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What Exactly is an Asset?
by Professor von Braun

November 14th, 2008

We are currently witnessing the often predicted unraveling of the fiat currency-based banking system on a global basis. The readers of the USAGold website and Le Metropole Cafe website have had access to some of the finest commentaries that have appeared on the internet since each of these respective websites began.
Converting paper assets into gold has been recommended continuously, and for those investors that took the advice that was offered and purchased the metal over the following years, and those who got out of debt and stayed out of the housing bubble debacle, life can't be too bad at present.
Recently I had dinner with an old friend who is a stockbroker and has been in the broking business since 1984. 2008 will go down as the first year in his career that he has lost his own money. He is only certain of one thing at present -- namely, that there is no transparency in the market place. You do not know what you are buying and there is, currently, no such thing as full disclosure to the degree that you can have confidence in what you are buying.
This is of course the problem that banks are having with making loans to each other. It seems that each bank knows its own non-disclosure portfolio and they are guessing that their counterparties have, at the very least, a similar situation.
The failure by AIG to fully disclose its exposure to the credit default market has bought about its near complete collapse. It is on a life support system and seems to require an increased amount of oxygen on a weekly basis. Which begs the question as to how much oxygen does the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury have? Other large name companies appear to be having a not dissimilar problem; and it's a long list starting with the big three automakers, GE, American Express, Goldman Sachs, etc, etc.
This is a global banking crisis, brought about by the adoption of the fiat monetary system by all countries. There is no currency out there worth a damn because few Central Banks have any 'official' reserves that do not consist of other countries' liabilities.
In previous articles I have made the point that you cannot settle a debt with another debt. Historically, every time this has been tried before it has failed and this time is no different. The wisdom of being on a gold standard means that trade deficits can be settled and a balanced account obtained. The gold standard provides a measurable unit of account.

