Tag Archives: purchasing power

Why QE didn’t send gold up to $20,000

This blog post is a guest post on BullionStar's Blog by the renowned blogger JP Koning who will be writing about monetary economics, central banking and gold. BullionStar does not endorse or oppose the opinions presented but encourage a healthy debate. 

Why didn't quantitative easing, which created trillions of dollars of new money, lead to a massive spike in the gold price?

The Quantity Theory of Money

The intuition that an increase in the money supply should lead to a rise in prices, including the price of gold, comes from a very old theory of money—the quantity theory of money—going back to at least the philosopher David Hume. Hume asked his readers to imagine a situation in which everyone in Great Britain suddenly had "five pounds slipt into his pocket in one night." Hume reasoned that this sudden increase in the money supply would "only serve to increase the prices of every thing, without any farther consequence."

Another way to think about the quantity theory is by reference to the famous equation of exchange, or

  • MV = PY
  • money supply x velocity of money over a period of time = price level x goods & services produced over that period

A traditional quantity theorist usually assumes that velocity, the average frequency that a banknote or deposit changes hands, is quite stable. So when M—the money supply— increases, a hot potato effect emerges. Anxious to rid themselves of their extra money balances M, people race to the stores to buy Y, goods and services, that they otherwise couldn't have afforded, quickly emptying the shelves. Retailers take these hot potatoes and in turn spend them at their wholesalers in order to restock. But as time passes, business people adjust by ratcheting up their prices so that the final outcome is a permanent increase in P.

In August 2008, before the worst of the credit crisis had broken out, the U.S Federal Reserve had $847 billion in money outstanding, or what is referred to as "monetary base"—the combination of banknotes in circulation and deposits held at the central bank. Then three successive rounds of quantitative easing were rolled out: QE1, QE2, and QE3. Six years later, monetary base finally peaked at $4.1 trillion (see chart below). QE in Europe, Japan, and the UK led to equal, if not more impressive, increases in the domestic money supply.

U.S. monetary base (banknotes and deposits at the Fed)

So again our question: if M increased so spectacularly, why not P and the price of gold along with it? Those with long memories will recall that while gold rose from $1000 to $2000 during the first two legs of QE, it collapsed back down to $1000 during the last round. That's not the performance one would expect of an asset that is commonly viewed as a hedge against excess monetary printing.

How Regular Monetary Policy Works

My claim is that even though central banks created huge amounts of monetary base via QE, the majority of this base money didn't have sufficient monetary punch to qualify it for entry into the left side of the equation of exchange, and therefore it had no effect on the price level. Put differently, QE suffered from monetary impotence.

Let's consider what makes money special. Most of the jump in base money during QE was due to a rise in deposits held at the central bank, in the U.S.'s case deposits at the Federal Reserve. These deposits are identical to other short-term forms of government debt like treasury bills except for the fact that they provide monetary services, specifically as a medium for clearing & settling payments between banks. Central banks keep the supply of deposits—and thus the quantity of monetary services available to banks—scarce.

Regular monetary policy involves shifting the supply of central bank deposits in order to hit an inflation target. When a central bank wants to loosen policy i.e. increase inflation, it engages in open market purchases. This entails buying treasury bills from banks and crediting these banks for the purchase with newly-created central bank deposits. This shot of new deposits temporarily pushes the banking system out of equilibrium: it now has more monetary services than it had previously budgeted for.

To restore equilibrium, a hot potato effect is set off. A bank that has more monetary services then it desires will try to get rid of excess bank deposits by spending them on things like bonds, stocks, or gold. But these deposits can only be passed on to other banks that themselves already have sufficient monetary services. To convince these other banks to accept deposits, the first bank will have to sell them at a slightly lower price. Put differently, it will have to pay the other banks a higher price for bonds, stocks, or gold. And these buyers will in turn only be able to offload unwanted monetary services by also marking down the value, or purchasing power, of deposits. The hot potato process only comes to a halt when deposits have lost enough purchasing power, or the price level has risen high enough, that the banking system is once again happy with the levels of deposits that the central bank has injected into the system.

