Cheer if you will Goldbug bashers, but I suspect if Gold starts another swan dive, it won't be alone. There may even come a time when you wish Gold would rise.
"Triumphalism," Paul Krugman opined in a 1997 New Republic article, "presents its own problems." Under the, dare I suggest, ironic headline, Superiority Complex,
Mr. Krugman completed his thought: " though the
"American model" has scored some important successes, it continues to
fail in other respects, above all in generating an ever-increasing level
of inequality. And we won't begin to address those failures if the
national mood remains dominated by self-congratulation." He closed the
article with sage advice for his readers: "The truth is that nothing in
the experience of the last few years contradicts the idea that we could have a kinder, gentler economy that preserves the main virtue of the
American system--high employment. All it would take is compassion. And a little less gloating."
Compassion, and a little less
gloating might also help Mr. Krugman
understand, rather than mock, Goldbugs- a label which, contra Krugman's
caricature thereof, denotes a group exhibiting a very wide range of
economic/investment views- while they are nursing their recently
suffered monetary wounds. I imagine for every gold hoardin', gun totin',
doomsday preppin' angry white male proclaiming the end of the
world (they annoy me too),there's at least one confused, upset and perhaps unemployed person
fed up with Wall Street's "head's I win, tails you lose" investment
strategy, (or one, like myself, who believes structural reform-blocking
rigidities in the developed world won't be overcome easily leaving only
2 eventual paths for excess liquidity, inflation or default). Those
confused and unsettled Goldbugs, having witnessed a succession of
bursting investment bubbles at home and more recently read about bank
runs abroad might, not
without justification, have decided to save in Gold, rather than a bank,
or his mattress.
Mr. Krugman, alas, is not gloating alone over Goldbug's recent
misfortunes. One clever soul coined the term Goldenfreude to describe his state of mind. Joe Weisenthal proclaims, EVERYONE Should Be Thrilled By The Gold Crash- a view echoed by Felix Salmon. Barry Ritholtz leavened his disdain for Goldbuggery with a sliver of compassion, I
do not want to engage in Goldenfreude — the delight in gold bugs’
collective pain — but I am compelled to point out how basic flaws in
their belief system has led them to this place where they are today. Gold, he avers, has no fundamentals and those who buy are engaging in the ultimate greater fool trade.
While living in SE Asia during
their late 90s crisis I witnessed first
hand one of Gold's great virtues- when a nation's banking system, and
almost always coincidentally, currency, comes under pressure Gold holds
its value. The haircut recently forced on Cypriot savers was far less
than that inflicted on Gold by the market. In other words, despite
recent declines I'd rather be holding Gold in Cyprus than waiting in an
ATM line to withdraw my daily allotment of currency.
America, the gloaters might
retort, is not Cyprus. No, it isn't, and I
(casting off one aspect of Krugman's Goldbug caricature) sincerely hope
we don't find ourselves in their financial straits. My bet is that such
can only be avoided by further monetization AND, in the absence of rapid
real sector productivity gains which don't exacerbate income inequality
induced domestic tensions (unlikely given right wing intransigence on
welfare state expansion or a domestic Modest Proposal a la Swift), wage
and price inflation.
"A ha," Krugman, beating his gloating compatriots to the punch, would
likely argue, "you Goldbugs are always talking about runaway inflation. Didn't you read my recent article mocking your inflation worries thusly: "But the runaway inflation that was supposed to follow reckless
money-printing — inflation that the usual suspects have been declaring imminent for four years and more — keeps not happening."
I agree, and the absence of
broad based inflation given the stimulus in an environment of
limited structural reform outside the developing world is my concern. I
suspect if Mr. Krugman would stop gloating, it might be his too (more on
this below). If the recent decline in Gold signals, as many gleefully
a decline in inflation expectations, might the US, and, I suspect, other
mature industrial economies (Europe and Japan) be
drawing ever nearer to a stall in growth followed by a liquidity crunch?
