Global investors snapped up a record 89.6 million one ounce silver coins in 2015, according to USAGOLD's annual survey of global bullion coin sales. The strong 2015 showing follows an equally impressive 2014 for silver coins at 77.9 million ounces and 2013 at 85.4 million ounces. Year over year, silver bullion coin demand was up 14% from 2014. Last year was a banner year for gold bullion coin sales as well – the fifth best since 2002. National mints sold 2.75 million ounces in 2015 – an impressive 30% increase over 2014.
There was nothing to distinguish 2015 from previous years except that the price was right for both metals. Gold started the year at $1188 per ounce and ended it at $1061. Silver, the more volatile of the two metals, began the year at $15.73 per ounce and ended at $13.83. If nothing else, seasoned precious metals buyers – and that is the group that dominated the action in 2015 – like a bargain. Retirement investors are a large and consistent demand source, particularly for the U.S. Mint's gold and silver American Eagle coinage.
As you can see from the charts, demand for both metals grew significantly after the 2008 financial crisis and never returned to pre-crisis levels. The persistent demand over the period indicates lingering concerns among investors about the economy and the potential for a similar crisis at some future date.
Past supply disruptions signal more of same for future
The U.S. Mint reports sales for the silver Eagle would have been much higher in 2015 if it could have secured more coin planchets. Planchet manufacturers have consistently been unable to supply enough blanks to meet the extraordinary demand over the past several years. The mint suspended silver Eagle sales this past July when a sharp price decline generated huge demand among investors. It did not begin delivering wholesaler orders again until mid-August.
The U.S. Mint has suspended wholesale allocations for one or both metals in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Since the 2008 crisis, there have been numerous stoppages at other national mints in the face of strong, unprecedented investor demand for both gold and silver bullion coins that depleted stocks. As a result, worries about potential supply disruptions consistently haunt the bullion coin market.
Bill Bonner, the long-time market analyst who founded the Agora publishing empire, recently warned investors about the potential for further disruptions:
"[T]here will be one important difference between the new super spike and what happened in 1980. Back then, you could buy gold at $100, $200, or $500 per ounce and enjoy the ride. In the new super spike, you may not be able to get any gold at all. You'll be watching the price go up on TV but unable to buy any for yourself. Gold will be in such short supply that only the central banks, giant hedge funds, and billionaires will be able to get their hands on any. The mint and your local dealer will be sold out. That physical scarcity will make the price super spike even more extreme than in 1980. The time to buy gold is now, before the price spikes and before supplies dry up."
The U.S. Mint reports continuing high levels of demand thus far in 2016 with mintage figures for both gold and silver bullion coins running well ahead of 2015's pace.
Note about the charts: USAGOLD publishes these composite graphs of global gold and silver bullion coin sales annually from production figures published by the world's leading national mints. As far as I know, the graphs are the only ones of their kind. We usually publish this report in late spring or early summer due to the reporting schedules of the various mints. Though the United States Mint publishes its mintage figures monthly at its website, others, like the Austrian and Royal Canadian mints, report annually and usually not until May or June of the following year. As a result, it is usually nearly mid-year before we get the complete picture and are able to pass it along.
I would like to thank our webmaster, Jen Dentry, for constructing the charts on bullion coin demand and coordinating data compilation with the various national mints. In turn, we would like to thank the national mints for working with us to make these charts possible.
Gold's recent sell-off
All of the recent hullabaloo about gold and interest rates seems another one of those tempests in a teapot that periodically inhabits the gold market. To be sure, gold has corrected from its recent highs, but one wonders how much of that downside was substantive and how much was simply a speculative, algo-driven reaction to the Fed's jawboning. BK Forex's Boris Schlossberg pointed out that "If you look at gold on a very long-term basis, there is literally very little correlation between interest rates and gold. Basically, gold rose when interest rates rose in the '70s, gold rose when interest rates declined in the '90s,' so the likely effect of Fed rate rises isn't straightforward." I would add to his assessment that gold also rose after the Fed raised rates last December while the Dow Jones Industrial Average took a steep drop. Now, as was the case before the December 2016 rate increase, gold is dropping and the stock market has pretty much gone sideways.
