"The Gold Cartel" And The Giant Credit Bubble
Submitted by Pater Tenebrarum of Acting-Man blog,
Dimitri Speck is an expert on commodities markets who may actually be familiar to many of our readers as the creator of seasonal charts (which incidentally are the statistically most accurate seasonal charts available). Readers may also recall that we referred to Mr. Speck's work in the past, when speculators were accused in the media of causing hunger in the third world, as their activities were alleged to artificially inflate the prices of agricultural commodities. When we wrote about the topic, the voices of reason were few and far between. Mr. Speck's unique and highly original contributions to the debate certainly took some of the wind out of the sails of the economically illiterate scaremongers in the media and politics.
The Gold Cartel
The English language edition of Mr. Speck's book “Geheime Goldpolitik”, has been published early this year under the title “The Gold Cartel”, in parallel with an updated second German edition. The book has received great praise from many quarters, and it is well-deserved (ironically, even from a central banker, in spite of the fact that central bankers come in for a lot of criticism in the book).
The first few pages of the book right away prove to the discerning reader that the author actually understands gold. Surprisingly, this can often not be taken for granted. A great many analysts continue to regard gold as akin to an industrial commodity, including many working for 'expert' organizations, whose main job it is to publish data and forecasts on the gold and silver markets.
Essentially one could say that the Gold Cartel consists of three major parts, namely statistical studies, a historical disquisition and a theoretical part that deals with the consequences the adoption of a full-fledged fiat money system has wrought.
Note: This is an abridged and edited version of the review that appeared in issue 92, January/February 2014 of the Hedge Fund Journal.
When Frank Veneroso published a study on gold lending in 1998, many people probably heard the term 'gold carry trade' for the first time. However, it became a staple of deliberations about the gold market in subsequent years. A superficially legitimate (if ultimately slightly dubious) business activity, namely the hedging of future gold output by mining companies, had apparently been turned into a major and potentially explosive financial engineering scheme. However, research was hampered by the fact that the carry trade involved gold held by central banks. It was shrouded in secrecy and its size could only be estimated. While Veneroso's work was path breaking, it was marred by its lack of precision, which partly resulted from the difficulty of obtaining good data.
Central bank accounting for gold was (and in most cases remains) rather peculiar: gold receivables and bullion still in their vaults are treated as a single line item in their balance sheets. This makes it nigh impossible for outsiders to ascertain how much of their gold is actually on loan. Central banks used inter alia the alleged need to protect the trade secrets of their business partners as an excuse to avoid publishing the data. This flimsy pretext naturally fanned speculation about the amounts involved as well as the planners' motives. It was no secret that central banks once upon a time intervened in the gold market quite openly. Given gold's nature as the 'political metal', it didn't seem a big stretch to suspect them of still doing so clandestinely.
Estimates of the size of the carry trade published by researchers varied enormously (the more establishment-friendly they were, the smaller their estimates would be). Enter Dimitri Speck, who has delivered what is to date probably the best such estimate ever produced by an independent gold market analyst, not least because he actually employed sound statistical analysis. His estimate of the amount of gold lent out by Germany's Bundesbank over time, calculated from the meager tidbits of information that could be gleaned from the BuBa's balance sheet, confirmed the soundness of his methods. The BuBa recently relented in the face of public pressure and finally lifted the veil of secrecy from the data, so we know how close the estimate came (the BuBa is no longer lending out gold by the way).
'The Gold Cartel' presents the results of painstaking statistical analysis of the gold market from every conceivable angle. It never gets so technical as to bore the reader – the analysis reads rather like a detective story. It focuses specifically on whether anomalies that point to possible interventions are detectable in the gold market and whether the beginning of these anomalous activities can be dated. Gold's behavior during financial crises, as well as the carry trade and the determination of its overall size are other focal points. There is a refreshing difference in Mr. Speck's approach to the subject compared to that often encountered elsewhere, which we believe makes the book an enjoyable and highly informative read even for people who are skeptical about the intervention thesis. There is very little speculation, instead the focus is strictly on known or knowable facts. Speck lays out a logically consistent and coherent history of the gold market. Some of his conclusions naturally remain open to debate; history is a thymological discipline and as such always leaves room for interpretation. It should be mentioned that although central banks nowadays increasingly strive to provide greater transparency, Speck thoroughly disabuses the reader of the naïve notion that they 'would never intervene clandestinely in markets' by providing hard evidence of past transgressions (which include even the deliberate falsification of data in one instance).
Gold lent out by the German Bundesbank over time – click to enlarge.
Estimate of central bank gold entering the market worldwide - click to enlarge.
The book's statistical analysis is buttressed and supplemented by a gripping account of the history of the modern monetary system, beginning with the step-by-step disintegration of the Bretton Woods system in the late 1960s (which culminated in Nixon's gold default in 1971) and encompassing everything that has happened since then, including the creation and first major crisis of the euro. All these events are brought into context with what happened concurrently in the gold market. There is a detailed look at the FOMC meetings of the early 1990s, which show that although gold had been thoroughly 'demonetized' from an official standpoint, it still was very much on the minds of many FOMC members at the time, including then chairman Greenspan. The conversations at these meetings clearly show that there was major concern at the time both over gold's potential as a competitor of the US dollar as a store of value as well as its function as an indicator of inflation expectations.
As Speck explains with respect to the gold carry trade, once gold lending by central banks had grown well beyond the hedging needs of mining firms, the interests of private parties involved in the trade and those of central banks at first increasingly converged, only to diverge again at a later stage. He demonstrates convincingly that once the carry trade exceeded a certain size, the role played by private profit motives must have grown ever larger. In order to keep being able to play the game and avoid losses, bullion banks started putting pressure on central banks to motivate them to continue to sell and lend out ever increasing amounts of gold. For a time, an odd role reversal between bullion banks and central banks took hold with respect to their gold market-related interests.
Speck looks closely at what happened during this phase in the late 1990s. A great many politicians, whose credentials as experts on gold or monetary policy were rather dubious, attempted to influence the climate and official attitudes toward gold. Unwilling central banks such as e.g. the Swiss National Bank were put under great political pressure to agree to gold sales. Many of the events surrounding official gold policy in the late 1990s are largely forgotten today, and Speck does us a great service by rescuing them from the memory hole.
Gordon Brown's famously ill-timed sale of the bulk of the UK gold reserves is of course discussed as well. To this day it remains a bit of a mystery why Brown deliberately chose to perform the sales in a manner that ensured that the UK would get the lowest possible price. Clearly though, there was more to it than just the fact that he was evidently one of the worst market timers of all time. The discussion of the Washington agreement, which effectively froze the carry trade and limited official sales, was especially interesting to us. Few people will remember all the details and announcements that were made just prior and after the agreement was struck, or may never have been aware of them at all. The information Speck provides in this context serves to greatly enhance one's understanding of these events.
In this context, Speck also provides a logical explanation as to why the carry trade never 'blew up' as so many forecasters had expected it to do – in spite of the considerable size it had attained at its peak and in spite of the fact that a bull market in gold began in 1999/2000.
Gold sales by central banks, net - click to enlarge.
The Giant Credit Bubble
The statistical and historical analysis of the gold market is followed by a theoretical part that deals in great detail and in a highly original manner with the problems the abandonment of gold as an anchor of the monetary system has ultimately brought about. The conceptual approach to the topic will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Austrian School of Economics, even though Speck employs at times a slightly different, somewhat idiosyncratic terminology. The most notable effect of demonetizing gold has been and continues to be the recurrence of numerous sizable booms and busts, although Speck rightly acknowledges that the emergence of credit expansions could not necessarily be completely averted in a gold-based system, although gold would definitely 'serve as a brake', as he puts it.
A detailed description of how credit-financed bubbles begin and are then continuing to grow, driven by their inherent dynamics, is provided. The most important feature of such bubbles is that speculation for some time appears to 'pay for itself', as artificial accounting profits emerge. Wealth is seemingly created ex nihilo, and profits are booked even though no-one has actually produced anything tangible. This explains the enduring popularity of credit-driven bubbles, as it is simply human nature to embrace the 'something for nothing' mirage that is their major characteristic.
Since financial bubbles have real economic effects, and since their recurrence can seemingly not be averted, the focus of the authorities soon shifted to the question of how the effects of their bursting could be mitigated - a momentous decision, as Speck proceeds to show. The mitigation policy involves governments intervention in the form of a further expansion in debt and credit claims, the very policies that lead to the emergence of bubbles in the first place. Illogical as this is, it almost always seems to 'work' in the short term. As credit claims accumulated in the past are never extinguished, but merely added to, a kind of 'mega-bubble' evolves over time. Private and public sector indebtedness both continue to expand, effectively egging each other on. An ever greater pile of credit claims towers over the real economy. Speck also points out that the vast expansion in public sector liabilities is deeply undemocratic, as it lulls the population into believing that it can get 'something for nothing'. As a result, there are only superficial deliberations over the wisdom of public spending. Ultimately, no-one is taking responsibility while the political class pursues its own narrow interests. Indeed, as official remarks preceding the abandonment of gold in 1971 show, it was precisely the ability to run deficits in quasi-perpetuity that attracted governments to the new monetary system. The ability to increase spending without having to increase taxation is deemed a highly desirable method of achieving short term political goals.
Establishment economists have done us a great disservice by ignoring and/or whitewashing the long term implications of the ever-growing level of financial claims. Ever since the 1987 crash, central bankers have begun to consistently err on the side of easier monetary policy and their focus has increasingly turned toward he chimera of price stability, while the growth in credit claims has been ignored. 'Mitigation of busts' has become the official mantra to this day.
Speck also discusses the question of the long term consequences of this spiral of ever-growing debt. As he points out, the classical denouement of a credit-financed bubble used to be a major deflation, egged on by debt defaults and the associated destruction of deposit liabilities held by banks falling into insolvency. There can however be no guarantee that this outcome will be repeated in modern times. Today, the authorities can and do intervene to avert deflationary reductions in outstanding financial claims. Their countermeasures could eventually result in the exact opposite outcome (i.e., a major inflation). However, other possibilities are just as thinkable (such as e.g. a prolonged period of stagnation as has happened in Japan).
Japan's debt to GDP, total and disaggregated: the world's biggest debtberg - click to enlarge.
Global debt to GDP - click to enlarge.
Summary and Conclusion
We highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the gold market. In fact, anyone with an interest in financial markets and/or the economy will undoubtedly benefit from reading it. It provides a solid statistical analysis of every aspect of the gold market, a thoroughly researched and well-presented account of the history of the modern monetary system and a highly original perspective of the growing bubble in debt and credit claims we have experienced since adopting today's system of credit-based money.
Dimitri Speck, The Gold Cartel (link to Amazon)
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