My thoughts on perma-bears and gold

gold

I’ve always hated gold

I have always been against owning gold.

Why did I think gold was a terrible investment? A huge reason for my gold aversion is the influence of Warren Buffett’s writings on my life and thinking. Here is what Warren has to say on the asset:

“It gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”

In his 2011 letter, Buffett addressed the issue more in-depth:

“The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.

This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future. The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative.

True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production.

Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end. What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade, that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As ‘bandwagon’ investors join any party, they create their own truth — for awhile.”

To sum it up: gold has no calculable margin of safety. It produces no cash flow. The return derives from what someone else is willing to pay. It therefore ought to be categorized as speculation and not as investment.

Of course, my main aversion to gold has been my attitude towards the people who embrace it the most: the perma-bears.

The Perma Bear View of the World

Who are the perma-bears?

Perma-bears think that the Fed is an utterly corrupt institution and that they are going to lead the world to ruin. The world economy, in their view, is a debt soaked Ponzi scheme that is sure to unravel. Anyone who owns stocks or bets on a positive outcome for humanity’s future is a damned fool.

They’ve been saying this for a long time, and they are almost always wrong. However, like a stopped clock, perma-bears are occasionally right whenever we have a recession and a nasty bear market, which reliably happens once every 15 years or so.

Gold is the only asset that is beloved by perma-bears (Although, Millennial Fed hating perma bears seem to be embracing crypto).

Perma-bears hate the stock market because they think stocks are in a big bubble pumped up by the Federal Reserve. They hate bonds because they do not believe that they are truly “risk-free” assets, and the Fed has pushed yields to unusually low levels. Bonds are also in a bubble.

Stocks are in a bubble. Bonds are in a bubble. In their view, everything is in a bubble, except gold.

They also see the Federal Government’s deficits as a severe problem. They think that the US is ultimately going to deal with the debt by inflating the currency or straight up defaulting on the debt in an apocalyptic scenario that is sure to imperil the global economy.

The ultimate perma-bear book is The Creature from Jeckyl Island, which argues that the Federal Reserve is a monstrous creation that is eroding the liberty and money of Americans. It’s worth a read to get insight into the history of the Federal Reserve and the deep seated hatred of it.

You’ll often see these perma-bear types quite angry that inflation exists at all. Before the Fed, they argue, dollars were a store of value. You didn’t have to worry about the slow drip of 2% inflation eroding your wealth over time.

Since 1913, the value of a dollar has been eroded by 96% due to inflation. This usually gets the perma-bears very angry, as if the only asset allocation is cash stuffed into a mattress.

Perma-bears have always hated the Fed, but they really hated Alan Greenspan. The perma-bear goldbug crowd saw Greenspan as a dangerous departure from the already maligned Federal Reserve of yore.

After the crash of 1987, they were incensed that Greenspan “bailed out” the stock market by cutting interest rates and intervening to ensure that liquidity was available. In this view, the Greenspan era was the beginning of the end, taking us down to a path of Fed manipulation leading the United States and the US dollar towards a great reckoning. In their view, Greenspan’s 1987 cutting of interest rates in response to the stock market crash was the original sin that started it all and led us down a path to ruin. They further believe that his softening of interest rates in the mid-90’s furthered the problem and contributed to the dot com bubble. Then, taking interest rates to 1% in the mid-2000s blew up the real estate bubble.

Some take it back further, and blame Nixon for ending the gold standard, creating fiat currency, which they believe will ruin the world economy. This is despite the fact that the world economy has thrived for the last 50 years since we ended price controls and dollar pegs to gold.

Then, along came Bernanke and Yellen, who really broke the brains of the perma-bears. Bernanke and Yellen, in their view, continued the insanity by pushing Washington to bail out the banks and then undergoing successive rounds of quantitative easing, creating the “everything bubble” that is sure to destroy the global economy.

The perma-bears really had their day in the sun in the wake of the GFC, when the world was ripe to their message. They thought that quantitative easing was going to cause hyperinflation. All of this money printing was sure to wreck the world.

The trouble is: the hyperinflation never came. In fact, the 2010s was a decade with some of the most mild inflation since World War II. Ironically, this was during the most aggressive expansion of monetary policy since World War II.

inflation

The perma-bears will say all of this is nonsense. They say that the inflation is here and that the CPI is a sham statistic. They point to healthcare prices and student tuition as evidence of Fed induced inflation. They also argue that the inflation may not be happening in consumer prices, but that it is being swept up into asset inflation. They believe that the housing bubble was a perfect example of this: the Fed pumped up a big bubble in real estate even though the CPI didn’t rise in a meaningful way.

