13 May 2010

Why There is Fear and Resentment of Gold's Ability to Reveal the True Value of Financial Assets

There were a few questions raised about the note on the long term chart of the SP 500 deflated by gold which was posted last night, and which is reproduced here on the right, which read "This is why the financial engineers like Bernanke hate and fear gold; it defies their plans and powers."

The chart shows something that most investors have suspected. There has been no genuine recovery in the price of stocks since the decline that cannot be fully explained by the monetary inflation of the dollar, as can be discovered by the ultimate store of value, which is gold.

I thought that this was a fairly straightforward observation, but it apparently jarred a few people and their thinking. So perhaps we have some new readers who are not familiar with the long standing animosity towards gold that is uniformly expressed by all those who promote centralized command and control economies, from both the left and the right.

Can any astute observer doubt the Fed's desire to act in secret and privacy? Their obsession with this is almost unbelievable and beyond comprehension, unless one understands that they are in a 'confidence game,' and use persuasion and even illusion to shape perceptions, especially at the extremes of their financial and monetary engineering of the real economy.

This animosity and desire for secrecy was described by Alan Greenspan in his famous essay, Gold and Economic Freedom, first published in 1966. In a fairly amusing exchange between Congressman Ron Paul and the former Chairman a couple of years ago, Mr. Paul asked Sir Alan about this essay, and if he had any corrections or misgivings about it after so many years. Would he change anything?

"Not one word." replied Greenspan, in one of his few candidly honest and straightforward statements.

It helps to understand the dynamics of the money world, which appear so mysterious to those who do not specialize in it, even economists, although some may feign ignorance to promote their cause or avoid unpleasant disclosures.

Money is power. Ownership of the means of production may provide for the control of groups of disorganized labor.  But the power of the issuance of money allows for the control of whole peoples and governments, through the distribution and transference of wealth, by the most subtle of means. And this is why the US Constitution relegated this power to the Congress and by their explicit appropriation, and denied it to the States and private parties except in the form of specie, that is, gold and silver which have intrinsic value.

It might be useful to review a prior post in reaction to the self-named maverick economist Willem Buiter, who wrote a few attacks on gold, prior to his leaving academia and the Financial Times to take a senior position with Citibank. Willem Buiter Apparently Does Not Like Gold

It may seem a bit perverse, but I do not favor a return to a gold, or a bi-metallic gold and silver standard at this time.   Each nation can be free to devalue or deflate their own money supply as their needs require, with the consent and knowledge of the people and their representatives.

What I do promote is for gold and silver to trade freely without restraint or manipulation as a refuge from monetary manipulation, and a secure store of value for private wealth. When nations adopt the gold standard, they invariably seek to 'fix' and manipulate its price, and reserve the ownership to themselves, with the tendency to seize the wealth of their citizen under the rationale of such an ownership, or dominant privilege.

Let those who have a mind to it have the means of securing their labor and efforts, and let the state do as it will, with the open knowledge and consent of the world.
"Gold is not necessary. I have no interest in gold. We will build a solid state, without an ounce of gold behind it. Anyone who sells above the set prices, let him be marched off to a concentration camp. That's the bastion of money."

Adolf Hitler
A draconian approach no doubt. It is much more common for the ruling parties to debase the coinage secretively while advantaging their friends and supporters, thereby manipulating the value of gold and silver covertly.

 In modern times of non-specie currency one might choose to select a few cooperative banks and the central money authority to manipulate the price using paper and markets, and hope that this scheme will remain undiscovered. But it always comes out, the truth is always known in the end.
"With the exception only of the period of the gold standard, practically all governments of history have used their exclusive power to issue money to defraud and plunder the people."

F. A. Von Hayek
There are any number of amateur economists and investing pundits around these days who betray an almost irrational opposition to gold, becoming jubilant in every decline, and despondent at every rally. And some of them even take the label of 'Austrianism' in their thoughts which is quite odd given that it is one of their schools strongest bulwarks.

Most often this can simply explained as the envy of those who have not prepared for a crisis, and wish ill upon those who have, regretting and hoping for another chance to provide for their own security. And yet they will fail to take advantage of every opportunity to do so, as they are creatures betrayed alternatively by their own fear and greed.

