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Potpourri for $500, Alex

June 1, 2018 5 comments

When I don’t write as often, I have trouble re-starting. That’s because I’m not writing because I don’t have anything to say, but because I don’t have time to write. Ergo, when I do sit down to write, I have a bunch of ideas competing to be the first thing I write about. And that freezes me a bit.

So, I’m just going to shotgun out some unconnected thoughts in short bursts and we will see how it goes.


Wages! Today’s Employment Report included the nugget that private hourly earnings are up at a 2.8% rate over the last year (see chart, source Bloomberg). Some of this is probably due to the one-time bumps in pay that some corporates have given to their employees as a result of the tax cut, and so the people who believe there is no inflation and never will be any inflation will dismiss this.

On the other hand, I’ll tend to dismiss it as being less important because (a) wages follow prices, not the other way around, and (b) we already knew that wages were rising because the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker, which controls for composition effects, is +3.3% over the last year and will probably bump higher again this month. But the rise in private wages to a 9-year high is just one more dovish argument biting the dust.

As an aside, Torsten Slok of Deutsche Bank pointed out in a couple of charts today that one phenomenon of recent years has been that people staying in the same jobs increasingly see zero wage growth. Although this is partly because wage growth in general has been low, the spread between wage growth for “job switchers” and “job stayers” is now about 1.25% per year, the highest rate in about 17 years. His point is that as we see more switchers due to a tight labor market, that implies more wage growth (again, the Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker does a better job, so this just means average hourly earnings should increasingly converge with the Atlanta Fed figure).


Today I was on the TD Ameritrade Network and they showed a chart that I’d included in our Quarterly Inflation Outlook (which we distribute to customers). I tweeted the chart back on May 22 but let me put it here, with some brief commentary lifted from our quarterly:

“As economic activity has started to absorb more and more unemployed into the workforce, a shortage has developed in the population of truck drivers. This shortage is not easy to overcome, since it takes time to train new truck drivers (and the robo-truck is still no more than science fiction). Moreover, recent advances in electronically monitoring the number of hours that drivers are on the road – there have been rules governing this for a long time, but they relied on honest reporting from the drivers – have artificially reduced the supply of trucker hours at just the time when more were needed because of economic growth…As a result of this phenomenon, total net-of-fuel-surcharge truckload rates are 15% higher than they were a year ago, which is the highest rate of increase since 2004. As the chart (source: FTR Associates and BLS) illustrates, there is a significant connection between truckload rates lagged 15 months and core inflation (0.74 correlation).”

According to FTR Transportation Intelligence, the US is short about 280,000 truck drivers compared to what it needs.


Remember when everyone said Europe was about to head back into deflation, thanks to that surprise dip in core inflation last month? Here is what I had to say about that on my private Twitter feed (sign up here if this stuff matters to you) at the time.

As Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story is that core European CPI printed this month at 1.1%, shocking (almost) everyone for a second month.


I had a conversation recently with a potential client who said they didn’t want to get into a long-commodity strategy because they were afraid of chasing what is hot. It’s a reasonable concern. No one wants to be the pigeon who bought the highs.

But some context is warranted. I didn’t want to be impolite, but I pointed out that what he was saying was that in the chart below, he was afraid it was too late to get on the orange line because it is too hot.

Incidentally, lest you think that I chose that period because it flatters the argument…for every period starting June 30, XXXX and ending June 1, 2018, the orange line is appreciably below the white line and has never been meaningfully above it, for XXXX going back to 2002. For 2002-2011, the two indices shown here were pretty well correlated. Since 2011, it has been a one-way underperformance ticket for commodities. They are many things, but “hot” is not one of them!

I haven’t heard back.

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Being Closer to the ‘Oh Darn’ Inflation Strike

April 19, 2018 5 comments

The time period between spikes of inflation angst seems to be shortening. I am not sure yet about the amplitude of those spikes of angst, but the concern seems to be quickening.

