Short and Sweet

The next great monetary experiment

Uncle Sam poster with quote bubble saying 'I need vast sums of money!'

Daily Reckoning’s Brian Maher warns of the potential consequences of modern monetary theory. “This MMT sounds like a recipe for immense inflation, even hyperinflation,” he says. “You are spending all this money directly into the economy. It will drive consumer prices through the attic roof, you say. This is crackpot. A witch’s sabbath of inflation would surely result. Yes, but here the MMT crowd meets you head on… They agree with you. They agree MMT could cause a general inflation, possibly even a hyperinflation.” [Link to full article]

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), we would add to Maher’s observation, is neither modern nor a theory. John Law, the Scottish financier, tried a version of it almost exactly 300 years ago (1717-18) in France.* He did so with the blessing of the French monarchy and with a rationale very similar to MMT’s proponents today.  MMT entails, simply put, a federal government fiscal policy without spending limits coupled with the power to print whatever money is required to finance any deficits. In the end, Law’s theories (to his surprise if we are to believe the historical account) bankrupted the French people and the government, reduced the economy to ashes, and created such a distaste for paper scrip among the citizenry that it took 80 years for France to reintroduce paper money as a circulating medium.

In The Story of the Greatest Nations (1900), Edward S Ellis and Charles F. Home tell of the public mania that engulfed the French people and led to ultimate financial ruin for thousands:

“The shrewder speculators* became alarmed. They began to sell their shares of stock, and hoard in gold the enormous wealth they had acquired. This resulted in a demand on the government for metal in exchange for its paper, and soon the government had no metal to give. Then the crash came. Those who had the government paper could buy nothing with it. Those who held the Mississippi stock could scarce give it away. It was worthless. The government itself refused to accept its own paper for taxes. A few lucky speculators had made vast fortunes; but thousands of families, especially among the wealthier classes, were ruined.”

That snippet provides a hint as to the steps taken by those who survived Law’s version of modern monetary theory. For those to whom all of this has a distinct ring of familiarity, perhaps a judicious hedge makes some sense. A number of analysts have made the argument that we do not have to wait for the formal launch of modern monetary theory.  It is already here.

* Please see this link for a summary of  Law’s Mississippi Company land scheme.


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Short and Sweet

Socialist mousetopia regresses to dystopia and finally, extinction

artist rendering of a well-cared for mouse

In a piece written for IFL Science, James Felton offers a riveting account of what exactly happened in the mousetopia of Universe 25. John B Calhoun, a medical doctor at the National Institute of Health, says Felton, “set about creating a series of experiments [in 1973] that would essentially cater to every need of rodents, and then track the effect on the population over time.” It yielded some very unexpected results. Calhoun’s socialist utopia (or, in this case, mousetopia) evolved to a chaotic dystopia and finally an apocalypse, as the norms of mice behavior in the wild completely broke down in what can only be called social chaos. “Soon,” writes Felton, “the entire colony was extinct.” In the opening paragraph to the study, Dr. Calhoun says, “I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution. Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths, death of the spirit and death of the body.”

It is difficult to read Felton’s account of what happened in Universe 25 without thinking about the still-developing response to the pandemic-related government support programs on all levels of our society, i.e., the distressing social, psychological, economic, and political upheaval it has induced. Calhoun, according to Felton, “believed that the mouse experiment may also apply to humans, and warned of a day where – god forbid – all our needs are met.” Moreover, Calhoun wrote, “For an animal so complex as man, there is no logical reason why a comparable sequence of events should not also lead to species extinction. If opportunities for role fulfillment fall far short of the demand by those capable of filling roles, and having expectancies to do so, only violence and disruption of social organization can follow.”

By all of this, we do not mean to suggest that contemporary society is headed for a dystopia – though some troubling signs are already present. On the other hand, it would be foolhardy to believe that there will not be modifications to the way our society operates, unintended consequences, and renegotiation (perhaps even radical alteration) of the standing social contract. The general effects on the economy – and ultimately financial markets – are likely to be ongoing with the ultimate results still to be determined. The wise will prepare for the unexpected.