Consider this potential catalyst for the Gold crash. "Macroeconomic stimulus," said a US Treasury FX Report
chiding Japan for the recent, now reversed, Yen slide, "...cannot be a
substitute for structural reform that raises productivity and trend
growth." We'll return to structural reform momentarily after a look at
market reaction. The Yen's rapid recovery following this report's
coincident with the Gold crash- perhaps both price adjustments represent
market belief that inflation games (currency debasement either
externally or internally) won't be tolerated.
With austerity the rage in European policy circles (we aren't far behind
in that regard, thanks to the Republicans), competitive devaluation
verboten and Gold signalling, to the cheers of many, declining inflation
expectations, I'd be surprised if yet another liquidity crunch isn't
around the corner.
Factors Behind the Forecast: Structural Rigidities and Over-Leveraged Finance
Despite recent record profits,
the US financial system, still dependent
on a few highly leveraged (how else to achieve such profits in a low
interest rate environment) TBTF banks, is far from stable. Many
mortgaged home-owners are still looking up at the zero-equity line.
Those cheering the absence of inflation simply, it seems to me, because
such makes Goldbugs look stupid, might want to consider that in a highly
leveraged economy, the cascading defaults of deflation- the "it"
Bernanke assured us wouldn't happen here- always loom in the background.
Cheer if you will Goldbug
bashers, but I suspect if Gold takes another
swan dive, it won't be alone. As we've seen over the past few days, Gold
price declines are mirrored to various degrees by oil, other
commodities, and equities. Declining prices, if such becomes the trend,
will lead to higher unemployment and, amplified by the former, declining
house prices and
rising foreclosures. In the teeth of such an event, some might be
yearning for the days when Gold was rising and inflation was assumed.
I'll admit, such a scenario favors the dollars-saved-in-a-mattress
strategy rather than Gold ownership but both
tactics are anti-investments ridiculed by Goldbug bashers.
The elephant in the room for the
Goldenfreuders is the lack of structural reform in the developed world-
an omission perhaps due to a
focus on high frequency and exclusion of low frequency economic factors.
Structural reform, for those unfamiliar, refers to changes in the
capital structure (factories,
transport systems, education programs, agricultural methods, etc.) that
hope to produce more for less. China's rapid economic growth over recent
decades is, in large part, an effect of these reforms such as the
shift, in 1978, from communal to industrial farming.
Significant structural reforms are often resisted. Consider the
resistance some individuals display when asked to eat less, drink and
smoke less, and exercise more. Note, "when asked." Change is much
easier (but not guaranteed) when it's wanted. Consider, for example,
the rapid adoption of computers and cell phones. I doubt even severe
coercion could have done half as much in twice the time. Fortunately
the benefits of these new technologies were readily apparent and despite
some resistance by, e.g., book store owners to Amazon, those individual
losses were smaller than the aggregate productivity gain. Those
productivity gains created an environment where jobs were plentiful,
further easing stress caused by the destruction economic creation
usually entails- agriculturalists rarely coexist harmoniously with
hunter gatherers but they produce more food per acre meaning, if the latter adapt to the new system, both groups can survive.
In cases when reform calls for the destruction of wealthy industries
with government ties, substantial legal changes, or labor downtime and
re-education for a significant portion of the work-force (especially in
the absence of a decently funded welfare state), resistance can
effectively block what would likely be widespread productivity gains.
Pre WWII rail transport in continental Europe seems a case on point.
International disagreements over railway standards and routes (an
example of structural reform-blocking rigidities) kept the continent
from reaping the productivity gains a fully connected rail system
promised- and delivered, after a devastating war cleared away both
dissent and, sadly, large chunks of the old rail system. Expanding on
von Clausewitz for the modern world (which finds the more apt term,
political-economy, too archaic) war is not just politics by other means
but economics by other means- the worst means, in my view.
