Since the beginning of the year, the greenback has shown it's not almighty after all; and gold - the barbarous relic as some have called it - may be en vogue again? Where are we going from here and what are the implications for investors?
Like everything else, the value of currencies and gold is generally driven by supply and demand. A key driver (but not the only driver!) is the expectation of differences in real interest rates. Note the words 'perception' and 'real.' Just like when valuing stocks, expectations of future earnings may be more important than actual earnings; and to draw a parallel to real interest rates, i.e. interest rates net of inflation, one might be able to think of them as GAAP earnings rather than non-GAAP earnings. GAAP refers to 'Generally Accepted Accounting Principles', i.e. those are real-deal; whereas non-GAAP earnings are those management would like you to focus on. Similarly, when it comes to currencies, you might be blind-sided by high nominal interest rates, but when you strip out inflation, the real rate might be far less appealing.
It's often said that gold doesn't pay any interest. That's true, of course, but neither does cash. Cash only pays interest if you loan it to someone, even if it's only a loan to your bank through a deposit. Similarly, an investor can earn interest on gold if they lease the gold out to someone. Many investors don't want to lease out their gold because they don't like to accept the counterparty risk. With cash, the government steps in to provide FDIC insurance on small deposits to mitigate such risk.
While gold doesn't pay any interest, it's also very difficult to inflate gold away: ramping up production in gold is difficult. Our analysis shows, the current environment has miners consolidating, as incentives to invest in increasing production have been vastly reduced. We draw these parallels to show that the competitor to gold is a real rate of return investors can earn on their cash. For U.S. dollar based investors, the real rate of return versus what is available in the U.S. may be most relevant. When it comes to valuations across currencies, relative real rates play a major role.
So let's commit the first sin in valuation: we talk about expectations, but then look at current rates, since those are more readily available. When it comes to real interest rates, such a fool's game is exacerbated by the fact that many question the inflation metrics used. We show those metrics anyway, because not only do we need some sort of starting point for an analysis, but there's one good thing about these inflation metrics, even if one doesn't agree with them: they are well defined. Indeed, I have talked to some of the economists that create these numbers; they take great pride in them and try to be meticulous in creating them. To the cynic, this makes such metrics precisely wrong. To derive the real interest rate, one can use a short-term measure of nominal rates (e.g. the 3 month T-Bill, yielding 0.26% as of this writing), then deducting the rate of inflation below:
The short of it is that, based on the measures above, real interest rates are negative. If you then believe inflation might be understated, well, real interest rates may be even more negative. When real interest rates are negative, investing cash in Treasury Bills is an assured way of losing purchasing power; it's also referred to as financial repression.
Let's shift gears towards the less precise, but much more important world of expectations. We all know startups that love to issue a press release for every click they receive on their website. Security analysts ought to cut through the noise and focus on what's important. You would think that more mature firms don't need to do this, but the CEOs of even large companies at times seem to feel the urge to run to CNBC's Jim Cramer to put a positive spin on the news affecting their company.
When it comes to currencies, central bankers are key to shaping expectations, hence the focus on the "Fed speak" or the latest utterings coming from European Central Bank (ECB) President Draghi or Bank of Japan's (BoJ) Kuroda. One would think that such established institutions don't need to do the equivalent of running to CNBC's Mad Money, but - in our view - recent years have shown quite the opposite. On the one hand, there's the obvious noise: the chatter, say, by a non-voting Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) member. On the other hand, there are two other important dimensions: one is that such noise is a gauge of internal dissent; the other is that such noise may be used as a guidance tool. In fact, the lack of noise may also be a sign of dissent: we read Fed Vice Chair Fischer's absence from the speaking circuit as serious disagreement with the direction Fed Chair Yellen is taking the Fed in; indeed, we are wondering aloud when Mr. Fischer will announce his early retirement.