My bet that by 2020 we will return to some form of gold standard is looking better. Something is up when gold is being hoarded to such an extent that the futures exchanges cannot fulfill with metal but have to try to stiff the contract holder with paper. Now, they have done this in the past, and gotten away with it, but according to this story, never so aggressively.
Prof. Antal Fekete has been on this story for several months, and has set forth in some detail how the gold basis is being manipulated, perhaps because of hoarding. (The basis is the delta between the cash price and the next futures price.) Yves has had several posts on Gold Panic, and it is consistent with the good Professor’s analysis.
Another aspect of this story is the collapse of Barrick’s hedging strategy. Barrick Gold (ABX) is the largest gold mining company and had been following a really dumb hedging strategy which had been to take naked short positions (shorting gold they did not possess). In a world of gold hoarding, they may not be able to cover, even at a loss. The strategy was so risky that a conspiracy theory had evolved that Barrick was front-running the US government to keep the gold price down. Lending support to this is the question: why would a gold production firm try to cap the gold price? An answer which does not require the conspiracy is that Barrick had less gold in the ground than it wanted to reveal, and so was engaged in a confidence game of the first order. The weak Dollar (driving gold up) and the hoarding has called their bluff.
Gold-backed currencies, unlike fiat currencies, have the irreducible endpoint of debts being paid in gold, which has retained value throughout history. Fiat currencies have no such endpoint. You can make the argument that fiat currencies are backed by the productive capacity of the issuer, and that they have some irreducible value based on taxing that production. History has tested that case, and found it wanting. You see, fiat currencies tempt countries to over-extend.
What happens when the debts of the issuer are vastly beyond their productive capacity? Well, the country defaults, and the fiat currency is forcibly exchanged for scratch. A 2008 paper by Harvard Professor Rogoff and Prof. Reinhart, both members of the NBER (which calls recessions and recoveries) entitled This Time Is Different demonstrates that instead of fiat regimes making good, they have defaulted over and over throughout eight centuries of financial crises:
We find that serial default [repeated sovereign default] is nearly a universal phenomenon as countries struggle to transform themselves from emerging markets to advanced economies.
Before we take comfort in the US being already an advanced economy, the imperial power of its day has typically defaulted after over-extending. Rich European countries have defaulted, including Austria, France, Portugal Spain and Germany. The reunified German defaulted in 1873, bringing the whole world into a long depression, including the United States. In the last century, Germany defaulted twice: 1932 and 1939. Russia three times, beginning in 1918. England in effect defaulted in 1931.
So now the gold hoarding makes sense: other sovereign powers are preparing for – or at least hedging against – the inevitable sovereign default of the US. The more Obama buries the US in ever more present deficits and future commitments, the closer this becomes.
Niall Ferguson’s piece in Newsweek, which I discussed yesterday, fits into this context. He was talking about Imperial powers getting over-extended, and the first thing that falls is to pullback on excessive defense spending and foolish Imperial wars. Even as Obama pitches tonight a three-year vague commitment in Afghanistan, the hand writing is on the wall. Sadly, the US is so over-extended the wars are but a small pullback in the vast future deficits from social commitments. This won’t end well.