Monetary Crisis Could Lead to Wild Gold Spike

When the proverbial fecal matter hit the fan during the week of May 3, one asset shined above all others. It was the humble yellow metal, gold, doing its part in times of panic and crisis. It held up. On May 7, gold closed above $1,200 for the first time in five months — up more than 2.5% during a week in which U.S. stocks endured a freefall. Just five days later, it hit an all-time high of $1,243.10. And the largest physical gold fund recorded its largest inflows since early 2009.

In what follows, we turn our eyes again to gold, that curious inert metal with the monetary heritage. The topic comes with baggage. It’s hard as an investor to look at it objectively. Many investors make a case for gold laden with ideological fury over the government’s printing press. These investors are always saying buy gold. Their arguments are timeless, but not timely.

Of course, buying gold all the time is not really an investment strategy. If you bought gold in the 1980s and 1990s, your return was abysmal. So, as with all assets, there are times when gold is a really good buy and there are times when it is not. Sounds obvious, but many people seem to want to think that gold is an exception to the order of things. It isn’t.

But how do you know if gold is cheap? Well, intelligent people usually advance a couple of arguments:

1) On an inflation-adjusted basis, gold is 30% less than its all-time high in 1980. Okay, that’s true, but it’s not particularly timely because by that measure gold has been cheap for three decades. And who’s to say that the 1980 gold price is a benchmark we should pay attention to, anyway? By that way of thinking, the NASDAQ is a bargain, too, because it trades at a big gap from its 2000 high. But is it? I think not.

2) The other point often advanced by the “gold is cheap” crowd is the old monetary base argument — that gold’s price tends to track the monetary base over long periods. The monetary base is essentially bank deposits and currency. It’s like the seedlings of inflation.

This second argument is a little more interesting. Yet, as the government has added huge piles to the monetary base in the last year or so, the gold price has responded in a muted way. This next chart shows what the gold price would have to be to “catch up” to the monetary base.

The hedge fund QB Partners really likes this argument. QB writes: 

True capital has already begun to flow where it is being treated best — to capital-producing economies and to global stores of wealth, from paper money and financial assets to hard money and hard assets…

“The graph shows visually how much U.S. dollar purchasing power has been lost. We think gold is cheap by a factor of almost 7 times.”

If a gold price of $7,000 an ounce doesn’t strike you as implausible or absurd, QB’s next comment might. QB says the chart “does not necessarily imply a target price for spot gold. The gold price could move higher than that if it experiences a blow off top, like all other bull markets tend to do before exhausting themselves.” So, $7,000 an ounce, you see, is just some kind of base case.

Maybe it’s not so implausible. Strange stuff happens all the time in markets. If I had told you on May 6 that Accenture — a $40 stock with a $29 billion market cap — would trade for a penny a share the next day, you would have thought I was nuts. Yet, on May 7 it did just that, if only for a second.

As investors, we tend to think too narrowly within the confines of what seems probable. Yet, the really big money lies in the outlying events. As QB puts it:

Most investors allocate to the markets by playing the odds, which by definition gravitates capital to the middle of a bell curve of possible outcomes. This fools the investor into thinking that the probability of future events is somewhat predictable. Of course, history is rife with startling social, economic and political tail events. Stuff happens — things like earthquakes, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the demotion of Pluto, dot-com bubbles, liar loans and even periodic global economic failures and the re-assertion of gold as money.

This is essentially the familiar “black swan” argument made popular by Nassim Taleb. This is really the best argument for gold in my view. It is a hedge against really bad stuff happening. And when really bad stuff happens, gold holds up.

Of course, over the last decade, it has more than held up. Gold has been the best-performing asset class from December 1999 to December 2010.

People often invest by looking in the rearview mirror. They feel better investing in stuff that has done well. Even professionals feel this way. It’s easier to recommend gold to your clients; all you do is show its price chart. Money follows performance, which is why so many investors get mediocre results. They hop into the hot fund or sign up for the hot newsletter just as it is about to go cold. They abandon apparent losing strategies and sell poor-performing stocks just as they are about to turn up.

But the gold market is different because it’s so small. Even a small amount of interest in gold will send it up a lot. Just imagine if people decide a small sliver of that tall bar of financial assets should be in gold. We’re talking about some serious pressure on the gold price.

Frankly, the gold market is set up perfectly these days. You couldn’t design it better. Bad stuff is happening — see the crisis in Europe. And you can surely bet more bad stuff will happen, given all the debt and leverage that still remains in the system. Even if you don’t know exactly what will happen or when it will happen, you know a monetary crisis is good for gold.

As an added bonus, gold has a track record, which will attract fans soon enough. And when it does, it can’t really accommodate many buyers because the market is small. This means the chance of the gold price spiking upwards are pretty good. It’s like being in the lifeboat business on the Titanic. No price will seem too high!

Chris Mayer
Whiskey & Gunpowder

May 28, 2010