Sunday, June 17, 2018

Gold’s Monetary Rehabilitation

There is a quiet revolution taking place in the monetary vacuum that’s developing on the back of the erosion of the dollar’s hegemony. It is perhaps too early to call what’s happening to the dollar the beginning of its demise as the world’s reserve currency, but there is certainly a move away from it in Asia. And every time the Americans deploy their control over global trade settlement as a weapon against the regimes they dislike, nations who are neutral observers take note and consider how to protect themselves, “just in case.”

Vide Europe over the Iran issue. And Turkey. These are rifts in NATO. Countries in Africa, and elsewhere are now taking China’s money. And to please the Chinese, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Panama and the Dominican Republic have all recently severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Small fry perhaps, but a weathervane showing which way the wind is blowing.

We’ve seen Russia set up an alternative to SWIFT in order to be free from American monetary interference in pan-Asian trade. We’ve seen China take major steps to exclude the dollar from her trade as much as possible and to enhance the role of her own currency. And now we have a schism over Iran between America and the Europe it set up after WW2 through the mechanism of the CIA-controlled American Committee for United Europe in 1948.

It is unprecedented, and today America obviously cares less for her relationship with European allies than she hates Iran. There can be little doubt that America’s undeclared war against the land of Omar Khayyam is intended to undermine its economy and create the conditions for internal revolution. The Iranian rial has continued its collapse, and the theocratic government has played into US hands by shutting down “unauthorised” money-changers, with Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi calling for the execution of money changers to help end the currency crisis. The black-market rate for rials has rocketed as a result, and according to Professor Steve Hanke whose department at John Hopkins University makes a study of these things, the true rate of price inflation has jumped to 74.8%.

For the ordinary Iranian, gold has always been the ultimate money, while their government’s rials are to be rapidly passed on to someone else. America’s sanctions and the government’s actions merely reinforce that message. Time will tell whether America’s attempt to undermine Iran’s theocracy succeeds, but history suggests it is unlikely. And at a national level, Iran is driven by American actions into accepting anything but dollars in payment for her oil exports. She would like euros, and given the EU is still trying to sell her capital goods, that makes sense. But no commercial bank dares facilitate payment in any currency under the threat of US sanctions and penalties.

That leaves only three possibilities beyond America’s influence: Chinese yuan, Russian roubles, and gold, all independent from the West’s banking system. It is no wonder the new yuan for oil contract in Shanghai, perhaps with a little help from China’s state-owned banks, has got off to a roaring start. We can all understand the desire to lock in oil prices for future delivery, in this case it is in return for yuan issued by the People’s Bank of China. However, in the future Iran will be able to spend the bulk of her yuan on other raw materials, using a range of yuan futures contracts as a bridge to them from her oil.

Essentially, US sanctions are forcing Iran onto a yuan standard for her foreign trade. Furthermore, China is there to pick up the pieces the West abandons because of American sanctions, driving Iran into an increasing dependency on China. The new Silk Road, the Chinese-built 200kph railway between Tehran and the eastern city of Mashad, as well as other Chinese-led rail projects are opening up Iran in a purely Eurasian context, marginalising American power. Iran’s problem with this, if there is one, is international yuan markets are not yet developed enough to make full use of hedging instruments. But Iran’s demand for sophisticated financial tools, as well as from other nations in Asia turning their backs on America, is bound to hasten their development.

I have written several times in the past about the importance of yuan-denominated deliverable gold futures in this context, and the evidence that the two markets offering these contracts, Hong Kong and Dubai, are cooperating in establishing additional vaulting facilities in China, roping in other gold centres in South-east Asia as well. In the case of gold, where physical delivery measured in tonnes is tight, the Chinese are ensuring as far as possible that deliverable liquidity will be there.

Additionally, last week the London Metal Exchange, owned by the Hong Kong Exchange and Clearing (HKEX), admitted it is considering introducing yuan contracts for base metals as well. We can safely assume that while the HKEX is an independent commercial entity, its strategic objectives are closely aligned with and encouraged by the Chinese government. Not only do the Chinese dominate gold markets in Asia, but last year HKEX successfully introduced regulated precious metal contracts in London. There can be little doubt that HKEX will be an important platform for expanding international markets for the Chinese currency. And at some time in the future, a state like Iran will be able to use not only yuan contracts to sell commodities in order to buy other commodities, but to use them as a stepping-stone to mobilise state-owned gold for payments as well.

Our topic is now moving on to gold being actively used as money instead of fiat currencies. While this point is not yet being considered by Western commentators, we can be sure it is by the forward planners in Asian governments. It’s not for nothing India is trying everything to get hold of its citizens gold. To an extent, gold is already used as money by governments, which is why they are still included in monetary reserves. But they are there as a backstop, the money of last resort, no one’s liability. What we could be seeing with the development of international yuan currency markets is a platform that links the use of gold to trade settlement.

This insight means we must look at both the Chinese and Russian policies on gold in a new light. Assumptions in the markets seem to be that China and Russia only see gold as a dollar hedge, or alternatively their accumulation of gold is either to balance the US’s holding of 8,133 tonnes, or alternatively (if you believe the American’s are lying about their reserves) Chinese and Russian gold is there to be used like a sword of Damocles held over the dollar. It would be wrong to dismiss these theories out of hand, but surely, they miss the point. You don’t carefully plan to become a dominant world power, edging out the Americans and their dollars, without careful forward planning of monetary affairs.

There is irrefutable evidence that China has been planning for a post-dollar world since shortly after her leadership threw in the towel on communism and embraced free markets. The regulations appointing the People’s Bank with sole responsibility for gold and silver date all the way back to 1983, since when we can confidently assume the PBOC has quietly accumulated gold on behalf of the state at prices that varied between $250-500 over a nineteen-year period. We know this, because in 2002 the PBOC then permitted private ownership, setting up the Shanghai Gold Exchange to facilitate physical acquisition. This would only have happened after the state had had a clear run at accumulating sufficient physical gold for its future purposes. And, as the largest gold mining nation for many years by far, with state monopolies in refining domestic production, recycling scrap and refining imported doré, there should be no doubt over her policy towards her accumulation of gold bullion.[ii]

Since 2002, the Chinese government has actively encouraged its nationals to accumulate physical gold and judging by net withdrawals from the Shanghai Gold Exchange vaults, the public possesses roughly 18,000 tonnes from more or less a standing start.[iii] My estimate for state ownership of bullion, based on contemporary prices, an analysis of capital inflows in the 1980s, followed by trade surpluses in the 1990s and before the public were permitted to buy in 2002, is approximately 20,000 tonnes. Even so, that may be not be enough gold bullion owned by the state at current prices to operate a simple gold exchange standard, being the equivalent value of ¥5.22 trillion, compared with currency in circulation of ¥7.15 trillion.[iv] For comparison, when President Roosevelt devalued the dollar to $35 in January 1934, the US Treasury held gold worth $7.44bn at the new price against currency in circulation of $5.72bn. Therefore, if the Chinese government has 20,000 tonnes, and if it is to have the same currency cover as America had on 31 January 1934, at current exchange rates gold would have to be priced at $2,317.

Russia began accumulating gold only more recently and is now aggressively building her official reserves. Whether she has accumulated bullion “off balance sheet” is not known but should not be dismissed. Based on her official reserves at 1,910 tonnes worth RUB5.0 trillion, it does not cover M0 yet (RUB8.44 trillion)[v] but a rise in the gold price to $2,200 will do so, and a gold price of $2,860 would be required to match the Americans in 1934. In fact, for both Russia and China if gold is to have a monetary role it would have to be at a far higher price than it is today.