Demographic shift, alchemy's end add-up to heavy headwinds for global economy, continuing long-term incentives for gold and silver ownership
In The End of Alchemy, Mervyn King, the former head of the Bank of England, writes of central banks' frustration in dealing with the stagnant global economy. "Central banks," he says, "have thrown everything at their economies, and yet the results have been disappointing, Whatever can be said about the world recovery since the crisis, it has been neither strong, nor sustainable, nor balanced.”
Similarly, former IMF chief economist, Olivier Blanchard was recently quoted in the Financial Times as saying: "And so the question is why is it, that with no fiscal consolidation and banks in decent shape, at least in terms of lending, and zero interest rates, we don’t have an enormous demand boom? That is now the puzzle.”
Alan Greenspan, in a recent interview with Fox Business News, offers the beginnings of an answer to Blanchard's question – a question which happens to be on the minds of not just policy-makers but ordinary investors as well. “Our problem," he said, "is not recession which is a short-term economic problem. I think you have a very profound long-term problem of economic growth at the time when the Western world, there is a very large migration from being a worker into being a recipient of social benefits as it is called. And this is legally mandated in all of our countries.” The western world, he concludes, is headed to "a state of disaster."
The problem at its core is demographic. Retiring baby boomers are paying off debt, not borrowing more. As time goes by, they willl increasingly become consumers of government largesse, as Greenspan points out, rather than its suppliers. The Millennials and GenXers are struggling with student debt, low incomes and paltry savings. For them, owning a home, the traditional means to stimulating overall demand, is more a future consideration than anything imminent. (In 1960 62% of 18 to 34-year-olds lived in their own households. By 2015, that number had dropped to just under 32%.) Outstanding mortgage debt, as a result of these demographic shifts, has gone into a free-fall. (See chart immediately below.) Simply put, the problem for the global economy, as King's successor Mark Carney recently pointed out, boils down to the lack of demand – for goods and services and for money itself in the form of credit.
Fiat paradigm falling apart
In short, the whole fiat paradigm of lending money into existence is falling apart, and no one seems to know what to do about it. If you would have told me in 2007 that within a decade we would be facing the possibility of a deflationary breakdown, I would not have believed you. King concludes that "without reform of the financial system, another crisis is certain… sooner rather than later."
King's use of the word alchemy in connection with central banks' policies conjures all sorts of allusions. As we all know, the purpose of alchemy was to transform base metals to gold. Likewise, the contemporary central bank is alchemic in nature in that it professes to replace gold-backed money with sound and effective monetary policies. Those who believe that the central banks are capable of delivering consistently on that promise are not likely to become gold owners. Those who question it will continue to own gold and silver in their investment portfolios as a countermeasure, and in fact add to those holdings as circumstances require.
It is quite clear that the former Fed chairman and the former governor of the Bank of England are in agreement that the global economy is tacking against some heavy headwinds. The demographic shift Greenspan cites and King's admission of policy-makers failure in dealing with it point to continuing long-term demand for gold and silver not just among private investors, but among funds, institutions and central banks as well. In addition, it is the failures (or potential for failure) in policy, as cited by both King and Greenspan, that will give pause even to those who most ardently profess undying faith in the central banks. Along these lines, it is interesting to note that Greenspan has already suggested gold as "a good place to put money these days given the policies of governments." Mervyn King may not be far behind.
A man after my own heart. . .
Post publication editor's note (6-7-2016): No sooner had the ink dried on this edition of our newsletter than Mervyn King was quoted in the World Gold Council's Gold Investor magazine as advocating gold ownership at a time of what he calls "radical uncertainty." Some might think that we had an inside track on the World Gold Council interview released several days later, but we did not. Though we have a relationship with the World Gold Council that goes back decades, it does not send us advance copies of its publications. The similarities between King's views and those of his old friend, Mr. Greenspan, were striking thus the conclusion above that logically the former BoE governor might be headed in gold's direction.
“If we don’t quite know what the future holds," says King, "there is little point in getting carried away by very fancy mathematical calculations of optimal portfolios. Don’t rely on past data to be a good guide. Try to think through what mix of assets gives you the best chance of surviving some big event. That must mean including assets that are negatively correlated or uncorrelated in your portfolio."
“And I am very struck by the fact that over many many years, central banks, governments and individuals have always, despite the protestations of economists, held some gold in their portfolio. Obviously, there is no high running return, but when unexpected things happen, particularly when governments rise and fall, then gold is a means of payment that everyone is always prepared to accept. And I think that’s why even central banks have always had a role in their portfolios for gold,” he adds.
