Why Warren Buffet is wrong about gold

NB: This post first appeared at Beating the Index.  To read or add to the comments and discussion of this post please go here.

Following the controversial Warren Buffett on Gold Investing article, I thought it would be interesting to read a different opinion on gold.  I asked my fellow blogger and gold investor Peter from the Righteous Investor if he would like to provide an alternative view on gold investing and he kindly accepted. Thank you Peter for providing us with the view from the other side.

Money is a commodity which serves both as an intermediate of trade and a store of wealth.  Money must have the following characteristics to function properly: limited quantity, fungible, portable, available.

An increase in the money supply without a corresponding increase in production of goods and services leads to inflation; inflation of the money supply leads to price increases in the following order:  (i) commodities; (ii) consumer prices; (iii) cost of labor.  Inflation therefore results in a de facto garnishing of wages.  Thus, if a government sells debt which its central bank then monetizes (i.e., quantitative easing), then government spending benefits recipients through doing irreparable harm to savers and wage earners.  Thus, if possible, retail investors must protect themselves from this harm.

Humankind has used gold and silver as money since the dawn of history.  History has shown that gold is too rare and valuable to function as the only money, for the gold standard has led in the past to scarcity, making money too little available to common people. I’ve seen first hand how scarcity of money has lead to serious problems in the Central African Republic, where the local currency is tied to the Euro, which benefits international commerce but doesn’t really help the people on the street to conduct their daily transactions because there are too few small bills and coins.  The gold standard can also lead to this sort of scarcity and that is why in the late 19th century, there were many advocates who wanted to monetize silver.  Nevertheless, the great advantage of precious metals over paper currency is the inability of a government or a central bank to create it at a whim, and therefore they are far less susceptible to inflation.

Warren Buffett’s advice about gold has had a profound effect on retail investors.  He advocates common shares in stocks as better than gold; ironically, one of the most famous articles on how companies do poorly during times of a high inflation was written by none other than Buffett himself ( “How inflation swindles the equity investor”).  So he knows very well that stocks provide little protection from inflation.  So what are retail investors supposed to do?  They can’t buy bonds or common stocks, and in Buffett’s opinion, they are speculating if they buy precious metals. But I ask, why should Buffett care?  Remember, he’s an insurance salesman and he is out to get your money.  He himself has greatly benefited from the bailouts and the monetization of the US Federal debt.  I don’t think he has the best interest of ordinary investors in mind.  And I am not alone in this opinion.

Why there is no gold bubble

An investor, particularly the value investor, must seek to avoid overpriced assets.  Value investors want to find undervalued, underappreciated investments.  There are some pretty strong reasons to believe that precious metals are oversold and not overbought:

  1. Not that much global wealth is invested in gold (see Eric Sprott and Andrew Morris).
  2. There are too many anti-gold bugs.  Despite the performance of gold in the last ten years, there are still many who, like Buffett, do not understand why it is attractive.  There is also an entire school of economics, the Keynesians, who consider gold a “barbaric relic”, and this school has an enormous influence on governments, universities, and the media.  Keynesians have been adamantly opposed to gold and silver money, because it prevents them from manipulating and controlling the economy through monetary policy.
  3. Gold is just keeping up with other commodities and is also tracking the increase of the Federal Reserve money base.  The real bubble is not gold but the US dollar.
  4. Unallocated gold and gold derivatives make up an enormous and extraordinary portion of the supply of gold in the market.  Certain banks have supplied unallocated gold certificates on a fractional reserve basis to their customers (see this explanation by Avery Goodman).  It is difficult to say how much paper gold there is, but GATA’s Adrian Douglas has estimated that there is a 40 (or as high as 100) to one ratio of paper to physical gold.  This is the crux of the matter.  If and when a physical gold run occurs we could see gold jump to 40x the current price in a few days.  For this reason, every prudent value investor should invest in some physical gold and avoid all paper gold derivatives like the plague.  The same is true of silver, but according to analysts such as Eric Sprott and the National Inflation Association, the paper to physical silver ratio is much higher than it is for gold.  This is an important warning:  Do not believe any author who says there is a gold bubble but doesn’t deal with the question of unallocated gold.  In the end, the collapse of the unallocated gold, which is so deceptively co-mingled into the gold market, may become the financial disaster of the century, eclipsing the sub-prime mortgage crisis in its wake.

