Bitcoin is a bubble, a way to speculate and not the future of money

The actual writing of this piece took around six hours, though I have been thinking on this issue for at least the past nine years since I started writing my Easy Money book. I have been told that the backlash from the bitcoins believers will be huge. All feedback is welcome, as long as you don’t abuse. And if you choose to abuse at least read the piece first. You will be able to abuse better.

 Bulbulon ko abhi intezar karne do. (Let the bubbles wait for now).
— Gulzar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Usha Uthup and Rekha Bhardwaj in 7 Khoon Maaf.

Let’s start this one with a small story.

Salvador Dalí was a famous painter who lived through much of the twentieth century. He was a pioneering figure in what is known as Surrealism.

Other than being a fantastic painter, Dalí was also a sharp businessman. The story goes that once Dalí had treated some friends at an expensive New York restaurant. When the time to pay for the meal came, Dalí instead of paying in dollars, like anyone else would have, decided to carry out a small experiment.

On the back of the cheque Dalí had signed to pay for the expensive meal, he drew a sketch in his inimitable style. He signed it and handed it to the waiter. The waiter passed it on to the manager.

The manager realised the value of what Dalí had given him and decided to frame the cheque and hang it on the wall, making sure that anyone who came to the restaurant saw it.

Of course, this meant that Dalí’s cheque wasn’t encashed and he didn’t really have to pay in dollars for the expensive meal he had taken his friends out for.

This trick worked for Dalí. He was delighted and he used the same trick at different New York restaurants to pay for meals. The managers of all these different restaurants framed the cheque and hung it on one of the walls in their restaurants, so that everybody who came to the restaurant could see and realise that the famous painter Salvador Dalí had dined at the same place as they were.

This interesting story is recounted by Mauro F Guillén in his book 2030—How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything: “

Now what was happening here? If I can state this in simple English, Salvador Dalí, had turned his art into money. As Guillén writes:

“The money offered to pay for the meals was never deposited, as the cheques were transformed into artworks and took on a separate life. For Dalí, this maneuver was a stroke of genius. He could print his own money (his drawings had value), and people were willing to accept it as a form of payment.”

The trouble was Dalí went overboard and paid for one too many meals using this trick. In the end, the restaurant managers wised up and Dalí probably had to start paying real dollars for the expensive meals he took his friends out for.

What’s the moral of this story? Anyone can create his or her own money as long as others are willing to accept it, though one thing needs to be kept in mind. As Guillén writes: “As with national currencies, any money can be felled by the laws of supply and demand, as an excessive supply depreciates its worth and reduces people’s willingness to use it.”

What Dalí ended up doing in a very small way, governments have done over and over again, over the centuries. They have gone overboard with printing money and spending it, created high inflation, as too much has chased the same set of goods and services, and in the process destroyed the prevailing form of money. (If you are interested in details, I would suggest that you read my Easy Money trilogy).

Dear Reader, you must be wondering by now why am I recounting this story in a piece which is headlined to be about the bitcoin bubble. Have some patience, everything will become clear very soon. Read on.

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Bitcoin is a digital currency that does not use banks or any third party as a medium or at least that is how it is conventionally defined. It is governed by a string of cryptographical codes, which are believed to be military grade and very tough to break.

The price of a bitcoin has rallied big-time over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January. As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599.

One of the core selling points of bitcoins as well as its raison d’être is that unlike paper money they cannot be created out of thin air. The number of bitcoins is finite and the code behind it is so written that they cannot go beyond a limit of 21 million tokens.

Interestingly, mining, or the generation of a bitcoin, happens when a computer solves a complex algorithm. Anyone can try to mine bitcoins, but with a finite number being generated at regular intervals and with an increase in the number of people joining the mining race, it has become increasingly difficult to solve the algorithm and generate bitcoins.

As of January 11, 2021, the number of bitcoins in circulation stood at 18.6 million units. The rate at which bitcoins are being created has slowed down over the years and the last fraction of the 21 millionth bitcoin will be created only in 2140.

The larger point here is that unlike the paper money system (or to put it slightly more technically the fiat money system) which can be manipulated by central banks and the governments, the bitcoin system can’t.

Hence, there is an overall limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created. This is the main logic offered in support of buying and owning bitcoins. Unlike central banks or governments or Salvador Dalí (in case you are still wondering why I started with that story), money in the form of bitcoin cannot be created out of thin air and beyond a certain limit.

In fact, this core idea/message at the heart of the bitcoin was built into the first fifty coins, now known as the genesis block, created by Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious inventor behind it. The beauty of bitcoin is that even not knowing who really Nakamoto is, doesn’t impact the way the system he created, works.

