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How I Own My Gold

How I Own My Gold

Those who own gold often argue how to best own it. I encourage anyone holding gold to assess the pros and cons of different choices of gold ownership to make an educated rather than emotional decision. Let me explain.

I commissioned the above cartoon back in 2011 in response to an assertion by CNBC’s Steve Liesman no one would accept a gold coin in a grocery store. My take was that, hell, if I offered a gold coin, I’m pretty sure I would find a taker if I wanted to exchange it for some groceries.

There appears to be an eternal back and forth between those that “love” and those that “hate” gold; that discussion, in my humble opinion, misses the point. It is striking how this shiny metal raises emotions by both friends and foes. Maybe it is because gold is so simple, so pure, the fact that there are fairly few industrial uses for it, that emotions take over in discussing gold’s merits.

The historic context matters. Gold has been used as money for millennia; yet some say it is a “barbaric relic” preferring to use fiat currencies for commerce. All major currencies are fiat currencies these days, that is, they can be created ‘out of thin air’, by the stroke of a keyboard at a central bank. The modern world of fiat currencies, is in place in its current form since 1971 when Nixon ‘temporarily’ abandoned the last link to gold. The very notion of currency has been used in new ways as promoters of virtual tokens subject to a decentralized creation and sharing methodology referred to as crypto-currencies have touted that they will disrupt the way we transaction and store value. The value of crypto-currencies, of course, has been highly volatile, and none of this should be construed as an investment recommendation.

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Why The Markets Are Overdue For A Gigantic Bust

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Why The Markets Are Overdue For A Gigantic Bust

It’s just not possible to print our way to prosperity
Let me begin with a caveat: confirmation bias is an ever-present risk for an analyst such as myself.

If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘confirmation bias’ suggests that once we’ve invested time and emotional energy into developing a worldview, we’ll then seek information to confirm that view.

After writing about the economy for so many years, I’m now so convinced that we can’t print our way to prosperity that I find myself seeing signs confirming this view everywhere, every single day. So that’s the danger to be aware of when listening to me.  I’m going to keep repeating this mantra and Im going to keep finding data that supports this view.

Based on lots of historical inputs, I have concluded that Printing money out of thin air can engineer lots of things, including asset price bubbles and the redistribution of wealth from the masses to the elites.  But it cannot print up real prosperity.

As much as I try, I simply cannot jump on the bandwagon that says that printing up money out of thin air has any long-term utility for an economy. It’s just too clear to me that doing so presents plenty of dangers, due to what we might call ‘economic gravity’: What goes up, must also come down.

Which brings us to this chart:

The 200 bubble blown by Greenspan was bad, the next one by Bernanke was horrible, but this one by Yellen may well prove fatal.  At least to entire financial markets, large institutions, and a few sovereigns.

It’s essential to note that more than two-thirds of the net worth tracked in the above chart is now comprised of ‘financial assets.’  That is, paper claims on real things.

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Fake Risk, Fake Return?

With seemingly everyone from the blogosphere to the Tweeter-in-chief chiming in on fake news, have investors considered their risk/return profile may also be “fake”? When it comes to investing, who or what can we trust, is the market rigged, and why does it matter?

For eight years in a row now, an investment in the S&P 500 has yielded positive returns.1 In recent years, expressions like “investors buy the dips” and “low volatility” have become associated with this rally.

In the “old days”, investors used to construct portfolios that, at least in theory, provided a risk/return profile that they were comfortable with. For better or worse, I allege those “old days” are over. To be prepared for what’s ahead, let’s debunk some myths.

The system is rigged
For those that say the system is rigged, I concur. In my assessment, central banks are largely responsible for a compression of “risk premia.” All else equal, quantitative easing and its variants around the globe have made assets from equities to bonds appear less risky than they are. This is at the very core of central banks efforts to entice investors to take risks, as risk taking is key to making an economy grow. In practice, central banks have foremost pushed up financial assets, but have largely disappointed in generating real investments. As a result, those holding financial assets have disproportionally benefited.

Hidden risks: liquidity
When I look at market risks, I feel like investors are in ‘la la land,’ ignoring the moonlight. Pardon the pun, I believe investors completely underappreciate hidden risks in the markets, notably the risk of liquidity evaporating. In today’s ETF driven world, to make ETFs track underlying indices, there are so-called market makers providing liquidity.

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Gold Now?

Gold never changes; it’s the world around it that does. Why is it that we see a renewed interest in gold now? And more importantly, should investors buy this precious metal?

Key attributes in a ‘changing world’ that may be relevant to the price of gold are fear and interest rates. Let’s examine these:

Gold & Fear
When referencing ‘fear’ driving the markets, most think of a terrorist attack, political uncertainty or some other crisis that impacts investor sentiment, and sure enough, at times, the price of gold moves higher when this type of fear is observed. While that may be correct, I don’t like an investment case based on such flare-ups of fear, as I see such events as intrinsically temporary in nature. We tend to get used to crises, even a prolonged terror campaign or the Eurozone debt crisis; whateveras the ‘novelty’ of any shock recedes, markets tend to move on.

Having said that, I believe fear is under-appreciated – quite literally, although in a different sense. Fear is the plain English word for risk aversion. When fear is low, investors may embrace “risk assets,” including stocks and junk bonds. A lack of fear suggests volatility is low; as such, investors with a given level of risk tolerance may understandably re-allocate their portfolios so that the overall perceived riskiness of their portfolio stays the same. While retail investors might do this intuitively, professional investors may also do the same, but use fancy terminology, notably that they may target a specific “value at risk,” abbreviated as VaR. Conversely, our analysis shows that when fear comes back to the market – for whatever reason – ‘risk assets’ tend to under-perform as investors reduce their exposure.

Assuming you agree, this doesn’t explain yet why gold is often considered a ‘safe haven’ asset when the price of gold is clearly volatile.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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