One of the best indications of quack advice on the question of investing in precious metals is when one of the reasons against it includes the scurrilous non sequitur, 'You can't eat it,' as if nutritional content is a valid measure of the durability of wealth. It betrays a lowness of argument and intellectual integrity that should promptly urge one to run in the other direction.

And regrettably, there are always those who will say almost anything for money, and the profession of economist seems to be particularly infested with that sort, given the stochastic nature of the discipline, and its lack of scientific rigor, being based on principles which do not easily lend themselves to objectification with serious damage to the data being made by the assumptions in their equations and proofs.

But most of all, the financial engineers, politicians, and Wall Street Banks fear gold because it is the antidote to their frauds, and the informant to their confiscation of wealth.

Do not expect them to capitulate once and for all, but only slowly and grudgingly as it becomes more difficult for them to sustain their illusions and persuasion. Protecting wealth against official adventurism is never easy.

Here is Alan Greenspan's famous essay on Gold and Economic Freedom. I suggest your read it, because it will help you to understand much of what is said and done as the global reserve currency system changes and evolves.
Gold and Economic Freedom
by Alan Greenspan

Published in Ayn Rand's "Objectivist" newsletter in 1966, and reprinted in her book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, in 1967.

An almost hysterical antagonism toward the gold standard is one issue which unites statists of all persuasions. They seem to sense - perhaps more clearly and subtly than many consistent defenders of laissez-faire - that gold and economic freedom are inseparable, that the gold standard is an instrument of laissez-faire and that each implies and requires the other.

In order to understand the source of their antagonism, it is necessary first to understand the specific role of gold in a free society.

Money is the common denominator of all economic transactions. It is that commodity which serves as a medium of exchange, is universally acceptable to all participants in an exchange economy as payment for their goods or services, and can, therefore, be used as a standard of market value and as a store of value, i.e., as a means of saving.

The existence of such a commodity is a precondition of a division of labor economy. If men did not have some commodity of objective value which was generally acceptable as money, they would have to resort to primitive barter or be forced to live on self-sufficient farms and forgo the inestimable advantages of specialization. If men had no means to store value, i.e., to save, neither long-range planning nor exchange would be possible.

What medium of exchange will be acceptable to all participants in an economy is not determined arbitrarily. First, the medium of exchange should be durable. In a primitive society of meager wealth, wheat might be sufficiently durable to serve as a medium, since all exchanges would occur only during and immediately after the harvest, leaving no value-surplus to store. But where store-of-value considerations are important, as they are in richer, more civilized societies, the medium of exchange must be a durable commodity, usually a metal. A metal is generally chosen because it is homogeneous and divisible: every unit is the same as every other and it can be blended or formed in any quantity. Precious jewels, for example, are neither homogeneous nor divisible. More important, the commodity chosen as a medium must be a luxury. Human desires for luxuries are unlimited and, therefore, luxury goods are always in demand and will always be acceptable. Wheat is a luxury in underfed civilizations, but not in a prosperous society. Cigarettes ordinarily would not serve as money, but they did in post-World War II Europe where they were considered a luxury. The term "luxury good" implies scarcity and high unit value. Having a high unit value, such a good is easily portable; for instance, an ounce of gold is worth a half-ton of pig iron.

In the early stages of a developing money economy, several media of exchange might be used, since a wide variety of commodities would fulfill the foregoing conditions. However, one of the commodities will gradually displace all others, by being more widely acceptable. Preferences on what to hold as a store of value will shift to the most widely acceptable commodity, which, in turn, will make it still more acceptable. The shift is progressive until that commodity becomes the sole medium of exchange. The use of a single medium is highly advantageous for the same reasons that a money economy is superior to a barter economy: it makes exchanges possible on an incalculably wider scale.