What I've just described is regular monetary policy. In this scenario, open market operations are still potent.  But what happens when they lose their potency?

Monetary Impotence: Death of the Hot Potato Effect

A central bank can stoke inflation by engaging in subsequent rounds of open market purchases, but at some point impotence will set in and additional purchases will have no effect on prices. When a large enough quantity of deposits has been created, the market will no longer place any value on the additional monetary services that these deposits provide. Monetary services will have become a free good, say like air—useful but without monetary value. Deposits, which up to that point were unique thanks to their valuable monetary properties, have become identical to treasury bills. Open market operations now consists of little more than a swap of one identical t-bill for another.

Zimbabwe 100 trillion dollar notes together with gold bullion
100 Trillion Dollar Notes are not yet required to purchase gold. Why hasn't the increased money supply significantly increased the gold price?

When this happens, subsequent open market purchases are no longer capable of pushing the banking system out of equilibrium. After all, monetary services have become a free good. There is no way that banks can have too much of them. Since an increase in the supply of deposits no longer has any effect on bank behavior, the hot potato effect can't get going—and thus open market purchases have no effect on the price level, or on gold.

This "monetary impotence" is what seems to have overtaken the various rounds of QE. While the initial increase in deposits no doubt had some effect on prices, monetary services quickly became a free good. After that point, the banking system accepted each round of newly-created deposits with a yawn rather than trying to desperately pass them off, hot potato-like.

And that's why gold didn't rise to $20,000 through successive rounds of QE. Gold does well when people find that they have too much money in their wallets or accounts, but QE failed to create the requisite "too much money".

Golden Stockpiles – The Key to Gold as a Store of Value and Safe Haven

Much is written in the precious metals world about gold’s characteristics, as well as how the behaviour of the gold price allows gold to play the role of a unique financial asset that retains purchasing power over time, acts as a safe haven asset, diversifies risk, and provides hedging benefits.

However, much of the material written in this area skips over an explanation of how the simple, yet powerful, relationships and interactions of the gold price actually work. The appreciation of these simple characteristics and relationships facilitates a far more intuitive understanding of why holding gold - in the form of physical gold - can be so beneficial.

Stock-to-Flow

One of the commonly overlooked yet critical attributes of gold that allows it to play the role of a monetary asset par excellence is that physical gold has a vast above ground supply, thereby making the global gold market highly liquid.
Gold is mined to be accumulated and nearly all of the gold ever mined is still in existence in various forms, such as in the form of above ground central bank gold holdings, private investment gold hoards, gold jewellery, or within industrial, medical and scientific applications. With gold recycling services now highly advanced and widespread, this also allows gold holdings to be easily transformed between uses by refineries in a cost-effective manner.

Since nearly all the gold ever mined is still in existence, the world’s accumulated stock of gold is multiple times the annual addition to the stock, i.e. the flow of gold. For ease of illustration, assume that 186,000 tonnes of gold have been mined throughout history and that annual mine production is 3,100 tonnes of gold. This gives a total gold stock-to-flow ratio of 60 times. Depending on the gold price, global holders of gold (in all its forms) are able, and sometimes willing, to step up and participate in gold transactions.

Global gold supply is therefore affected, not just by annual gold mining output, but by the existence of this vast above-ground stock of gold. And it is this stock of gold, over the long-term, that has an influence on the gold price, and that can explain gold’s role as a store of value and as a safe haven asset, as well as explaining gold’s price correlations with other asset prices.

Maples

Store of Value and Long-Term Inflation Hedge

Over long periods of time, gold has been proven to retain its real purchasing power. Therefore, gold acts as a long-term inflation hedge and as the ultimate store of value. This may appear to be a complex magical process but the theory is quite simple.

A fiat currency whose supply expands recklessly (which is really all fiat currencies throughout history and at present) will become debased. This leads to price inflation, i.e. an increase in the price levels of goods and services expressed in that fiat currency. As goods and services prices rise, the price of gold also adjusts upwards to compensate for these price rises.

