Gold's Positive Trend Was Not Sustainable
After falling to its cycle lows in July, the gold price had advanced nicely and last month we wondered whether the positive trend was sustainable. The short answer is: No, it wasn’t. In November, the gold price fell to new 5.5-year lows at $1,052 per ounce, as the U.S. Dollar Index1 (DXY) approached long-term highs. ended the month at $1,064.77 per ounce for a loss of $77.39 (6.8%).
On November 4, Bloomberg News reported that Federal Reserve (the "Fed") Chair Janet Yellen said an improving economy would set the stage for a December interest rate increase if economic reports continue to assure policymakers that inflation will accelerate over time. This set the tone for both gold and the U.S. dollar, which fell and rose, respectively, for the remainder of the month. A strong jobs report on November 6, followed by generally positive economic releases throughout the month enabled market consensus to gain momentum for a rate increase at the upcoming December 16 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. Gold bullion exchange-traded products (ETPs) saw 1.59 million ounces (49.3 tonnes) of redemptions in November which drove gold ETPs’ combined holdings to a new cycle low of 47.92 million ounces (1,490.3 tonnes).
Investors Ignored Strong Q3 Earnings
During November gold equity indices fell with the gold price and nearly met the lows set in July. The NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index2 (GDMNTR) declined 8.5%, while the Market Vectors Junior Gold Miners Index3(MVGDXJTR) fell 8.6%. Low gold prices caused investors to largely ignore the robust results of the third quarter earnings season. BMO Capital Markets reported free cash flow of $978 million from the North American senior miners, far surpassing expectations of $94 million. Scotiabank’s universe of senior and larger mid-caps had production that was 3% above expectations and all-in mining costs that were 8% lower than expected. The favorable results stemmed from operating efficiency, bear market pricing for materials and services, low local currency values, and low fuel prices. Many companies have indicated that there is still room to cut costs further. We now expect positive production results and cost-savings to continue in 2016.
Gold Has Unique Supply and Demand Drivers
Physical demand for gold bars, coins, and jewelry improved in the third quarter. The World Gold Council (WGC) reported that Q3 gold demand increased by 8% over Q2 and by 14% over last year. Year-to-date demand is up 3% versus the same period in 2014. The WGC reckons that there was a gold market deficit of 56.0 tonnes in Q3. The largest drivers of this strong demand were India and China, where demand increased 13% in each country which equates to a 58.0 tonne increase over Q2. Chinese demand continues as physical deliveries from the Shanghai Gold Exchange through November have now surpassed the record set in 2013.
Investors might wonder how Gold
Investment Demand vs. Physical Demand
For commodities other than gold, strong physical demand drives prices higher – prices follow demand. With gold, the current price drives physical demand – demand follows prices. Lower prices entice buyers in India and China. They also bring strong retail demand from the U.S. and Europe. This physical demand increases when prices drop, helping to stabilize prices. However, physical demand usually diminishes when prices increase.
Investment demand generates price strength in the gold market and a lack of investment demand characterizes bear markets. The motives that drive both physical and investment demand are the same – to utilize gold as a store of wealth and a hedge against currency weakness, tail risk4, or financial stress. However, investment demand manifests itself mainly in the futures market in New York and the over-the-counter market in London. These markets exert the largest influence on gold prices and they are driven more by macroeconomic, financial, and geopolitical events than by prices and supply/demand equations.
Gold ETPs are relatively transparent vehicles that we use as a proxy for broad investment demand. In Q3 global bullion ETPs had 63.0 tonnes of redemptions. This is probably a good indicator of weak investment demand in New York and London. It also lends better insight into price action than physical demand from China or elsewhere.
We believe that physical demand should play a larger role in price discovery, and maybe it eventually will as the Asian gold market grows and matures. In the meantime, the Chinese seem happy to accumulate all the gold the West cares to provide at low gold prices. Regardless of what we believe should happen, we make investment decisions based on what actually drives the market. This means investing in companies that can survive intact or gain an advantage if a lack of investment demand drives prices lower than expected.
Market Expectations and the Fed
Once again the markets are essentially convinced that the Fed will raise rates at the next FOMC meeting. Based on recent Fed comments, economic releases, and the level of expectations, we will be shocked if the Fed doesn’t raise rates. Rate rising cycles introduce risks to the economy and financial system and they often end badly. According to Gluskin Sheff5, a bull market in the S&P 500 Index6 has never ended after an initial rate hike. It’s a different story if the rate hikes keep coming. The stock market crashed in October 1987 after three rate hikes over five months. NASDAQ crashed in April 2000 after six rate hikes over 11 months. Rate increases are often a prelude to recessions, which become increasingly likely as the yield curve flattens or inverts (when short-term rates exceed long-term rates).
The Fed has never waited as long as five years into a bull market to begin to raise rates. A few reasons the Fed has been reluctant to pull the trigger:
- In the last four decades, the Fed has never raised rates when the Institute of Supply Management (ISM) Manufacturing Index7 was below 50, which signifies a manufacturing recession. The ISM Index is currently 48.6.
- How long can Fed policies diverge from the rest of the world where the central banks of Europe, China, Australia, and Japan are all easing to combat economic weakness?
- Every country that started a rate-hiking course after the Great Recession that ended in 2009 was ultimately forced to reverse course.
Hard to Say How Gold Will Respond
On November 2 as we watched Fed Chair Yellen address the Economic Club of Washington D.C., the U.S. Dollar Index approached a 12.5-year high while gold made a new 5.5-year low at $1,052 per ounce. With the dollar and gold at extreme levels, it seems the market has already priced in forthcoming rate hikes. credit
Gold has a similarly inconsistent reaction to rate increases, as shown in this excerpt from our March gold market update, written when the market was obsessed with the Fed’s rate decision, as it unfortunately still is: