Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Gold Bug decease

There is a lot of garbage on the internets about gold these days. Head over to ZeroHedge and, on a daily basis, the site has at least one post on the price of gold - and each post will generate well over a hundred responses from a dedicated army of gold bugs. Bloomberg has opinion pieces on the subject - generally more balanced, but with both perspectives on the subject. Financial analysts, hedgies and CNBC garbage cans all talk about the falling dollar and in the next breath will inevitably allude to gold one way or another. So I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and offer a few words of wisdom: gold bugs are idiots.

1.  Gold as inflation hedge. As an empirical matter, gold used to offer passable protection from inflation, but really got messed up in the later part of the 20th century as the gold standard went by the way of the dodo. Here is a chart, shamelessly stolen, from here.

 Obviously, if gold were a perfect hedge, real price would be flat. It's not. Gold bugs will inevitably argue that there is a problem with CPI data sice it excludes the volatile energy and food prices (and the beginning of the 1977-1981 run-up in gold price correlates highly with the oil crisis back then, as does the run-up of late 2000s). That's all well and good of course, but as a consumer I don't live to buy oil - I only consume it in a form of gas, and it's not really all that much when you compare it to items like the rent or the cost of a car itself. Surely, from a consumer's perspective, no oil bubble justifies a runup in price of an "inflation hedge" so steep - and subsequent corrections bear that out.

2. Gold as an investment asset. Well, it's really an odd one. Empirically again, it's performance is not bad - but you really have to time it right to not get completely screwed over. And of course, there is no dividend stream or any income as such at all to compare gold to something like bonds or stocks. So it's hard to find a fundamental justification for the price of gold in this sense.

3. Gold as currency. This is a good one. Last time I checked, gold coins are not an accepted form of payment in supermarkets, gas stations, restaurants or event bordellos. Dollars - paper ones, or electronic ones - are. There are other currencies too, but none of them are gold, or are even convertible into gold.

 Gold bugs say that fiat currencies will collapse (because there is no check on the governments ability to print) and since gold can't be printed and its supply is rather steady, it's the only real currency out there, to which when the proverbial shit hits the fan, everyone will inevitably revert.  This ties into a theory of gold being a good financial armageddon protection (given that there has been few such events during modernity, this is a claim that is hard to confirm empirically). Let's examine this one a bit more closely.

There is no argument that gold used to be a currency. This has been true for much longer than any of the modern fiat currencies have been in existence, and, in fact, has been true during the bulk of western civilization's existence. But ultimately any currency is valuable only if many people believe that it's valuable. In other words, for a currency to function, people must believe in the system. Gold bugs expessly reject such belief in the current system, because... well, you know, the government is bad, helicopter Ben can print money at a push of a button and Timmy G and BO are in the pocket of Wallstreet.

But what eludes them is that if the current monetary system indeed collapses, there is absolutely no guarantee that the one that immediately preceded it will step up to take its place. Put another way, if the financial and economic armageddon does take place, why would one think that gold will suddenly be accepted as payment for bread? More fundamentally, what makes anyone think that there will be any bread to buy? There is actually recent empirical evidence to the contrary: in none of the countries that have undergone through massive currency devaluation and hyperinflation, e.g., the former Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, nobody even tried (or thought of trying) using precious metals as legal tender. And oh yes, there really was very little bread to actually buy. It sucked -- and gold reserves were of absolutely no help. What helped was having USD, which began to circulate in large quantities and in which anything that was of any importance was priced and measured. If dollars were unavailable, people would probably resort straight to barter. Thus, when shit hits the fan, that gold bar might buy you shelter for life, a loaf of bread for a day or anything in between, above or below - it'll take a while, if ever, before the bread/gold exchange rate settles down in the absense of actual currency.

5. Simple math/conclusion.  There is little to no fundamental demand for gold, as stated above. At present, it's price is therefore a factor of (1) the growth in money supply relative to the growth in the supply of gold and (2) how many people belive that gold has any value whatsoever. Factor (2) is what fuels speculative bubbles in gold. A belief that the price of gold will always increase requires a belief that either the government will keep printing money like crazy forever (demonstrably false) or that the number of people who believe that gold has value will increase.  The influence of factor (2) is not to be underestimated - and this really makes gold worse than anything else out there: if no one has faith in gold, it will become completely worthless. It's true that people could decide that the dollars aren't worth the paper they are printed on anymore. But, objectively, how much more likely is that to happen than the people deciding that gold is of no use or value to anybody - which is true, by the way - and you can't even wipe your ass with it?