My Disagreements with the Perma Bears

Listening to the perma-bears has been a recipe for investment disaster.

They have been calling for the end of our financial system since Richard Nixon ended the gold standard, and the world economy keeps chugging along. Occasionally, gold has its day in the sun (the 2000s, the 1970s), but typically financial assets like bonds and stocks that actually generate cash flows do better over time.

I also think that the CPI is legit and I think inflation remains depressed for another reason outside of shadow statistics and asset inflation: money velocity is at generational lows.

The best explanation of the relationship between monetary policy and inflation is the equation MV = PQ, and velocity is a critical component of that inflation. Velocity has remained depressed since the GFC, which is why inflation has remained subdued even while the money spigots have been open.

The segments of the economy that are undergoing inflation (healthcare & education) are being inflated for reasons that have nothing to do with the Fed. The Fed didn’t make the decision to back student loans with taxpayer & deficit financed money, flooding the sector with cheap debt. The Fed also didn’t create the perverse incentive system around medical pricing, in which no one directly pays for anything, the Federal government floods the sector with taxpayer & deficit financed money, and prices predictably rage out of control.

Neither healthcare or education inflation have anything to do with the Fed.

m2 velocity

I also disagree with the perma-bear Fed hatred.

Looking at the history of recessions in the United States, recessions were more frequent and more severe before the Federal Reserve was created than after. I think this is due to a simple factor: inflation. By creating a mostly constant rate of inflation, recessions did not coincide with deflation after the Fed’s creation.

Before the Fed, price levels would shrink during recessions and rise during booms. Deflation makes recessions particularly nasty. With falling prices, consumers and businesses hold off on purchases, hoping that prices will be lower in the future. This then extends and deepens the downturn. At no time was this more apparent during the Great Depression itself.

My views on the Great Depression are informed by the work of Milton Friedman. This is pretty good explanation of what happened during the Great Depression from Milton’s point of view:

If you want to learn more about Milton Friedman’s views, he wrote two excellent books for non-economists summarizing his views:

Free to Choose

Capitalism and Freedom

Both books had a big influence on my thinking. I read them at an impressionable age in high school. For years, I could never get a coherent explanation of what caused the Great Depression. I remember asking a teacher: “What caused the Great Depression?” She told me: “The crash of 1929.” I replied: “We had a crash in 1987, why didn’t that cause a Great Depression?” No one could give me a satisfactory explanation and I’m pretty sure that the teacher thought I was an a-hole.

It wasn’t until I read Milton Friedman that I found an explanation that made any sense.

In Milton’s view, the Fed caused the Great Depression. The Fed fueled a boom during the 1920’s, but then did very little to contain the bust. They were also handicapped by the gold standard itself. They let banks fail. Their decisions and failures led to a shrinking of the monetary supply. They turned what would have been a nasty recession into a decade long Depression.

Imagine that in 2008, instead of trying to contain the collapse, the Fed let all the banks fail and let the money supply contract. This nightmare scenario is exactly what happened during the early 1930’s, and turned what would have been a nasty recession into a decade long Great Depression.

In many ways, the Fed’s handling of the 2008 crisis is the opposite of the way that the Depression was handled. If it weren’t for Bernanke’s decisive action, we likely would have had a decade very similar to the 1930’s. A decade of stagnation, 25% unemployment, soup lines, etc.

We complain about the Great Recession, but it was truly a cake walk compared to the economic horrors of the Great Depression. Charlie Munger summarizes it pretty well here:

“And of course, most of my schooling was in the Great Depression, but that means I’m one of the very few people that’s still alive who deeply remembers the Great Depression. That’s been very helpful to me. It was so extreme that people like you have just no idea what the hell was like. 

It was really there was just nobody had any money the rich people didn’t have any money. People would come and beg for a meal at the door, and we had a hobo jungle not very far from my grandfather’s house. I was forbidden to walk through a good amount, so I walked through it all the time.  

And I was safer in that hobo jungle the depths of the 30s when people are starving, practically, than I am walking around my own neighborhood now in Los Angeles at night. The world has changed on that. You’d think the crime would be less [now], but the crime was pretty low in those days.”

My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression, and I would often listen to his stories about how bad things were. It left quite the impression and I never forgot it. It was a time that was so rough that I don’t think most people today can even imagine it.

I think that the Fed and Bernanke helped us avoid the 1930’s fate. We could have wound up with 1/4 of the population unemployed. I also think that 21st century hobo-jungles would be more crime ridden than the 1930’s alternatives. Imagine the 1930’s hobo jungles with meth addicts and tents. That’s what a 21st century Great Depression would be like.

