A Mining Boom has caused Gold to fall while Gasoline continues to Rise

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 2nd, 2013

Week in Review

Gold and oil share something in common.  We price both of these commodities in U.S. dollars.  Which makes it difficult to hide inflation in these commodities.  Food companies can shrink package sizing to keep from having to raise their prices to factor in inflation.  But you can’t do that when you sell oil by a fixed quantity.  A barrel.  Or gold.  Which we sell by the ounce.  Which means if you depreciate the dollar (with quantitative easing where we print money to buy bonds to increase the money supply so as to lower interest rates to encourage people to borrow money and buy things) you have to increase the price of these commodities.  Because if you make the money worth less it will take more of it to buy what it once bought.

But gold and oil also have a major difference.  While an increase in the price of gold encourages gold mines to bring more gold to market environmental concerns have prevented people from bringing more oil to market.   It is because of this that the price of gold has fallen while gasoline prices are rising again (see The Gold Standard by SARAH MAX posted 6/1/2013 on Barron’s).

Gold prices rise in times of economic malaise—hence its 23% rise in 2009 and 27% rise in 2010. When prices are rising, mining stocks have historically outperformed the physical asset. Yet gold-mining stocks have lagged over the past few years, even before the price of gold plummeted from its August 2011 high of roughly $1,900 a troy ounce to less than $1,400 today. “The main reason is cost inflation,” says Foster, explaining that a global mining boom has driven up the costs of labor and materials, while forcing miners to look farther afield for new gold deposits.

As the government inflates the money supply it reduces our purchasing power.  This erodes the value of our savings.  Making the money we worked hard for and put in the bank to pay for our retirement unable to buy as much as we hoped it would.  This is why people buy gold.  Because gold will hold its value.  If they increase the money supply by 20% the price of gold should rise, too.  Close to that 20%.  So when the Federal Reserve finally abandons their inflationary policies people can sell their gold and put their retirement savings back into the bank.  Adjusted, of course, for inflation.

The price of gold has fallen despite the Fed’s quantitative easing still going strong.  So if the dollar is worth less how come it now takes fewer of them, instead of more of them, to buy a given amount of gold?  Supply and demand.  With the high gold price people mined more gold and brought it to market.  Increasing the supply.  And lowering the price.  But because the Fed is still depreciating the dollar costs continue to rise.  Making it more costly for these mining companies to mine and bring gold to market.  Reducing their profits.  And the cost of their stock.

If only the oil business was free to operate like this.  For with the Fed depreciating the dollar they’re raising the price of a barrel of oil.  Making it attractive to bring more oil to market.  But wherever it can the federal government has shut down oil exploration and production.  To appease the environmentalists in their political base.  So, instead, gasoline prices continue to rise.  While gold prices fall.  And the dollar continues to depreciate.  Which will one day ignite a vicious inflation.  Much like it did in the Seventies.  And then it will take a nasty recession to get rid of that vicious inflation.  Like we had in the Eighties.  But at least in the Eighties we had one of the strongest and longest economic expansion follow that nasty recession.  Thanks to a strong dollar.  Low taxes.  And a reduction of regulatory costs.  Something the current administration clearly opposes. So we’ll probably have the inflation.  And the recession.  But not the economic expansion.  For that we may have to wait for the next Republican administration.

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Microeconomics and Macroeconomics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 10th, 2012

Economics 101

Keynesians cannot connect their Macroeconomic Policies to the Microeconomic World

Economics can be confusing.  As there are actually two genres of economics.  There’s microeconomics.  The kind of stuff most people are familiar with.  And is more common sense.  This is more of the family budget variety.  And small business budget.  Where if costs go up (gasoline, commodities, food, insurance, etc.) families and businesses make cuts elsewhere in their budget.  When revenue falls (a decline in sales revenue or a husband/wife loses their job) people cut back on expenses.  They cancel the family vacation.  Or cancel Christmas bonuses.  Straight forward stuff of living within your means.

Then there’s macroeconomics.  The big economic picture.  This is the stuff about the national economy.  GDP, inflation, recession, taxes, etc.  Things that are more abstract.  Unfamiliar.  And often defy common sense.  Where living beyond your means is not only accepted.  But it’s national policy.  And when some policies fail repeatedly those in government keep trying those same policies expecting a different outcome eventually.  Such as using Keynesian economic policies (stimulus packages, deficit spending, printing money, etc.) to get an economy out of recession that never quite works.  And then the supporters of those policies always say the same thing.  Their policies only failed because they didn’t spend enough money to make them work.

