Thursday 18 November 2010

Is gold a bubble about to burst?

In the immortal words of Tommy Cooper: I wanna tell you a story...

From 1971, when President Nixon closed "the gold window" at the US Treasury, the Dollar was no longer exchangeable for anything but another Dollar. It was a piece of paper and a smile, in other words. Prior to this event, you could walk up to the Treasury and they would swap every $35 you presented to them, for 1 ounce of gold.

This was an acceptable deal -- everyone could measure, objectively, what a Dollar in their possession represented in terms of real value. Just about the whole world agreed to fix their currencies to the Dollar, rather than gold. All currencies became paper derivatives of the Dollar. What it could be expected to be exchangeable for in the real world, in terms of goods and services they might require at that time or sometime in the future, was a known measure of value and everyone found it acceptable.

Specifically, the Saudis found it an acceptable trade to supply their oil to the world in exchange for Dollars, at an exchange rate of $1.80/barrel. So, in effect (and reality) what they were prepared to do was to give you 19.44 barrels of oil in exchange for 1 ounce of gold. They simply took the $1.80/barrel that they were paid in exchange, used some of it to pay their bills to the rest of the world, and the remainder (a significant proportion, being desert nomads they were a people of simple needs) they simply used to purchase more gold, building up their signicant store of wealth for future use. Everyone will give you something for some amount of your gold, no matter when you want that thing and whatever happens in the world. They didn't think they could say the same thing about keeping stacks of paper Dollars; they could easily become worthless at some point in time. It wasn't worth that risk to them. They exchanged the paper for gold.

In 1971 this simple and cosy relationship broke down. When Nixon broke the exchange of Dollars for gold at the Treasury, this presented a problem for the Saudis (in particular, but not exclusively) and that is what caused the 70's oil crisis (among other things). The price of oil had to be ramped up, as the exchangeable value of the Dollar sank (in terms of gold, which is what they really wanted for their oil, after 5000 years or so of history demonstrating it was the only money they could put any degree of long term faith in). Very quickly, the oil price in Dollars spiked, keeping up with the newly-free price of gold on the open market.

This is a very short summation of a long and interesting story, but the main point I wanted to bring to your attention at this moment is the historical price relationship of oil and gold (through the exchange medium of the Dollar price). When the Dollar was "as good as gold" at $35/oz, you could get 19.44 barrels of oil for the prevailing price for 1oz of gold. Today the oil price is around $80/barrel, and the price of gold is around $1300-$1400.

19.44 x $80 = $1552.20

This is not very far from the current price for 1oz of physical gold, the kind of gold you can touch rather than the kind of gold you can see on an account statement from some bank or metals exchange. Gold is underpriced still today, and the Dollar is (as are its international paper equivalents) still being debased through Quantitative Easing. The stated intent of governments the world around, is to devalue their currencies to increase their export competitiveness. What are all these people devaluing their currencies against? Not the Dollar, because the US wants to see that devalued against everyone else too!

Unless you think the world is going to stop using this much oil, or the Saudis are going to stop thinking gold is the best kind of money the world has to offer, I think you know what is going to continue to happen to the price of gold when measured in terms of your local currency, wherever you are in the world.

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