The perma-bears seem to think that the Fed should have let this all happen. In their view, we deserved a Depression as some kind of Calvinist atonement for the booms of the 1990’s and 2000’s.

I think that’s crazy.

In fact, I’m not so sure that the Fed caused the real estate bubble, which has been accepted as a truth by most people. For instance, did the Fed pass the Community Reinvestment Act, which effectively created the subprime real estate market? Did the Fed repeal Glass Steagall? Did the Fed create CDO’s? Did the Fed create the immoral collusion between the banks and rating agencies? Did the Fed create the post-internet bubble narrative that real estate was safe and stocks were insane? Did the Fed take Wall Street’s investment banks public, removing the strong risk management controls that existed during the partnership era?

Sure, 1% interest rates might have sprinkled some lighter fluid on an already raging bonfire of greed and mismanagement, but I don’t think the Fed caused the problem. It was a bubble that was brewing for decades for a lot of reasons.

The Fed certainly has made a lot of mistakes throughout their existence. They let the 1920’s bubble rage out of control. They failed to contain the effects of the bust. They were too loose with monetary policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s and caused massive inflation. They also deserve credit: Volcker and Greenspan both created an idyllic period during the Great Moderation, an era of low inflation and infrequent recessions.

The Fed tends to be the cure to and the cause of most recessions. They tend to tighten too much at the end of an expansion, causing the recession. They tend to loosen too much, leading to inflation and imbalances in the economy. Despite this, I think on the whole they have been a positive influence, and I think the history of US recessions confirms this.

Nor do I think bubbles are caused by the Fed. Bubbles are caused by human nature. The Fed might push it along, but there isn’t any government policy that will stop bubbles. People will always get excited about new narratives and that will always cause bubbles. Bubbles are a feature of the human race. We had bubbles before the Fed was ever created and we’ll have bubbles until the end of civilization.

Gold’s Terrible Track Record

Not only do I have disagreements with the perma-bear messengers of doom, but the data agrees more with Warren Buffett’s assessment of the asset class than Ron Swanson’s: gold is an asset with no margin of safety and no cash flows. It’s simply a bunch of volatile price action.

Ron Swanson: my favorite gold bug

Since 1980, for instance, we can compare the performance of both financial assets in simple terms. Since 1980, stocks have delivered a 11.38% rate of return, turning $10,000 into $746,067. Meanwhile, $10,000 invested in gold delivered only a 2.59% return, turning $10,000 into $27,757.

This even obscures the story a bit. While gold delivered a positive return over this 40 year period, all of the return was captured in one time period: an epic move from the lows in 2000 to a high in 2012. Around the time that gold coins began to be sold on Fox News aggressively, the gold market peaked.

Meanwhile, shortly after Paul Volcker decimated inflation in the early 1980s, gold went through a 61% draw-down from 1980 through 1999 while stocks ripped into an extraordinary bull market.

The greatest period of time for the gold market was the 1970’s. During the 1970’s, when inflation ravaged every other financial asset, gold delivered a 28% CAGR and turned $10,000 into $163,717.

What caused gold’s ascent during the 1970’s? Inflation is one key cause. Another is Nixon’s end to the gold standard in the early 1970’s. Until the Nixon shock, gold could be converted to dollars at a pre-determined price. This effectively amounted to price controls imposed by the federal government. When the link was severed and gold was allowed to float freely, the price skyrocketed after being unnaturally suppressed for decades.

These events also finally made the dollar into a fiat currency, a concept which has melted the brains of so many interested in permanent bearishness. For Boomer perma-bears, many have embraced the goldbug mantra. Crypto-fanatics are the Millennial’s answer to the perma-bear, a group that is equally maddened by the concept of fiat currencies.

So, in additon to the solid arguments or Warren Buffett, the fact that I don’t believe gold has any margin of safety, and my dismissive attitude towards the arguments of perma-bears and anti-fiat cranks, I’ve dismissed gold.

Rethinking My Position

While I haven’t changed my fundamental point of view about gold and perma-bears, I have been re-thinking my aversion to owning gold in a portfolio.

While gold on its own may be a bad asset to hold, that doesn’t mean that it can’t work effectively in a portfolio with other assets as a risk management tool.

One of the really nice things about gold is that it tends to do well when stocks are doing poorly. In addition to the 1970’s and 2000’s, gold also did very well during the worst years of the Great Depression, rising from $20.78 to $35 from 1929 through 1934. When the world looked like it was ending during those dark times, people began to hoard onto physical gold as a way to deal with the calamity.

The effect that gold hoarding had on gold-backed USD led FDR to implement Executive Order 6102. The order effectively outlawed the “hoarding” of gold and forced people to exchange their gold for a low price of $20.67. This was later amended via the Gold Reserve Act of 1934, which changed the convertibility of the gold price to $35. This was effectively a devaluing of the US dollar and was used to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression.

