Trump has had it!
He is apparently declaring a currency war on the rest of the world. Trump resents China and Europe cheapening the yuan and the euro against the dollar in order to help their exports and hurt ours.
He says it’s time for the U.S. to cheapen the dollar also. Trump has a point. If you put a 25% tariff on many Chinese exports to the U.S. (as Trump has done) or a 25% tariff on German cars exported to the U.S. (as Trump has threatened to do), it can be a powerful way to reduce the U.S. trade deficit and generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury.
But a trading partner can undo the effect of the tariff just by cheapening its currency.
Let’s say a Chinese-made cellphone costs $500 in the U.S. If you slap a 25% tariff on the imported phone, the immediate effect is to raise the price by $125.
A simple solution to tariffs is to devalue your currency by 20% against the dollar. Local currency costs do not change, but the cellphone now costs $400 when the local currency price is converted to U.S. dollars.
A 25% tariff on $400 results in a total cost of $500 — exactly the same as before the tariffs were imposed. Tariff costs have been converted into lower production costs through currency manipulation.
There’s only one problem with Trump’s currency war plan. There’s nothing new about it. The currency wars started in 2010 as described in my 2011 book, Currency Wars.
As soon as one country devalues, its trading partners devalue in retaliation and nothing is gained. It’s been described as a “race to the bottom.” Currency wars produce no winners, just continual devaluation until they are followed by trade wars.
That’s exactly what has happened in the global economy over the past 10 years. But the final step in the sequence is often shooting wars. That’s what happened leading up to WWII. Let’s hope the currency wars and trade wars don’t turn into shooting wars as they did in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, the Fed is a critical player in the currency war because it has a major influence on the dollar.
The world is waiting to see what it does at its policy meeting on July 31. There is almost no chance the Fed will raise rates. The choices are to cut rates or keep rates unchanged. The market is betting heavily on a rate cut, for what it’s worth.
If the Fed cuts rates, we’ll have to see how other central banks react. But the Fed has many factors to consider when it meets later this month…
For the past 10 years, Fed policy changes have been relatively straightforward to forecast, based on a simple model. The model said the Fed would raise rates consistently in 0.25% increments until rates are normalized around 4% (the amount needed to cut in case of recession).
The exceptions (where the Fed would “pause” on rate hikes) would occur when job creation is low or negative, markets are disorderly or strong disinflation threatens to turn to deflation. Markets certainly became disordered late last year, when the U.S. stock market nearly entered a bear market. And so the Fed paused.
None of those conditions apply today. Job creation is strong, markets are at all-time highs and disinflation is mild. But a new factor has entered the model, which is the fear of causing a recession.
Estimated growth for the second quarter of 2019 is 1.3% annualized, compared with 3.1% in the first quarter. Using the Fed’s own models (which are different from mine), the Fed is concerned that if they don’t cut rates, a market correction and recession may occur.
But if they do cut rates, inflation may result due to tight labor markets and higher costs due to tariffs.
This Fed decision will likely come down to the wire. Second-quarter GDP will be reported on July 26, and personal income and outlays will be reported on July 30. Both data points (and underlying inflation data) will be available right before the July 31 decision date.
Markets will cheer a rate cut and probably sell off if the Fed does not cut rates. But both the markets and the Fed itself will have to wait until the last possible minute before this conundrum is resolved.
And the world will be watching very closely.
The dollar price of gold has been on a roller-coaster ride for the past six years. But the past six weeks have been a turbocharged version of that. Investors should expect more of the same for reasons explained below.
The six-year story is the more important for investors and also the more frustrating. Gold staged an historic bull market rally from 1999 to 2011, going from about $250 per ounce to $1,900 per ounce, a 650% gain.
Then, gold nose-dived into a bear market from 2011 to 2015, falling to $1,050 per ounce in December 2015, a 45% crash from the peak and a 51% retracement of the 1999-2011 bull market. (Renowned investor Jim Rogers once told me that no commodity goes from a base price to the stratosphere without a 50% retracement along the way. Mission accomplished!)
During that precipitous decline after 2011, gold hit a level of $1,417 per ounce in August 2013. It was the last time gold would see a $1,400 per ounce handle until last month when gold briefly hit $1,440 per ounce on an intra-day basis. At last, the six-year trading range was broken. Better yet, gold hit $1,400 on the way up, not on the way down.
The range-bound trading from 2013 to 2019 was long and tiring for long-term gold investors. Gold had rallied to $1,380 per ounce in May 2014, $1,300 per ounce in January 2015, and $1,363 per ounce in July 2016 (a post-Brexit bounce).
But, for every rally there was a trough. Gold fell to $1,087 per ounce in August 2015 and $1,050 per ounce in December 2015. The bigger picture was that gold was trading in a range. The range was approximately $1,365 per ounce at the top and $1,050 per ounce at the bottom, with lots of ups and downs in between. Yet, nothing seemed capable of breaking gold out of that range.
The good news is that gold has now broken out to the upside. The $1,440 per ounce level is well within reach and the $1,400 per ounce level seems like a solid floor, despite occasional dips into $1,390 per ounce territory. Gold’s trading at $1,416 today.