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Short and Sweet

A very old yet very new thought from Mr. Charles Dickens

Image of 18th century man holding his head in disbelief“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Things change little.  Things change a great deal.  The opening passage to A Tale of Two Cities – a very old yet very new thought.

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Short and Sweet

The coronavirus pandemic will forever alter the world order
‘Many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed.’

photo of Henry Kissinger making a point

In a Wall Street Journal editorial from this past April, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that the pandemic has created “political and economic upheaval that could last for generations” and that this crisis is even more complex than the one that began in 2008. “When the Covid-19 pandemic is over,” he says, “many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed. Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant. The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.” If global authorities – governments and, in this case, central banks – will be perceived as having failed, then what will be the knock-on effect in financial markets that have leaned heavily on their largesse since 2008? The new normal may be in the process of being replaced by a new abnormal that every investment portfolio should take into account.

Note: We first posted this piece on January 4, 2021

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Short and Sweet

Thinking in big numbers

Big numbers do not register with most people. Thinking in millions is difficult. Billions are a major challenge, trillions nearly impossible. The reason for this, says Wall Street Journal columnist Jo Craven McGinty, is that big numbers are usually offered in isolation without the benefit of comparison – numbers without an appropriate anchor, so to speak. People need some sort of measuring stick to give the numbers meaning. She recently offered some interesting tactics for making big numbers meaningful. Here is one of them:

“[T]hink of it [big numbers],” she says, “in terms of time, like Richard Panek, a professor at Goddard College in Vermont and a Guggenheim fellow in science writing. There are 1 million seconds in roughly 11½ days. There are 1 billion seconds in around 31 years. And there are 1 trillion seconds in around 31,000 years.”

Now the new Secretary of the Treasury is telling us that we need to ‘act big’ and worry about the $$28,427,698,645,832.16 (as of August 2, 2021) national debt later.


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Short and Sweet

The Exter Inverted Pyramid of Global Liquidity

Exter's inverted debt pyramid with derivatives at top and gold on the bottom

“[Exter’s Inverted] Pyramid stands upon its apex of gold, which has no counter-party risk nor credit risk and is very liquid.  As you work higher into the pyramid, the assets get progressively less creditworthy and less liquid. . .[In a financial crisis] this bloated structure pancakes back down upon itself in a flight to safety.  The riskier, upper parts of the inverted pyramid become less liquid (harder to sell), and – if they can be sold at all – change hands at markedly lower prices as the once continuous flow of credit that had levitated those prices dries up.” – Lewis Johnson, Capital Wealth Advisor’s Lewis Johnson


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Short and Sweet

What if pension funds put 5%of their total asset value into gold?

Last August the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund (OP&F) announced it would allocate 5% of its nearly $16 billion investment portfolio to gold as a “strong diversifier” and “effective hedge against inflation.” A 5% allocation to gold for the fund, if achieved, would amount to roughly $800 million at $2,000 per ounce – about 400,000 troy ounces or 12.5 metric tonnes. Even though that commitment amounts to a formidable boost for the annual demand table, OP&F is just a small slice of the $22.4 trillion U.S. pension fund universe.

Pension fund total assets
(United States, 2002-2018)

bar chart showing pension fund assets in the United StatesChart courtesy of Statista.com • • • Click to enlarge

If by some stretch of the financial imagination, U.S.-based pension funds were to follow the OP&F’s example and allocate 5% to gold across the boards, over $1.12 trillion would suddenly enter the gold market – the equivalent of almost 17,500 metric tonnes at current prices and an amount equal to half central banks’ total gold reserves. That is not a likely outcome but we throw the number out there just to offer an idea of pension funds’ purchasing power. Globally, pension funds have roughly $35 trillion under management. If only 1% were allocated, it would translate to almost 5,5oo tonnes – still a significant number.


