Submitted by Joe Yasinski and Dan Flynn of GBI,
Part 1 of 3: What supply and demand? It’s all stock to flow these days.
Reading our title has us convinced that somewhere our college economics professors are hanging their heads in shame with all of those x and y graphs scribbled to no avail. Economists the world over can take comfort that the laws of supply and demand still largely rule the marketplace. However, we believe there is a noted exception for a yellow, largely useless metal. A metal that just happens to have shaped the world’s monetary systems for the last several thousand years. Gold’s “supply” traditionally defined as global mining production is virtually meaningless in determining its’ price. How can this be? Analysts pontificate that global supply dynamics are integral in forecasting future metal prices. We can only attribute this to the fact that these analysts still myopically cling to the view of gold as a commodity.
Gold, even when viewed as a commodity, is unique in that it is not consumed. As there is little cost effective industrial application for the yellow metal, little to no “natural” industrial demand exists. Virtually every ounce ever mined from the earth is still above ground, either in a vault or a safe or an earring. An estimated 170,000 metric tons sits above ground, hoarded and unambiguously owned. Given that the annual supply of mined gold is approximately 2,500 metric tons, how is it gold not priced close to zero? After all, there is a 65 year overhang in supply! Despite all that we know of supply and demand dynamics and economic ‘law’, gold’s price is within striking distance of its’ all-time-high – in every currency on the planet.
A major contributing factor to gold’s price is that the vast majority of the stock of physical gold is held in very strong hands. It is largely held privately by very wealthy families or by governments and their central banks. This gold lies very still, some of it not changing owners or locations for decades, if not centuries. These giant holders have little need to ever sell, holding gold as a long term store of wealth or as a central banking reserve asset. Gold naturally appeals to these super-savers because of gold’s history as the ultimate store of value and lack of counterparty. Sure you can buy real estate, art, or classic cars- and the extremely wealthy do. But beyond illiquidity and subjective risk, these assets can become cost centers in themselves with maintenance, storage, insurance, etc. Gold is universally recognized as a wealth asset but is also infinitely divisible, portable, and highly liquid. Gold’s value has been established over a millennia and is ultimately the asset that denominates or values all others.
Rather than supply in the traditional sense, what drives the gold price is the percentage of the existing stock (170,000 tons) that is available for sale on any given day. The percentage of available inventory for purchase is the “flow.” Divide the flow into the stock and you get the STF ratio. A low STF ratio indicates a very high percentage of the existing physical stock is available for sale and a very high number means owners prefer to hoard physical metal rather than exchange it for dollars. So for example, if every ounce of gold was put up for sale tomorrow, the STF ratio would go to one and the price would plummet, likely to near zero. But, what if instead of everyone selling their gold tomorrow, all existing physical owners of gold decided to keep it instead? Could this even happen? Doesn’t conventional wisdom and ‘economic law’ tell us that as the price of gold goes up, there are fewer buyers able to purchase and more sellers willing to dishoard?
In our opinion, conventional wisdom simply doesn’t apply here. Gold, in our opinion is what is often referred to as a Giffen good. A Giffen good is one that actually sees a spike in demand as its price rises. Conversely, demand drops along with price. While the concept of a Giffen good is well known, the number of examples in the real world are slim and usually limited to localized commodity markets in extremis. A golden, glaring exception is the massive example playing out before our very eyes. In typical Giffen behavior, gold was scorned and dishoarded by individuals as well as central banks as the price hovered in the low 100’s. Fast forward to today and gold demand is at to or close to all time highs, even as the price sets new records in currencies around the world.
Many prominent members of the gold community insist that gold is going to appreciate massively because of a huge flood of investment dollars will flow into the metal over the next several years. They may very well be right, and we at GBI certainly hope so. But we can see things developing differently as well. We believe that a massive revaluation of gold denominated in dollars can happen quite suddenly, almost overnight. But not because of any sustained long term demand for gold, but simply because owners of metal simply withdraw it from sale, sending the stock to flow ratio to infinity. This is why understanding gold’s stock to flow ratio is so vital.
Can you imagine a manufacturer of automobiles (or any producer of a good with a declining marginal utility) deciding to just sit on his newly manufactured automobiles and let them stock up in perpetuity or would he offer them for sale, for as many dollars as he can get? Of course he would sell for dollars because he must monetize his production. As with almost every commodity, widget, or car – the suppy/demand dynamics are fairly straight forward. The manufacturer needs to exchange those automobiles for cash or they’re worth nothing to him. For a holder of gold, there is no need to exchange his stock for dollars, especially if there is an avalanche of dollars pursuing that stock of metal.
If the dollar avalanche comes, can you imagine a massive owner of gold – perhaps a central bank in a surplus nation or billionaire family, preferring to stockpile gold as a reserve eschewing the current offer of dollars? Or do you see these savvy economic actors dishoarding their store of value in exchange for quickly devaluing dollars (like the auto manufacturer)? Once you can see why one makes sense and another doesn’t, you’re on your way to understanding how gold is priced and how major pricing moves can have almost nothing to do with traditional supply/demand dynamics. There never needs to be a massive flow of dollars into gold for it to go unimaginably higher. Existing owners need only remove their stock from sale. And tying it back to Giffen, when physical gold goes into “hiding” the demand of people bidding with their dollars will increase in proportion to the increasing price.
It’s useful to understand the concept that dollars bid for assets. When dollars bid to buy a stock over and over (high velocity) the price goes up. If all dollars stopped bidding for AAPL the price goes to zero. In reality, dollars value Apple stock. Gold is a unique asset in that it denominates, or values currencies. Dollars don’t bid for gold. Gold bids for dollars. If you’re having a hard time with this idea, think of an extreme, like Weimar Germany or Zimbabwe. A gold owner accepts or rejects a sum of dollars as a suitable trade for their metal. When they reject this bid, it drives the STF ratio higher and higher. Why would gold holders cease to bid for dollars? For the same reasons we all hoard gold, as protection of real purchasing power from a failing fiat currency. Where will the flow come from? Central banks certainly aren’t selling anytime soon, ditto for our fine Asian friends. On a micro-level, we have seen recently in places like Greece and Spain that there is a finite quantity of gold that flows into the market when times get tough. What happens when the citizens run out of gold bangles to sell and everyone else starts hoarding? On a macro-level, what happens when surplus nations no longer save in US dollars and instead save in gold? What happens if the “flow” of gold slows to a trickle, or even stops all together? We can easily paint a multitude of scenarios that don’t require all that much imagination. Will dollars frantically chase after gold? Perhaps, but will the holders of gold bid for those dollars? What will that imply about the dollars purchasing power relative to others goods and services?
It is up to the reader to decide which of the two following turn of events is more likely. Is it more likely that the human superorganism will come to the realization that their dollars are being debased and gradually steer more and more of their assets into gold or is it more likely that existing owners of gold, who long ago came to the same conclusion and likely purchased gold to hedge that very outcome, will first choose to remove theirs from sale?
The answer lies in this question, who values gold higher? The new incremental buyer, or the existing owner? Sure, we could get to astronomical gold prices through a flood of new buyers, but we could have an even more dramatic move overnight if existing gold owners cease bidding for dollars with their gold. Or, maybe, some combination of the two. The only problem for a new investor is one of those scenarios can play out over years while the other can happen virtually overnight.
What happens to the “price” of gold when it ceases bidding for dollars? Zero. Or infinity. Take your pick.
We have some ideas about why this hasn’t happened to date, and how you may be able to identify a S-T-F ratio to infinity unfolding before our very eyes.