This is not without reason as it seems that concerning headlines are occurring with more frequency. This week the Bloomberg Commodity Index again challenged the 2016 and 2017 highs before backing off today (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Somewhat more alarming than that, to people who watch commodities, is how the commodity indices are rallying. The culprits are energy as well as industrial metals, and each has an interesting story to tell. Energy has been rallying partly because of global tensions, but also partly because US shale oil production appears to be running into some bottlenecks on production (wages, shortages of frack sand) as well as delivery (capacity constraints on pipelines), and part of what has kept a lid on energy prices over the last couple of years was the understanding that shale oil production was improving rapidly and becoming lots more efficient due to improved technology. If shale is limited, the ‘lid’ on prices is not as binding as we had thought. On industrial metals, some of the upward pressure has been due to fallout from US sanctions on Rusal, a major supplier of aluminum and alumina. Since those sanctions were announced, aluminum prices have risen around 25%, and alumina (a raw input to aluminum production) about 50%, with knock-on effects in other industrial metals.

Both of these items bear on the market’s recent fears about new pressures on inflation – capacity constraints (especially rising wages for long-haul truckers) and potential fracturing of the global trade détente.

And 10-year breakevens are at new 4-year highs, although it is worth remembering that this is nowhere near the 10-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg).

Shorter inflation swaps look less alarming, and not at new four-year highs. However, even here the news is not really soothing. The reason that shorter inflation swaps are lower than they have been in the past is because the energy curves are in backwardation – meaning that the market is pricing in lower energy process in the future. In turn, this means that implied core inflation – once we strip out these energy effects – are, in fact, at 4-year highs (see chart, source Enduring Investments).

So there is legitimate cause to be concerned about upside risks to inflation, and that’s one reason the market is a bit jumpier in this regard. But there is also additional premium, volatility, and angst associated with the level of inflation itself. While as I have pointed out before much of the rise in core inflation to date due to optics arising from base effects, that doesn’t change the fact that the ‘oh, rats’ strike is closer now. That is to say that when core inflation is running at 1.5%, stuff can go wrong without hurting you if your pain threshold is at 3%. But when core inflation is at 2.5% (as it will be this summer), not as much “bad stuff” needs to happen to cause financial pain. In other words, both the ‘delta’ and the ‘gamma’ of the exposure is higher now – just as if one were short a call option struck at (say) 3% inflation. Because, implicitly, many investors are.

If inflation is low, then even if it is volatile in a range it can be consistent with high market valuations for stocks and bonds. But when inflation starts to creep above 3%, those markets tend to suffer in non-linear fashion.

And this, I believe, is why the market’s nervousness about inflation (and market volatility resulting from that nervousness) is unlikely to soon abate.

Nudge at Neptune

Okay, I get it. Your stockbroker is telling you not to worry about inflation: it’s really low, core inflation hasn’t been above 3% for two decades…and, anyway, the Fed is really trying to push it higher, he says, so if it goes up then that’s good too. Besides, some inflation isn’t necessarily bad for equities since many companies can raise end product prices faster than they have to adjust wages they pay their workers.[1] So why worry about something we haven’t seen in a while and isn’t necessarily that bad? Buy more FANG, baby!

Keep in mind that there is a very good chance that your stockbroker, if he or she is under 55 years old, has never seen an investing environment with inflation. Also keep in mind that the stories and scenes of wild excess on Wall Street don’t come from periods when equities are in a bear market. I’m just saying that there’s a reason to be at least mildly skeptical of your broker’s advice to own “100 minus your age” in stocks when you’re young, which morphs into advice to “owning more stocks since you’re likely to have a long retirement” when you get a bit older.

Many financial professionals are better-compensated, explicitly or implicitly, when stocks are going up. This means that even many of the honest ones, who have their clients’ best interests at heart, can’t help but enjoy it when the stock market rallies. Conversations with clients are easier when their accounts are going up in size every day and they feel flush. There’s a reason these folks didn’t go into selling life insurance. Selling life insurance is really hard – you have to talk every day to people and remind them that they’re going to die. I’d hate to be an insurance salesman.

And yet, I guess that’s sort of what I am.