Without a balanced account, everything else is deferred settlement. That is the issue with which the banking system is faced with today. Deferred settlement is no longer possible by virtue of the fact that there is no one left to make an inflated loan to.
The banking system was dependent upon the housing market for its bread and butter, and this worked well for a number of years, as long as house prices went up and there was a pool of first-time buyers waiting in the wings. As the economy 'grew' the 25-year-olds, now out of college, could save for a few years and buy their first home. They would be replaced 10 years later by the next wave of 25-year-olds and so on and so on. An ongoing supply of first home buyers was built into the market by virtue of the ongoing population increase. By lowering the lending standards via dubious types of mortgages without the historically required deposits, the mortgage market makers managed to take in those who were not yet ready for home ownership and essentially destroyed its own supply of first home buyers, thereby creating a void of its own making. The pool of first home buyers was the key ingredient in keeping the deferred settlement game going and today this pool is gone.
It is interesting to note that the shortage of first home buyers is not just a problem for the US banking industry, but is occurring all over the globe. The UK, Spain, Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, to name a few, all have the same problem; which is why this is a global banking crisis. Obviously, the recent actions taken by several central banks in their takeovers of regional and global failed banking giants demonstrate that this is indeed the case. One has to ask the question as to whom Fannie and Freddie, along with all other holders of failed mortgages, are going to sell their foreclosures?
This brings me to the title of this discourse, which is "what exactly is an asset?" Much has been said about the need to be cashed up by several of the well known gloom and doom commentators. Their reasoning, it seems, is based upon the fact that those with cash in the early 1930's were able to buy bargains in most asset categories. Indeed this is what happened, cash was king and that cash was backed by gold, gold which was priced at $20.67 per ounce and individual investors could trade their dollars for gold. Early in 1933, President Roosevelt made gold ownership by US citizens within the US illegal, and the dollar was no longer redeemable for gold. Cash was no longer the cash it had been.
Today cash is about as far removed from the 'cash' of the early 1930's as it could possibly be. Indeed several of the gloom and doomer's have consistently recommended not buying gold because, so they say, when the crash that you need to conquer arrives, gold too will deflate and cash will be king. "King of what?" one has to ask. Now we have the long predicted crash and gold can't be purchased in any quantity at all! That's ironic. Meanwhile the cash you have now placed in the safe haven that U.S. treasuries are supposedly offering are showing a near negative return.
That's apart from the fact that the U.S. Treasury Department is increasing the debt levels at a rate never seen before.
So what is an asset? Does anyone actually know? The derivatives market has been described as a ticking financial time bomb, as financial weapons of mass destruction by none other than Warren Buffet. The size of this market is believed to be in excess of $684 trillion while the U.S. GDP is estimated to be $14 trillion. How can a GDP of $14 trillion support a derivatives market of $500 trillion? The answer of course is it can't and what we are also seeing now is the mass financial destruction Warren Buffet was referring to.
Derivatives are pure speculation, wild bets if you wish, that can never be paid out. They are behind the collapse of Bear Sterns, AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Bros and are likely to take down many more big name players before this is over.
The 'normal' asset classes, whether they be bonds, stocks, or real estate all have either direct or indirect derivative contracts written on them. Government guarantees are all well and good apart from the fact that the biggest debtor is the one providing the guarantee. There are dangers out there that we are not even aware of and this is what my stock broker friend was referring to when he said there is no transparency on any tradable asset class.
miningThis includes gold stocks, which have also taken a pounding over the last few months. Gold stocks today are not the gold stocks of the 1930's. They too have become a target of the writers of derivative contracts, as is any public entity that trades on an exchange. Any index can be shorted and any commodity can be sold off via the futures markets. The actual supply and demand situation for any item is not reflected in the price and this is because of derivatives and the leverage generated by them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the gold market at present with a severe worldwide shortage of physical metal not being reflected in the price... yet.
The right question that those who are cashed up and also holding gold should be asking is how do I replace my gold if I have to sell it and where do I put a portion of my cash to work? The answer to that is to find an asset class that somebody wants to buy, that has inherent upside potential that can be easily recognized and is not obscured by the nonsense that is the financial markets as they appear today.
Traditionally people invested in long term situations that were connected to productivity and by that I mean people invested in an entity that produced something tangible which was sold at a profit. Productivity has been replaced over the years by speculation, by hedge funds gambling with their clients' money, placing large wagers on outcomes that were computer generated and had little to do with productivity. When speculators enter the oil market via the futures market and increase the number of buyers for barrels of oil of course the price will go up, as long as more speculative buyers enter the market. When they don't the price collapses, often quickly, as the speculative longs cover their bets.
The essential ingredients of productivity are commodities and labor. The banking industry stopped supporting productivity a long time ago, preferring to engage in enjoying the fruits of the productivity of the people while enslaving them in indebtedness.
This has changed and the banking system can not save itself from its own expansionary model. The deferred settlement game is over. Now is the time for the individual investor to be looking at situations where productivity will be rewarded. Private ownership of gold mines and of royalties from gold production, as well as an interest in developing gold projects, is one asset class that fits the category of an asset that has upside potential. Gold is money and that is the real reason that gold companies did so well in the 1930's, they were producing the equivalent of cash.
This is not yet the time to be buying publicly traded gold stocks for the reasons outlined earlier in this article. Anything publicly traded is not transparent by virtue of the tangled web that derivatives have created. Now is the time to be taking a longer term view of finding assets connected to mining that have the potential to attract the attention of a producer when the gold market eventually does what it did in the 1930's. Private ownership provides some transparency and the author is aware of some situations that fit the categories outlined above. Astute investors need to be working together outside of the vicious circle of the ticking time bombs that are derivative contracts.
I would like to end with a quote from Richard Russell's nightly newsletter that was published 11/13/08, ( which is of interest:

"Gold -- I've never been a big fan of the "gold is being manipulated" thesis. However, I'm now giving the manipulation thesis second thoughts. Most of the world's central banks are now in the process of fighting recession and deflation. This requires government spending and the production of enormous quantities of new fiat money. The last thing the central banks want is for the public to realize what they are doing. Normally, surging gold would be the signal for the public to ask questions -- rising gold is a red flag for the fiat money creators.
It's amazing and beyond coincidence the way gold rallies, and then immediately is hammered down below 740. I know that there are huge short positions in gold on the COMEX. I'm no longer a skeptic on the "gold is being manipulated" claim. Somebody is selling gold every time gold rallies toward a breakout above 870 or more properly gold at 840. I don't think the manipulators (if there are such people) can keep it up."

Once again I repeat that now is the time that astute investors do need to be working together to identify potential investments that contain real upside potential based upon productivity.

The Prof can be contacted by email at

Copyright by Professor von Braun. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted at USAGOLD by permission.

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The Rocket School of Economics -- The Lecture Series Index