Structural reform-blocking rigidities are, in a sense, other words for
productivity sapping rent seeking- e.g. from a bottom up perspective,
Luddites breaking machinery or US autoworkers striking to avoid being
replaced thereby, and from a top down perspective, trade barriers
(tariffs) or de jure monopolies (Britain's BBC prior to 1955). Profits
and Investments in rent seeking industries, particularly when higher
productivity methods are known and feasible, tend to be misdirected from
entrepreneurial activity (why make a better or cheaper widget when it's
cheaper to bribe a competition stifling official?). Bribery doesn't seem to me a very economically productive activity although it obviously benefits some while irking others.
For an example of a structural rigidity overcome consider recent changes in US law which reduced regulations on where and how (think fracking) petroleum products can be extracted. Fracking has changed N. Dakota from a deficit to a surplus state and driven unemployment to near zero. Before you send me a nasty-gram, I'm not arguing such is an unalloyed good- insufficient profits are likely flowing to those who have been and certainly will be negatively affected (this is no environmentally neutral practice). I'm merely pointing out the positive economic benefits thereof.
To digress for a moment, first with an apology to the economically
literate for the rudimentary and likely (to some) unsatisfactory
treatment of these issues and second with further explanation thereof:
the ideological (and physical) battle between communism and capitalism
over the past two centuries is the battle between productivity and
people. In my view, productivity is most effectively and durably
enhanced at an imaginary "sweet spot" between radical laissez faire
(think Ayn Rand) and communal ownership (Marx). Transfer payments,
whether private (charity) or public (government welfare) are, in my view, necessary
to ensure social cooperation within the capitalist framework. Domestic
dissent is a sign that transfer payments are, whether as a result of
insufficient funds or inefficient distribution, not performing their
function. Labor dissent in many developed economies (Occupy and
austerity protests in America and Europe respectively) suggest to me a
hopefully solvable but currently intractable transfer payment crisis.
The pendulum has swung too far right which isn't meant to obviate calls
therefrom for greater transfer payment efficiency.
for the Gold crash sound to my ears like cheers for austerity in Europe
and further dismantling of the welfare state in the US. If Japan needs
inflation now, don't we as well? Perhaps we too should join the Euro? and give up our right to buy time with inflation?
I'll close with a look at another structural reform-blocking rigidity
whose removal might justify a moment of schadenfreude. The phrase "Too
Big To Fail" speaks to a de jure monopoly of sorts for those protected
banks. Potential competitors were blocked from taking over business
which would have looked elsewhere for financial services absent
government support. Competition was stifled and the public debt
increased. I believe, but for delusional faith in the virtues of these
institutions (more below), a less costly, competition enhancing solution
could have emerged from the crisis of 2008 and resolving that rigidity
would have eased tensions between labor and capital.
Consider: Would current budget negotiations in the US be so contentious in the absence of the recent bail-out and additional debt incurred?
Returning to the delusion, TBTF banks remind me of Alchemists wasting labor and resources trying to
turn lead into gold, or, more accurately, trying to squeeze more profit
out of trade than trade generates. Finance, at best, facilitates
trade. In practice it records, analyses, calculates and
communicates. What Amazon did to the local book merchant a similar
company (or 5 or 20) can do even more effectively to finance. Surely
networked computing should decrease the cost of finance for the rest of
On the bright side, the presence of rigidities suggests greater future
productivity upon their resolution, although it would be tragic if such
resolution comes via violence rather than diplomacy. I believe a new
cooperation enhancing agreement between labor and capital is possible.
Given the European example, I believe American energy efficiency can be
increased. As noted above, I believe American financial efficiency can
be greatly enhanced through the dissolution of TBTF.
When that happens I'll suggest a new word- Bankenfreude- and might even
indulge in some myself. I'll swap my Gold for currency and put it back
in the game. Until then, I'll remain a Goldbug.
Full disclosure (if it wasn't obvious) I own gold.