Insurance is about managing risks. Frankly, investing should also be about managing risks – about keeping as much upside as you can, while maintaining an adequate margin of safety. Said another way, it’s about buying that insurance as cheaply as you can so that you don’t spend all of your money on insurance. That’s why diversification is such a powerful idea: owning 20 stocks, rather than 1 stock, gets you downside protection against idiosyncratic risks – essentially for free. Owning multiple asset classes is even more powerful, because the correlations between asset classes are generally lower than the correlations between stocks. Diversification works, and it’s free, so we do it.

So let’s talk about inflation protection. And to talk about inflation protection, I bring you…NASA.

How can we prevent an asteroid impact with Earth?

The key to preventing an impact is to find any potential threat as early as possible. With a couple of decades of warning, which would be possible for 100-meter-sized asteroids with a more capable detection network, several options are technically feasible for preventing an asteroid impact.

Deflecting an asteroid that is on an impact course with Earth requires changing the velocity of the object by less than an inch per second years in advance of the predicted impact.

Would it be possible to shoot down an asteroid that is about to impact Earth?

An asteroid on a trajectory to impact Earth could not be shot down in the last few minutes or even hours before impact.  No known weapon system could stop the mass because of the velocity at which it travels – an average of 12 miles per second.

NASA is also in the business of risk mitigation, and actually their problem is similar to the investor’s problem: find protection, as cheaply as possible, that allows us to retain most of the upside. We can absolutely protect astronauts in space from degradation of their DNA from cosmic rays, with enough shielding. The problem is that the more shielding you add, the harder it is to go very far, very fast, in space. So NASA wants to find the cheapest way to have an effective cosmic ray shield. And, in the ‘planetary defense’ role for NASA, they understand that deflecting an asteroid from hitting the Earth is much, much easier if we do it very early. A nudge when a space rock is out at the orbit of Neptune is all it takes. But wait too long, and there is no way to prevent the devastating impact.

Yes, inflation works the same way.

The impact of inflation on a normal portfolio consisting of stocks and bonds is devastating. Rising inflation hurts bonds because interest rates rise, and it hurts stocks because multiples fall. There is no hiding behind diversification in a ’60-40’ portfolio when inflation rises. Other investments/assets/hedges need to be put into the mix. And when inflation is low, and “high” inflation is far away, it is inexpensive to protect against that portfolio impactor. I have written before about how low commodities prices are compared with equity prices, and in January I also wrote a piece about why the expected return to commodities is actually rising even as commodities go sideways.

TIPS breakevens are also reasonable. While 10-year breakevens have risen from 1.70% to 2.10% over the last 9 months or so, that’s still below current median inflation, and below where core inflation will be in a few months as the one-offs subside. And it’s still comfortably below where 10-year breaks have traded in normal times for the last 15 years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

It is true that there are not a lot of good ways for smaller investors to simply go long inflation. But you can trade out your nominal Treasuries for inflation bonds, own commodities, and if you have access to UCITS that trade in London there is INFU, which tracks 10-year breakevens. NASA doesn’t have a lot of good options, either, for protecting against an asteroid impact. But there are many more plausible options, if you start early, than if you wait until inflation’s trajectory is inside the orbit of the moon.


[1] Your stockbroker conveniently forgets that P/E multiples contract as inflation rises past about 3%. Also, your stockbroker conveniently abandons the argument about how businesses can raise prices before raising wages, meaning that consumer inflation leads wage inflation, when he points to weak wage growth and says “there’s no wage-push inflation.” Actually, your stockbroker sounds like a bit of an ass.

Historical Context Regarding Market Cycles

February 5, 2018 4 comments

I really enjoy listening to financial media outlets on days like this. Six days removed from all-time highs, the equity guys – especially the strategists, who make their money on the way up – talk about “capitulation,” and how “nothing has changed,” and how people need to “invest for the long-term.” If equities have entered a bear market, they will say this all the way down.

It helps to have seen a few cycles. Consider the early-2000s bear market. In 2000, the Nasdaq crested in March. After a stomach-churning setback, it rallied back into August (the S&P actually had its highest monthly close for that cycle in August). The market then dropped again, bounced, dropped again, bounced, and so on. Every bounce on the way down, the stock market shills shrieked ‘capitulation’ and called it a buying opportunity. Eventually it was, of course. But if there is a bear market, there will be plenty of time to buy later. This was also true in ’09, which was much more of a ‘spike’ bottom but let’s face it, you had months and months to get in…except that no one wanted to get in at the time.

If it is not a bear market, then sure – it’s a buying opportunity. But what I know from watching this drama play out several times is that you cannot tell at the time whether it’s a buying opportunity, or a dead-cat bounce. It does not help at all to say “but the economy is okay.” Recalling that the Nasdaq’s peak was in March 2000: the Fed was still hiking rates in May of that year, and didn’t cut rates until 2001.  In late July 2000, GDP printed 5.2% following 4.8% in Q1. In October 2000, GDP for Q3 was reported to still be at 2.2%. Waiting for the economy to tell you that all was not well was very costly. By the time the Fed was alarmed enough to ease, in a surprise move on January 3, 2001, the S&P was down 16%. But fortunately, that ended it as stocks jumped 5% on the Fed’s move. Buy the dip!

By mid-2002, stocks were down about 50% from the high. Buying the dip was in that case precisely wrong.

Then there is the bear market of a decade ago. The October 2007 market high happened when the economy was still strong, although there were clearly underlying stresses in mortgages and mortgage banking and the Fed was already easing. Yet, on January 10, 2008, Fed Chairman Bernanke said “the Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession.” On January 18, he said the economy “has a strong labor force, excellent productivity and technology, and a deep and liquid financial market that is in the process of repairing itself.” In June 2008, he said “The risk that the economy has entered a substantial downturn appears to have diminished over the past month or so.” Stocks were already down 19%. It got somewhat worse…and it didn’t take long.

So the thing to remember is this: equities do not wait for earnings to suffer, or for forecasts of earnings to suffer, or for everyone to figure out that growth is flagging, or for someone to ring a bell. By the time we know why stocks are going down, it is too late. This is why using some discipline is important – crossing the 200-day moving average, or value metrics, or whatever. Or, decide you’ll hold through the -50% moves and ignore all the volatility. Good luck…but then why are you reading market commentary?

I don’t know that stocks are going to enter a bear market. I don’t know if they’ll go down tomorrow or next week or next month. I have a pretty strong opinion about expected real returns over the next 10 years. And for that opinion to be realized, there will have to be a bear market (or two) in there somewhere. So it will not surprise me at any time if a bear market begins, especially from lofty valuation levels. But my point in this article is just to provide some historical context. And my general advice, which is not specific to any particular person reading this, is that if anyone tells you that price moves like this are ‘capitulation’ to be followed by ‘v-shaped recoveries,’ then don’t just walk away but run away. They haven’t any idea, and that advice might make you a few percent or lose you 50%.

To be sure, don’t panic and abandon whatever plan you had, simply because other people are nervous. As Frank Herbert wrote, “fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” This is why having a plan is so important! And I also think that plans should focus on the long term, and on your personal goals, and matching your long-term investments to those goals. Rebalancing and compounding are powerful tools, as is a value ethic of buying securities that have a margin of safety.

And, of course, diversification. Bonds today did what they’re supposed to do when ‘risky assets’ take a tumble: they rallied. As I noted on Friday: “I am not saying that interest rates are going directly from 3% to 6%. Indeed, the rates/equity ecosystem is inherently self-dampening to some degree (at least, until we reach a level where we’ve exceeded the range of the spring’s elasticity!) in that if equity prices were to head very much lower, interest rates would respond under a belief that central bankers would moderate their tightening paths in the face of weak equities.” The problem with nominal bonds at this point, though, is that they’re too expensive. At these yields, there is a limit to the diversification they can provide, especially if what is going to drive the bear market in stocks is rising inflation. Bonds will diversify against the sharp selloff, but not against the inflation spiral. (I’ve said it before and I will say it again. If you haven’t read Ben Inker’s piece in the latest GMO quarterly, arguing why inflation is a bigger risk for portfolios right now than recession, do so. “What happened to inflation? And What happens if it comes back?”)

Which brings us to commodities. If the factor driving an equity bear market turns out to be inflation, then commodities should remain uncoupled from equities. For the last few days, commodity indices have declined along with equities – not nearly as much, of course, but the same sign. But if the problem is a fear of inflation then commodities should be taking the baton from stocks.

So there you go. If the problem is rising interest rates, then that is a slow-moving problem that’s self-limiting because central banks will bring rates back down if stocks decline too far. If the problem is rising inflation, then commodities + inflation bonds should beat equities+nominal bonds. Given that commodities and inflation bonds are both relatively cheaper than their counterparts, I’d rather bet that way and have some protection in both circumstances.

Why Commodities Are a Better Bet These Days

January 16, 2018 7 comments

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It’s been a long time since an article about commodities felt like ‘click bait.’ After all, commodity indices have been generally declining for about seven years – although 2016 saw a small advance – and the Bloomberg Commodity Index today sits 63% below its all-time high set in the summer of 2008. I’ve written before, quite a bit, about this absurdity of the market, represented in the following chart comparing one real asset (equities) to another real asset (commodities). The commodity index here is the Bloomberg spot index, so it does not include the drag (boost) from contango (backwardation).

This is the fair comparison for a forward-looking analysis. Some places you will see the commodity index plotted against the S&P, as below. Such a chart makes the correct inference about the historic returns to these two markets; the prior chart makes a more poignant point about the current pricing of stocks versus commodities.

There’s nothing that says these two markets should move in lock-step as they did from 2003-2007, but they ought to at least behave similarly, one would think. So it is hard to escape the reasoning that commodities are currently very cheap to equities, as one risk-asset to another.

Furthermore, commodity indices offer inflation protection. Here are the correlations between the GSCI and headline inflation, core inflation, and the change in those measures, since 1970 and 1987 respectively.

Stocks? Not so much!

So, commodities look relatively cheap…or, anyway, they’re relatively cheaper, having gone down for 7 years while stocks went higher for 7 years. And they give inflation protection, while stocks give inflation un-protection. So what’s not to like? How about performance! The last decade has been incredibly rough for commodities index investors. However, this is abnormal. In a watershed paper in 2006 called Facts and Fantasies about Commodity Futures, Gorton and Rouwenhorst illustrated that, historically, equities and commodity futures have essentially equivalent monthly returns and risks over the period from 1959-2004.

Moreover, because the drivers of commodity index returns in the long run are not primarily spot commodity prices[1] but, rather, the returns from collateral, from roll or convenience yield, from rebalancing, and from “expectational variance” that produces positive skewness and kurtosis in commodity return distributions,[2] we can make some observations about how expected returns should behave between two points in time.

For example, over the last few years commodities markets have been heavily in contango, meaning that in general spot prices were below forward prices. The effect of this on a long commodity index strategy is that when futures positions are rolled to a new contract month, they are being rolled to higher prices. This drag is substantial. The chart below shows the Bloomberg Commodity Index spot return, compared to the return of the index as a whole, since 2008. The markets haven’t all been in contango, and not all of the time. But they have been in serious contango enough to cause the substantial drag you can see here.

So here is the good news. Currently, futures market contango is the lowest it has been in quite a while. In the last two years, the average contango from the front contract to the 1-year-out contract has gone from 15% or so to about 2% backwardation, using GSCI weights (I know I keep switching back and forth from BCOM to GSCI. I promise there’s nothing sinister about it – it just depends what data I had to hand when I made that chart or when it was calculated automatically, such as the following chart which we compute daily).

That chart implies a substantial change in the drag from roll yield – in fact, depending on your weights in various commodities the roll yield may currently be additive.

The other positive factor is the increase in short-term interest rates. Remember that a commodity index is (in most cases) represents a strategy of holding and rolling futures contracts representing the desired commodity weights. To implement that strategy, an investor must put up collateral – and so an unlevered commodity index return consists partly of the return on that particular collateral. It is generally assumed that the collateral is three-month Treasury Bills. Since the financial crisis, when interest rates went effectively to zero in the US, the collateral return has approximated zero. However, surprise! One positive effect of the Fed’s hiking of rates is to improve projected commodity index returns by 1.5-2% per year (and probably more this year). The chart below shows 3-month TBill rates.

I hope this has been helpful. For the last 5 years, investing in commodities was partly a value/mean-reversion play. This is no longer so true: the change in the shape of the futures curves, combined with rising interest rates, has added substantially to the expected return of commodity indices going forward. It’s about time!


[1] This is a really important point. When people say “commodities always go down in the long run because of increased production,” they’re talking about spot commodity prices. That may be a good reason not to own spot gold or silver, or any physical commodity. Commodity spot returns are mean reverting with a downward slant in real space, true. But a commodity index gets its volatility from spot returns, but its main sources of long term return are actually not terribly related to spot commodities prices.

[2] In other words while stocks “crash” downwards, commodities tend to “crash” upwards. But this isn’t necessary to understand what follows. I just want to be complete. The term “expectational variance” was coined by Grant Gardner.

Gold and TIPS – Related or Not?

September 27, 2017 5 comments

Because I spend so much time digging into inflation data and learning about how inflation works (and how securities and markets work, in different inflation regimes), I am always delighted when I come across something new, especially something simple and new that I could have previously stumbled on, but didn’t.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an article by Scott Grannis (aka Calafia Beach Pundit). I occasionally read Scott’s stuff, and find it to be good quality. I’m not writing this article to either criticize or support most of his column, but rather to point to one particular chart he ran that amazed me. Specifically, he showed the 5-year TIPS yield against the nominal price of gold. Here is his chart:

He also showed the price of gold versus TIPS on a longer-term basis. I’ve replicated that here, although I’ve deflated gold by the CPI since the longer the time frame, the less the nominal price of gold will resemble its real price. It’s still basically the same picture:

This is an amazing chart, even allowing for the divergence in the 2000s (which some people would call prima facie evidence that the Fed eased too much back then). And it just tickles me because I’ve never noticed the correlation at all, and yet it’s really quite good. But here’s the really amazing part: there is no immediately obvious reason these two series should be related at all.

One of them is a price index. In Scott’s version, which isn’t adjusted for inflation, it should march upward to the right forever as long as the general price level continues to rise. Obviously, real yields will not march ever lower forever. When we adjust for the general level of prices, the real price of gold should, like real yields, oscillate (since the long-term real return to gold is approximately zero) so we have removed the tendency for nominal prices (unlike yields) to have a natural drift. But even in real terms, apples-to-apples, it’s an astonishing chart. What this chart seems to say is that when expected growth is poor, gold is worth more and when expected growth is strong, gold is less valuable. But that seems a bit crazy to me.

Okay, one possible interpretation is this: when expected returns from other asset classes such as stocks and bonds and inflation-linked bonds are low, then the expected return from gold should also be low, which means its price should be high. That makes sense, although it is hard to find many gold investors who think as I do that the expected forward-looking real return to gold right now is negative. Heck, I wrote about that last month (see “The Gold Price is Not ‘Too Low’”). It makes some sense, though. But the implication is that as inflation rises, and yields – both real and nominal – rise, then gold prices should fall. I think you’d discover it difficult to find an investor in gold who would think the gold price should fall if inflation picks up!

Where you would think to see more of a relationship is in inflation expectations versus gold. When inflation expectations are high, you’d think you would see gold prices high and vice-versa. But that chart has really nothing suggestive at all, possibly since inflation expectations have really been fairly grounded for the last twenty years. Gold prices, however, have not!

So going back to the original Grannis chart, I am still very suspicious. Fortunately, some time ago we developed a very long history of real interest rates, using a more advanced approach than had previously been applied (you can see the long-term series in this article). That series is derived, rather than observed as the TIPS series is, but it’s probably pretty close to where TIPS yields might have traded had they existed during that period. And when we look at real gold prices versus 5y TIPS yields…

…we get a pretty disappointing chart. What I see is that in the 1970s and early 1980s, high gold prices were associated with high real yields; in the 2000s and 2010s, a high gold price was associated with low real yields.

So, this is a bit of a bummer in one sense but a relief in another sense. That initial chart suggested some very weird dynamics happening between real yields, inflation expectations, and the price of a real commodity. I think this latter chart indicates that the relationship we saw was not some fundamental previously-undiscovered truth – sadly, I guess – but rather something more prosaic: an illustration of how the relative values of all assets tend to move more or less together. TIPS are expensive. Bonds are expensive. Stocks are expensive. Gold is expensive. Unfortunately, I don’t think that tells us a lot that we didn’t already know (although I have strong opinions about the relative ordering of the richness/cheapness of those asset classes).

Categories: Commodities, Gold, TIPS

The Gold Price is Not ‘Too Low’

August 1, 2017 2 comments

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Before I start today’s article, let me say that I don’t like to write about gold. The people who are perennially gold bulls are crazy in a way that is unlike the people who are perennial equity bulls (Abby Joseph Cohen) or perennial bond bulls (Hoisington). They will cut you.

That being said, they are also pretty amusing.

To listen to a gold bull, you would think that no matter where gold is priced, it is a safe haven. Despite the copious evidence of history that says gold can go up and down, certain of the gold bulls believe that when “the Big One” hits, gold will be the most prized asset in the world. Of course, there are calmer gold bulls also but they are similarly dismissive of any notion that gold can be expensive.

The argument that gold is valuable simply because it is acceptable as money, and money that is not under control of a central bank, is vacuous. Lots of commodities are not under the control of a central bank. Moreover, like any other asset in the world gold can be expensive when it costs too much of other stuff to acquire it, and it can be cheap when it costs lots less to acquire.

I saw somewhere recently a chart that said “gold may be forming a major bottom,” which I thought was interesting because of some quantitative analysis that we do regularly (indeed, daily) on commodities. Here is one of the charts, approximately, that the analyst used to make this argument:

I guess, for context, I should back up a little bit and show that chart from a longer-term perspective. From this angle, it doesn’t look quite like a “major bottom,” but maybe that’s just me.

So which is it? Is gold cheap, or expensive? Erb and Harvey a few years ago noticed that the starting real price of gold (that is, gold deflated by the price index) turned out to be strikingly predictive of the future real return of holding (physical) gold. This should not be terribly shocking – although it is hard to persuade equity investors today that the price at which they buy stocks may affect their future returns – but it was a pretty amazing chart that they showed. Here is a current version of the chart (source: Enduring Investments LLC):

The vertical line represents the current price of gold (all historical gold prices are adjusted by the CPI relative to today’s CPI and the future 10-year real return calculated to derive this curve). It suggests that the future real return for gold over the next decade should be around -7% per annum. Now, that doesn’t mean the price of gold will fall – the real return could be this bad if gold prices have already adjusted for an inflationary future that now unfolds but leaves the gold price unaffected (since it is already impounded in current prices). Or, some of each.

Actually, that return is somewhat better than if you attempt to fit a curve to the data because the data to the left of the line is steeper than the data to the right of the line. Fitting a curve, you’d see more like -9% per annum. Ouch!

In case you don’t like scatterplots, here is the same data in a rolling-10-year form. In both cases, with this chart and the prior chart, be careful: the data is fit to the entire history, so there is nothing held ‘out of sample.’ In other words, “of course the curve fits, because we took pains to fit it.”

But that’s not necessarily a damning statement. The reason we tried to fit this curve in the first place is because it makes a priori sense that the starting price of an asset is related to its subsequent return. Whether the precise functional form of the relationship will hold in the future is uncertain – in fact, it almost certainly will not hold exactly. But I’m comfortable, looking at this data, in making the more modest statement that the price of gold is more likely to be too high to offer promising future returns than it is too low and likely to provide robust real returns in the future.

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