The gold price rises, because on a global basis, there always exists an exchange ratio between physical gold and all fiat currencies, and the vast worldwide above-ground stock of physical gold can always be valued in terms of fiat currencies. But unlike fiat currencies, physical gold cannot be debased. Therefore, the gold price, and the valuation of gold, simply captures and reflects the purchasing power of all fiat currencies, and acts as an inflation hedge and a stable store of value. In practice, in a free market, the gold price is actually a signal of future inflationary expectations, and so gold is known as an inflation barometer.

Is his 1977 book of the same title, a UC Berkeley professor, Roy Jastram coined this phenomenon “The Golden Constant”. Jastram analyzed price level data from 1560 to 1976 for England/UK and from 1800 to 1976 for the United States. He then measured gold’s purchasing power over these periods and found it to be constant over time. Jastram’s study was updated in 2008 by Jill Leyland and also extended to the French and German economies. Leyland’s analysis arrived at similar findings, and was especially illustrative of gold’s critical role during the hyper-inflationary period in early 1920s Germany during which paper currencies rapidly became worthless. The ‘Golden Constant’ was interpreted by both studies as being due to gold’s large but slowly growing supply, resistance to debasement, as well as the gold price's unique behaviour in times of currency depreciation and market and political stress.

The gold as a currency hedge phenomenon can also explained by the above relationships. As fiat currencies become debased or suffer confidence shocks, they depreciate in value relative to gold, because gold has a large, slowly growing and finite above ground stock and cannot be debased. This brings us to the next point.

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Gold as a Safe Haven and Hedge against Extreme Risk

Physical gold is a proven and accepted safe-haven. But why is this so? The answer is because gold acts as an inflation hedge and a currency hedge and so preserves wealth. In periods of market or economic stress, gold’s price rises because there is a flight to gold since, due to historical experience, the counterparty and default risk potential of most other assets gold comes to the fore, while gold has a highly liquid market, and gold is universally perceived as having no counterparty risk and no default risk. Therefore, gold takes on the role of financial insurance against monetary crises, geopolitical risks, and systemic financial system risks. Because of its high liquidity and lack of counterparty risk, gold also becomes the high-quality collateral during periods of extreme risk.

Gold’s Price Correlation vs Other Asset Prices

Fans of modern portfolio theory will be familiar with the fact that the gold price is not highly correlated with the prices of most other financial assets. Therefore, adding gold into an investment portfolio can lower portfolio risk. Again, the question is why? The answer is quite simple.

The low, and sometimes negative, correlation between the gold price and other asset prices is due to the gold price not being as dependent on economic and business cycles as most other financial asset or commodity prices. Therefore, the gold price doesn’t react to economic cycles in the same way as most other asset prices. This differing price reaction is… you guessed it… due to the large above-ground stocks of gold which can, due to gold’s liquidity and transformability, be mobilized (by price inducement) to enter the market place irrespective of the economic cycle.

Mobilizing physical Gold

As a practical example, this ability of existing above ground stockpiles of gold to be mobilized into the market is well illustrated by the large number of 400 oz gold bars that flowed out of central bank vaults and ETFs in London during 2013-2015, were transformed by Swiss gold refineries into smaller bars, and then flowed east to Asia. The west to east movement reversed in 2016, with large amounts of gold being imported into Switzerland from locations such as Dubai, Thailand, Turkey and Hong Kong for processing back into large gold bars and then sent back to the London market. Another example is gold recycling, which has an ongoing inverse relationship with the gold price. As the price rises, supplies of gold from recycling sources rise, since the price motivates potential sellers to enter the market. It's therefore worth remembering that gold mining supply is not the full story. Some of these huge above ground stocks of physical gold can and do enter the market in various ways and at various times. In this article, we have not even touched on the controversial subject of central bank gold leasing, a potentially large and hidden supply overhang, but a subject left for future analysis.

Saving in Gold vs. Investing in Gold

There are differing views on choosing the optimal percentage of gold to hold in an asset portfolio.

These different viewpoints depend on how one views gold. Those looking for a return on their money in currency terms perceive gold as an investment which they can sell at a currency price higher than what they bought it for.

