gold is that a lot of wealth can be stored in a very small space. A lot of black money in the form of gold can be stored in a single locker. Hence, instead of holding on to paper money the holders of black money prefer converting it into gold. Also, with gold there is no fear of wear and tear as is with paper money.

A study on black money carried out by business lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry(FICCI) points out that: “Nearly 70-80 % of the transactions involving Jewellery are made using cash (black money).” This clearly explains how those with black money like to hold their wealth in the form of gold.

As the FICCI study points out: “Undisclosed sale of gold, silver etc. results in escapement of applicable tax liabilities Tax authorities have estimated purchases of gold bullion and Jewellery as the second-largest parking space for black money, next to Real Estate.”

Given this, the move to make PAN card mandatory for cash transactions of Rs 2 lakh or more when it comes to making jewellery purchases, is an important move. If it leads to the sales of jewellers falling, then so be it. The black money wallahs might figure out alternative parking spaces for their money, but then why should the government make it easy for them? I mean you should not be able to get out of your house, walk down your street and convert your black money into gold. It has to be a little more difficult than that.

The FICCI study further points out that: “Apart from unreported cash transactions that lead to black money, jewellers (specifically small jewellers) often sell ornaments that are made using adulterated gold. This practice also contributes to black money, as the jeweller typically does not report the full profit made by selling ornaments at premium rates (when they were made using adulterated gold, which is cheaper).”

Hence, while gold jewellery is a conduit for black money, it also helps generate black money. Further, many jewellers discourage the use of plastic money and customers who want to use their credit card or debit card to make the payment, are typically asked to pay 2% extra.

One excuse offered by jewellers is that many buyers do not have a PAN card. Well, if someone is in a position to pay Rs 2 lakh or more for jewellery, I am sure he can get a PAN card made as well. It shouldn’t be that difficult.

Once these factors are taken into account, it is in the best interest of the country that more jewellers are brought under the tax ambit. And that being the case, the government should not back down on its recent moves and let the jewellers’ strike continue.

The column originally appeared in the Vivek Kaul Diary on Equitymaster on March 23, 2016

The Fallacy of Composition: Selling Equity, Buying Gold

gold

Gold has done well in the recent past. Over the last six months it has given a return of around 14% (in dollar terms) and is currently quoting at $1250 per ounce (one troy ounce equals 31.1 grams).  With these returns gold is coming back on the investment radar, though over the last five years the yellow metal has given a negative return of 12%.

Indians have always been fascinated with the idea of buying gold. As per the World Gold Council the consumer demand for gold in 2015 stood at 848.9 tonnes. Of this 654.3 tonnes was gold that went towards making jewellery and 194.6 tonnes was gold that went towards making bars and coins.

Interestingly, India now lags behind China when it comes to gold consumption. In 2015, Chinese consumer demand for gold stood at 984.5 tonnes, around 16% more than Indian demand. The Chinese consumed more gold than India both when it comes to jewellery as well as gold in the form of bars and coins.

The trouble in the Indian case is that the country produces very little gold of its own. In 2015, the domestic supply of gold in India, as per estimates made by the World Gold Council stood at 9.2 tonnes or a little over 1% of total consumer demand. This supply came from local mine production, recovery from imported copper concentrates and disinvestment.

What this means is that India imports a bulk of its gold demand. As Akhilesh Tilotia of Kotak Institutional Equities who is also the author of The Making of India writes in a recent research note titled Selling Equity for Gold: “On net basis, i.e. accounting for the gold which is imported for re-export, Indians bought US$267 billion of gold over the past decade.”

The gold that is imported into India needs to be paid for in dollars. India’s stock of dollars comes in from various things including foreign direct investment(FDI) made into companies and projects and foreign portfolio investment(FPI) made into stocks and bonds.

As Tilotia writes: “According to our calculations, FPIs own a quarter of the outstanding stock of the BSE-200 stocks as of 2QFY16. Over the past decade, India received net equity FII flows of US$119 bn; the net FDI inflow is US$185 billion.”

If we add the FPI and FDI numbers for the last decade it comes to $304 billion. As mentioned earlier India net-imported gold worth $267 billion over the last decade. This essentially means that a bulk of the dollars that came into India through the FDI and the FPI route where used to buy up gold.

As Tilotia writes: “Indians have, over the last decade, traded equity in their private and public companies for gold. Of the US$304 billion that came in as net FDI and FII inflows over the last decade (FY2007-16E), Indians bought gold worth US$267 billion.”