Keynesian economics focuses on macroeconomics.  And cannot connect their macro policies to the micro world.  There is a large gap between the two.  Which is why Keynesians fail.  Because they look at the macro picture to try and effect change in the micro world.  To get businesses to create jobs.  To hire people.  And to reduce unemployment.  But the politicians executing Keynesian policy don’t understand things in the micro world.  Or anything about running a business.  All they understand, or all they care to try to understand, are the Keynesian basics.  That focus on the demand side of economics.  While ignoring everything on the supply side.

When the Economy goes into Recession the Fed Expands the Money Supply to Lower Interest Rates

Keynesians have a few fundamental beliefs.  And one of the big ones is the relationship between interest rates and GDP.  In fact, it’s the center of their world.  High interest rates discourage people from borrowing money.  When people don’t borrow money they don’t build things (like factories).  And if they don’t build things they won’t create jobs and hire people.  So the higher the interest rates the lower the economic output of the nation (GDP).

Low interest rates, on the other hand, encourage people to borrow money.  So they can build things and create jobs.  The lower the interest rates the more people will borrow.  And the greater the economic output of the nation will be.  This was the driving factor that caused the Great Recession.  The central bank (the Fed) kept interest rates so low for so long that people bought a lot of houses.  A lot of expensive houses.  The demand for housing was so great that buyers bid up prices.  Because at low interest rates there was no limit to how much house you could buy.  All this building and buying of houses, though, oversupplied the market with houses.  As home builders rushed in to fill that demand.  They built so many houses that there were just so many houses available to buy that buyers had a lot of choice.  Making it a buyers’ market.  So much so that people had to slash their asking price to sell their house.  Which popped the great housing bubble.

The Fed lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply.  They create new money and inject it into the economy.  By giving it to bankers.  Banks have more money to lend.  So more people can borrow money.  This is what lowers interest rates.  Things that are less scarce cost less.  More money to borrow means it’s less scarce.  And the price to borrow it (i.e., the interest rate) falls.  If the Fed wants to increase interest rates they pull money out of the economy.  Which makes it a little harder to borrow money.  Because more people are trying to borrow the limited amount of funds available to borrow.  And this is the basics of monetary policy.  Whenever the country enters a recession and unemployment rises the Fed expands the money supply to encourage businesses to borrow money to expand their businesses and create jobs that will lower unemployment.

Keynesian Economic Policies hurt the Higher Stages of Production where we Create Real Economic Activity

If low interest rates create greater economic activity why in the world would the Fed ever want to raise interest rates?  Because of the dark side of printing money.  Inflation.  Increasing the money supply gives people more money.  And when they have more money they try to buy what everyone else is buying.  As the money supply grows greater than the amount of economic output there is more money trying to buy fewer goods and services.  Which raises prices.  Just like those low interest rates did in the housing market.  The fear is that if this goes on too long there will be an economic crash.  Just like after the housing bubble burst.  From boom to bust.  Higher prices reduce consumer spending.  Because people can’t buy as much when prices are high.  As consumers stop spending businesses stop selling.  Faced with overcapacity in a period of falling demand they start cutting costs.  Laying off people.  People without jobs can buy even less at high prices.  And so on as the economy settles into recession.  This is why central bankers raise interest rates.  Because those good times are temporary.  And the longer they let it go on the more painful the economic correction will be.

This is why Keynesian stimulus spending fails to pull economies out of recession.  Because Keynesians focus only on the demand curve.  Consumption.  Consumer spending.  Not supply.  They ignore all that economic activity in the higher stages of productions.  That activity that precedes retail consumer sales.  The wholesale stage (the stage above retail).  The manufacturing stage (above the wholesale stage).  And the furthest out in time, the raw commodities stage (above the manufacturing stage).  As economic activity slows inventories build up.  Creating a bulge in the middle of the stages of production.  So manufacturing cuts back.  And because they do raw commodities cut back.  These are the first to suffer in an economic downturn.  And they are the last to recover.  Because of all that inventory in the pipeline.  When Keynesians get more money into consumers’ pockets they will increase their consumer spending.  For awhile.  Until that extra money is gone.  Which provided an economic boost at the retail level.  And a little at the wholesale level as they drew down those inventories.  But it did little at the higher stages of production.  Above inventories.  Manufacturing and raw material extraction.  Who don’t expand their production or hire new workers.  Because they know this economic activity is temporary.  And because they know all that new money will eventually create inflation.  Which will increase prices.  Throughout the stages of production.

