The markets are going through another sell-off phase, yet the traditional notions of a 'safe haven' are changing. No longer is the US dollar the default shelter; instead, gold, the Swiss franc, and the Japanese yen are the preferred assets.
All three of these havens - gold, francs, and yen - have been surging upward this month. Two of them, however, are being actively devalued by central banks desperately (and foolishly) trying to curtail appreciation. The Swiss and Japanese are enlisting both policy measures and all the banker-speak they can muster to stem the tide of investment flows into their currencies.
The game is "Last Haven Standing", and Spielberg has already acquired the movie rights.
SWITZERLAND: FROM NEUTRALITY TO INTERVENTION
Looking to Europe, the Financial Times now has the awkward task of reporting that mighty European Union's currency is coming apart at the seams, while neighboring Switzerland has barely enough hotels to house the world's waterlogged financial refugees. The franc is up 5.41% against the euro this year and almost 14% against the dollar. One wonders if the only way to prevent a collapse of the these major debtor currencies is to back them with Swiss-made wristwatches. At least then they'd have a partial gold standard and there'd be no excuse to be late for an austerity protest!
Unfortunately, the Swiss National Bank is so afraid of the franc's rise that it has flooded the market with liquidity and cut interest rates to zero. The SNB even recently threatened to peg the franc to the euro. It's as if survivors on one of the Titanic's lifeboats were so confused and bewildered that they began tying their boat to the sinking behemoth out of a desire for a 'stable relationship.'
NOTE TO JAPAN: IT'S NOT THE SPECULATORS
Japan, ironically, has been blessed that while its debt problems are severe, they've been severe for so long that markets are willing to take that as a sign of stability. And, aside from the public debt problem, Japan does have fairly impressive fundamentals. They are still a productive economy with high personal savings and exposure to booming China. So, it's no wonder the Yen has risen 6.63% against the dollar so far this year.
Former Finance Minister, and now Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda stated recently that he would "take bold actions if necessary and won't rule out any possible options" to restrain the yen's appreciation. Yet, while Noda has said the ministry will study whether "speculation" is behind the yen's rise, he doesn't seem to understand that this is a permanent move away from dollars and euros and into anything which might be a better alternative. This is not driven by Wall Street gamblers, but rather by everyday investors seeking shelter.
CLEARLY SHIFTING SENTIMENTS
My readers know that I see these past years in the US markets as one ongoing crisis. We're not "facing a double-dip recession" as the media suggests; instead, we're really in the midst of a prolonged economic depression. The periodic market panics since 2007, both in the US and Europe, all stem from the same disease and, as such, ought to be properly understood as related symptoms, not as separate events.
And as one long, ugly narrative, these subsequent panics resemble a series of steps; sharp drops leading down either to a dismal "new normal" or - more likely - a collapse in both the fiat dollar and euro currencies and a widespread return to gold as money.
My brother, Andrew Schiff, wrote an article for my brokerage firm this month reviewing the market turmoil and how it compares to previous crises since '07. He found a steady shift in what investors perceive as a safe haven.
During the depths of the credit crunch, from October 2008 to March 2009, the S&P lost over a quarter of its value, as investors flocked to the US dollar, driving it up 8%. Foreign stock markets sold off and most foreign currencies fell substantially. The Swiss franc fell over 3%. Gold rose some 6.5% and the yen rose 5.75%, but neither kept pace with the US dollar, which rose 13.5%.
Then, during the dip between April 23, 2010 and July 2, 2010, the S&P dropped again by almost 15%. The dollar rallied barely more than 3%. The Swiss franc gained slightly instead of falling. And this time, both the yen and gold beat the dollar, gaining 4% and 5.5% respectively.
Now here we are in August, and what's happening?
In extreme volatility, the S&P fell over 13% before rebounding to its starting place. The dollar has remained essentially flat even with intensified fears in the euro zone. The yen is also flat, despite heavy intervention to push it down. The Swiss franc rose 8% before Switzerland's central bank threatened to peg the currency to the euro, and gold has surged almost 12%!
See the pattern? On each step of this multi-year downward spiral, global investors are slowly but coherently altering their preferred safe haven. Alternatives are being desperately sought, though actions first by the Japanese central bank and more recently by the Swiss have prevented their currencies from fully realizing potential gains as dollar-alternatives.
Fortunately, gold doesn't have a central bank, so it can rise as fast as the dollar falls.
THE FIAT DOWNGRADE
Whether it is in their interests or not - and I argue it is not - central bankers look set on continued competitive devaluation of their currencies so that their economies don't have to do the hard work of retooling for the new reality.
That is why gold is doing so phenomenally well, and why it should continue to do so. New gold comes into the market at a rate of about 2% per year. This number has been fairly steady over time, and reflects the ability of mining companies to locate, finance, purchase, and develop new gold mines. I invest in these companies, and trust me, it's not an easy job.
Contrast this with a paper currency - more dollars can be created by Bernanke simply printing extra zeros on his banknotes. See that $10 bill? Shazam, it's a $100!
The reason currencies like the yen and Swiss franc are considered safe is simply a longstanding habit of their central banks not to print too much. But a habit is much less reliable than a physical constraint.
Think of a dog that has been trained not to eat steak. If you put it in a room with a juicy ribeye, would you be more confident the steak would be there when you came back if the dog was in a kennel or just sitting there? Just like a dog always craves steak, and will grab a bite when no one's looking, central bankers always crave the printing press.
That's why we need to hold an asset for which scarcity is dictated by nature itself - gold.
As this realization becomes more commonplace, and as this depression accelerates, I expect gold to be the Last Haven Standing. This will not be a "new normal," but rather a return to thousands of years of economic tradition.
A NOTE ABOUT THE FUNDAMENTALS
Those who do not really understand the fundamentals, such as commodity trader Dennis Gartman, continue to look at gold's rise as a bubble. In fact, Gartman just called the top in gold, again, claiming that one of the "great bubbles of our time" had finally popped.
He cites as evidence the quick 200-point rise to over $1900/oz, which Gartman sees as a speculative blow-off top. He also cites the meaningless fact that one gold ETF, GLD, has a larger market cap than one S&P 500 ETF. He absurdly compares this situation to the Japanese Emperor's palace eclipsing the value of the entire state of California at the top of Japan's real estate bubble. Those ETFs simply represent one way of owning assets, and do not, as Gartman contends, indicate that investors value gold higher than the entire US stock market. In fact, a true comparison of the two asset classes reveals gold's value is historically low relative to the value of US stocks.
Rather than the bursting of a bubble, the recent technical action in gold is more indicative of a break-out. In fact, the positive divergence of gold stock from bullion in this recent correction is evidence that a more powerful leg in this bull market is about to begin. Up until now, the market for gold stocks has been characterized by fear. However, it now appears to me that gold stocks will make a new high before the metal itself. If the stocks finally begin to lead the metal, it means traders are finally starting to believe in this rally. Rather than evidencing the end of the trend, such a shift in sentiment likely indicates an acceleration in that trend. Maybe when the last skeptic finally throws in the towel, we may finally get the blow-off top Gartman thinks already occurred - but that day is likely many years into the future.
In fact, all the talk about a gold bubble seems to be based on the fact that so many investors are now talking about gold. However, the problem with this argument is that despite all the talking, very few investors are actually buying. Bubbles are not formed by talk, but by action. Before we get a gold bubble, all those investors talking about gold actually have to buy an ounce. In fact, before a bubble pops, its not just investors, but the average man in the street who will have to be buying. Thus far, he has not even joined the conversation.