After recording its 12th consecutive annual gain last year, many prognosticators figured gold would keep rising in 2013. Not only did gold have price momentum, but fundamental demand was up and monetary experiments by global central bankers were undermining the stability of fiat currencies.
Despite all of the bullish underpinnings, physical bullion and gold ETPs, like the SPDR Gold Shares (GLD), have defied bullish expectations by declining around 16% during the first eight months of the year. Most commodities are still down in price from their 2008 peak. Will precious metals revisit new market lows? And is a reversal back to $1,000 per oz. for gold bullion a far-fetched scenario?
Bubbles and History
Price bubbles usually take different paths when they are birthed and formed.
Certain bubbles, like the Dutch Tulip Bulb Mania, were built strictly on speculation. On the other hand, the dot-com bubble was created on the expectation of new, game-changing technologies and productivity. And other bubbles, such as the recent housing frenzy, were built on loose credit and misguided economic policies.
Regardless of the reasons behind their formations, all bubbles have identical endings; a quick reversal and panicked selling that crushes prices. At that point, fear becomes a stronger force than greed, which partly explains why bubbles have the tendency to crash faster and harder.
Gold’s most recent bubble has been punctuated by popular reality TV shows about gold mining along with “sell your gold” kiosks showing up in shopping malls across the U.S. Like all bubbles, excessive bullish sentiment foreshadowed gold’s eventual fall.
During the second quarter, hedge funds and speculators exited their gold positions in bullion ETPs as selling activity accelerated to $18.29 billion from $9.2 billion during the first quarter. The net result was a more than 400 tonne decrease in ETF holdings in the second quarter.
The prospects of improving economic data in theU.S., along with less quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, have put downward pressure on both gold prices and bullion demand. From Q2 2012 to Q2 2013, net gold demand in all categories fell 23%, led by less demand for investment (down 68%), central banks (down 62%), and technology (down 11%), according to the World Gold Council.
“Gold and silver are still basing and trying to resolve their oversold condition from June. They have not begun a sustainable rally yet and still need to do more work technically before this can occur,” said Daryl Montgomery, author of Inflation Investing: A Guide for the 2010s.
While the merits of owning physical gold are evangelized, the shortcomings are too often overlooked. For instance, the typical markup that bullion dealers charge customers is between 5% to 8% over spot prices and others (we won’t mention any names) skim even higher percentages!
The U.S. Mint marks up the price of coins it produces (usually around 3%) to cover the value of the metal along with minting, shipping and other costs. Authorized purchasers who buy from the Mint add their own markup. And if they sell to dealers who sell to the public, another markup gets added. Guess who’s at the bottom of the food chain? That’s right, physical bullion buyers.
And if bullion buyers are unfortunate enough to purchase fraction coins, they get hammered a little more. That’s because the markups for fractional coins, like a half-ounce or quarter-ounce, sometimes reach above 10% to 20% of spot prices.
When gold and silver are increasing, rising prices can cover the steep transaction costs for buying and selling physical bullion. Conversely, in a sharply declining metals market—as we have right now—it’s impossible for lower prices to cover the ridiculously high transaction costs of taking physical delivery. And if we include the cost of storage and insurance, the pain worsens and that’s why owning physical metals is turning out to be a bad investment.
Gold Bears Gain
Although gold prices are still 70% higher today versus five years ago, the last two years have been painful. Since August 2011, gold has fallen 26%, providing a short-term windfall for gold bears.
Bullion losses have been magnified in the share prices of gold mining stocks. The Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX) has fallen 40.73% over the past year, which is almost double the amount of losses incurred by gold itself. Small-cap mining stocks (GDXJ) have fared slightly worse, by losing 42.30%.
This means that for the first time in a while, bearish trades on gold are turning a profit. Inverse ETPs that aim for opposite exposure to mining stocks like the Direxion Daily Gold Miners Bear 3x Shares (DUST) and the ProShares UltraShort Gold (GLL) have climbed between 29% to 57% during the past year. DUST aims for triple daily opposite performance to gold mining stocks whereas GLL aims for double daily opposite performance to gold.
In a related bearish trade, the ProShares UltraShort Silver (ZSL), which aims for double daily opposite performance to silver, has also enjoyed a juicy one-year gain of 39.41%.
If history is any guide, then precious metals are in the midst of a deflationary cycle and still have further to fall.
Gold’s bubble likely started when its price made new highs above 2008’s peak and when it left most of the other commodities in the dust. Although gold remains higher today versus five years ago, most other commodities remain well below their peaks. The conclusion we can draw is that gold will need to move back to at least 2008 levels to relieve the bubble that was built the three years leading up to its 2011 top.
If the reason to own gold is for an inflation hedge, then the same logic should apply to other commodities and it would make equal sense they should perform similarly. But they haven’t.
A pullback to $1,000 would take gold prices back to 2009 levels. And judging by the collective underperformance of commodities, the translation is that the gold bubble has more room to deflate.