Whether the single medium is gold, silver, seashells, cattle, or tobacco is optional, depending on the context and development of a given economy. In fact, all have been employed, at various times, as media of exchange. Even in the present century, two major commodities, gold and silver, have been used as international media of exchange, with gold becoming the predominant one. Gold, having both artistic and functional uses and being relatively scarce, has significant advantages over all other media of exchange. Since the beginning of World War I, it has been virtually the sole international standard of exchange. If all goods and services were to be paid for in gold, large payments would be difficult to execute and this would tend to limit the extent of a society's divisions of labor and specialization. Thus a logical extension of the creation of a medium of exchange is the development of a banking system and credit instruments (bank notes and deposits) which act as a substitute for, but are convertible into, gold.

A free banking system based on gold is able to extend credit and thus to create bank notes (currency) and deposits, according to the production requirements of the economy. Individual owners of gold are induced, by payments of interest, to deposit their gold in a bank (against which they can draw checks). But since it is rarely the case that all depositors want to withdraw all their gold at the same time, the banker need keep only a fraction of his total deposits in gold as reserves. This enables the banker to loan out more than the amount of his gold deposits (which means that he holds claims to gold rather than gold as security of his deposits). But the amount of loans which he can afford to make is not arbitrary: he has to gauge it in relation to his reserves and to the status of his investments.

When banks loan money to finance productive and profitable endeavors, the loans are paid off rapidly and bank credit continues to be generally available. But when the business ventures financed by bank credit are less profitable and slow to pay off, bankers soon find that their loans outstanding are excessive relative to their gold reserves, and they begin to curtail new lending, usually by charging higher interest rates. This tends to restrict the financing of new ventures and requires the existing borrowers to improve their profitability before they can obtain credit for further expansion. Thus, under the gold standard, a free banking system stands as the protector of an economy's stability and balanced growth. When gold is accepted as the medium of exchange by most or all nations, an unhampered free international gold standard serves to foster a world-wide division of labor and the broadest international trade. Even though the units of exchange (the dollar, the pound, the franc, etc.) differ from country to country, when all are defined in terms of gold the economies of the different countries act as one — so long as there are no restraints on trade or on the movement of capital. Credit, interest rates, and prices tend to follow similar patterns in all countries. For example, if banks in one country extend credit too liberally, interest rates in that country will tend to fall, inducing depositors to shift their gold to higher-interest paying banks in other countries. This will immediately cause a shortage of bank reserves in the "easy money" country, inducing tighter credit standards and a return to competitively higher interest rates again.

A fully free banking system and fully consistent gold standard have not as yet been achieved. But prior to World War I, the banking system in the United States (and in most of the world) was based on gold and even though governments intervened occasionally, banking was more free than controlled. Periodically, as a result of overly rapid credit expansion, banks became loaned up to the limit of their gold reserves, interest rates rose sharply, new credit was cut off, and the economy went into a sharp, but short-lived recession. (Compared with the depressions of 1920 and 1932, the pre-World War I business declines were mild indeed.) It was limited gold reserves that stopped the unbalanced expansions of business activity, before they could develop into the post-World War I type of disaster. The readjustment periods were short and the economies quickly reestablished a sound basis to resume expansion.

But the process of cure was misdiagnosed as the disease: if shortage of bank reserves was causing a business decline — argued economic interventionists — why not find a way of supplying increased reserves to the banks so they never need be short! If banks can continue to loan money indefinitely — it was claimed — there need never be any slumps in business. And so the Federal Reserve System was organized in 1913. It consisted of twelve regional Federal Reserve banks nominally owned by private bankers, but in fact government sponsored, controlled, and supported. Credit extended by these banks is in practice (though not legally) backed by the taxing power of the federal government. Technically, we remained on the gold standard; individuals were still free to own gold, and gold continued to be used as bank reserves. But now, in addition to gold, credit extended by the Federal Reserve banks ("paper reserves") could serve as legal tender to pay depositors.