If people are looking to invest in something that has constrained supply and therefore not subject to Fed's manipulations and something you can "store", they could look to precious metals with industrial uses, such as platinum or palladium, or, better yet, land/real estate. The latter, by the way, has a pretty fundamental value: so long as there are people, they will need a place to live. And if there are no people... well, who cares about capital preservation at that point? Of course, just as is the case with gold, real estate has proven to be succeptible to the problem of belief: when too many people start thinking that it will incraese in value, bubbles form, and one might get screwed. Still, one won't get screwed nearly as much as if one bought gold at $800+ per ounce in 1980. That was one horrible "store of value."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

BoJ to provide emergency loans to banks

From Bloomberg:

The Bank of Japan said it will provide short-term loans to commercial banks amid pressure from Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s administration to address falling prices and the yen’s surge to a 14-year high.
Thus, BoJ's key overnight rate just became also the 3-month rate.  At first blush, it's not totally apparent whether this will take the yen down a few notches as the Japanese exporters desperately need it to. The most direct way to achieve the desired result would be for BoJ to boost its QE program, as many others have observed. Today's move may give some boost to the Yen carry trade, but, at least as of today, not so much against the dollar: at quick check, 3-months T-bills are still yielding barely above zero at only 4 bps. To make the essentially riskless trade, an institution could borrow from BoJ at the advertised 0.1% and use the proceeds to buy the equivalent duration T-bills. At today's prices, however, such a trade is a still a losing one (to make any money at all, the 3-months treasury yields would need to be above 0.1%). 

The participant banks can be happy though - here is another way to make a lot of money through very little effort with such cheap 3-months financing. All you need is to find a higher yielding asset that qualifies as collateral for BoJ and bingo! There are still many, many sovereign nations whose 3-months debt yields more than that. Traders would need to try really, really hard to loose any money these days....

When is the madness going to stop? Why to ALL efforts to boost the economy are so focused on monetary stimilus these days - which first and foremost result in banks making more money.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Krugman says Timmy G is on Wall Street's payroll

Don't blame the messenger (link):

.... the Turner-Brown proposal, which would apply a “Tobin tax” to all financial transactions — not just those involving foreign currency — is very much in Tobin’s spirit. It would be a trivial expense for long-term investors, but it would deter much of the churning that now takes place in our hyperactive financial markets. This would be a bad thing if financial hyperactivity were productive. But after the debacle of the past two years, there’s broad agreement — I’m tempted to say, agreement on the part of almost everyone not on the financial industry’s payroll.
and yet....
Unfortunately, United States officials — especially Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary — are dead set against the proposal.
 As to substance:  it's taken a while but kudos for finally picking up on this. Better late than never, I suppose. But, Mr. Krugman, I urge you to do more – because the reform of our financial sector is very, very important, and a Tobin tax is an easy-to-implement first step that should reduce this endless trading activity that brings little tangible accomplishment.

So write about how HFT/algo trading is now dominating our exchanges. Write how many transactions are done through "dark pools". Write how all of these split-second trades that are managed by computer models have the capability to rapidly inflate (and deflate) bubbles in stocks, oil, metals, currencies, credit swaps and anything and everything for which a symbol exists on the Bloomberg terminal. Write how formation of the bubbles has been ever more rapid and ever more frequent thanks to the sloshing liquidity in financial markets. Write how the injections of monetary stimulus would, in the ordinary course of affairs, result in more permanent allocation of capital to socially useful projects with long term returns (infrastructure, energy, biotech, etc.), and yet because finding such socially useful investments requires hard work, have instead ended up fueling the rapid rise of the financial sector. Write about why the foregoing results in a complete abdication of Wall Street's raisón d'etré: efficient allocation of capital.

Write incessantly, because (a) persistence pays off, and (b) if the message has any hope of getting accross, it must saturate the consiosness of those who pay attention and our powers that be. You have an unparalleled forum to air your views and an air of authority to boot – use it!

