Gold’s 2015 performance in various currencies (chart)

The Brazilian Real was walloped and the dollar was clearly a standout winner. Gold’s relative underperformance shows against US dollars that the US dollar is still seen as a safe haven currency.

Until that changes gold will underperform as measured by US dollars. I think we’re closer a that point in time when we see positive price action then we were a year ago, but I can’t say for certain if the markets will agree until stocks move in to a bear market.

As seen in the start of 2016, when stocks were out of favor, gold caught a bid and moved higher each day stocks were sold off. Now that stocks are catching a bid, gold is selling off.

Whether or not 2016 is the year that stocks enter a bear market remains in question. I am inclined to think that we have only seen a prelude for the downside in stocks that could occur this year.

Gold may be closing in on a bear market bottom

As we approach extremes in bearish sentiment, the number of gold ounces promised per contract (on the Comex at least), relative strength and the dollar rallies on the promise of a tightening cycle — I think it’s important to take a moment and reflect.

Interest rates make a bad situation worse for debtors

The US government currently spends over 6% (about $250 billion per year) of its budget on interest alone.  If interest rates were to normalize this figure would swell significantly.  So the idea of a tightening cycle being a possibility without a significant (and deflationary) reduction in government spending is unlikely.  Even if spending were to be decreased, it would not be in time to reduce the deficit or debt burden.

Further, liabilities in the private sector are explodingStudent loans, car loans, credit card debt, mortgages and debt-driven share buybacks are all at unprecedented levels.  This is further evidence that the system at large is far too debt-dependent to move to a higher rate structure without a significant rise in insolvencies.

Leverage and volatility don’t mix well

Lest we forget the interest rate complex at large.  The biggest swath of derivatives in the world, hundreds of trillions of dollars of leveraged OTC instruments, are tied directly to it.  To give you an idea of its scale, the amount of interest derivative products alone dwarf the global GDP by nearly 7 fold.

Large moves in short periods of time render leveraged trades insolvent due to the trade turning against them.  If one is borrowing $9 for every $1 they put in to a trade, then if the trade goes against them by 10% they are wiped out.  More than 10% and they owe more than the $1 they put down.

This is precisely the risk present in the world of derivatives.  The only difference is the leverage is much, much higher than 10 to 1.

Another problem is that in a tightening environment that’s unilaterally led by the US central bank (when other central banks do not follow), deflationary shock waves may proliferate throughout the global financial system and wreak havoc on interest rate derivatives markets, emerging equity and bond markets, US corporate debt and ultimately global financial markets as a whole.

Sensitive markets showing stress

Corporate bonds are beginning to sell off. Emerging markets have been in a funk for some time as they were once the beneficiaries of QE.

Given the level of medicine applied, one would expect the patient (the global economy) to have either rebounded or died of an overdose. Neither has happened, but markets are essentially in the eye of the storm.  The troubles past are gathering speed again at a remarkable pace behind the scenes.

Consequences are continuing to climb

This time around it is not just the financial system at risk, it is many governments of the world and many of their respective central banks that risk insolvency.  We are witnessing the biggest bubble that has ever been blown in history.

No wonder there is so much effort in preserving such a bubble.  The result of its end is a mind blowing problem.  And that’s precisely why the rate normalization cannot happen.  We may see a push higher by 25-50 basis points.

Policy road fork ahead

Such a hike, however, will in all likelihood pale in comparison to how the Fed manages its maturing balance sheet of bonds.  A new round of QE-like activity will likely emerge as those funds that mature are put to use to purchase longer dated bonds to re-stimulate debt markets in a variant of operation twist.

As equity markets finalize what appears to be their ultimate topping formation, I assume that we will witness another sharp move downward.  The Federal Reserve appears to be more sensitive to the gyrations of financial markets than the economy at large.  As a result it will likely pause and possibly even reverse in to this new variant of operation twist.

Ultimately this is bullish for gold

I believe we will have already formed the bottom in precious metals and begin to see a resurgence in prices once the stock market has topped and the Federal Reserve is no longer willing to tighten.  Whether the gold price tests the $1,000 level is still on the table, but I don’t see much further downside from here based on these assumptions.

The Fed has zero credibility until it raises rates

A lot of hot air, but no substance. That’s what’s been emanating out of the mouths of Federal Reserve officials over the two years about the direction of interest rates — with no follow through of taking rates higher.

As a result the Fed has no more credibility left.  When Fed officials talked about moving rates in the past markets would move with their chatter.

Not so much recently.  Market participants are squelching out the talk and waiting for the Fed to walk the walk.

Don’t buy the dips. Sell the rallies.

It’s not uncommon for bull market opportunities to be exploited by buying dips in prices.  This is not one of them.

The bull market in equities is at least on pause, but in all likelihood over.  The latest series of down days is further confirmation of a lack of conviction.

There simply aren’t buyers.

Prices will go down farther if buyers don’t step up and buy dips.  This has already been evidenced on a day-to-day basis.  Whether it happens in the weekly charts remains to be seen — but price action seems to be confirming that as of late.

Commodity contagion

Weakness in the prices of energy, metals and other products continues to be a persistent theme.  And equities have finally noticed.

Stocks used to shrug off the losses in commodities as some sort of disinflationary tailwind.  No longer is that the case.  Now investors in stocks have become jittery on days when commodities are plunging.

The next leg down

Ultimately, the equity market is at much greater risk of a price decline than a rally.  The run up over the last 6 and a half years has been overextended.  Price to earning ratios, when share buybacks are discounted, are at higher than normal levels.

Corporations have amassed enormous amounts of debt and traders are speculating with more margin than in 2007 (the last stock market peak).  China has seen its managed economy unravel, while Japan’s attempt to start managing its economy is falling apart.

The Euro zone is in serious trouble.  There’s no amount of new debt that can cure the budget problems within many of its countries.

And the United States, which is starting to feel the pain of the rest of the world, is preparing for its own economic slowdown.  The Fed, panicked with uncertainty as its credibility fades away, decided once again to abstain from raising interest rates.

What does it all mean?

We’re closing in on the peak of this business cycle, if it isn’t already behind us.  This means that opportunities will be few and far between to find equities that are worth buying at these values.  Cheaper prices are quite likely in the future.

If I were still long a traditional portfolio of US equities I would take every rally as an opportunity to reduce exposure and raise cash.

Gold continues tumble without outside catalyst

Producer prices were flat as was the US dollar index, but that didn’t stop a determined seller from pushing gold prices down this morning.

What is driving the selling pressure?

Most traders are paid to execute orders to maximize value.  That is to say, if you are selling a commodity you want to sell it for the highest price (or short it at the highest price) to maximize your profits.

What we’ve seen within the last several years is the opposite of that.  Regular dumping of gold (and silver) futures contracts with heavy volume at the lowest prices.  Huge lots executed at once — rather than distributed over the course of a day to achieve a volume average weighted price.

Are prices being fixed?

This leads the gold investing community to believe that there is malicious manipulation underway in these markets.  And with just about every other market in the world having been proven to be manipulated, such as LIBOR, foreign exchange, bonds, equities and other commodities — perhaps, just perhaps it’s not too paranoid of a theory after all.

A reason to sell so many contracts in to the market at once would be to push price down through sell stop orders.  

This action forces prices even lower and pushes many out of long positions.

Only the people pushing the sell button truly know their own intentions (or that of the institution they are employed by).  An outside observer of these markets is forced to draw their own conclusions.

How can so many claim to own the same gold?

The ratio of futures contracts to ounces of physical gold at the COMEX has risen to the highest levels on record.  Last checked, it was closing in on 250 gold futures claims per ounce of physical gold actually available.  This means that should there be a large demand for COMEX gold delivery, there may not be the gold available to fulfill the order — necessitating a cash settlement.

If one was seeking delivery to obtain physical metal for storage, this would force that party to seek gold elsewhere as soon as possible with that settled cash.  And given that so many parties seem to have claims on the same ounces of gold, that could prove to be an interesting setup for a phenomenal short squeeze that drives prices much, much higher.

Potential scenarios for the continued decline.

How this particular situation resolves remains a mystery, but I am inclined to speculate that we have two possible scenarios that could play out:

1: We are witnessing the beginning of the one of the greatest deflationary collapses the world has ever seen, as evidenced by commodity prices imploding, China’s economy in serious decline and recent volatility in equity markets.  If this is the case then it will be difficult to find a safe home for one’s money almost anywhere.

2: The precious metals markets’ prices are being guided lower in order to reduce the bid for what were once considered safe haven assets by many.  Eventually, if such a scheme is underway, it will unravel with prices going much higher.

Which of these scenarios is playing out remains to be realized.  

The former means the global markets are coming unglued at the seams and the global economy is crushed.  The latter would indicate that certain parties are concerned that a higher gold price could reduce confidence in other markets such as stocks and bonds.