The genesis block contained a headline from The Times newspaper published in London dated January 3, 2009. The headline was: “Chancellor on brink of second bail-out for banks”. The headline and the date are permanently embedded into the bitcoin data.

As Nakamoto wrote on a message board in February 2009: “The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work… The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”

Bitcoin was supposed to be this grand idea meant to save the world from the way the central banks and governments manipulate the paper money system. As William Quinn and John D Turner write in Boom and Bust—A Global History of Financial Bubbles: “To its advocates, bitcoin was the money of the future: it could not be devalued through inflation by a central bank, you could spend it on anything without having to worry about government interference or taxes, and it cut out the middleman, namely commercial banks.”

The question is, in these times of easy money, has bitcoin reached anywhere near its original goal or is it just another way of pure speculation.

Let’s look at this pointwise.

1) Here is a chart of the price of bitcoin in dollars since July 18, 2010 (I couldn’t find the price of bitcoin before this in the public domain, hence, the random date).


Source: https://in.investing.com/crypto/bitcoin/historical-data

It doesn’t take rocket science to understand that if you have been a long-term investor in bitcoin, you would have made shitloads of money by now. But the fundamental question is, is bitcoin money or even the future of money, as it is made out to be, by those who are in love with it, or is it simply another form of speculation.

One of the key characteristics of money is that it is a store of value. The recent rally in bitcoin has led to many bitcoin believers telling us that bitcoin is a store of value. This comes from a very shaky understanding of what the term store of value actually means.

A store of value basically means that something has a stable value over time. As Jacob Goldstein writes in Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing: “If $100 buys your family a week’s worth of groceries today, there is a very good chance it will buy approximately a week’s worth of groceries a year from now. The dollar is a good store of value (it tends to lose about 2 percent of its value every year).”

Let’s look at what has happened to bitcoin over the last few months. It rose from a little over $10,000 per bitcoin in early September 2020 to more than $40,000 per bitcoin in early January 2021.

As of January 8, 2021, the price of bitcoin touched an all-time high of $40,599. As I write this early in the morning on January 14, 2021, the price of a bitcoin is around $37,329. The price has fallen by 8% in a little over five days’ time. So, where is the stability of value? And this isn’t a one-off event. Bitcoin has moved rapidly up and down on many occasions.

But this is a very simple point. Here’s the more complicated point . The price of a bitcoin as of September 5, 2020, was $ 10,092. On January 8, 2021, it reached $40,599, a rise of 302% in a matter of a little over four months.

If bitcoin really was money, using which we could make and receive payments and borrow and lend, the recent rally would have created a havoc in the economy.

What does the rise in the value of any form of money really mean? It means that the price of everything that money can buy is falling. And in this case prices would have fallen big-time. As Goldstein puts it: “This rise in the value of bitcoin would have caused a deflation far worse than the one in the Great Depression.” Deflation is the scenario of falling prices and is deemed to be dangerous because people keep postponing their consumption in the hope of getting a lower price. This hurts businesses and the overall economy.

Now take a look at the following chart which plots the price of a bitcoin in dollars between December 2017 and December 2018.

Source: https://in.investing.com/crypto/bitcoin/historical-data

The price of a bitcoin as on December 16, 2017, was $19,345. A year later on December 15, 2018, it had fallen by 83% to around $3,229. What would this have meant if bitcoin really was money? It would mean that the price of money has fallen and hence, the price of other things has gone up. In this case, it would mean very high inflation, even hyperinflation.

In its current form, bitcoin is no store of value. If it was to be used as money, the world would hyperventilate between deflation and inflation.

2) Another key characteristic of money is that it is a medium of exchange or to put it in simple English, it can be used to buy things (like Dalí bought meals at expensive restaurants).

According to financial services company Fundera 2,352 American businesses, accept bitcoins as a payment. The United States is the mecca of bitcoin believers. As per the US Census Bureau there were around 7.7 million companies in the US with at least one paid employee. This statistic doesn’t inspire much confidence. Barely anyone takes payments in bitcoins even in the United States.

Of course, it takes time for any new form of money to be adopted, but for something that has been around for 12 years, the rate of adoption seems quite poor.

Personally, I don’t know of any business that accepts bitcoin as a payment in India. Maybe, there is some coffee shop in Bengaluru that does. Dear reader, if you know of it, do let me know.

3) The bitcoin believers like to compare it with gold. The reason gold has acted as a hedge against the proclivity of the governments and central banks to create paper money out of thin air, is that it cannot be created out of thin air. While alchemists, which included Isaac Newton as well, have tried this over the centuries, no one has been successful in developing a chemical formula that converts other metals into gold. Bitcoin works because of a similar dynamic, the believers tell us. There is a limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created and as time passes by it becomes more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. That’s how the code behind bitcoin is written.