To put it simply, over the years, India has sold stocks to earn dollars and in turn used these dollars to buy gold. While this wasn’t planned, this is how things have turned out. In the process, the country has become a victim of the fallacy of composition.

As Greg IP writes Foolproof—Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe: “This fallacy occurs when what benefits an individual is wrongly assumed to benefit an entire group. For example, if one moviegoer stands, he can see the show better. But if everyone in the audience stands, no one sees better, and everyone is uncomfortable.”

Indians buying gold is a tad like that. When an individual Indian buys gold either as jewellery or as an investment or as a hedge against inflation, it makes sense for him at individual level. But when the same thing happens at a societal level, it creates problems for the country.

Buying gold needs dollars, which can’t be created out of thin air. Further, it can also lead to the value of the rupee against the dollar falling as had happened between May and August 2013, when the dollars coming into India dried up, but Indians still continued to buy gold. As Tilotia writes: “when foreign fund flows dried up, Indians continued to buy gold thereby precipitating worries of large slippages on the current account deficit.”

It also led to the demand for dollars going up leading to the rupee depreciating against the dollar. This led to the value one dollar nearly touching Rs 70. This became a huge problem given that oil imports suddenly became very expensive as Indian oil marketing companies had to pay more in rupees in order to buy dollars they required to buy oil. The demand of oil companies for dollars led to further depreciation of the rupee against the dollar.

Further, these were the days when diesel was subsidised by the government. The government in turn compensated the oil marketing companies for the under-recoveries they occurred. This pushed up the government expenditure as well as the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Of course, every time someone buys gold, it takes away money from another productive investment. Gold essentially is useful because it is useless.

All this was an impact of the fallacy of composition which came with Indians buying gold. The government is now trying to address this fascination that we have for gold through the gold monetisation scheme and the sovereign gold bonds. Let’s see how successful they are with it.

The column originally appeared on Vivek Kaul’s Diary on March 11, 2016

It doesn’t make any sense to hand over your gold to the govt

gold

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the gold monetisation scheme as well as sovereign gold bonds, yesterday. The scheme and the bonds try to address India’s obsession with gold and the macroeconomic fall out of that obsession.

While nobody really knows how much gold is owned by Indian households, various estimates keep popping up. The estimates that I have seen in the recent past put India’s household gold hoard at 20,000-22,000 tonnes (Don’t ask me how these estimates are arrived at. I have no idea).

In this column I will just concentrate on the gold monetisation scheme and leave the analysis of the sovereign gold bonds for Monday’s column (November 9, 2015). I will also discuss the macroeconmic fall out of India’s obsession with gold on Monday.

The idea behind the gold monetisation scheme is to put India’s idle gold hoard to some use. Under this scheme, you can deposit gold with the bank and earn an interest on it. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued a notification on November 3, 2015, which said that the banks would pay an interest of 2.25% if the gold is deposited for the medium term and 2.5%, if the gold is deposited for the long term. The medium term is a period of five to seven years whereas the long term is a period of 12 to 15 years. (For those interested in knowing the entire process of how to go about it, can click here).

Also, as the RBI notification issued on October 22, 2015, points out: “The designated banks will accept gold deposits under the Short Term (1-3 years) Bank Deposit (STBD) as well as Medium (5-7 years) and Long (12-15 years) Term Government Deposit Schemes. While the former will be accepted by banks on their own account, the latter will be on behalf of Government of India.”

What this means is that individual banks are free to decide on the interest that they will offer on the gold they collect in the short-term for a period of one to three years.

So, the question is will this scheme succeed in getting India’s hoard of gold out from homes and into the banks? The first thing we need to look at is the existing gold deposit scheme which was launched in 1999. The RBI notification issued in October 1999 states that “individual banks will be free to fix the interest rates in tune with their costing considerations. Interest will be payable in cash at fixed intervals or at maturity as decided by the bank.”

Under this scheme the State Bank of India allowed people to deposit gold for three, four or five years. The interest paid on gold was 0.75% for three years and 1% for four and five years, respectively. The minimum deposit had to be 500 hundred grams of gold.

The scheme did not manage to collect much gold. An article in The Financial Express points out: “The existing scheme, introduced 16 years ago, mobilised only 15 tonnes of gold—as the minimum deposit was 500 grams and the interest rate was a mere 0.75% for a three-year deposit.” There was no upper limit to the amount of gold that could be deposited.

As I pointed out earlier in this column, estimates suggest that India has around 20,000 tonnes of gold. When compared to that fifteen tonnes is not even a drop in the ocean.