I might add that the very same logic applies to gold as part of the private investment portfolio. For the full article, which includes some of Mr. King's prescriptions for the global economy, we recommend the World Gold Council's Gold Investor magazine. There you will find more good reading on current happenings in the gold market.
"I don't buy gold, I own it. I don't buy gold at $1,100 because I think it's going to go to $1,200. I buy it for what it does, not what the price is, the price is the last consideration for me. I think the way the picture has been developing over the last eight years, it's like when you take a polaroid, you take a picture and you sit there and you watch this thing and it slowly comes into focus, and that's what it's been like for me watching gold, we're watching this picture slowly develop. We're getting to the point where people are going to be able to see the picture, and at that point gold is the answer. It's not just an asset anymore. It's the answer to a lot of people's questions. . .The picture is becoming clearer, and everything the central banks are doing is bringing that day forward a little bit."
–– Grant Williams, Vulpes Investment Management
Editor's note: Grant Williams is a man after my own heart. I hold physical gold as a form of personal savings and financial insurance. For most of USAGOLD's clientele, Williams' polaroid has already developed. They understand gold's utility and its value in times like these. We buy gold and silver from our clients all the time. In better than 90% of the cases, the reason for the sale (when one is offered) is not to cash in a profit, but to meet one of life's goals or obligations. The bulk of our clientele are precious metals savers, not precious metals speculators.
China syndrome update
1. Run on London's gold vaults could catapult market
"Using data from the LBMA and Bank of England on gold stored in London vaults and net UK gold export data from HM Revenue & Customs, we estimate that the “float” of physical gold in London (excluding gold owned by ETFs and central banks) has recently declined to +/zero.
Summarising the data in the report:
Gold in London in June 2015………………… 6,220 tonnes
Less: Gold held by London-based ETFs….. (1,281)
Central bank gold stored at BoE………………(4,570)
Net UK exports since June 2015………………(430)
Gold float/(deficit)…………………………………(61) tonnes
If we are correct, the London Bullion Market is running into a problem and is facing the biggest challenge since it collapsed from an insufficient supply of physical gold in March 1968. Besides the growth in physical gold demand from existing sources (see below), there is more than US$200 Billion of trading every day in unallocated (paper) gold. If buyers lose confidence in the market’s structure and ability to deliver actual bullion, the market could become disorderly (via an old fashioned “run” on the vaults) as it seeks to find the true price of physical gold."
––– Paul Mylchreest, Death of the Gold Market, May 2016
Mylchreest quotes an article in The Alchemist, the LBMA’s quarterly magazine, by Seamus Donoghue (Allocated Bullion Solutions): “There are supply constraints in physical markets that do not exist in OTC markets and given the near-term inelasticity of supply, the way to accommodate higher demand would be higher premiums.”
To put a finer point on it, the supply deficit that is not breached in the spot price will be breached in the premium. And that goes for silver as well as gold. London physical supply is the other side of the equation from Shanghai physical demand. Prior to this year, the gap between production and off-take came from ETFs. Now ETFs are net buyers – all of which leads us to the prospect of crunch time for the London gold market, as Mylchreest suggests.
The chart above reveals that London-stored gold at all vault locations is down over 30% since 2011 with private vaulting bearing the lion's share of the decline. If Mylchreest is right, another 430 tonnes in UK exports needs to come off the 2015 bar shown above, and new ETF acquisitions need to be factored into the mix – pushing London inventories into a deficit.
Buttressing the crunch time argument, Sharps Pixley's Lawrie Williams reports that "[S]uddenly London is importing gold in significant quantities from Switzerland – presumably in good delivery bar weights (The April import figure alone will have been worth upwards of £2 billion. . .). Now this may well be to satisfy demand from the big SPDR Gold Shares ETF demand."
2. Shanghai arbitrage also a possible demand source in London
Though ETF demand might be the reason for the mobiization from Switzerland, as Williams suggests, another possibility could be arbitrage associated with the new yuan-based Shanghai gold fix – a scenario we have suggested consistently in this newsletter. China's ICBC Standard Bank, a member of both the London and Shanghai fixes, recently purchased Barclay Bank's 2000 tonne vault in London – one of Europe's largest.
“This [facility] enables us to better execute on our strategy to become one of the largest Chinese banks in the precious metals market,” says Mark Buncombe, head of commodities at ICBC Standard Bank. “The acquisition of a precious metals vault allows us to expand our services in clearing and processing.”
There have been a number of occasions since the opening of the Shanghai Fix when lower prices posted on the New York COMEX were reversed in Shanghai the following day (overnight in the United States). Taking advantage of lower prices in the West, it stands to reason, could be part of the strategy for ICBC Standard Bank as well as other Chinese financial institutions. Given Mylchreest's findings, we might see more in the way of mobilizations from Switzerland to London in the weeks and months to come, thus introducing a whole new and important facet to physical gold trading.
3. China scouring globe for available operating gold mines
Along these same lines, the Wall Street Journal reported in April that China is in the market to acquire operating gold mines as another source of physical metal. Barrick recently sold a 50% stake in its Papua New Guinea Porgera mine to China's Zijin Mining. Chinese mining companies are looking to make acquisitions in Australia, Canada and South America. “It is a good time right now as the gold price is in the lower regions,” Chen He, investment director at Zhaojin Mining Industry told the Wall Street Journal, “Zhaojin is looking for global opportunities.”
Mines are an open-ended source providing a flow of new metal as long as the deposits produce. The pursuit of active mines suggests that China really doesn’t have a top target for its national reserves (see below), i.e., that its overall acquisition program is part of longer-term commitment to the value of gold as a means to long-term asset preservation and to promote the acceptability of the yuan as a reserve currency.
4. China's government controlled gold reserves already 4500 tonnes plus
“Back in February," reports Sharps Pixley's Lawrie Willliams, "it appears that the figure quoted then may have significantly underestimated the amount of gold held by the Chinese commercial banks. At [a recent] Bloomberg event, Roland Wang, the World Gold Council’s Managing Director for China, put the gold holdings of the Chinese commercial banks at the end of 2015 at 2,690 tonnes – which will presumably have risen further during the first four months of the current year. China’s ‘official’ gold holdings as reported to the IMF, plus its own reported 9 tonne gold purchase in April stand currently at around 1,808 tonnes. If we add in the commercial bank numbers we come up with a combined total of just short of 4,500 tonnes, plus any accumulations by the commercial banks since the start of the year, which would put it comfortably in second place behind the USA with its 8,133.5 tonnes.”
Let me throw a few more numbers at you. . . .China’s dollar holdings stand at roughly $1.24 trillion. Its total foreign exchanged reserves are estimated at $3.2 trillion. If the 4500 tonne figure is correct, gold represents about 15% of its dollar reserves and about 6% of its total reserves. At current prices, its 4500 tonne gold holding is valued at about $183 billion. No one knows what China’s long term goals are with respect to its top figure, but its commitment to gold, all things considered, appears open-ended, elastic and firmly positioned in its national economic policy.
Black Rock, world's sixth largest hedge fund touts gold ownership
“While real rates have historically had the most significant impact on gold’s performance," says Black Rock's Russ Koesternich, "inflation, more particularly the direction of inflation, has mattered as well. The best years for gold were those in which real rates were low and inflation was rising. Since 1971 there have been 12 years that fit that description, as Bloomberg data shows. Gold rose in 11 of those 12 years with an average return of over 35%.”
We first highlighted the role of major institutions in gold’s roughly 20% gain so far this year in the April edition of this newsletter. Among those institutions, we have had some significant revelations in the past few weeks about hedge fund involvement. George Soros, for example, has stepped up his ownership in gold ETFs. Koesternich says we are now in “exactly the type of environment that has historically been most favorable to gold.” Black Rock, I should add, is the world’s sixth largest hedge fund, with $31 billion under management according to Investopedia. It is presently the second largest investor in the SPDR Gold Trust after First Eagle Investment Management and ahead of Paulson & Co which recently dropped to third.
Here is a graphic representation of the point Black Rock is making on gold's real rate of return. It is pretty impressive when viewed over the long run. The conditions driving the real rate of return have not changed. In fact the very-low-to-negative interest rate environment may ultimately add to the appeal.
(Reader note: This chart and others of interest to gold owners can be tracked in real time at USAGOLD's Gold trends and indicators page.)
The road to confetti
Interest Rate Observer's James Grant asks:
"Does the deployment of helicopter money not entail some meaningful risk of the loss of confidence in a currency that is, after all, undefined, uncollateralized and infinitely replicable at exactly zero cost? Might trust be shattered by the visible act of infusing the government with invisible monetary pixels and by the subsequent exchange of those images for real goods and services? The former Fed chairman seems not to consider the question—certainly, he doesn’t address it.