But the thing is that the code behind bitcoin is freely available. Anyone can take it and tweak it and come up with a new kind of money. Over the years this has happened and many of these new forms of money have ended up as shitcoins.

As Quinn and Turner write:

“In August 2016, one bitcoin was trading at $555; in the next 16 months its price rose by almost 3,400 per cent to a peak of $19,783.3 This was accompanied by a promotion boom, as a mix of cryptocurrency enthusiasts and opportunistic charlatans issued their own virtual currencies in the form of initial coin offerings, or ICOs. These coins had, on the face of it, no intrinsic value – to entitle their holders to future cash flows would have violated laws against issuing unregistered securities – but they nevertheless attracted $6.2 billion of money from investors in 2017 and a further $7.9 billion in 2018.”

A lot of this money never came back to the investors. There is no way to make sure that this won’t happen in the future.

Also, at a broader level, a free market in money is a bad idea. The United States went through this situation sometime in the nineteenth century (Something I discuss in detail in the first volume of Easy Money). It was very easy to get a banking license and banks could print their own money.

As Goldstein writes: “Not all banks were shady. Not even most banks were shady. But the notes printed by the shady banks looked as legit as the notes printed by the honest banks. And there were a lot of notes—at one point, the Chicago Tribune reported that the country had 8,370 different kinds of paper money in circulation.” Imagine the confusion this would have created.

It was also easy for counterfeiters to manufacture their own paper money. In this scenario, a guide called Leonori’s New York Bank Note List, Counterfeit Detector, and Wholesale Prices Current was published once a month. An issue of this guide, dated 18 November 1854, shows that 1,276 such banks were in operation in various states and 825 different kinds of forged notes were in circulation. The financial system was in a total anarchy.

While it is easy to make a case for a non-government decentralised money system, what may lie in store isn’t something we may want in the first place. The sad part is very little thinking has happened on this front. Saying, let the best money win is a very insensitive way to go about it.

4) The bitcoin code which limits their number to 21 million units is written in C++. As Sean Williams writes on Fool.com: “Last I checked, code can always be erased and rewritten. While it’s unlikely that a community consensus would be reached to increase the circulating supply of bitcoin, the possibility of this happening isn’t zero.” Anyway this possibility isn’t going to arise until 2140, when the last fraction of the bitcoin will be mined, and by then you and I, won’t be around. So, it doesn’t really matter.


5)
Let’s talk a little more about paper money. Why do others accept it as money? Because they know that the government bank/central bank deems it to be money and hence, still others will accept it as money as well.

As L Randall Wray writes in Modern Money Theory – A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems:
The typical answer provided in textbooks is that you will accept your national currency because you know that others will accept it. In other words, it is accepted because it is accepted. The typical explanation thus relies on an ‘infinite regress’: John accepts it because he thinks Mary will accept it, and she accepts it because she thinks Walmart will take it.”

While this sounds correct there is a slightly more nuanced answer to the question.

There are three main powers that any government has: 1) The right to “legal” violence. 2) The right to tax. 3) The right to create money out of thin air by printing it.

As Wray writes:

“One of the most important powers claimed by sovereign government is the authority to levy and collect taxes (and other payments made to government, including fees and fines). Tax obligations are levied in the national money of account: Dollars in the United States, Canada, and Australia; Yen in Japan; Yuan in China; and Pesos in Mexico. Further, the sovereign government also determines what can be delivered to satisfy the tax obligation. In most developed nations, it is the government’s own currency that is accepted in payment of taxes.”

What does this mean?

As Wray puts it:

“Ultimately, it is because anyone with tax obligations can use currency to eliminate these liabilities that government currency is in demand, and thus can be used in purchases or in payment of private obligations. The government cannot easily force others to use its currency in private payments, or to hoard it in piggybanks, but government can force use of currency to meet the tax obligations that it imposes… It is the tax liability (or other obligatory payments) that stands behind the curtain.”

Hence, the government creates demand for paper/fiat money by accepting taxes in it. This has ensured that the paper money system has kept going despite its weaknesses.

What this also means is that for bitcoin to become popular and move beyond the nerds, it needs a use case as solid as paying taxes in what government deems to be money, is.

It is worth remembering here what Wray writes: “For the past 4,000 years (“at least”, as Keynes put it), our monetary system has been a “state money system”. To simplify, that is one in which the state chooses the money of account, imposes obligations (taxes, tribute, tithes, fines, and fees), denominated in that money unit, and issues a currency accepted in payment of those obligations.”

This is not to say that governments haven’t destroyed money systems in the past. The history of money is littered with examples of kings, queens, rulers, dictators, general secretaries and politicians, representing governments in different eras, having destroyed different money systems at different points of time. But the government has always comeback and controlled the money system the way it has wanted to.