This arrangement and system of price controls was further solidified by the Bretton Woods agreement, which pegged all currencies to the dollar and pegged the dollar to gold at a conversion rate of $35. This amounted to government controls on the price of gold. When Nixon finally lifted those price controls and eliminated the convertibility of dollars to gold, the gold price raged out of control.

Anyway, to make a long story short: gold does really well when stocks are doing poorly. This means it may deserve a place in a portfolio. Gold’s best decades were during the 1930’s, the 1970’s and the 2000’s, which were the worst decades to own stocks.

Much of the price action in gold has been driven by the legal maneuvering of the US government, but there seems to be an innate tendency of investors to flock to the safety of “hard assets” when the world looks like it is going to hell.

These characteristics makes gold an interesting component to a portfolio.

Gold In a Portfolio

Let’s say that the price action of gold in the 1930s was a fluke because the government used gold as a way to manage the value the dollar. The price action in the ’30s was a fluke caused by the Depression and Roosevelt’s efforts to contain it. The price action of the ’70s was due to the final lifting of decades of price controls on gold.

That’s why I think 1980 is a decent starting point to think about the price of the gold. Since 1980, gold has performed terribly, as discussed earlier in the blog.

However, in a portfolio, it adds some benefits, mainly due to the fact that it is so uncorrelated with US stocks and does well during bad periods for US stocks.

Let’s look at a really crazy portfolio: 50% US stocks, 50% gold. The two assets together interact with each other in a beautiful way, reducing volatility and drawdowns. Here is the result since 1980:

portfolios

On its own, gold is a terrible thing to own. It had a horrible 61% drawdown over a 20 year period. It delivered only a 2.59% CAGR over four decades.

However, if you add it into a 50/50 portfolio with stocks, and you get a pretty decent portfolio. Volatility is reduced. Max drawdowns are reduced. It then delivers a decent rate of return of 7.66%.

Looking at my own asset allocation, I’ve compared what would happened if I replaced my 20% allocation to TIPS with a 20% allocation to gold. It significantly improves the results.

vsggold

Not only does it improve the results of the portfolio, but I believe that it reduces the risks. Currently, 40% of my portfolio is tied up in treasuries. Treasuries, particularly long term treasuries, are the best asset to own in a portfolio when markets are in trouble.

But – does it make sense to have 40% of my money in one asset class?

What if the perma-bears are right, even temporarily? What if rounds of quantitative easing cause hyperinflation? For instance, what if all of this money creation over the last decade has created a forest of dried out wood? If money velocity picks up, that could cause a forest fire of hyperinflation.

What if US government bonds are not a truly safe haven asset? Looking at the balance sheet of the US federal government, I certainly think there is a danger. Does it make sense to have 40% of my money invested in something tied to the solvency of a spendthrift government that has no plans to implement any discipline?

I think gold can be an effective way to hedge against these risks. If these risks turn out to be nothing, then 80% of my portfolio is geared towards a “normal” view of the world and I’ll do okay. Gold has historically kept up with inflation and risen during periods of strife, so they will work effectively in a portfolio. If we do have an economic disaster – gold should do extraordinarily well and 20% of my portfolio will further help me sleep at night.

It seems logical that people will continue to flock to gold as a safe haven when the global economy is in turmoil. If the perma-bears are right and the Fed unleashes hyperinflation, it’s difficult to imagine how gold wouldn’t do well in that environment. If the perma-bears are right and the US government deficit finally blows up, then it’s difficult to imagine how gold wouldn’t do well. It’s also hard to imagine why gold wouldn’t be a stabilizing force in the event of a sharp reduction in stock prices.

Conclusion

I think I have been wrong about my aversion to gold. I think I confused my disagreement with the messengers to an aversion to the entire asset class, which is effective at reducing risk and volatility within a portfolio.

I think gold can function well in a portfolio. It can also help an investor sleep at night, knowing that they will hold something that will retain value even in nightmare scenarios like hyperinflation, a Communist take over, or the global economy going to hell. It can provide piece of mind and it can help diversify a portfolio, reduce volatility, and reduce risk.

Random

This is a fun song.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

2 thoughts on “My thoughts on perma-bears and gold”

  1. Wow. I am from asia and always knew gold as a risk aversion. I came to your blog about a month ago and read through most of it, used your Lazy Portfolio to create mine except replacing TIPS with a Gold ETF!
    I appreciate your willingness to be open about your mistakes and let the readers know. Thank you and all the best.

    Like

Comments are closed.