The Keynesian approach focuses on the macro.  By playing with monetary policy.  Policies that ultimately hurt the higher stages of production.  At the micro level.  Where we create real economic activity.  If they’re not hiring then no amount of stimulus spending at the retail level will get them to hire.  Because giving the same amount of workers (i.e., consumers) more money to chase the same amount of goods and services only causes higher prices in the long run.  And it’s the long run that raw commodities and manufacturing look at.  They are not going to invest to expand their businesses unless they expect improving economic conditions in the long run.  All the way up the stages of production to where they are.  When new economic activity reaches them then they will expand and hire people.  And when they do they will add a lot of new consumers with real wages to go out and spend at the retail level.

One of the most efficient ways to achieve this is with tax cuts.  Because cuts in tax rates shape economic activity in the long run.  Across the board.  Unlike stimulus spending.  Which is short term.  And very selective.  Some benefit.  Typically political cronies.  But most see no benefit.  Just higher prices.  And continued unemployment.  Which is why Keynesian policies fail to pull economies out of recessions.  Because politicians use them for political purposes.  Not economic purposes.

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Falling Oil Prices will lower Gas Prices, if the Fed stops Printing Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 9th, 2011

Falling Oil Prices and you at the Gas Pump

Here’s something you don’t see every day.  Oil prices have fallen (see Special report: What really triggered oil’s greatest rout by Matthew Goldstein, Svea Herbst, Jennifer Ablan, Emma Farge, David Sheppard, Claire Milhench, Zaida Espana, Robert Campbell and Josh Schneyer posted 5/9/2011 on Reuters).

Never before had crude oil plummeted so deeply during the course of a day. At one point, prices were off by nearly $13 a barrel, dipping below $110 a barrel for the first time since March.

Apparently the speculators aren’t all that eager to buy and hold oil right now.  Something must have spooked them.  Because it’s May and the summer driving season is about to ramp up.  People driving around to enjoy their summers.  Some 3-day holiday weekends.  And a vacation or too.  Demand for oil should be up.  Not down.  So what happened?

A routine report on U.S. weekly claims for unemployment benefits spooked investors, showing the labor market in worse shape than expected. That fed a growing pessimism about the resilience of the global economy after industrial orders slumped in Germany and the massive U.S. and European service sectors slowed. Then the European Central Bank surprised with a more dovish statement on interest rates than expected, signaling its wariness about the euro zone outlook. The dollar rose sharply.

Oh.  So that’s what spooked them.  Recession.  Which is another name for continued high unemployment.  Looks like people will be taking more ‘staycations‘ this year.  Just like last year.  Which means people won’t be gassing up the family car for those long trips.  Instead of gas they’ll be buying more expensive groceries.  So the speculators don’t want to buy oil.  Demand for oil will drop.  And something with low demand has a low price.

A range of factors, both economic and political, were also at play. The recent rise in raw goods has been fueled in part by the U.S. Fed pumping cash into the markets by purchasing $600 billion in bonds. This program has pushed interest rates extraordinarily low, making borrowing essentially free once adjusted for inflation. Investors have been using the super-cheap money to buy into commodity markets. But the Fed’s program is slated to end on June 30.

The U.S. Fed in their infinite wisdom printed more money to entice business owners to expand business and hire more people.  Unfortunately, this also created inflation.  Made our money worth less.  And this raised prices.  So we bought less.  And if we’re buying less, businesses aren’t going to expand.  They’re going to contract.  To reflect the falling consumer demand.  So where did all that printed money go?  Wall Street.  Investors borrowed the money ‘for free’ and invested in commodities.  Which drove the prices up.  And oil is a commodity.  Now that the Fed is shutting off the ‘free money’ spigot, they’re not buying anymore.  They’re selling.  Hence the fall in oil prices.

China, the world’s fastest-growing consumer of commodities, also is tightening monetary policy to tamp growth rates and control inflation, raising the prospect of a slowdown in demand for oil.