To us, it is the great question. Pondering it, as we say, we are bearish on the money of overextended governments. We are bullish on the alternatives enumerated in the Periodic table. It would be nice to know when the rest of the world will come around to the gold-friendly view that central bankers have lost their marbles. We have no such timetable. The road to confetti is long and winding.”
As you might suspect, Grant is a proponent of owning “alternatives enumerated in the Periodic table,” especially those bearing atomic numbers #79 and #47. The complete newsletter is published in the clear at his website via this link. A subscription is highly recommended.
Global gold demand surges record 122% in first quarter
Global gold demand surged a record 21% and gold investment demand a record 122% in Q1, 2016 according to the World Gold Council who released their ‘Gold Demand Trends Q1 2016’ report today.
Key findings re global gold demand in Q1 are:
- Gold was a top-performing asset in Q1 – up 17% in USD terms
- Gold demand surged to the second-highest level ever – highest since Q4, 2012
- Overall demand for Q1 2016 increased by 21% to 1,290t, up from 1,070t in Q1 2015.
- Global investment demand was 618t, up 122% from 278t in the same period last year.
- UK gold investment demand surges 61% – low base to 3.2 tonnes
- EU gold demand very robust at 58.4t and Germany remains largest buyer in EU
- Central bank demand dipped slightly to 109t in Q1 2016, compared to 112t in the same period last year.
- Total consumer demand (primarily jewellery) was 736t down 13% compared to 849t in Q1 2015.
- Global jewellery demand fell 19% to 482t versus 597t in the first quarter of 2015
- Demand in the technology sector fell 3% to 81t in Q1 2016.
- Total supply was up 5% to 1,135t in Q1 2016, from 1,081t in the first quarter of 2015. Mine supply was up 8% to 774t.
Escaping financial ruin (in a nutshell)
During the Dutch Tulipmania, the price of one special, rare type of tulip bulb called Semper Augustus sold for 1000 guilders in 1623, 1200 guilders in 1624, 2000 guilders in 1625, and 5500 guilders in 1637. Shortly thereafter, the bottom fell out of the market and prices plummeted to 1/200 of their peak price – a mere 27 guilders. In the artwork at left, an individual, portrayed in fool's garment, is shown trading a hefty pouch of gold for a handful of tulip bulbs. It is no mystery who got the better part of that bargain.
History teaches us that no era is immune to financial mania, including our own. Panics, mania, crashes and collapses, in fact, are as common to financial history as thunderstorms to placid summer afternoons. They tend to show up suddenly, wreak more than their fair share of havoc, and recede into the history books only after endless discussion of their causes and cures. Whether brought on by popular delusion, unscrupulous market operators, misguided governments and/or central banks or some random, unforeseen shock, black swan events are part and parcel of the human experience and just as permanent a fixture in our collective history as wars and natural disasters.
That is why since the earliest days of the USAGOLD website (the mid-1990s), we have enshrined a quote from Thomas Bailey Aldrich at our home page: "The possession of gold has ruined fewer men than the lack of it." Those, for example, who put a reasonable portion of their wealth in gold prior to 1929, or in 2008 nearly eighty years later, not only survived the subsequent ordeal, they emerged with considerably more wealth than their contemporaries who did not. Stockholders caught in the crash of 1929 waited until 1954 – a quarter century later – before the market returned to its pre-crash level.
Matthew Hart in an article for Vanity Fair on the 2008 financial crisis elaborates:
"An ounce of gold cost $271 in 2001. Ten years later it reached $1,896 – an increase of almost 700 percent. On the way, it passed through some of the stormiest periods of recent history, when banks collapsed and currencies shivered. The gold price fed on these calamities. In a way, it came to stand for them: it was the re-discovered idol at a time when other gods were falling in a heap of subprime mortgages and credit default swaps and derivative products too complicated to even understand. Against these, gold shone with the placid certainty of received tradition. Honored through the ages, the standard of wealth, the original money, the safe haven. The value of gold was axiomatic. This view depends on a concept of gold as unchanging and unchanged—nature's hard asset."
(Please see "Black Swans: A chronology of panics, mania crashes and collapses from 400 BC to present".)