Jerry schuitema
6 minute read
15 Sep 2017
7:46 am

Gold, bitcoin and the dollar

Jerry schuitema

Connecting some scary dots in the undercurrent of market turmoil.

Are we seeing signs of a return to gold-backed currencies? It’s a valid question in the light of a deal now being implemented between China and Russia.

China, the world’s biggest oil importer is de-dollarising its oil bill with its biggest supplier, Russia, by paying in yuan that can be converted into gold.

That, in effect, means gold backing for a major currency in a highly significant international transaction and which will be extended to cover the total $116 billion per annum Chinese oil bill.

China is expected to buy 1 000 tons of gold this year, India a further 900 tons, and Russia has been consistently topping up its gold reserves from an average 715 tons to more than 1 700 tons in the last quarter. Together, these three countries have been absorbing gold nearly equal to annual newly mined gold. In addition, China has launched yuan-denominated gold contracts in exchanges in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

These developments have hardly featured in explaining gold’s 11-month high in past weeks, focusing rather on geopolitical tensions. It’s another reflection of the short-term perspective of derivatives and paper trading which now set a global gold price totally removed from physical supply and demand. This graphic by the London Bullion Market Association published by Zero Hedge and the Bullion Star shows that 15 000 times more unallocated gold is traded than there are reserves.

Following derivative short-term thinking, gold seems for the most part to be viewed as a palliative for paranoia, ignoring its significant monetary potential as an alternative to paper currencies, especially the United States dollar. Yet, how strong is the mighty greenback? And can deliberate de-dollarisation by large countries be ignored?

Recent market trends reflect again a simple link between dollar strength and the performance of the American economy. GDP growth is the ultimate rainmaker and statistical indicators move markets in short-term bursts. Largely ignored is the most important ultimate health of an economy and strength of its currency – the national debt. In the wake of hurricane havoc, $15 billion in victim relief gave good cause to waive the United States government $20 trillion debt ceiling until December. The fact that US Federal government debt has nearly tripled in about ten years, with little prospect of a slowing down in the next five, must pose a threat to the country’s long-term health.

Debt creation is contained by raising interest rates. But that means a substantial proportion of government revenue has to go to debt servicing. (A 1% increase in rates adds $200 billion to interest payment.) It also curtails consumer demand and therefore economic growth. Until recently the Federal Reserve board has been acting completely counter-intuitively to that but when you approach zero interest rates and keep on adding more debt, you have clearly reached a cross road. The hesitant and modest Fed rate hikes reflect the difficulty in reversing that trajectory.

And then there’s the diminutive bitcoin, now in its third bubble deflation/burst/correction in as many years and punching way above its weight in terms of public attention. It’s a bit sad, really, because it detracts from its still promising potential of revolutionising money. Paul Donovan of UBS Wealth Management believes that it never had and never will have that potential (See Moneyweb article here). Others, such as JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and our own Mike Schussler, have weighed in on its alleged fraudulent nature.

Howard Marks, The Oaktree Capital co-chairman shared that view until a few days ago when he wrote: “Bitcoin fans argue that it qualifies as a currency under these criteria: most importantly, it’s something that parties can agree to accept as legal tender and a store of value. That actually seems right.”

But then he comes to the crunch: “… I found myself admitting that much of the criticism I had levelled at bitcoin is applicable to the dollar as well.”

The two main functions of money, a stable means of exchange and store of value are flawed even in existing fiat currencies, and crypto has already shown that an alternative is possible. The current rush reflects, at least in part, growing distrust in alternatives. People confuse “store of value” with “appreciating investment”. Store of value simply means being able to store and preserve the value of your cow, chicken, or labour in a safe way. Only then does it live comfortably with means of exchange. When it is subjected to speculative investment its means of exchange status is disturbed, but not necessarily lost.

Crypto is such a new, complicated phenomenon that any speculation about transaction costs, booms and busts, bubbles and bursts, usage, security, ultimate winners and losers, regulatory framework, taxation and indeed the real value of the crypto itself is premature, albeit valuable to its development. With its widely trusted blockchain technology, bitcoin may well morph into something different, or even be replaced. But it will be difficult to replace the decentralised nature of bitcoin. Control of money through central banks, banks and governments is simply no longer trusted. Likewise, central control of a crypto currency will suffer the same fate.

Despite extreme volatility, bitcoin’s price has clearly shown explosive demand. Until one can clearly determine where that demand is coming from, how long it will be sustained and at what price, can one start predicting and charting its course. The same goes for the plethora of other cryptos, some good and some absolutely rotten, that enter this space and dilute the offering.

But it’s a huge playground, as shown in this table of investment and speculative deployment of money. It was extrapolated from a graphic worth looking at here, and published by the Visual Capitalist. The figures are not fully comparable with each other because I updated some of them.

Instrument Value
Bitcoin $70 billion*
All crypto $150 billion*
Gold $7.8 trillion
Stock markets $70 trillion
Broad money $80 trillion
Global derivatives $200 trillion
Derivatives $630 trillion to $1.2 quadrillion
(*latest. Other 2015)
*GLOBAL GDP (PPP) $130 trillion

Source: Visual Capitalist

One simply cannot begin to calculate cryptocurrencies’ share or potential share of the total and much of the criticism levelled at cryptocurrencies can be levelled at many of the instruments shown. But connecting some less apparent dots creates a much more disturbing picture: the overwhelming weight of finance over the real economy, which is GDP and key influencing factors such as debt. Clearly finance is no longer being informed and driven by GDP, but is driving it! And in the worst possible way of trying to extract maximum short-term, speculative gains! It reverses an old and wise economic law – enterprise leads and capital follows.

It explains a lot about what is wrong with the world.

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