Further, October 22, 2015 RBI notification on the new gold monetisation scheme clearly states that: “The minimum deposit at any one time shall be raw gold (bars, coins, jewellery excluding stones and other metals) equivalent to 30 grams of gold of 995 fineness. There is no maximum limit for deposit under the scheme.”

So the minimum amount of gold that can be deposited under the new scheme is just 30 grams in comparison to the earlier 500 grams. Over and above this, the gold can be deposited up to a period of 15 years in comparison to the earlier five. Further, the rate of interest on offer is either 2.25% or 2.5%, which is higher than the earlier 0.75-1%.

On all these counts the new gold monetisation scheme is a significant improvement on the gold deposit scheme. Given this, will gold move from Indian homes to banks (and indirectly to the government, given that banks are running a major part of the scheme on behalf of the government)?

Before answering this, it is worth asking here, why do Indians buy gold? It is a part of our tradition and culture is the simple answer. What does that basically mean? It means we buy gold because our ancestors used to buy gold as well. We also buy gold because it is easy to sell during times of emergency. We are emotionally attached to the gold we buy and like seeing it in the physical form. This makes it highly unlikely that the gold monetisation scheme will be a smashing success.

Any more reasons? Gold is a very easy way to hide black money (essentially money which has been earned and on which tax has not been paid). A lot of black money can be stored by buying just a few bars of gold. People who have invested their black money in gold are not going to come forward with it and deposit it in banks. That is really a no-brainer.

Further, the customer agreeing to deposit the gold the bank will “have to fill-up a Bank/KYC form and give his consent for melting the gold.” The gold will be melted in order to test its purity. Also, the “the gold ornament will then be cleaned of its dirt, studs, meena etc.”

The question is how many women would like to see their gold jewellery melted so that they can earn a return of a little more than 2% per year on it? I don’t think I need to answer that question.

These reasons best explain why the gold deposit scheme launched in 1999 has been a huge failure. And they also explain why the current gold monetisation scheme is unlikely to lead to any major shift of gold from homes to the government.

This brings me to the question whether you should be depositing your gold with the banks (and essentially the government)? One reason why people buy gold is because they believe that it acts as a hedge against inflation. The evidence on whether gold acts as a hedge against inflation is not so straightforward.

As John Plender writes in Capitalism—Money, Morals and Markets: “In real terms, the price of gold in 2012 was similar to the prevailing price in 1265.” So doesn’t that mean that gold has acted as a store of value over the last 1000 years? Not really. As Plender writes: “Over much of that time, though, the yellow metal failed to live up to its reputation as a solid store of value.”

Why does Plender say that? Dylan Grice, who used to work for Societe Generale explains this. As Grice writes: “A fifteenth-century gold bug who’d stored all his wealth in bullion, bequeathed it to his children and required them to do the same would be more than a little miffed when gazing down from his celestial place of rest to see the real wealth of his lineage decline by nearly 90 per cent over the next 500 years.”

In fact, even those who had bought gold at the peak of the 1971-1981 bull market in gold would have lost around 80% of their investment in real terms, over the next two decades.

Nevertheless, if you believe that gold acts as a hedge against inflation, should you hand over your gold to the government? Inflation more often than not is due to the “easy money” policies run by the government. This could mean inflation created through money printing or keeping interest rates too low for too long.

When gold and silver were money, the governments destroyed money by debasing it, i.e., lowering the content of precious met­als in the coins they issued.

When paper money replaced precious metals as money, the governments destroyed it by simply printing more and more of it. Now they create money digitally.

So the last thing you should do is hand over gold to the government. The reason you are holding gold is because you don’t trust the government to do a good job of managing the value of money. And given that, it’s best that the hedge (i.e. gold) be with you. If that means losing out on interest of 2.25-2.5% per year, then so be it.

Postscript: On Monday (Nov 9, 2015) I will be analysing the sovereign gold bonds which have been launched as well. Look out for that.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Nov 6, 2015

Why politicians love paper money

3D chrome Dollar symbolMoney makes money, and the more money that money makes, makes more money—Benjamin Franklin