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Short and Sweet

Silver could be setting up for a repeat of 2020’s explosive rally

Silver’s performance over the past month offers a reminder of the metal’s volatility. Commodity analyst Andrew Hecht, whose experience in the silver market stretches back to the 1970s as a trader with Salomon Brothers, is well aware of the metal’s long history of radical ups and downs. “Silver volatility,” he writes in a recent Seeking Alpha article, “can be explosive. Meanwhile, the price action can also be coma-like, lulling market participants into a false sense of security for long periods. Silver’s history is full of false technical breakouts and breakdowns…Silver is a unique metal as it is part industrial, part investment asset. It experiences long periods of coma-like price action. Still, when it moves, as the price did not 2020, few commodities compare to the precious metal when it comes to percentage moves.” Hecht reminds readers of silver’s performance in 2020 when “bearish price action gave way to an explosive rally.” (Silver went from the $12 level in March to $29 by early August.) He goes on to say that “[t]he recent price dynamics could be setting up for a repeat performance given the rising level of inflation across all markets.”

Silver Volatility Index

line chart showing the silver volatility index choppy
Sources: St. Louis Federal Reserve [FRED], Chicago Board Options Exchange

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 In Gold We Trust
Monetary Climate Change

“Despite an environment that should,” writes Incrementum’s Ronald-Peter Stoferle and Mark J. Valek in the 2021 edition of In Gold We Trust, “by and large, clearly favor gold, the price of gold today is at about the same level as it was 10 years ago and is therefore, in our view, favorably valued. Ray Dalio, one of the most successful fund managers of all time, has recently commented several times on inflation and the merits of investing in gold. We would like to close with this thought of Ray Dalio, which also explains our motivation for publishing such a ‘tome’:

‘I believe that the reason people typically miss the big moments of evolution coming at them in life is that we each experience only tiny pieces of what’s happening. We are like ants preoccupied with our jobs of carrying crumbs in our minuscule lifetimes instead of having a broader perspective of the big-picture patterns and cycles, the important interrelated things driving them, and where we are within the cycles and what’s likely to transpire.'”

The link above goes to the short version of Stoferle and Valek’s trek through the many layers of influences on gold pricing and demand. This year they emphasize the “multi-layered paradigm change” centered around the merger of monetary and fiscal policy, mentioned in the post immediately below. Ray Dalio’s insight deserves serious consideration. It brings to mind a similar thought from Financial Sense’s Jim Puplava  included in the September 2020 edition of News and Views:

“I have found throughout my long investment career that an investor needs to make very few investment decisions in their lifetime. The key is to identify a long-term trend as it begins to emerge, invest in that trend, ride it until it ends and another trend replaces it. As an example, U.S. stocks in the 50s and 60s, commodities in the 70s, Japanese stocks in the 80s, tech stocks in the 90s, commodities in 2000s, and tech and paper assets in the 2010s. The next trend that is emerging will favor things or hard assets. This is what the gold markets are telegraphing now. This trend will be inflationary driven by resource shortages and a tsunami of money printing.”


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Short and Sweet

 New smart money queues up in the gold market

graphic image of investors queuing up

First institutions and funds came over to gold’s corner, then central banks. Now, one of the more important stories in the gold investment arena as we begin 2021 is the developing interest among a whole new grouping of professional investors – pension funds, private wealth management, insurance companies, and sovereign wealth funds. “It’s a bit like what happened to big tech,” says highly respected economist Mohammed El-Erian. “People like [gold] because it’s defensive. People like it because it’s a reflation trade. People like it because it’s inflation protection.  What we are starting to see with the narrative about gold is starting to be like the narrative about big tech.  It gives you everything.” These groups bring considerable purchasing power and market savvy to the table. One immediate result might be more buying interest on price dips.  Another might be a better blend of investment psychology and objectives that could have a settling effect on the market overall.


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Short and Sweet

Is the dollar the Humpty Dumpty of the global monetary system?

Graphic image of Humpty Dumpty perched happily on a wall, antique

The dollar at the moment is something of a Humpty Dumpty in the global monetary system – sitting on his wall oblivious and seemingly immune to all that goes on around him.  Whether or not there will someday be a Great Fall remains to be seen, but increasingly forces are lining up against it. Over the past few years, we have seen protracted movement among various central banks out of the dollar and into gold and other currencies. Though the dollar remains something of a Humpty Dumpty oblivious to all that goes on around him, a good many analysts believe it is poised for a major decline.