How I make money from the sector

The gold sector is not safe because of its great volatility.  Since I took my first position in 2006, gold has traded in the range of $600-$1400 per ounce, and gold mining companies have experienced an even greater range of prices.  So it is inadvisable to put all of one’s saving into precious metals in a single day.  The volatility, on the other hand, lends itself to the possibility of a profitable trading scheme.  So my strategy consists of both a base position of shares that I am holding for the long haul, and the trade itself.

(1) Base position:  I started five years ago by establishing a position in Barrick Gold at CDN $33.50.  I’ve never sold those shares.  I have also averaged down, when possible  (e.g., with NGD), to establish my current position.  Here are my current positions that I have accumulated over the last five years, followed by the average cost price:

Barrick Gold (CDN $34.185; +48%), Detour Gold (CDN $14.25; +121%), Lake Shore Gold (CDN $3.41; +19%), and New Gold (CDN $1.94; +471%), Sprott Physical Gold Trust (US $12.24; +2.5%)and Sprott Physical Silver Trust (US $12.65; +37%).

Gold and silver coins and bullion must be stored in a safe place, so I wouldn’t own any unless I believed that the economic collapse was imminent.  Therefore, the Sprott physical gold and silver trusts are a means of having direct exposure to the physical metal without having to worry about being robbed.

(2) Trading:  (a) I used to trade gold mining stocks, especially ABX and NGD.  I would try to buy on dips and take profits as enthusiasm picked up.  (b) One year ago, I started to sell put options because it was safer than taking long positions, though it would reduce the upside potential of my positions.  I have been selling these puts (in ABX, GG, NGD and DGC) since 2010.  I do this trading on the US market whenever possible.  I was of the conviction that QE would cause the mining companies at very least to remain static in value vis-à-vis the US dollar, and indeed, only one out of the multiple positions that I’ve taken in put options has ever been assigned.  I try to sell the puts on dips and I will occasionally buy them back if they make considerable gains in a short period of time.

P. W. Dunn holds a PhD in theology, has taught biblical studies at the undergraduate and master’s level in Africa and Canada, and now is a DIY investor who publishes his ideas about investing and how it relates to Christianity at theRighteous Investor.  His other posts on gold can be read here.

To read the comments and discussion of this post please go here.

Gold at $56,000 per ounce?

There is a story going around that the London Bullion Market Association has sold as much as 45-100 times the amount of gold futures as there is physical gold underlying the notes.  I first heard about this story from Monty Pelerin’s blog which featured a Max Keiser interview with Jim Willie (see videos below).  Then, on the Peter Schiff Radio Show, Adrian Douglas claims that gold should be selling at $56,000 per ounce. Even Peter Schiff was incredulous about it (see http://www.schiffradio.com/pg/jsp/charts/audioMaster.jsp?dispid=301&pid=51169 ).

Now, thanks again to Monty Pelerin, I’ve read Vincent Bressler’s “Empire of Fraud“, saying:

The futures markets are fractional reserve systems running at very low reserve ratios, something like 45 to 100 ounces of electronic gold and silver obligations for every unencumbered ounce of physical gold or silver. The day is coming when the physical price of gold and silver disconnect from the electronic price and they can not be brought back together again except through a massive devaluation of the dollar in terms of gold and silver. On this day the future’s markets in gold and silver will be stopped. There will be secret meetings. Those holding electronic gold tickets will be paid in be paid in dollars at the price of gold before the disconnect. And then I believe that there will be an explicit devaluation of the dollar with respect to gold on the order of 20 to 40 times.

Once this happens, the dollar will be further devalued against a large number of other commodities and will probably actually collapse altogether as the world’s reserve currency.  Few believed the warnings about fraud which was going on in the real estate market and yet that bubble collapsed.  Lying, manipulation and greed is the common story in our times.  I’m preparing for this one.  I am long on Barrick ABX, New Gold NGD, Lakeshore Gold LSG, and Detour Lake Gold DGC; and I’ve now also taken a long position on Sprott Physical Gold PHY.U, which claims to keep actual physical gold in the Canadian Royal Mint.  I’ve sold puts on ABX, GG, DGC and NGD.

Here is Max Keisar interview Jim Willie in three parts:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

The April USA deficit and buying gold

The Obama administration borrowed $82.69 billion in April, 2010.  That’s about $8.90 per day per every man, woman and child in the USA.  In my humble conservative opinion, such deficits have led and will lead to the devaluing of the US dollar, particularly because the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates at artificially low levels.