John Maynard Keynes was the most influential economist of the twentieth century. Keynes really came into his own in 1936, when his magnum opus The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money was published.
One of the core points of the book was that when it came to thrift or saving, the economics of the individual differed from the economics of the entire system. For an individual to save by cutting down on expenditure made tremendous sense. But when a society, as a whole, began to save more, there was a problem.
This was because the expenditure of one person was the income for another. Hence, when expenditure began to go down, incomes would fall too, leading to a further reduction in expenditure. And so the cycle would continue. The aggregate demand of a society as a whole would fall in the end, leading to either lower prices or lower production or both, thus impeding economic growth and causing economic contraction.
As per Keynes, the way out of this situation was for someone to spend more. Citizens and businesses were not willing to spend more, given the state of the economy. So, the only way out of this situation was for the government to spend more on public works and other programs. This would act as a stimulus and thus cure the recession.
This has been standard prescription given by economists when countries are not doing well. Having said that the basic idea put forward by Keynes had been known for a very long time. Even Roman kings had practised it.
As Kabir Sehgal writes in Coined—The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us: “Julius Caesar left his stamp on Roman monetary history by using the gold treasure he pillaged from Gaul to increase the quantity of the aureus in circulation…These new coins helped Rome cope with a financial crisis of 49BC.” So, even Julius Caesar had used Keynes’ prescription of increasing government spending during recessionary times and thus helped revive the economy.
Caesar’s successor Augustus followed the same prescription in order to revive the Roman economy when it was suffering from a depression, during the course of his rule. As Sehgal writes: “Augustus used loot captured from Egypt to spend lavishly on civil projects and enhanced welfare programs…In time…the economy recovered.”
Interestingly, the rulers that followed Julius and Augustus, followed their model. One such ruler was Nero who ruled Rome between AD 54 and AD 68 and had to face a depression in AD 62. In AD 64, a fire blazed through Rome and this created further problems. But Nero got through this by increasing “food subsidies for the public” and “spending on civil projects like canals”.
But along with following the Keynesian model, Nero did something else as well. He started reducing the quantity of metal in the Roman coins. Nero reduced the silver content of denarius (a silver coin) by 10%. He also reduced the gold content of the aureus by 10 percent in AD 64. By reducing the metal content in coins Nero was able to produce more coins. In the modern sense, he was thus able to increase money supply by around 7%.
What was the idea behind this debasement of metallic money? “The story goes that with more money flowing through the economy, prices will rise to reflect the reduced value of the currency, which will spur individuals and businesses to spend now rather than later, leading to a bump in economic activity,” writes Sehgal.
Nero was the not the first ruler to practice this strategy. Neither was he the last one. This is a practise that has been regularly resorted to by kings, queens, dictators, general secretaries, and politicians ever since.
In fact, Nero couldn’t have gone about it as well as politicians and central bankers do, in this day and age. The reason for this lies in the fact that during Nero’s time Rome used gold and silver coins as money. As Sehgal writes: “Nero was unable to affect uniformly his entire currency at once. When he issued a new batch of debased coins[i.e. coins with lower metal content] there were still high-grade coins{i.e. the coins that had been issued earlier and had a higher amount of metal content in them] in circulation. The value of these high-grade coins would appreciate, yet it would take time for them to be hoarded and removed from circulation.” They would be hoarded because they had more metal in them than the new coins.
But with paper money there are no such problems. When a central bank issues more paper money it “adjusts the overall money supply” and “affects the value of all notes simultaneously”. “Today it’s still common practice for central banks to adjust the supply of money to abet political goals,” writes Sehgal.
Take the case of Bank of Japan—the Japanese central bank is mandated to print 80 trillion yen annually so that it can create some inflation in Japan and get people to spend money (as explained above) and in the process create some economic growth. The idea also is to drive down the value of the yen against other currencies so that Japanese exports pick up. A paper money system gives the government and the central bank this kind of flexibility. This is something that would not be easily possible in a metallic based system. In order to flood the financial system with more gold or more silver, more gold or silver would be required. Unlike paper money, metallic money cannot be created out of thin air.
Also, history has shown that debasement of currency leads to inflation as more and more money chases the same amount of goods and services. And inflation benefits borrowers as they repay money they had borrowed with money that is less valuable than it was before. Further, governments run by politicians are themselves big borrowers. Hence, inflation ends up benefiting governments as well.
It is much easier to create inflation with a paper money system than with metal based currencies. In fact, a few years back I spoke to Russell Napier of CLSA who made a very interesting point: “The history of the paper currency system, or the fiat currency system is really the history of democracy… Within the metal currency, there was very limited ability for elected governments to manipulate that currency. And I know this is why people with savings and people with money like the gold standard. They like it because it reduces the ability of politicians to play around with the quantity of money. But we have to remember that most people don’t have savings. They don’t have capital. And that’s why we got the paper currency in the first place. It was to allow the democracies. Democracy will always turn toward paper currency and unless you see the destruction of democracy in the developed world, and I do not see that, we will stay with paper currencies and not return to metallic currencies or metallic based currencies.”
And this best explains why politicians love paper money.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on April 16, 2015