It is with that in mind that we took an interest in a Bloomberg report posted recently that “[g]old stored at the Bank of England has been selling for unusually high premiums recently, signaling that central banks may be back in the market buying.” The report goes on to say that the reason for the burgeoning gold demand from central banks is “to diversify their portfolios away from the U.S. dollar to safeguard their finances amid concerns over the Fed’s ultra-loose monetary policy, massive U.S. government spending and inflationary pressures.”

We see that as a rational response to current economic circumstances and a way of taking advantage of the dollar’s current strength to load up on gold. For example, Brazil, the world’s ninth-largest economy, recently reported a hefty 42-tonne purchase of gold to shore up its central bank reserves. Poland has announced its intent to add another 100-tonnes to its coffers in the months ahead. And those are only two in an expanding list of central banks in the market to buy gold. We hasten to add that it is not just the United States that is in the business of debasing its currency, but most, if not all, of the states issuing internationally traded currencies.

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Short and Sweet

1970s redux?
“Policymakers did not see it coming.’

overlay chart showing real return on the 10-year treasury and gold 2004 to present

Sources: St. Louis Federal Reserve, Federal Reserve Board of Governors, ICE Benchmark Administration

In the days ahead, the markets will be looking to the Fed to reassert itself as the bond buyer of last resort and keep a lid on the real rate of return, as shown in the chart above. If it fails in that respect, we might end up with a full extension of late February’s bond market panic. No one is more aware of what that could mean for the economy and financial markets than the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. As for gold, the chart clearly demonstrates that it has a propensity to rise when the real rate of return is in decline and decline when real rates are on the rise. Should inflation suddenly surge, or the Fed indeed become a more aggressive buyer of Treasuries (more QE), the current uptrend in the real rate could turn abruptly. As it is, the much-ballyhooed upward turn in real rates looks like a minor blip in a major overall downtrend.

At the moment, it does not appear that Fed liquidity operations are keeping up with an onslaught of bond selling that is pushing yields aggressively higher. That could change overnight. We should keep in mind that the Fed moved quickly and convincingly in money markets last March at the first signs of bond market weakness. Meanwhile, the central bank’s bond portfolio continues to expand at a record pace, and we haven’t even gotten around to fully distributing the $1.9 trillion stimulus package and the $2.4 trillion infrastructure project.

In the final analysis, it rising inflation that will be the most culpable in accelerating the negative real rate of return and sustaining physical demand in the gold and silver markets. “If you look at the inflation of the 1960s and 70s,” says Paul Singer in a recent interview with Grant Williams and Bill Fleckenstein, “inflation came in the mid to late 1960s, from basically very low levels, they didn’t see it coming. They, meaning the policymakers, the central bankers, and when it came, they thought it was temporary and one-off, and one thing leads to another. So we know about the oil embargo of 1973, which took oil prices up three or four times. So wages, prices, guns and butter, the Great Society, the Vietnam War, and increases in the money supply, all combined. But once inflation lifted off, it just kept on going.”


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Bloomberg study

The remarkable post-World War II stability is coming to an end

The only certainty in a world being turned upside down, in fact, is uncertainty

We would like to bring to your attention the results of an intriguing study posted at Bloomberg under the title, An Economist’s Guide to the World in 2050. In it, economists Tom Orlik and Bjorn van Roye offer a close look at the ongoing transition of wealth and power from West to East and assess what it might mean for the United States and American investors. Their statistical study maps “some of the key geographic and political shifts in store for the world economy” in the years to come. “The results,” they say, “suggest that a remarkable period of stability, stretching from the end of World War II through to the early 21st century, is coming to an end.” We would add that just as wealth and power have moved West to East, so has a large portion of the world’s physical gold, particularly since the beginnings of the global financial crisis in 2008. (Please see chart below on Chinese gold accumulation.)

Orlik and van Roye begin with a question: “Who won the Cold War?” And answer immediately: “Maybe China.” They say that rather than being at the end of history as some thought following the end of the Cold War, we are really nearer the beginning. The world, they say, “is in the midst of a messy transition as the balance of economic and political power shifts from West to East, from free markets to the state and from democracies to authoritarianism and populism. … The transition is already upending global politics, economics, and markets.”