What is the investor to do?

Gold hit a new high $1241.25 yesterday.  Gold may decline in the short term but it is experiencing a secular bull market because of the inflation of all paper currencies.  I don’t buy gold because I don’t have a safe place to store it and I don’t want to pay an army to guard it.  I’ve instead traded gold mining stocks.  At my discount brokerage, the commissions are lower than for buying and selling gold bullion or coins.   I’ve had a lot of success averaging down and selling off a little at a time as the prices improve.  My best buy was WGI (Western Goldfields), which later became NGD (New Gold), on October 23, 2008, at 88 cents; my ngd is up 183% over my average cost price.

In the last few weeks, since I learned about trading options, I’ve been selling near the money put options of abx and gg (Oct, Jan’11, Jan’12 contracts). If current trends continue, these contracts will all expire worthless (even the ABX put Jan’12 at $45) and I will simply keep the premiums.  When doing this, it is important to reserve sufficient cash or credit to buy the stock at the strike price.  But even if assigned, the purchase of the shares becomes part of the averaging down strategy.  So for example, the $45 January 2012 put on Barrick Gold paid me $8.90 premium.  The average cost price (after commissions) of the shares if assigned then is $36.29–a 22% discount off the current $46 market price.

The Obama Dollar

I wrote back in January that Obama budget deficit would lead to inflation.  Now finally financial writers are calling it the Obama dollar.

In personal finances, debt is not a good thing unless properly managed.  Advisers distinguish between good and bad debt.  Bad debt is spent on consumer goods and services (Christmas gifts, food, vacations, etc.).  Good debt is used to buy appreciating assets like a house or investments which will produce positive cash flow (e.g., Crescent Point Energy Corporation, which pays 23 cents per share Canadian per month).

I lamented that Obama called his profligate budget an “investment”.  But there is no question that government debt is bad debt.  It is used neither to purchase appreciating assets nor cash-producing investments; rather government debt is spent on programs and make-work projects that will never have a profitable rate of return.  1.4 trillion dollars was borrowed in the 2009 budget year and it has led to inflation of the US currency as I predicted in January.  Let’s consider the difference in Canadian dollar:  On Jan 23, the Canadian dollar traded at 1.234 to the US Dollar; now today it is at 1.03 per US.  This is a drop of nearly 17%.  But it is not as though Canadian currency is not also being inflated by low interest rates.  In Canada, most investments, including stocks and real estate, have nearly completely recovered from the downturn.  Housing is now completely recovered in much of Canada, and this has financial writers worried about a bubble in housing prices.

I am still shorting the US dollar (it means that I gave borrowed US to purchase Canadian-based Barrick Gold (ABX: NY), Enerplus (ERF: NY), and Daylight Resources Trust (DAY.UN: Toronto).

Writers and analysts often refer to the Federal Reserve Bank “printing” money.  Actually they don’t have to literally print money, because the central bank has the ability to create money without printing it.  This is done especially well when the Federal Reserve buys US treasury notes.  The dollar is called a “fiat” currency, because money can be made from nothing and out of paper and ink.  Eventually, however, printed money flow will have to increase in order to keep up with prices.  But until then, inflation remains an invisible monster which devours people’s savings and cuts into how much they can earn.

The Carter years (1979-1981) were formative for me, as I graduated from high school in 1981.  I remember them like yesterday, and I remember its high inflation and how Reagan implemented so-called Reagonomics, reining in profligate Federal Spending.  Reagan halted an out of control Congress and put America back on track.  Being a beneficiary after my mother’s death in 1977, I remember my own Social Security check being cut.  Unfortunately, Obama was apparently too busy taking drugs during those years (marijuana and cocaine when he could afford it) and so has returned us to the pre-Reagan economic policies and ideas; but he has, in collusion with the Democrat Congress, implemented economic policies which are even worse than what we had during the Carter malaise.

I met a man from Singapore whose father lived in want much of his childhood and therefore as an old man hoarded enough rice for many years.  In like manner, I am afraid of inflation, because that’s what I saw as a child, and I have been preparing for this moment since I first heard about the Obama budget.  I fear inflation as much as any other investment risk, perhaps more.  The so-called safe haven of the dollar is a complete myth, all the more so when it is the Obama dollar.