And one of the big things that triggered the huge run up in oil prices back in 2008, an explosion of Chinese demand, is reversing itself.  They are trying to control inflation.  By slowing their economic growth.  And, of course, slower growth requires less energy.  And less gasoline for cars.

Put all of this together and it explains why oil prices are falling.  Which is typically what happens in a recession.

Recession and Tight Monetary Policy always lowers Gas Prices

The greatest factor in the cost of gasoline is the cost of oil.  Oil goes up and gas soon follows.  Oil goes down and gas follows.  Eventually (see Just say no to $5 gasoline by Myra P. Saefong posted 5/6/2011 on MarketWatch).

Despite Thursday’s drop, crude futures are still more than 9% higher, year to date. Crude oil makes up 68% of the price of gasoline at the pump, according to the EIA.

Overall weakness in the dollar is also to blame for rising gasoline prices. “The U.S. dollar has an inflationary impact on U.S. buyers, while also triggering increased buying in equities and commodities to stave off lost currency value,” said Telvent DTN’s Milne.

And there’s an “overlap” between refinery maintenance and a cluster of bad luck for Gulf Coast and Midwestern refineries, including electrical outages and storm-induced shutdowns, said Kloza. “This is the catalyst for the last leg [of the gasoline-price rise], which may take us to $4-$4.11, but also should soon stall.”

So we’re not going to see a corresponding fall in gasoline prices right away.  But it’s coming.

Still, gasoline prices may hold a $5 average in California, where a strict gasoline formula makes the state more susceptible to higher prices, and in New York, due to tax issues, he said.

Of course, there’s always concern over the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, which begins on June 1, given the potential for disruptions to oil production and refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Be grateful you don’t live in California or New York.  At least, when you’re buying gas.  The environmentalists have added about $1 a gallon to the price of gas in California.  And New York is just tax-happy.  Add that to the recent storm damage, heavy rains and Mississippi flooding, prices won’t be coming down anytime soon.  But they’ll be coming down.  Because they always do during a recession.  As long as the Fed stops printing money (which was President Carter‘s problem.  Prices stayed stubbornly high in the Seventies despite recession until Paul Volcker finally tightened monetary policy).

Drill Baby Drill

Supply and demand determines the price at the pump.  That’s why prices go up during the summer driving season.  And down when much of the world is shoveling snow.  Oil is the biggest factor in the price of gas (68%).  Therefore, the less oil on the market the higher gas prices go.  And the more oil on the market the lower gas prices go.  Simple supply and demand.  Which provides a very easy solution to bring gas prices down.  Drill, baby, drill.  The next best thing we could do to keep prices down is to increase refinery capacity.  The more capacities available to refine crude oil the less storm damage will affect the price at the pump.  Finally, roll back environmental regulations and cut taxes.  Californians could easily see a drop of a dollar a gallon.  Even with current oil production and refining capacities.

Energy policy can be very easy if only you can separate the politics from it.  But when your political base is defined by those politics, that ain’t going to happen.  So get use to high gas prices.  Because they’re being kept artificially high for political reasons.  And enjoy your staycation this year.  And next year.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #48: “Government benefits aren’t from the government. They’re from the taxpayers.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 11th, 2011

The Concept of Other People’s Money

A lot of people don’t understand how a bank works.  Or government.  In fact, banks and government are similar in one respect.  They both ‘give’ things away.  Banks loan money.  Government gives out benefits.  But before either gives anything away, they have to take from other people first.  Banks take money from depositors.  And government takes money from taxpayers.  That’s how they get the money that they give away (bank loans and government benefits).

You see, banks and government have no money of their own.  They work with other people’s money.  Yes, they can make money.  Banks via fractional reserve banking.  And government via monetary policy (lowering the discount rate, selling bonds and treasuries or simply printing money – we call this fiat money).  But there’s a danger when they do.  If they make too much money, we get inflation.  And a lot of bad things follow inflation.  Higher interest rates.  Higher prices.  And an overheated economy that eventually crashes into recession.  Which causes higher unemployment.  So they have to be careful when they’re making money.