We recommend spending a few minutes reading this article. If you come away, as we did, with the impression that the study’s findings serve as a wake-up call, then you might want to make certain that your portfolio is sufficiently hedged to weather the possible uncertainties ahead. The only certainty in a world being turned upside down, in fact, is uncertainty.  As we have been so rudely reminded over the course of the past year, we are all being carried on the long wave of history – destination unknown. 

overlay line and bar chart showing China's accumulation of gold since 1980
Chart courtesy of GoldChartsRUs • • • Click to enlarge

Tom Orlik is the chief economist at Bloomberg Economics. Bjorn van Roye is the Senior Global Economist at Bloomberg.


This article appeared in the December edition of our newsletter. If you would like to be included in our monthly mailings, please enter your email address in the form below.

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Short and Sweet

Stagflation is ‘a legitimate risk’ that would be painful for U.S. markets

Alan Greenspan was among the first to warn that the economy could be headed for a round of stagflation like the 1970s, and that was back in late 2018, early 2019. Stagflation is the combination of high inflation and high unemployment, i.e., what Ronald Reagan called the Misery Index. At its height in 1980, the Misery Index reached 22%. As of the most recent government reports, it stands at 11.29%, according to YCharts, and is now climbing again. “Stagflation,” says Quadratic Capital Management’s Nancy Davis in a MarketWatch article, “is absolutely the biggest risk for every investor.… Imagine how scary it would be for the market if we had stocks and bonds selling off together … a major problem because central banks can’t really come to the rescue and cut interest rates.” Gold and silver were top performers during the stagflationary 1970s.

overlay line chart showing gold and the misery index during the 1970s

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Short and Sweet

‘The next decade will belong to gold.’

“Few people acknowledge that gold remains the superior asset of the 21st century,” writes London-based analyst Charlie Morris in a recently published Atlas Trust Gold Report, “nearly twice as profitable as the S&P 500. But it was a game of two halves with gold obliterating equities in the first and the S&P smashing gold in the second. Still, gold wins overall. I can’t help but think the next decade will belong to gold. After all, the S&P 500 trades at a lofty valuation by historical standards, while gold doesn’t. The main reason I have confidence that gold will win the 2020s is that this almighty asset bubble all around us will implode, and the crowded trades will disappoint the most. Gold is far from being crowded.”

In support of Morris’ contention that “the next decade will belong to gold,” we offer four instructive charts from Merk Investments. The first two show the close correlation between real rates of return and the price of gold. In the past, the declining real rate of return was driven by the rate side of the equation. Now, rising inflation expectations have become the primary influence – a development likely to focus increased attention on the yellow metal. The third chart shows the relationship between long-term growth in the global money supply and rising gold prices. Central bank stimulus is now feeding into the global money supply – something it did not do during the Great Financial Crisis (2008). As a result, we might see an acceleration in both trend lines – money supply and gold. The fourth and final chart is by far the most intriguing. It matches up the cyclical lows posted in 1999 and 2015 and shows gold now closely tracking the trajectory of its twenty-year secular bull market begun in the early 2000s.

pverlay line chart showing the price of gold and the real rate of return 1995 to present

Overlay line chart showing gold and real reates 2018 to present

overlay line chart showing the globql money supply and gold 2000 to present

overlay line chart comparing 1999 gold bull market trend with 2015
Charts courtesy of Merk Investments • • • Click to enlarge

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Short and Sweet

‘I expect a true crash to take a decade of stock market gains.’

