The Bedrock of the Gold Bull Rally

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Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a webcast for Bloomberg Markets Magazine regarding gold investing. It was a very insightful presentation and I suggest you view the replay at www.bloombergmarkets.com. What struck me on the call was the negativity surrounding the gold market. Call it a bubble, a frenzy or mania, there seems to be a large number of voices in the marketplace who just are not fans of gold, whether prices are moving up, down or sideways.

Naysayers started calling gold a bubble back when prices hit $250 an ounce and though gold’s bull market has tossed and flung the bubble callers around for almost a decade now, their voices have only gotten increasingly louder as prices broke through $1,000, $1,200 and now $1,400 an ounce.

However, gold prices appear asymptomatic of the signs generally associated with financial bubbles.

For instance, we haven’t seen price spikes. Despite rising from under $1,000 an ounce to over $1,420 over the past six months, that represents only a 0.7 standard deviation move for gold prices, according to Credit Suisse (CS). The average standard deviation move of other bubbles – Japanese equities in 1986, the tech boom in 1999, the GSCI in 2005 and gold in 1979 – is 5.3. Gold’s 180 percent move in 1979 represented a 10.3 standard deviation move, more than 14 times the magnitude we see today.

The reality is that gold doesn’t possess the traits necessary for a financial bubble to form. Rodney Sullivan, co-editor of the CFA Digest, has done some great research on the history of markets and bubbles going all the way back to the 1600s. He discovered three key patterns in the 47 major financial bubbles that occurred over that time period.

These three ingredients of asset bubbles are financial innovation, investor exuberance and speculative leverage. The process begins with financial innovation, which initially benefits society as a whole. In the exuberance stage, usage of these innovations broadens; they become mainstream and attract speculation. The third step, the tipping point for a bubble to form, is when these speculators pile on massive leverage hoping to achieve greater success. This excessive leverage adds increased complexity, which mixes with irrational exuberance to create an imbalance in the marketplace. Eventually, the party comes to an end and the bubble bursts.

This is what happened with the housing bubble in the U.S. as Main Street home buyers leveraged themselves 100-to-1, Fannie Mae leveraged itself 80-to-1 and Wall Street investment firms leveraged themselves over 30-to-1.

Gold as an asset class is far from being overbought by speculators. Eric Sprott recently did a fascinating presentation explaining how underowned gold is as an asset class. Sprott wrote that despite a 30 percent increase in gold holdings during 2010, gold ownership as a percentage of global financial assets has only risen to 0.7 percent. That’s a big increase from the 0.2 percent level in 2002, but Sprott points out that it’s misleading because the majority of that increase was fueled by gold appreciation, not increased level of investment.

Sprott estimates that the actual amount of new investment into gold since 2000 is about $250 billion. Compare that to the roughly $98 trillion of new capital that flowed into other financial assets over the same time period.

Gold equities have seen even lower levels of investment. From 2000 to 2010, $2.5 trillion flowed into U.S. mutual funds, but only $12 billion of that went into precious metal equity funds. Of course, those figures were significantly impacted by the advent of gold ETFs during the decade. Despite the growth of the SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), which held more 1,200 tons of gold as of March 31, gold remains largely underowned as a portion of global financial assets.

The bar chart from CPM Group shows gold as a percentage of global financial assets over time. In 1968, gold represented nearly 5 percent of financial assets. In 1980, the level had fallen below 3 percent. That figure had shrunk to less than 1 percent by 1990 and has remained there since. Sprott wrote that “it is surprising to note how trivial gold ownership is when compared to the size of global financial assets.”

That point is magnified by the pie chart from Casey Research. Dr. Marc Faber included it in his April newsletter to show just how small a portion gold and gold stocks are for large institutional investors like pension funds.

Investors who don’t think gold is a bubble but fear they’ve missed the boat need to look at the short- and long-term factors supporting gold at these historically high price levels. In the near-term, gold prices are being buoyed by continued weakness in the U.S. dollar.

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