A Q&A with Casey Research
James Turk, founder of precious metals accumulation pioneer GoldMoney, has over 40 years’ experience in international banking, finance, and investments. He began his career at the Chase Manhattan Bank and in 1983 was appointed manager of the commodity department of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.
In his new book The Money Bubble: What to Do Before It Pops, James and coauthor John Rubino warn that history is about to repeat. Instead of addressing the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, the world’s governments have continued along the same path. Another—even bigger—crisis is coming, and this one, say the authors, will change everything.
One central tenet of your book is that the dollar’s international importance has peaked and is now declining. What will the implications be if the dollar loses its reserve status?
James: In a word, momentous. Although the dollar’s role in world trade has been declining in recent years while the euro and more recently the Chinese yuan have been gaining share, the dollar remains the world’s dominant currency. So crude oil and many other goods and services are priced in dollars. If goods and services begin being priced in other currencies, the demand for the dollar falls.
Supply and demand determine the value of everything, including money. So a declining demand for the dollar means its purchasing power will fall, assuming its supply remains unchanged. But a constant supply of dollars is an implausible assumption given that the Federal Reserve is constantly expanding the quantity of dollars through various forms of “money printing.” So as the dollar’s reserve status erodes, its purchasing power will decline too, adding to the inflationary pressures already building up within the system from the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program that began after the 2008 financial collapse.
Most governments of the world are fighting a currency war, trying to devalue their currencies to gain a competitive advantage over one another. You predict that China will “win” this currency war (to the extent there is a winner). What is China doing right that other countries aren’t? How would the investment world change if China did “win”?
James: As you say, nobody really wins a currency war. All currencies are debased when the war ends. What’s important is what happens then. Countries reestablish their currency in a sound way, and that means rebuilding on a base of gold. So the winner of a currency war is the country that ends up with the most gold.
For the past decade, gold has been flowing to China—both newly mined gold as well as from existing stocks. But that flow from West to East has accelerated over the past year, and there are unofficial estimates that China now has the world’s third-largest gold reserve.
The implications for the investment world as well as the global monetary system are profound. Why should China use dollars to pay for its imports of crude oil from the Middle East? What if Saudi Arabia and other exporters are willing to price their product and get paid in Chinese yuan? Venezuela is already doing that, so it is not a far-fetched notion that other oil exporters will too. China is a huge importer of crude oil, and its energy needs are likely to grow. So it is becoming a dominant player in global oil trading as the US imports less oil because of the surge in its own domestic fossil fuel production.
Changes in the way oil is traded represent only one potential impact on the investment world, but it indicates what may lie ahead as the value of the dollar continues to erode and gold flows from West to East. So if China ends up with the most gold, it could emerge as the dominant player in global investments and markets. It already has become the dominant player in the market for physical gold.
You draw a distinction between “financial” and “tangible” assets, noting that we go through a recurring cycle where each falls in and out of favor. Where are we in that cycle? With US stocks at all-time highs and gold down over 30% since the summer of 2011, is it possible that the cycle is rolling over?
James: Our monetary system suffers recurring booms and busts because of the fractional reserve practice of banks, which allows them to create money “out of thin air,” as the saying goes. During booms—all of which are caused by too much money that banks have created by expanding credit—financial assets outperform, but they eventually become overvalued relative to tangible assets. The cycle then reverses. The fractional reserve system goes into reverse and credit contracts, causing a lot of promises made during the good times to be broken. Loans don’t get repaid, unnerving bankers and investors alike. So money flees out of financial assets and the counterparty risk these assets entail, and into the safety of tangible assets, until eventually tangible assets become overvalued, and the cycle reverses again.
So for example, the boom in financial assets that ended in 1967 led to a reversal in the cycle until tangible assets became overvalued in 1981. The cycle reversed again, and financial assets boomed until the popping of the dot-com bubble in 2000. We are still in the cycle favoring tangible assets, but there is no way to predict when it will end. We know it will end when tangible assets become overvalued, but as John and I explain in The Money Bubble, we are not even close to that moment yet.
You cite the “shrinking trust horizon” as one of the long-term factors that will drive gold higher. Can you explain?
James: Yes, this is an important point that we make. Our economy, and indeed, our society, is based on trust. We expect the bread we buy from a baker or the gasoline we buy for our car to be reliable. We expect our money on deposit in a bank to be safe. But if we find the baker is putting sawdust in our bread and governments are using depositor money to bail out banks, as happened in Cyprus last year, trust begins to erode.
An erosion of trust means that people are less willing to accept the counterparty risk that comes with financial assets, so the erosion of trust occurs during financial busts. People as a consequence move their wealth into tangible assets, be it investments in tangible things like farmland, oil wells, or mines, or in tangible forms of money, which of course means gold.
Obviously, gold has been in a painful slump since the summer of 2011. What near-term catalysts—let’s say in 2014—could wake it from its slumber?
James: We have to put 2013 into perspective, because portfolio management is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. Gold had risen 12 years in a row prior to last year’s price decline. And even after last year, gold has appreciated 13% per annum on average, making it one of the world’s best-performing asset classes since the current financial bust began with the popping of the dot-com bubble.