When business in the United States underwent a mild contraction in 1927, the Federal Reserve created more paper reserves in the hope of forestalling any possible bank reserve shortage. More disastrous, however, was the Federal Reserve's attempt to assist Great Britain who had been losing gold to us because the Bank of England refused to allow interest rates to rise when market forces dictated (it was politically unpalatable). The reasoning of the authorities involved was as follows: if the Federal Reserve pumped excessive paper reserves into American banks, interest rates in the United States would fall to a level comparable with those in Great Britain; this would act to stop Britain's gold loss and avoid the political embarrassment of having to raise interest rates. The "Fed" succeeded; it stopped the gold loss, but it nearly destroyed the economies of the world, in the process. The excess credit which the Fed pumped into the economy spilled over into the stock market, triggering a fantastic speculative boom. Belatedly, Federal Reserve officials attempted to sop up the excess reserves and finally succeeded in braking the boom. But it was too late: by 1929 the speculative imbalances had become so overwhelming that the attempt precipitated a sharp retrenching and a consequent demoralizing of business confidence. As a result, the American economy collapsed. Great Britain fared even worse, and rather than absorb the full consequences of her previous folly, she abandoned the gold standard completely in 1931, tearing asunder what remained of the fabric of confidence and inducing a world-wide series of bank failures. The world economies plunged into the Great Depression of the 1930's.

With a logic reminiscent of a generation earlier, statists argued that the gold standard was largely to blame for the credit debacle which led to the Great Depression. If the gold standard had not existed, they argued, Britain's abandonment of gold payments in 1931 would not have caused the failure of banks all over the world. (The irony was that since 1913, we had been, not on a gold standard, but on what may be termed "a mixed gold standard"; yet it is gold that took the blame.) But the opposition to the gold standard in any form — from a growing number of welfare-state advocates — was prompted by a much subtler insight: the realization that the gold standard is incompatible with chronic deficit spending (the hallmark of the welfare state). Stripped of its academic jargon, the welfare state is nothing more than a mechanism by which governments confiscate the wealth of the productive members of a society to support a wide variety of welfare schemes. A substantial part of the confiscation is effected by taxation. But the welfare statists were quick to recognize that if they wished to retain political power, the amount of taxation had to be limited and they had to resort to programs of massive deficit spending, i.e., they had to borrow money, by issuing government bonds, to finance welfare expenditures on a large scale.

Under a gold standard, the amount of credit that an economy can support is determined by the economy's tangible assets, since every credit instrument is ultimately a claim on some tangible asset. But government bonds are not backed by tangible wealth, only by the government's promise to pay out of future tax revenues, and cannot easily be absorbed by the financial markets. A large volume of new government bonds can be sold to the public only at progressively higher interest rates. Thus, government deficit spending under a gold standard is severely limited. The abandonment of the gold standard made it possible for the welfare statists to use the banking system as a means to an unlimited expansion of credit. They have created paper reserves in the form of government bonds which — through a complex series of steps — the banks accept in place of tangible assets and treat as if they were an actual deposit, i.e., as the equivalent of what was formerly a deposit of gold. The holder of a government bond or of a bank deposit created by paper reserves believes that he has a valid claim on a real asset. But the fact is that there are now more claims outstanding than real assets. The law of supply and demand is not to be conned. As the supply of money (of claims) increases relative to the supply of tangible assets in the economy, prices must eventually rise. Thus the earnings saved by the productive members of the society lose value in terms of goods. When the economy's books are finally balanced, one finds that this loss in value represents the goods purchased by the government for welfare or other purposes with the money proceeds of the government bonds financed by bank credit expansion.

In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold. If everyone decided, for example, to convert all his bank deposits to silver or copper or any other good, and thereafter declined to accept checks as payment for goods, bank deposits would lose their purchasing power and government-created bank credit would be worthless as a claim on goods. The financial policy of the welfare state requires that there be no way for the owners of wealth to protect themselves.

This is the shabby secret of the welfare statists' tirades against gold. Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation of wealth. Gold stands in the way of this insidious process. It stands as a protector of property rights. If one grasps this, one has no difficulty in understanding the statists' antagonism toward the gold standard.

Given his Randian audience and the mood at the time, it is interesting that Greenspan defines the culprits in the scheme of fiat monetization as 'welfare statists.' How ironic, that over a period of time there is indeed a group of welfare statists behind the latest debasement of the currency, the US dollar, but the recipients of this welfare are the Banks and the financial elite, who through transfer payments, financial fraud, and federally sanctioned subsidies are systematically stripping the middle class of their wealth. Perhaps they decided that if you cannot beat them, beat them to the trough and take the best for themselves until the system collapses through their abuse.