  • 22 May 2009 -- An Often Overlooked Issue!
  • 28 Mar 2009 -- Problematic Banking Systems!
  • 14 Nov 2008 -- What Exactly is an Asset?
  • 23 Aug 2008 -- Through the Looking Glass?
  • 02 Aug 2008 -- Compounding to the Downside!
  • 26 May 2008 -- Back to Basics Again!
  • 31 Mar 2008 -- The Broken Watch -- Part 2.
  • 27 Mar 2008 -- The Broken Watch -- Part 1.
  • 06 Feb 2008 -- The Financial Equivalent of Faulty Towers.
  • 10 Dec 2007 -- Monetary Systems & Productive Assets.
  • 14 Feb 2007 -- Divorced from Reality
  • 06 Sep 2006 -- Gold, Bankers, the Trade Deficit and Unsettled Transactions
  • 19 Jun 2006 -- When is a Reserve Not a Reserve?
  • 31 May 2006 -- The significance of August 15, 1971.
  • 08 Apr 2006 -- Keep Your Eye on the Ball!
  • 30 Mar 2006 -- What came first?
  • 11 Mar 2006 -- An Unanswered Question.
  • 08 Jan 2006 -- Where have all the projects gone!
  • 11 Dec 2005 -- Gorillas, Rising Gold Prices and Depreciating Paper Currencies!
  • 23 Oct 2005 -- Custodial Risk.
  • 16 Sep 2005 -- An Inherent Flaw.
  • 08 Aug 2005 -- Central Banks and 'Reserves'.
  • 31 Jul 2005 -- Central Bankers, Actors and 'We'.
  • 17 Jul 2005 -- Unintended Consequences! -- Part 3.
  • 07 Jul 2005 -- Unintended Consequences! -- Part 2.
  • 25 Jun 2005 -- Unintended Consequences! -- Part 1.
  • 14 Jun 2005 -- The Two Greater Fools Theory.
  • 03 Jun 2005 -- Real Money, Funny Money and YOU -- Part 4.
  • 30 May 2005 -- Real Money, Funny Money and YOU -- Part 3.
  • 26 May 2005 -- Real Money, Funny Money and YOU -- Part 2.
  • 21 May 2005 -- Real Money, Funny Money and YOU -- Part 1.
  • 09 Nov 2002 -- Carrying a Big Stick.
  • 17 Sep 2002 -- Wishful Thinking!
  • 27 Jul 2002 -- Gold Bugs Beware -- part 2.
  • 10 Jun 2002 -- Gold Bugs Beware!
  • 06 Apr 2002 -- Currencies versus Gold.
  • 26 Jan 2002 -- Bear Market Strategies.
  • 01 Jan 2002 -- 2002 -- A Perspective.
  • 20 Oct 2001 -- The Storm Clouds are Gathering.
  • 30 Sep 2001 -- What to Say?
  • 01 Jul 2001 -- ...Said the Fly to the Spider.
  • 14 Jun 2001 -- Upward and Downward!
  • 28 May 2001 -- Volatility Time, Again!
  • 14 May 2001 -- The Coming Bull Market in Gold Stocks?
  • 24 Feb 2001 -- High Hopes, Wishful Thinking & The Absurd
  • 20 Feb 2001 -- Who Put the Holes in the Swiss Cheese?
  • 22 Jan 2001 -- US Dollar Admits Identity Crisis!
  • 16 Jan 2001 -- Dear George W.
  • 24 Nov 2000 -- The Bubble Has Burst
  • 11 Nov 2000 -- The Media, Bull Markets & the Gold Price
  • 02 Nov 2000 -- Gold Stocks
  • 29 Oct 2000 -- Oh The Tangled Web We Weave ...When We Set Out to Deceive
  • 24 Oct 2000 -- A Mystery!
  • 16 Oct 2000 -- A Peso Here ...and a Few Thousand Pesos There
  • 10 Oct 2000 -- The Unfolding
  • 30 Sep 2000 -- What's Wrong with THIS Picture?
  • 25 Sep 2000 -- Buy Gold Now!!
  • 23 Sep 2000 -- The Times, They Are a' Changing
  • 15 Sep 2000 -- Time WILL Tell!
  • 27 Aug 2000 -- SS "Paper Assets" Begins to Take on Water
  • 06 Aug 2000 -- The Indian Summer
  • 26 Jun 2000 -- A Yellow Brick Wall
  • 22 May 2000 -- The King IS Naked
  • 30 Apr 2000 -- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  • 18 Apr 2000 -- Beware the Ides of March, April and May
  • 08 Apr 2000 -- Really, Sir Aldot!
  • 25 Mar 2000 -- Where To From Here?
  • 18 Mar 2000 -- The Gnomes of Zurich
  • 12 Mar 2000 -- The "New" Economy??
  • 06 Mar 2000 -- Two Questions
  • 04 Mar 2000 -- Iceberg Dead Ahead!
  • 28 Feb 2000 -- The Wizard of Oz
  • 06 Feb 2000 -- Here We Go Again!!
  • 15 Jan 2000 -- Comments on the Gold Market
  • 29 Dec 1999 -- No Raw Ingredients Required
  • 28 Dec 1999 -- No Way Out
  • 14 Dec 1999 -- Ho, Ho, Ho!
  • 07 Dec 1999 -- Greenspan's Bubble
  • 03 Dec 1999 -- Early Warning Signs

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