End of (Dubai)World

And what the hell did they expect??? - just sweeping those streets from the ever encroaching desert sands is expensive enough, not to mention their infamous indoor ski resort and all the energy and water that it requires. Clearly, an infrastructure with water consumption per capita among the highest in the world IN THE MIDDLE OF A FREAKING DESERT and the highest energy consumption per capita, period, is the very definition of unsustainability - environmental, economic and otherwise. If Las Vegas' very existence is a crime against nature, then I have no idea what the proper name for Dubai and its neighbors should be.

So what about those loans - how much of a haircut would they want to get. Well Dubai World has about $58 billion in liabilities  (~$80 bln for Dubai as a whole) and had $99.6 billion in assets at the end of 2008. What are those assets worth now? Well, I don't know exactly, but I can guess. Considering that most of the collateral is in the form of empty skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands that are half-built and other unfinished construction sights, and conisdering that property values in Dobai collapsed anywhere from 50 to 70 percent from peak, Dubai should be far beyond the point of technical insolvency. Abu Dhabi's continued support has enabled them to use the "extend and pretend" tactic to much success up until now, but apparently no more.

If contagion spreads, and the newly inflated stock and commodity bubbles, including oil start to pop again - we might loose a venue or two and Emirates might just stop sponsoring Ferrari (and if you think there are no bubbles, I have a small island to sell you).

Monday, November 9, 2009

The continuing saga of Wall St compensation

Per Bloomberg, the top 3 wall street firms are on track to increasing their total compensation to the bonanza year of 2007. Absurd does not begin to capture it.

NB to Ken Feinberg, as he wrestles with how to best align wall street compensation to performance: with aggregage compensation that high, it makes absolutely zilch of a difference in how you structure it. Obviously, a clawback for the whole pay package is an unrealistic condition to impose - one needs to put fuel in his Ferrari after all. Ditto for deferred stock compensation that vests in X number of years. That leaves the choice of cash, options and outright stock awards for the majority of that multi-million dollar bonus. And here's the thing: if I am getting paid that much, I frankly don't give a damn if the performance of my company suffers in the long term. The whole outlook becomes a short term one: make a killing for 3-4 years, then quit, cash in all of those options and stocks, and retire comfortably. Hell, the top dogs at Goldman could really afford to quick anytime they goddamn please: you can get close to a 4% yield tax free on a long term muni index, which, if you net $10 mil in a single year and stash it away, can enable a fairly comfortable lifestyle so long as you stay the fuck out of the money black-hole that is NYC.

At that point in the compensation scale, increments in compensation can only provide bad incentives. If providing for your long-term well being is no longer at issue, what would YOU care about? If the answer is of a "mine's bigger than yours" type - correcto mundo!

So, you want to encourage conservative investment behaviour at wall street banks, Ken? Start by making people fear about putting bread on the table. Prison sentences handed out willy-nilly could also do wonders, but you can't put every i-banker in jail, can you Ken? Can you?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The mind boggles at the prowess of our distinguished financial institutions to capitalize, monetize and perform other such generally fraudulent acts on behalf of the befuddled taxpayer.  Goldman earns another 3.19 billon (albeit somewhat less valuable) dollars and sets aside 5.35 for compensation and benefits. One can clearly see that the employees are getting absolutely screwed here: they could have had that 3 billion added to their compensation if it was not for those pesky shareholders.

Untrammeled Euphoria

President Obama gets a Nobel Peace Prize, confirming how little peace actually matters.  The Senate Finance Committee passes a health care bill, the contents of which confirm once and for all that each country has the government that it deserves and deserves the government that it has. Dow passes 10,000 for the third time ever, confirming that the declining currency can do wonders in a "how high a number can we ring on this register?" game.

Champagne gushing out from bottles of Moet opened with an awkward stike of a butcher's knife, we dance on the freshly dug grave of the Great Recession. We take turns to blow air into a giant tube (of the sort used to take down whole countries) connected, for the time being, to a no-less impressive in size baloon.  The baloon is, of course, a horizontally striped red-white affair with a blue top. Quickly expanding, it is mesmerizing to watch, not least thanks to the dizzyness and the oxygen starvation that is an inevitable consequence of trying to blow too much air out of our lungs and into a pressurized container.

Speaking of oxygen starvation and of blowing hot air: how well do you think your brain would function if you had to talk as much as Jim Cramer does every day. Not very well at all, I bet.