We would however argue that the idea of trading your fiat paper currency for gold today, hoping to trade the gold for even more fiat currency in the future, defeats the purpose of owning gold in the first place. Saving in gold is an insurance against the failure of fiat currency, not a means of accumulating more of it.

The healthiest and most natural way of looking at gold is to view gold as savings or as a form of wealth preservation.

Saving in Gold

Gold is, and for thousands of years has been, the focal point for many prominent savers of wealth. The European aristocrats, the Middle East oil barons, the ultra-rich, and even the central banks, all save in gold to preserve generational wealth. They save in gold without thinking about the return in currency terms because they understand the fundamental principle of gold as a generational and long-term store of value. They understand that gold is not an investment but that its a form of money that cannot be printed or controlled by central bankers.

As the world's financial and monetary systems become increasing fragile, saving in gold is the ultimate safe haven for protecting you against a systemic collapse. In the inevitable transition that will follow such a collapse, holding gold as wealth is the ultimate strategy for survival.

Prudent savers understand that gold cements wealth over time which is why you do not need to care much about the ‘gold price’ as denominated in fiat currencies.

If you do not want to bear the high risk associated with chasing returns on the currency markets, you should save in physical gold because gold is the safest form of liquid money. Staying liquid is the same as keeping your wealth in gold. There is nothing wrong with investing, but buying physical gold is not an investment in the real sense – it is a timeless wealth-preserving asset.

When fiat currencies crash, your gold will become a truly priceless asset that will empower you through the transition.

A 100 trillion dollar note can't buy you any bullion. By saving in gold you can sleep at night.

Gold as Wealth

If you are trapped in relentlessly chasing paper profits while worrying about your positions, it is time to consider a shift of mind-set. To become a saver, you have to shift your focus from profit-seeking to sustainability, from chasing egoistic personal highs to becoming a family provider for generational wealth.

With a mind-set of viewing gold as a savings asset, you will not only solidify your own wealth but have the power to pass on your wealth to the next generation. This has been the case for many European aristocrats who were able to pass on wealth from generation to generation.

As we can appreciate from history, cash is not king when the cash is not backed by anything. In fact, the world’s fiat paper currencies have all lost 99% or more of their value in the last century.

Gold is the safest and most stable store of value known to man. No other asset class comes close to gold in terms of stability over history. Gold is not an investment per se. Gold is money. Gold is savings. Gold is wealth.

If you have the mind-set of a saver and want to minimise your risk, it is actually natural to keep most of your savings in gold. If you are unable to determine a favourable risk-reward ratio for any of your potential investments, you might even consider keeping close to 100% of your savings in gold. It is certainly better to keep 100% of one’s savings in gold than keeping one’s savings in the form of constantly depreciating fiat currencies. Ask yourself, are you buying gold as a means of generating fiat currency returns or are you acquiring currency as a means to buy gold (as wealth). We much recommend the latter.

Work and invest to acquire currency but hold your wealth in gold. This is the fool-proof strategy that has worked for thousands of years.

Saving in gold frees your mind. With gold, you can sleep well at night and do not need to worry about inflation, financial markets and currency risks. By saving in gold you can stand strong and avoid the flawed western mentality of chasing paper money returns.

Investing in Gold

If gold is viewed from a western investment portfolio perspective, studies have shown that the gold price is inversely correlated with the prices of most other financial assets. Adding gold into an existing investment portfolio can therefore lower portfolio risk. This use of gold as a risk-reducing strategic asset class has been empirically validated by numerous studies (such as studies by the World Gold Council), and from the perspectives of different classes of portfolios, different investor backgrounds, and varying base currencies. Optimal allocations of gold in multi-asset portfolios by these empirical studies are usually found to be in the 5 - 20% range.

The reason that there is a negative correlation between the gold price and other asset prices is due to the gold price not being as dependent on economic and business cycles as most other financial asset or commodity prices. Therefore, the gold price does not react to events in the same way as the prices of most other asset prices react.

However, we advice you to view gold as savings/wealth rather than as an investment. Gold has the power to change your life for the better. It can give you peace of mind like nothing else if you just let it sit there without worrying about it.