If inflation is such a bad thing, then why do they even make money in the first place?  That’s a bit complicated.  To get a simplified understanding, think of a bank.  Businesses borrow from banks to expand their business.  When they expand they create jobs.  Everybody likes this.  Jobs.  So we try to help them get the money they need to expand their businesses.  But banks often don’t have enough money from their depositors to loan to all these businesses.  Fractional reserve banking solves that problem.  This allows the banks to lend more money than they have in their vaults from their depositors.  Creating more money allows more economic activity.  And that’s why we make money.  But we have to be careful not to make too much.

Money is only as Good as our Faith in It

More economic activity means more jobs.  And more taxes for the government.  This is why the government likes a little inflation.  A little bit allows economic activity.  And what is economic activity?  People trading with each other.  A worker trades his or her skills for groceries.  Of course, an office worker in midtown Manhattan can’t easily trader his or her office skills for a dairy farmer’s milk and cheese in Wisconsin.   But that’s okay.  Because we have a medium of exchange to make trading easier.  Our money.

You see, it’s things or services we want.  Not the money.  Money just lets us trade what we do with what others do.  We’ve used different types of money throughout history.  Specie (like gold and silver coins).  And commodities (tobacco, food, whiskey, etc.).  Specie and commodities have intrinsic value.  They’re worth something besides their value as money.  And because of this, it is not easy to make more of it.  Because a printing press can’t print gold, silver, tobacco, food, whiskey, etc.  So you can’t ‘stimulate’ the economy like you can with fiat money.  Of course, this can be a good thing.  Because you can’t over-stimulate the economy like you can with fiat money.  There are pros and cons of each type of money.  And there’s been a lot of debate between competing types of money (such as the gold standard versus fiat money). 

Money is only as good as our faith in it, though.  Because specie and commodity have intrinsic value, it’s easy to have faith in it.  It’s pretty hard to make this kind of money worthless.  But it’s easy to make fiat money worthless.  All you have to do is print too much of it.  You do that and people won’t want to use it.  Because they will have little faith that it will hold its value.

Inflation Reduces your Purchasing Power

How bad can it get?  Let’s illustrate with an example.  Let’s say you dug down about 30 feet in your back yard and discovered gold.  And you worked your butt off to bring it up to the surface, smelt it and pour it into gold bars.  Now you want to trade that gold for a new car, a 60″ plasma television, a state of the art home theater sound system, an in-the-ground swimming pool, some property on an island in the Caribbean and a few other extravagances.  You see all of these things for sale.  But the sale prices are all in dollars, not weights of gold.  Not a problem.  Because you can sell your gold for dollars. 

Think of a scale.  Put your gold on one side of the scale.  And put dollars on the other side.  When the scale balances (when both sides equal the same value, not weights), you have the value of your gold in dollars.   Let’s say your gold equals $1 million.  Lucky for you because that’s the total price of everything you want to buy. 

A week later you have all the details worked out.  You’re ready to write your checks.  But the day before, the government printed more money and doubled the number of dollars in circulation.  When you increase the number of dollars, you decrease the value of each dollar.  In this case, they doubled the amount of money so money is now only worth half of what it used to be worth.  This makes you furious.  Because if you had waited only one more week, you would have gotten $2 million for your gold instead of $1 million (same amount of gold on one side of the scale but twice the amount of dollars on the other).  Worse, not only did the price of your gold go up (after you had already sold it at the old price), but prices everywhere went up.  The stuff you were about to buy for $1 million now costs $2 million.  Now you can only buy half of what you want.  Because doubling the amount of dollars in circulation cut your purchasing power in half.

Other People’s Things

This is the time value of money.  Money decreases in value over time because of inflation.  The greater the inflation rate, the quicker the money in your wallet loses value.  During times of high inflation, people will not want to hold onto their money for a long time.  They’ll want to spend it fast.  Because they’ll be able to buy more with it sooner than they will be able to later.  And it’s the things they want to buy that have real value to them.  Not the money.

Things, not money.  That’s what people want.  And that’s what government benefits are.  Things.  Other people’s things.  You can’t just print money and give it away.  Because you need things to buy with that money.  So not only do you need taxpayers to pay taxes.  But you need them to make the things (and services) people want to buy. 

The greater amount of benefits the government hands out, the more of other people’s stuff they have to take.  That’s why there is a limit on the amount of benefits that government can hand out.  The things the government does to pay for those benefits reduces economic activity.  And increases unemployment.  Unemployed people can’t make stuff or perform services.  And they have less stuff to take.   No matter how much fiat money the government prints.

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