“‘If the pandemic doesn’t pop this bubble then, of course, it will be something else that eventually accomplishes this,’ says [Universa Investments’ Mark Spitznagel in a MarketWatch report], “reiterating his long-held belief that easy-money central banks and the bubble they continue to pump will eventually lead to a major global reversal. How bad could it get when it really goes sideways? ‘I expect a true crash to take back a decade [worth of stock-market gains],’ he told The Wall Street Journal last month.'” Spitznagel is a protege of Nicholas Taleb of The Black Swan fame. Some would consider his prediction going overboard. We should keep in mind, though, that from 1929 to 1933 the stock market lost almost 90% of its value. It did not return to its 1929 highs until 1955 – 26 years later.  In short, what he is suggesting is not without historical precedent.

line chart showing stocks from 1929 to 1955
Chart courtesy of MacroTrends.net


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Short and Sweet

Beware the new mantra that stocks are a good inflation hedge

“So, to be clear, this April really was cruel,” writes John Authers in his regular Bloomberg column, “In terms of the basic economic numbers that affect us most, it was the cruelest month for the U.S. in many decades. It was only one month. It is way too soon to proclaim the beginning or end of a major economic trend, on the base of the data we have so far. But April’s data were not only very, very bad, but also very, very surprising. They need to be confronted and understood.” Authers is surprised at the markets’ muted reaction to “a bad unemployment number followed by a bad inflation number.” He warns that if inflation does take root, stocks have plenty of room to fall further.

The chart below shows what happened in the 1970s once investors realized that inflation was not “transitory” but entrenched instead. Stocks drifted sideways for most of the decade, managing only a 4.78% gain. Gold, on the other hand, gained 1592%. We sometimes overlook the fact that stocks peaked in the late 1960s, just before the inflation began. Nearly twenty years of sideways to down action followed. Stocks started and ended the 1970s at 1000 while runaway inflation raged.

Gold and Stocks
(In percent, 1970-1979)

overlay line chart showing the returns on gold and stocks during the 1970s

Chart courtesy of TradingView.com • • • Click to enlarge

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Short & Sweet

Facing down our investment fears
Courage comes from a strategy you can genuinely believe in

graphci image of sheep standing atop each other to face down wolf

“As markets shake off their summer slumbers,” writes London-based analyst Bill Blain, “what should we be worrying about? Lots..! From real vs transitory inflation arguments, the long-term economic consequences of Covid, the future for Central Banking unable to unravel its Gordian knot of monetary experimentation, and the prospects for rising political instability in the US and Europe.”

Facing down your investment fears can only come from a strategy you can genuinely believe in. One of the great quotes on gold ownership came many years ago from Richard Russell, the now-deceased editor of the Dow Theory Letters. “I still sleep better at night,” he wrote, “knowing that I hold some gold. If or when everything else falls apart, gold will still be unquestioned wealth.” It is not a complicated strategy, but it is an effective one.

Though rarely discussed, gold ownership has as much to do with personal philosophy and how we wish to conduct our lives as it does finance and economics. In many ways, it is a rational portfolio decision that suits the times, but it is also a lifestyle decision that provides some peace of mind no matter what happens with the pandemic, the mania on Wall Street, or the political maneuvering in Washington D.C.


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Short and Sweet

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Is Buffett wrong about gold?

“While I very often agree with Warren Buffett’s views regarding, for example, the level of cash in portfolio or migration from growth to value stocks,” says Independent Trader for ETF Trends, “I absolutely can not agree with what he wrote in the letter to shareholders about gold, once again showing how badly it performs in comparison to the US shares.” The article goes on from there to do a good job of debunking Buffett’s latest attack on gold  – one of many he has conducted over the years – while drawing on cyclical analysis to lay out a solid longer-term future for the metal. It concludes with the opinion that Buffett’s stance on gold is “part of a deal with the establishment of the United States.”

That could be true, but it could also be little more than an old professional bias on Buffett’s part going back decades combined with a classic talking of one’s book.  We counter with a single chart that refutes his arguments at a glance. It tells the story of gold and stocks in the times in which we live – the historically distinct fiat money era that began in 1971 – not some other timeline that carries little relationship to the present.  To make a very long story short, gold has appreciated 3,399% since January 1971. Stocks have appreciated 2,884%.  What’s more stocks are bumping against all time highs while gold looks like it might be in the early stages of a new bull market run.

Overlay chart of gold and the stock market showing gold outperforming stocks since 1971Chart courtesy of MacroTrends

Repost from 2/20/2020

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