And unless governments and central banks start taking a liking to bitcoin, there is no way its usage is going to spread to a level where it can hope to challenge the prevailing paper money system. It is worth remembering that if governments start taking interest in bitcoin, it in a way beats the entire purpose behind its creation.

Also, every government will want to protect its right to create money out of thin air. Right now bitcoin is too small in the overall scheme of things for governments to be bothered about it and hence, they have largely humoured it (not in India though).

The market capitalisation of bitcoins (number of coins multiplied by the dollar price) as of January 8, peaked at around $759 billion. The global GDP in 2019 was around $88 trillion. So the price of bitcoin even at its peak was lower than 1% of the global GDP.

Hence, the bitcoin story is like that of a rich Indian father basically allowing his son to play around, until he thinks that the son now needs to grow up.

6) There is another point that needs to be made here regarding the paper money system. This is something I realised while writing the third volume of Easy Money  and it makes me sceptical of anyone who wants to write off the paper money system in a hurry. (Before you jump on me for being a blanket supporter of the paper money system, I am not, but then that doesn’t mean I don’t see logical arguments when they are offered).

Many years back, in one of my first freelancing assignments, I happened to interview the financial historian Russel Napier. He explained to me the link between paper money and democracy. As he told me on that occasion:

“The history of the paper currency system, or the fiat currency system is really the history of democracy … Within the metal currency, there was very limited ability for elected governments to manipulate that currency. And I know this is why people with savings and people with money like the gold standard. They like it because it reduces the ability of politicians to play around with the quantity of money. But we have to remember that most people don’t have savings. They don’t have capital. And that’s why we got the paper currency in the first place. It was to allow the democracies. Democracy will always turn towards paper currency and unless you see the destruction of democracy in the developed world, and I do not see that, we will stay with paper currencies and not return to metallic currencies or metallic-based currencies.”

Back then bitcoin wasn’t really on the radar. The reason people with savings liked gold back then, is why many of them like bitcoins now.

The twentieth century saw the rise of both paper money and democracy. Pure paper money started coming into being after the First World War. The reason for this is very straightforward. In a democracy whenever there is a crisis, the politicians and the technocrats advising them need to be seen to be doing something.

As an ex-RBI Governor once told me, do nothing cannot be a strategy. And this need to be seen to be doing something, can most easily be fulfilled by manipulating the paper money system that prevails in a democracy. It gives central bankers the option of printing money and driving down interest rates in the hope that people will borrow and spend more and businesses will borrow and expand.

Of course, this has its own problems (as I keep highlighting in my pieces over and over again). But then, the prevailing system does really allow politicians to show that they are trying. Any other system would take this option away from politicians. Hence, the paper money system is not going to be replaced in a hurry. No government is going to let go of this privilege.

7) This is a slightly technical point, but I think it needs to be made. As I have mentioned through this piece, over the years it has become more and more difficult to mine bitcoins. Now bitcoin farms with giant racks of mining computers, are needed to mine bitcoins. The days when bitcoins could be mined using the processing power of a PC are long gone.

The bitcoin farms, as they are known as, need a lot of electricity. Hence, mining operations have moved to countries where electricity is cheap. They have moved to countries like Iceland, Mongolia and primarily, China.

This has created another problem. As Goldstein writes: “By the beginning of 2020, Chinese miners had grown so large that they controlled most of the processing power on the bitcoin network. And the way the code for bitcoin was written gave them control over the system.”

While, bitcoin might be a decentralised democratic system running on code, but it’s people who ultimately control the mining of bitcoins and hence, can direct its future.

So, will the future of bitcoin be driven by China? And if that turns out to be the case, what does this do to its chances of spreading as actual money, used in the selling and buying of things? There are no easy answers to these questions.

8) One of the key points of bitcoins was that it was a non-government decentralised money system which promised freedom from the middlemen. But that hasn’t really happened. As Quinn and Turner write: “[Bitcoin] had promised freedom from middlemen, but trading it without a third party was cumbersome unless the user was expert in cybersecurity.”

If you are using a broker to trade bitcoin it beats the entire idea of freedom from middlemen. Also, the moment you convert your money into fiat money and the money comes into your bank account, the entire idea of remaining unknown and the government not knowing what you are doing goes for a toss. Hence, you may have your reasons to buy bitcoins, but basically you are speculating.

9) You might want to ask why you haven’t heard all this in the mainstream media. The reason for that lies in the fact that the incentives of the media are misaligned these days. Most investment related news is presented as a money-making opportunity. Hence, in this case the bitcoin believers have gotten more space and screen time in the media.