Dear Reader, are you still invested in gold?

gold
In my previous avatar as a full time journalist working for a daily newspaper with a very strong business section, I happened to interview many gold bulls. This was primarily during the two year period between September 2008 and September 2010, in the aftermath of the financial crisis that broke out in mid September 2008.
I got a lot of predictions on what levels the gold price would run up to in the years to come. Almost each one of these bulls agreed that gold will cross $2,000 per ounce (one ounce equals 31.1 grams). Some of them thought gold would touch anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per ounce.
The highest prediction I got for gold was $55,000 per ounce. The trick with all these forecasts was that none of these gentlemen predicting the price of gold, gave me a date i.e. by such and such date, the price of gold would be at this level. All of them just gave me a price.
Interestingly, more than four and a half years later, gold prices have not gone anywhere near the levels the gold bulls had predicted. The logic offered was very straightforward—with all the money being printed by central banks all around the world, very high inflation would be the order of the day.
And in this environment people would do what they have always done—buy gold. This expectation drove up the price of gold and it touched around $1,900 per ounce, sometime in August 2011. After this, the price fell and currently stands at around $1,220 per ounce. In fact, the price of gold never even crossed $2,000 per ounce, let alone crossing $5,000 per ounce.
There are important lessons that emerge here. As Humphrey B. Neill writes in
The Art of Contrary Thinking: “The whole field of economics remains a “guessy” one. Little, if any, progress has been made over the years in attaining profitable accuracy in economic forecasting. And, mind you, this condition still exists, notwithstanding the extraordinary volume of statistics that is now available…which was not known to former forecasters.”
The Art of Contrary Thinking was first published in 1954 (even though I happened to read it only over the long weekend and I really wish I had read this book a decade back), and what Neill wrote then still remains valid.
Another interesting point that Neill makes is that people love opinions and forecasts which are definitive. Almost every gold bull I have interviewed over the years has told me with great confidence that the price of gold is going to explode in the years to come. And it’s the confidence with which they spoke that made their forecasts believable at the point of time they were made.
As Neill writes: “Forcing oneself to be definitive and specific can cause more wrong guesses and forecasts than anything I can think of. It has given rise to the cynical expression: “Often in error, but never in doubt.” It is this writer’s contention after over 30 years’ acquaintance with, and observation of, economics and Wall Street that being positive, specific, and dogmatic is about the most harmful habit one can fall into.”
What was true in the mid fifties when Neill wrote the book is even more true now, in the era of television and the social media. When you have to voice your opinion in 30 seconds or write everything that you know in 140 characters, there is no opportunity to be nuanced. You have to be as definitive as you can be, because that is what people love and there is no space for a detailed argument.
But as we have seen very clearly in the case of gold this clearly does not work. “The fault likes (1) in the pernicious desire of writers in the financial economic field [like yours truly] to forecast—to be oracles. Once bitten, it is difficult to effect a cure! Readers (2) are equally at fault in expecting that anyone can predict economic or market trends accurately and consistently,” writes Neill.
The gold bulls have been way off the mark in their predictions until now. One reason for this lies in the fact that all the money printing carried out by central banks hasn’t led to much conventional inflation. The reason as I have explained (you can read the pieces
here and here) in the past lies in the fact that people haven’t borrowed and spent money at low interest rates, as they were expected to. Given this, a situation where too much money chases too few goods and leads to inflation, never really arose. Though a lot of this newly printed money found its way into financial markets all over the world.
The broader point here is that it is very difficult to predict human behaviour. As Neill writes: “you may have all the statistics in the world at your finger tips, but still you do not know how or why people are going to act.” And given this, just because people have borrowed and spent money when interest rates were low in the past, doesn’t mean they will do so again.
Where does that leave gold? Will gold prices go up again? The answer is kind of tricky. Let me quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb here. As Taleb he writes in 
Anti Fragile: “Central banks can print money; they print print and print with no effect (and claim the “safety” of such a measure), then, “unexpectedly,” the printing causes a jump in inflation.”
James Rickard author 
Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crises says the same thing: “They can’t just keep printing…All major central banks are easing…Eventually so much money will be printed that this will lead to inflation.”
What no one knows is when this will happen. And a forecast which does not come with a time frame is largely useless. What this also means is that if you are still betting your life on gold, please don’t. Okay, I think I am making a forecast again. Let me stop here.

Disclaimer: This writer has around 10% of his portfolio still invested in gold through the mutual fund route.

The column appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Apr 7, 2015