More importantly, a new multi-year bull market has now emerged. Turning points from bear to bull markets (and vice versa) are not always recognized in real time because investors and analysts are too wedded to the old story to see that the new story has already started.
But, looking back it’s clear that the bear market ended in December 2015 at the $1,050 per ounce level and a new bull market, now in its fourth year, is solidly intact. The recent break-out to the $1,440 per ounce level is a strong 37% gain for the new bull market. This price break-out has far to run. (The 1971 – 1980 bull market gained over 2,100%, and the 1999 – 2011 bull market gained over 650%).
The price action over the past six weeks has been even wilder than the price action over the past six years. As late as May 29, 2019, gold was languishing at $1,280 per ounce. Then it took off like a rocket to $1,420 per ounce by June 25, 2019, an 11% gain in just four weeks.
Gold just as quickly backed-down to $1,382 per ounce on July 1, rallied back to $1,418 per ounce on July 3, and fell again to $1,398 per ounce on July 5. These daily price swings of 1.5% are the new normal in gold. Again, the good news is that the $1,400 per ounce floor seems intact.
What’s driving the new gold bull market?
From both a long-term and short-term perspective, there are three principal drivers: geopolitics, supply and demand, and Fed interest rate policy; (the dollar price of gold is just the inverse of dollar strength. A strong dollar = a lower dollar price of gold, and a weak dollar = a higher dollar price of gold. Fed rate policy determines if the dollar is strong or weak).
The first two factors have been driving the price of gold higher since 2015 and will continue to do so. Geopolitical hot spots (Korea, Crimea, Iran, Venezuela, China and Syria) remain unresolved and most are getting worse. Each flare-up drives a flight-to-safety that boosts gold along with Treasury notes.
The supply/demand situation remains favorable with Russia and China buying over 50 tons per month to build up their reserves while global mining output has been flat for five years.
The third factor, Fed policy, is the hardest to forecast and the most powerful on a day-to-day basis. The Fed has a policy rate-setting meeting on July 31. There is almost no chance the Fed will raise rates. The issue is whether they will cut rates or stand pat.
The case for cutting rates is strong. U.S. growth slowed in the second-quarter to 1.3% (according to the most recent estimate) from an annualized 3.1% in the first-quarter of 2019. Inflation continues to miss the Fed’s target of 2.0% year-over-year and has been declining recently. Trade war fears are adding to a global growth slowdown.
On the other hand, the June employment report showed strong job creation, continued wage gains, and increase labor force participation. All of those indicators correspond to higher future inflation under Fed models. The G20 summit between President Trump and President Xi of China led to a truce in the U.S.-China trade war and the prospect of continued talks to end the trade war.
In short, there’s plenty of data to support rate cuts or no cuts in July. The Fed is biding its time. Meanwhile, the market is highly uncertain. A good headline on trade results in a stronger dollar and weaker gold. The next day, a bad headline on growth results in a weaker dollar and stronger gold.
This dynamic explains the erratic up-and-down price movements of the past week. The dynamic is likely to continue right up until the July 31 Fed meeting in two weeks.
With so much uncertainty and volatility in the dollar price of gold lately, what is the prospect for a rally in precious metals prices and stocks that track them?
Right now, my models are telling us that the gold rally will continue regardless of the Fed’s action on July 31.
Expectations today are that the Fed will cut rates at the next FOMC meeting, but the probabilities are far from a sure thing. If the Fed cuts rates, the market will simply move its expectations of further rate cuts to the next FOMC meeting (September 18). The weak dollar/strong gold rally will continue.
If the Fed does not cut rates, gold may suffer a short-term drawdown, but markets will assume the Fed made a mistake. Expectations for a 50bp (0.5%) rate cut in September will start to build.
That new forward expectation will power gold higher just as surely as the missed July rate cut.
That covers gold. But what about silver?
Many investors assume there is a baseline silver/gold price ratio of 16:1. They look at the actual silver/gold price ratio of 100:1 and assume that silver is poised for a 600% rally to restore the 16:1 ratio. These same investors tend to blame “manipulation” for silver’s underperformance.
That analysis is almost entirely nonsense. There is no baseline silver/gold ratio. (The “16:1 ratio” is an historical legacy from silver mining lobbying in the late 19th century, a time of deflation, when farmers and miners were trying to ease the money supply by inflating the price of silver with a legislative link to gold.
The result was “bimetallism,” an early form of QE. The ratio had nothing to do with supply/demand, geology, or any other fundamental factor. Bimetallism failed and was replaced with a strict gold standard in 1900).
This does not mean there is no correlation between gold and silver prices. As Chart 1 below reveals, there is a moderately strong correlation between the two. The coefficient of determination (expressed as r2) is 0.9.
This means that over 80% of the movement in the price of silver can be explained by movements in the price of gold. The remaining silver price factors involve industrial demand unrelated to gold prices.
Recently, a huge gap has opened up between the rally in gold prices (shown in gold on Chart 1 with a right-hand scale) compared to silver prices (shown in grey on Chart 1 with a left-hand scale).
Given the historically high correlation between gold and silver price movements, and the recent lag in the silver rally, the analysis suggests that either gold will fall sharply or silver will rally sharply.
Since I have articulated the case for continued strength in gold prices, my expectation is that gold will continue to outpace silver.
Either way, both metals are heading higher.