Many of the bitcoin believers are like the original investors in a Ponzi scheme. They have an incentive to talk up bitcoin, get more investors into it, drive up its price and make more money in the process. (In fact, these are precisely the kind of stock market investors that you get to see on TV and read in the media most of the time, but that is another topic for another day).

Also, given the extremely short attention spans that people have these days, the written word doesn’t find much of an audience. As Quinn and Turner put it: “More fundamentally, the move away from the written word to television financial news, docusoaps and social media may corrode the ability of investors to think clearly and understand the complexities of the financial system.”

You cannot understand economic history and the complexities of the financial system by watching TV or watching stuff over the internet or even listening to extremely detailed podcasts (podcasts can just give you a flavour of things and a feeling that you are actually learning a lot). The only way to understand complex issues is to read, read and read more.

In an era of short attention spans, bitcoins are just the right asset to speculate on. Their price goes up or falls even before you can say Virat Kohli. (This is another reason to support my writing).

10) We live in an era of easy money. Central banks have printed trillions of dollars during the course of 2020 to drive down interest rates in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend and businesses to borrow and expand. Interest rates are in negative territory in some of the European nations.

In this scenario of very low interest rates, investors are desperate to earn returns. Hence, a lot of money has been invested into stock markets all over the world, driving them to levels not justified by earnings that companies are expected to earn in the years to come.

Some money has also found its way into bitcoins. As The Economist puts it: “The current surge seems to have been spurred by interest from the financial establishment, most of which had long scorned it.” In simple English, hedge funds are buying bitcoins. Given that bitcoins are thinly traded, this has driven up prices by astonishing levels. Hence, like stock markets, bitcoin is also in bubble territory.

And as we have seen over the past few decades, hedge fund money can be quite mercurial. They can drive down prices faster than they drove them up.

To conclude, the fact that the price of bitcoin is so volatile tells us that most people investing in it aren’t really bothered about the long-term story of bitcoin as money, the bitcoin believers try selling all the time. If they did believe in this story they would have bought bitcoin and held on to it. But as the crash of 2018 showed that is clearly not the case.

As Saifedean Ammous writes in The Bitcoin Standard, the bible of the bitcoin believers:

“Buying a Bitcoin token today can be considered an investment in the fast growth of the network and currency as a store of value, because it is still very small and able to grow many multiples of its size and value very quickly. Should Bitcoin’s share of the global money supply and international settlement transactions become a majority share of the global market, the level of demand for it will become far more predictable and stable, leading to a stabilization in the value of the currency.”

(Ha ha, this is to show that I also read stuff I don’t really agree with).

I am not clairvoyant. This may happen. This may not happen. My reading of economic history tells me it won’t. But then I might turn out to be wrong. What do they say about history not repeating itself but rhyming? But what if it doesn’t rhyme as well?

There are no guarantees when it comes to economics. The trouble is that while you are waiting for all this to happen, the price of a bitcoin is at the level of a very very very very expensive large cap stock and its volatility is that of a small cap penny stock.

So, if you do invest in bitcoin, do understand that you are taking a punt, you are speculating, you are hoping that the price goes up and does not fall. Also, don’t go looking for fundamental reasons for investing in it.

Given that investing in bitcoin is equal to taking a punt, please don’t bet your life on it. As the old cliché goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

PS: This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in digital money. I do. But I also believe that it will be controlled by large corporations and the governments.

The Orwellian Economics of Modi Govt

George_Orwell_press_photo

Almost, every other day I get an email or an sms from banks asking me to link my accounts and my Aadhar number.

The email typically says: “The Prevention of Money Laundering (Maintenance of Records) Rules, 2005 (“PML Rules 2005”) have been amended with effect from June 1, 2017 to require Aadhaar for every bank account. All existing Bank accounts have to be verified with Aadhaar by the banks by 31st December,2017, failing which the accounts will become inoperative.”

At the same time, a mobile phone company also sends out reminders at regular intervals asking me to link my phone number with my Aadhar number. The couple of times I visited their office in the recent past, I have been reminded of the same.

The last time I logged on to an airline website to carry out a web-checkin, I was asked for my Aadhar number, though this was optional.

When I applied for an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for my last book, I was asked for my Aadhar number. An Aadhar number is now required for access to a whole host of government welfare programmes. The idea is to ensure that only those who genuinely qualify for the programme have access to it.

On the whole, the idea seems to be to use Aadhar to identify those people who are not paying their share of income tax, by figuring out their spending patterns.

On August 23, 2017, a notification was introduced which brought jewellers with a turnover of more than Rs 2 crore, under the Prevent of Money Laundering Act.

The limit for reporting transactions under the Act is at Rs 50,000. Basically, anyone using cash to buy gold jewellery over Rs 50,000 had to show his or her PAN card. Before this, since December 2015, anyone buying gold above Rs 2 lakh, had to show a PAN card.
With the August notification, the limit for showing the PAN card was lowered from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 50,000. Recently, the August 23 notification was rescinded. In doing so, the limit till which gold could be bought in cash without providing any identification jumped up again to Rs 2 lakh.

This, brings multiple questions to the fore. First and foremost, when every bank account holder needs to link his bank account to the Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash. When every mobile phone user is being pestered to link his mobile number to his Aadhar number, why doesn’t the same rule apply to anyone buying gold using cash.

If it is important to clearly identify bank accounts and mobile numbers, it is also important to clearly identify who is buying gold. The question that arises here is that who buys gold in cash.

As the report titled A Study in Widening of Tax Base and Tackling Black Money produced by the business lobby FICCI points out: “The black money holders invest in bullion and Jewellery to protect the value of their black money from inflationary depreciation. Cash sales in the gold and Jewellery trade gives the buyer an option to convert black money into gold and Jewellery, while it gives the trader the option of keeping his unaccounted wealth in the form of stock, not disclosed in the books or valued at less than market price.”

The point being those who have black money like to buy gold in its various forms, using cash. If cash sales of gold need to be attacked it is important that some sort of identity of the individual buying gold be established.

Nevertheless, the Narendra Modi government doesn’t seem to think like that. Different rules for different people. As George Orwell writes towards the end of his brilliant book Animal Farm: “There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

The column was originally published in the Bangalore Mirror on October 11, 2017.

Gold Imports Surge: Are People Hedging the Risk of Another Demonetisation by Converting Black Money into Gold?

gold

The impact of demonetisation has played out in many ways. Here is one more way: The gold imports between April and July 2017 have been nearly 2.7 times the gold imports during the same period last year.

Let’s take a look at Figure 1 which plots gold imports (in Kgs) over the last few financial years.

Figure 1: 

It is clear from Figure 1 that the gold imports have jumped up big time between April to July 2017, in comparison to last year. In fact, they are the second highest in the last five years. Take a look at Figure 2. Figure 2 plots the money spent on importing gold over the last five years.

Figure 2: 

Even in value terms significantly more gold has been imported this year than last year. The price of gold during the period April to July 2017, averaged at $1257.9 per ounce (one troy ounce equals 31.1 grams). During the same period last year, the price of gold had averaged at $1291.3 per ounce, which was slightly higher.

How do things look if we look at the calendar year instead of the financial year? Between January and July 2017, the total amount of gold imported stands at 6, 61,836 kgs. Between January and July 2016, this had stood at 3,11,938kgs. There is a clear jump in this case as well. In fact, the interesting thing is that the import of gold has been concentrated during the first five months of the calendar year, immediately after demonetisation.

What does this tell us? When and why do people actually buy gold?

The history of economics tells us that people buy gold when the faith in official paper money (in this case the Indian rupee) is low. Take the case of the period between April to July 2013. A lot of gold was bought during this period. The rate of consumer price inflation was at 9-10 per cent. Given this, a section of the population had lost faith in the Indian rupee and was hedging against inflation and buying gold.

What is happening this time around? This time around Indians are buying gold because in the aftermath of demonetisation which was carried out in November 2016, there is a feeling that the government might do it again. Given this, a portion of the black money which was held in the form of cash earlier, is now simply being converted into gold. This seems like the most logical explanation for this surge. The lower price argument doesn’t really hold because prices this year have been more or less similar to prices last year.

Of course, gold is easy to store and has never gone out of fashion. Hence, it can easily be converted into cash at any point of time.

In 2013-2014, people had lost confidence in paper money because of extremely high inflation. This time around, people have lost faith in paper money because of demonetisation. Hence, they are buying gold.

As Indians bought gold in 2013-2014 and a lot of it (close to 4,20,000 kgs, during the first four months of that financial year, as Figure 1 suggests), the demand for dollars went up. India imports almost all of the gold that it consumes. Hence, it buys gold internationally in dollars. As the demand for dollars went up, importers sold rupees and bought dollars. In the process, the rupee lost value rapidly against the dollar.

In April 2013, one dollar was worth Rs 54.23. By August 2013, it was worth Rs 67.4. The rupee simply crashed during the period. It is worth asking here that why a similar situation does not prevail right now. Why hasn’t the rupee crashed like it did when people bought lots of gold between April and July 2013?

This is because while Indians are buying gold, a lot of dollars continue to come to India through the foreign institutional investors route. These investors continue to invest in the Indian stock market and the debt market. Between April and July 2017, the foreign institutional investors have invested a little over Rs 95,000 crore in the stock and the debt market. The foreign institutional investors sell dollars and buy rupees in order to invest in the stock and the debt market. This demand for the Indian rupee has ensured that the dollar has remained stable against the rupee at around Rs 64. Hence, the demand for rupees among these investors is negating the demand for dollars among gold importers. This has led to a stable value of the rupee against the dollar.

What had happened between April and July 2013? While, the demand for gold was very high, the foreign institutional investors were selling out of India. During the period, they encashed close to Rs 27,000 crore from the stock and the debt market. In fact, the foreign institutional investors sold stocks and debt worth over Rs 60,000 crore between June and July 2013.

In order to repatriate this money abroad, they had to sell these rupees and buy dollars. This along with heavy gold buying, which was accompanied by selling of rupees and buying of dollars, pushed up the demand for the dollar, and drove down the value of the rupee.

This essentially explains why the value of the rupee had crashed in 2013-2014, and has remained stable during this financial year. Nevertheless, people are buying gold because their faith in the Indian rupee has gone down and they clearly want to hedge against the risk of another round of demonetisation.

(The column was originally published on Equitymaster on September 19, 2017).

Why Mumbaikars bought gold all night long on a weekday

goldGold is money.

It has always been money.

Nobody knows this better than us Indians. Our love for the yellow metal comes out in the way we hoard it. And this faith in gold was at display all night long yesterday in Mumbai.

The question is what brought out Mumbaikars to buy gold on a non-festive day? The answer is Narendra Modi.

In a late evening TV address to the nation prime minister Narendra Modi banned the use of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 as legal tender. This essentially made a little more than 86 per cent of notes practically useless overnight.

Anyone who has Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes can deposit them in his or her bank account or post office account, up until December 30, 2016. This money will be
credited into the bank or post office account.

Nevertheless, these notes can be exchanged only up to a total of Rs 4,000 as cash. This limit has been set for a period of 15 days and it will be reviewed after that. People who have always declared their income and paid taxes on time, have nothing to worry about. All they need to do is just go to a bank or post office and deposit the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes they have. The money will be credited into their accounts, which they can later withdraw through ATMs/cheques.

Nevertheless, this move of the Modi government, has created trouble for those who have black money in the form of cash or notes. Black money is essentially unaccounted money which has been earned but on which tax has not been paid. If the holders of black money were to deposit it in their bank account, it would probably lead to questions from the income tax department regarding the origin of the money.

If they were to continue to keep it under their mattresses, the money would become useless overnight. Hence, the next best thing to do was to convert that money into a physical asset, which would continue to hold value. Of course, physical assets like land or flats or paintings cannot be bought overnight.

But there are no such problems in buying gold. It is practically available everywhere in the city. All one needs to do is to step out and buy it. And this precisely what Mumbaikars who had black money in the form of cash did late last night.

They exchanged their Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes for gold and ensured that their black money continued to hold value. Also, no identification documents need to be shown for gold purchases of up to Rs 2 lakh. This makes converting black money into gold an easy proposition. Further, those with black money always have the option of buying gold from multiple jewellers in order to avoid showing identification documents. Hence, people were essentially busy converting their black money into gold.

As per the government notification Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 were not supposed to be a legal tender post-midnight. But the city jewellers seemed to have overlooked this technicality and carried on with brisk business late into the night. This was a good opportunity for them to earn some money, in what has been an otherwise slow year for them.

Of course, the money that they earned during the night and all the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes that they managed to accumulate, must be deposited into their bank accounts, to make sure that it continues to hold value. If they don’t do that they will essentially end up holding worthless pieces of paper.

And once the money is deposited into a bank account, it will essentially mean that the black money of Mumbaikars will be converted into white money of the jewellers on which an income tax will have to be paid. This in a rather circuitous way will be a good thing to happen.

The column originally appeared in the Midday on November 9, 2016

The United States is Helping China Buy Gold

gold

In June 2015, China declared having bought 604.34 tonnes of gold. It’s last declaration before this had come in April 2009, when it had declared to having bought 454 tonnes of gold.

It couldn’t have bought such a huge amount of gold all at once given the limited supply of the yellow metal. Between April 2009 and June 2015, China regularly bought gold. It only declared it all at once in June 2015. The country had followed a similar strategy before April 2009, as well. It had last declared having bought 99.5 tonnes of gold in December 2002.

Hence, even though China has been buying gold all along, it has chosen to do so quietly, instead of going public with it. The reason for this was fairly straightforward. Gold is a thinly traded commodity, and hence, it makes sense for China to keep accumulating gold at a slow and regular pace, without making its intentions public and driving up the price.

Having said that since June 2015, there has been a change in strategy. Between July 2015 and February 2016 (the latest data that is available) the country has been making monthly declarations of the purchases it has been making.

These purchases vary from a minimum of 9.95 tonnes in February 2016 to a maximum of 20.84 tonnes in November 2016. Officially, China now has 1,788.4 tonnes of gold. It is the sixth largest gold owner in the world.

 

Tonnes% of reserves**
1United States8,133.575.3%
2Germany3,381.069.0%
3IMF2,814.0 
4Italy2,451.868.3%
5France2,435.663.2%
6China1,788.42.2%
7Russia1,447.015.1%
8Switzerland1,040.06.8%
9Japan765.22.4%
10Netherlands612.559.4%
11India557.76.2%

Source: www.gold.org

While in absolute terms 1,788.4 tonnes of gold sounds quite a lot, when it comes to gold as a percentage of reserves, the country still needs to catch up with other countries. As can be seen from the above table, China’s gold hoard as a percentage of its reserves is the lowest among the top eleven hoarders of gold.

While officially China may have 1,788.4 tonnes of gold, experts who are in the know of such things, suggest, that China has more gold than it is currently showing.

As James Rickards writes in The New Case for Gold: “The most interesting case is China…We know from various reliable sources including mining production and import statistics that their actual gold stock is close to 4000 tonnes. I’ve spoken to refineries and secure logistics firms—people who actually handle physical gold—in addition to official sources, and included their information in my estimates. On the whole, there is enough credible information available to support this estimate at a minimum. It is also entirely possible that China has considerably more than 4000 tonnes.”

So what this means is that the Chinese government’s real gold hoard is at least 2.2 times its official one.

In fact, Rickards in his book The Death of Money explains how China has gone about accumulating gold over the years. The country buys gold through secret agents based out of London. These agents are known to be very disciplined, and they buy gold whenever the gold price falls significantly. The gold these agents buy is paid for by the State Administration for Foreign Exchange (SAFE), one of China’s sovereign wealth funds.

The gold bought by SAFE is later transferred to the People’s Bank of China, the Chinese central bank. China also buys gold from mines directly. During April to June 2013, when the price of gold had reached a low of $1,200 per ounce, the country bought 600 tonnes of gold directly from Australia’s Perth Mint.

Also, China is now the largest producer of gold in the world. The disadvantage with China’s gold production is that it does not really have any big gold mines and a lot of gold that it produces comes as a by-product in the mining of other base metals. The Chinese government buys gold from the mines within China but does not report these buys. These reasons also explain why China’s gold hoard is actually significantly bigger than what it is telling the world.

In fact, China’s gold hoard maybe more than 4000 tonnes because Rickards seems to have made this estimate in July 2015, when China’s official gold hoard was at 1,658 tonnes. Since then, the number has officially risen to 1,788.4 tonnes.

The question is why is China buying gold? As Rickards explains in The New Case for Gold: “China’s acquisition of more than three thousand tonnes of gold in the past seven years represents almost 10 percent of all the official gold in the world…China is trying to acquire enough gold so that when the international monetary collapse comes and the world has to recut the deal, China will have a prime seat at the table. Countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, with small gold-to-GDP ratios will be seated away from the table.”

Currently, the global financial system revolves around the dollar. Given that so much of it has been printed (or rather created digitally) in the last few years, there is the threat of the current financial system collapsing due to high inflation.

When the time for the new financial system comes around, China wants to be in the driver’s seat along with the United States, Germany and Russia, countries which have a significant amount of gold.

It needs to be mentioned here that China owns a significant amount of US treasury securities. These are bonds issued by the US government to finance its fiscal deficit or the difference between what it earns and what it spends. As of end February 2016, China owned $1.25 trillion of the total $6 trillion worth of treasury securities owned by foreign investors.

As I mentioned earlier, the United States has printed a huge amount of dollars over the last few years. This has led to a situation where the chances of a high inflation scenario remain. If something like this were to happen, then the value of the Chinese investment in US treasury securities will fall.

Hence, there is a quid pro quo which is currently at work. As Rickards writes: “The compromise between the Fed’s desire for inflation and China’s desire to protect its reserves is for China to buy cheap gold. That way, if inflation is low, China’s gold won’t go up much, but the value of its paper Treasury reserves is preserved. If the United States gets the inflation it wants, China’s Treasuries will be worth less, yet its gold will be worth much more. Having Treasuries and gold is a hedged position that protects China’s wealth.”

As Ricakrds further points out: “What remains is a strange condominium of interests where the [American] Treasury and China are in agreement that China needs more gold and the price cannot be too high or else China could not easily afford all it needs…The United States is letting China manipulate the market so China can buy gold more cheaply. The Fed occasionally manipulates the market as well so that any price rise isn’t disorderly.”

The question is when will this manipulation end?

The column was published on the Vivek Kaul Diary on April 22, 2016