Its Weight in Gold: The Real Prices of Things
By Keith Weiner, Casey Research
Worldwide, an incredible tower of debt has been under construction since President Nixon’s 1971 default on the gold obligations of the US government. His decree severed the redeemability of the dollar for gold and thus eliminated the extinguisher of debt. Debt has been growing exponentially everywhere since then. Debt is backed with debt, based on debt, dependent on debt and leveraged with yet more debt. For example, today it is possible to buy a bond (i.e., lend money) on margin (i.e., with borrowed money).
The time is now fast approaching when all debt will be defaulted on. In our perverse monetary system, one party’s debt is another’s “money.” A debtor’s default will impact the creditor (who is usually also a debtor to yet other creditors), causing him to default, and so on. When this begins in earnest, it will wipe out the banking system and thus everyone’s “money.” The paper currencies will not survive this. We are seeing the early edges of it now in the euro, and it’s anyone’s guess when it will happen in Japan, though it seems long overdue already. Last of all, it will come to the USA.
The purpose of this article is to present the early-warning signal and explain the actual mechanism to these events. Contrary to popular belief, it will not happen because the central banks increase the quantity of money to infinity. The money supply may even be contracting (which is what I expect).
To understand the terminal stages of the monetary system’s fatal disease, we must understand gold.
First, let me introduce a key concept. Most traders define “backwardation” for a commodity as when the price of a futures contract is lower than the price of the same good in the spot market.
In every market, there are always two prices for a good: the bid and the ask. To sell a good, one must take the bid. And likewise, to buy the good, one must pay the ask. In backwardation, one can sell a physical good for cash and simultaneously buy a futures contract, and make a profit on the arbitrage. Note that in doing this trade, one’s position does not change in the end. One begins with a certain amount of the good and ends (upon maturity of the contract) with that same amount of the good.
Backwardation is when the bid in the spot market is greater than the ask in the futures market.
Many commodities, like wheat, are produced seasonally. But consumption is much more evenly spread around the year. Immediately prior to the harvest, the spot price of wheat is normally at its highest in relation to wheat futures. This is because wheat inventories in the warehouses are very low. People will have to pay a higher price for immediate delivery. At the same time, everyone in the market knows that the harvest is coming in one month. So the price, if a buyer can wait one month for delivery, is lower. This is a case of backwardation.
Backwardation is typically a signal of a shortage in a commodity. Anyone holding the commodity could make a risk-free profit by delivering it and getting it back later. If others put on this trade, and others, and so on, this would push down the bid in the spot market and lift up the ask in the futures market until the backwardation disappeared. The process of profiting from arbitrage compresses the spread one is arbitraging.
Actionable backwardations typically do not last long enough for the small trader to even see on the screen, much less trade. This is another way of saying that markets do not normally offer risk-free profits. In the case of wheat backwardation, for example, the backwardation may persist for weeks or longer. But there is no opportunity to profit for anyone, because no one has any wheat to spare. There is a genuine shortage of wheat before the harvest.
Why Gold Backwardation Is Important
Could backwardation happen with gold? Gold is not in shortage. One just has to measure abundance using the right metric. If you look at the inventories divided by annual mine production, the World Gold Council estimates this number to be around 80 years.
In all other commodities (except silver), inventories represent a few months of production. Other commodities can even have “gluts,” which usually lead to a price collapse. As an aside, this fact makes gold good for money. The price of gold does not decline, no matter how much of the stuff is produced. Production will certainly not lead to a “glut” in the gold market pulling prices downward.
So, what would a lower price on gold for future delivery mean compared to a higher price of gold in the spot market? By definition, it means that gold delivered to the market is in short supply.
The meaning of gold backwardation is that trust in future delivery is scarce.
In an ordinary commodity, scarcity of the physical good available for delivery today is resolved by higher prices. At a high enough price, demand for wheat falls until existing stocks are sufficient to meet the reduced demand.
But how is scarcity of trust resolved?
Thus far, the answer has been: via higher prices. Higher prices do coax some gold out of various hoards, jewelry, etc. Gold went into backwardation for the first time in December 2008. One could have earned a 2.5% (annualized) profit by selling physical gold and simultaneously buying a February 2009 future. Gold was $750 on December 5, but it rocketed to $920 – a gain of 23% – by the end of January.
But when backwardation becomes permanent, then trust in the gold futures market will have collapsed. Unlike with wheat, millions of people and many institutions have plenty of gold they can sell in the physical market and buy back via futures contracts. When they choose not to, that is the beginning of the end of the current financial system.