Looking to the year ahead, there are many potential catalysts, but it is impossible to predict which event will be the trigger. The derivatives time bomb? Failure of a big bank? The sovereign debt crisis returns to the boil? The Japanese yen collapses? It could be any of these or something we can’t even imagine. But one thing is certain: as long as central banks continue their present money-printing ways, the price of gold will rise over time to reflect the debasement of national currencies. The gold price might not jump to its fair value immediately because of government intervention, but it will rise eventually and inevitably.
So the most important thing to keep in mind is the money printing that pretty much every central bank around the world is doing. The central bankers have given it a fancy name—”quantitative easing.” But regardless of what it is called, it is still creating money out of thin air, which debases the currency that central bankers are supposed to be prudently managing to preserve the currency’s purchasing power.
Money printing does the exact opposite; it destroys purchasing power, and the gold price in terms of that currency rises as a consequence. The gold price is a barometer of how well—or perhaps more to the point, how poorly—central bankers are doing their job.
Governments have been debasing currencies since the Roman denarius. Why do you expect the consequences of this particular era of debasement to be so severe?
James: Yes, they have, and to use Rome as the example, its empire collapsed when the currency was debased. Worryingly, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the world went into the so-called Dark Ages. Countries grow and prosper on sound money. They dissipate and eventually collapse when money becomes unsound. This pattern recurs throughout history.
Rome of course did not collapse overnight. The debasement of their currency cannot be precisely measured, but it lasted over 100 years. The important point we need to recognize is that the debasement of the dollar that began with the formation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 has now lasted over 100 years too. A penny in 1913 had the same purchasing power as a dollar has today, which, interestingly, is not too different from the rate at which Rome’s denarius was debased.
After discussing how the government of Cyprus raided its citizens’ bank accounts in 2013, you suggest that it’s a near certainty that more countries will introduce capital controls and asset confiscations in the next few years. What form might those seizures take, and how can people protect their assets?
James: It is impossible to predict, of course, because central planners can be very creative in coming up with different forms of financial repression that prevent you from doing what you want with your money. In fact, look at the creativity they have already used.
For example, not only did bank depositors in Cyprus lose much of their money, much of what was left was given to them in the forms of shares of the banks they bailed out, forcing them to become shareholders. And the US has imposed a creative type of capital control that makes it nearly impossible for its citizens to open a bank account outside the US. Pension plans are the most vulnerable because they are easy to get at. Keep in mind that Argentina, Ireland, Spain, and Poland raided private pensions when those countries ran into financial trouble.
Protecting one’s assets in today’s environment is difficult. John and I have some suggestions in the book, such as global diversification and internationalizing oneself to become as flexible as possible.
You dedicated an entire chapter of your book to silver. Which do you think will appreciate more in the next year, gold or silver? How about in the next 10 years?
James: I think silver will do better for the foreseeable future. It is still very cheap compared to gold. As but one example to illustrate this point, even though gold underwent a big price correction last year, it is still trading above the record high it made in January 1980, which was the top of the bull run that began in the 1960s.
In contrast, not only has silver not yet broken above its January 1980 peak of $50 per ounce, it is still far from that price. So silver has a lot of catching up to do.
Silver is a good substitute for gold in that silver, too, can be viewed as money outside the banking system, which is an important objective to keep wealth liquid and safe today. But silver may not be for everyone, because it is volatile. This volatility can be measured with the gold/silver ratio, which is the number of ounces of silver needed to equal one ounce of gold. The ratio was 30 to 1 in 2011, and several months later jumped to 60 to 1.
So you can see how volatile silver is. But because I expect silver to do better than gold, I believe that the ratio will fall to 16 to 1 eventually, which is the same level it reached in January 1980. It is also the ratio that generally applied when national currencies used to be backed by precious metals.
Besides gold, what one secular trend would you be most comfortable betting a large portion of your nest egg on?
James: Own things, rather than promises. Avoid financial assets. Own tangible assets of all sorts, like farmland, timberland, oil wells, etc. Near-tangibles like the equities of companies that own tangible assets are okay too, but avoid the equities of banks, credit card companies, mortgage companies, and any other equities tied to financial assets.
What asset class are you most bearish on?
James: Without any doubt, it is government debt in particular and more generally, government promises. They have promised more than they can possibly deliver, so a lot of their promises are going to be broken before we see the end of this current bust that began in 2000. And that outcome of broken promises describes the huge task that we all face. There will be a day of reckoning. There always is when an economy and governments take on more debt than is prudent, and the world is far beyond that point.
So everyone needs to plan and prepare for that day of reckoning. We can’t predict when it is coming, but we know from monetary history that busts follow booms, and more to the point, that currencies collapse when governments make promises that they cannot possibly fulfill. Their central banks print the currency the government wants to spend until the currency eventually collapses, which is a key point of The Money Bubble. The world has lost sight of what money is.
What today is considered to be money is only a money substitute circulating in place of money. J.P. Morgan had it right when in testimony before the US Congress in 1912 he said: “Money is gold, nothing else.” Because we have lost sight of this wisdom, a “money bubble” has been created. And it will pop. Bubbles always do.
As James Turk said, “near-tangibles like the equities of companies that own tangible assets” (i.e., gold stocks) are good investments—and right now, they are dramatically undervalued. In a recent online video event titled “Upturn Millionaires,” eight influential investors including Doug Casey, Rick Rule, Frank Giustra, and Ross Beaty gathered to discuss the new realities in the gold stock sector—and why the odds of making huge gains are now extremely high. Click here to watch the event.
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