Gold fever accelerates, never mind the trade deficit


Vivek Kaul

The law of demand in economics states that all other things remaining the same, the demand for a good is inversely proportional to its price. So if the price falls, the demand goes up and vice versa.
This identity holds on a lot of occasions but not on all occasions.
Allow me to elaborate.
Indian gold and silver imports for the month of April 2013, were at $7.5 billion. This was 138% more than imports during April 2012. This has come across a surprising development for many. “The rise in gold imports is surprising,”
Trade Secretary S.R. Rao told reporters at a press conference after the import numbers came out. “It wasn’t expected,” he added.
In fact predictions made by people who follow the gold market closely were exactly the opposite. Mohit Kamboj had
told PTI in middle of last month that “the imports of the yellow metal is likely to be 25 per cent less than the corresponding month last year as the gold prices are declining steadily.” He has been way off the mark. Kamboj is the President of the Bombay Bullion Association.
So why did Rao find this sudden increase in the import of gold surprising? Or why did Kamboj expect gold imports to fall?
The rise in gold imports is in line with the law of demand. As gold prices fell, people got out and bought more of it. The trouble is that people were buying more gold even when its price was going up. As economists Sonal Varma and Aman Mohunta of Nomura wrote in a report titled
India: Correlation between gold prices and demand released on April 23, 2013, “The correlation between the gold price and gold demand (import volume) in India shifted from being negative pre-2008 to positive since 2009. This means that in recent years a rising gold price was accompanied by rising demand, and vice-versa.”
So people were buying gold when its price was going up and now people are buying gold again, when its price has crashed. Also in between gold imports fell as gold prices crashed. Between January and March 2013, India imported 200 tonnes of gold which was around 23.7% lower than during the same period in 2012.
Let me rephrase the entire argument again then. People were buying gold when its prices were going up. People went slow on buying gold when its prices were coming down. And people are now buying gold again with a vengeance, when the prices have crashed and have started to go up again.
How do we explain this? What is happening here? Maggie Mahar has some sort of an answer for this in her book
Bull – A History of the Boom and Bust, 1982-2004. As she writes “In the normal course of things, higher prices dampen desire. When lamb becomes too dear, consumers eat chicken; when the price of gasoline soars, people take fewer vactations. Conversely, lower prices usually whet our interest: colour TVs, VCRs, and cell phones became more popular as they became more affordable. But when a stock market soars, investors do not behave like consumers. They are consumed by stocks. Equities seem to appeal to the perversity of human desire. The more costly the prize, the greater the allure.”
Replace the word ‘equity’ with gold here and the argument stays the same. When the price of gold was going up, people were looking to make a quick buck because they expected that the price of gold will continue to go up, and so they bought. Hence, higher prices of gold, led to higher demand and thus to higher imports in the Indian case. It is important to remember here that those who were buying gold at higher prices were looking at it as a mode of investment/speculation.
When the price of the yellow metal started to fall, the speculators got out of the race. And thus the demand fell, and so did the imports. After the price had fallen sufficiently enough, only then did the consumers of gold start to buy it. It is important to remember that world over gold is looked upon as a hedge against inflation but in India it is a hedge against inflation as well as a consumable good. Gold jewellery is a very important part of the Indian way of life. And once prices had fallen to the levels they have in the last one month, it is this demand that has come in and pushed up gold imports by 138%.
Hence, those making predictions on gold, should well remember that in India, it is both a mode of investment/speculation as well as a consumable good. And when prices fell, it is those who look at gold as a consumable good, start buying.
As Sonal Varma and Aman Mohunta of Nomura write in a report titled
India: Trade deficit worsened sharply in April on higher gold imports released on May 13,2013 “The recent fall in gold prices suggests that gold import volumes should moderate this year. This is not yet happening, but we see the recent rise in gold imports as a bunched up rise in consumption demand, which should fade over the coming quarters.”
Of course this is assuming that the price of gold continues to remain flat. If it starts to rise (in fact it has already risen by more than 5% from the low of $1360 per ounce (1 troy ounce equals 31.1 grams)) then investor/speculator demand will come in again. In fact, if the price of gold falls further, the speculators/investors might come back in again, sensing a good trade.
What this means is that despite massive efforts by the government to bring down gold imports, Indians have continued to buy gold. And since India produces very little amount of gold, it has to import almost all of what it consumes. This is reflected in the trade deficit (or the difference between imports and exports) for the month of April 2013, which has come in at $17.8 billion. This is a jump of 72% from March 2013. Gold and silver imports at $7.5 billion, formed a major part of it. The gold import numbers for May are likely to be high again, given the festival of Askhay Tritya which is being celebrated today (i.e. May 13, 2013)
will trigger a rush for the yellow metal. Askhay Tritya is considered to be an auspicious day to buy gold.
Since gold is imported, a demand for gold triggers a demand for dollars, which are used to buy gold. And this leads to the rupee losing value against the dollar. This in turn makes other imports like oil and coal also expensive. Hence, efforts have been made by the government in the past to limit gold imports.
To conclude, in March, the finance minister P Chidambaram had told CNBC TV 18 “On gold, I can only appeal to you and through your channel to the people that to not demand so much gold.”
Of course people have gone ahead and done exactly the opposite. Chidambaram had also told CNBC TV 18 “However, I am not sure too many people will listen to me on that.”
Not many did, it seems.
The article originally appeared on on May 14, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Obama, Salman Khan, QE-3: Why we have to wait for 6 Nov

Vivek Kaul

Richard Nixon, who was the President of the United States between January 1969 and August 1974, appointed Arthur C Burns as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States (the American central bank) on January 30,1970. “I respect his (i.e. Burns) independence. However, I hope that independently he will conclude that my views are the ones that should be followed,” Nixon said on the occasion.
Burns did not disappoint Nixon and when it was election time in 1972. Since the start of 1972, Burns ran an easy money policy and pumped more money into the financial system by simply printing it. The American money supply went by 10.6% in 1972.
The idea was that with the increased money in the financial system, interest rates would be low, and this would encourage consumers and businesses to borrow more. Consumers and businesses borrowing and spending more would lead to the economy doing well. And this would ensure the re-election of Nixon who was seeking a second term in 1972. That was the idea. And it worked. Nixon won the second term with some help from Burns.
As investment newsletter writer Gary Dorsch wrote in a column earlier this year “Incumbent presidents are always hard to beat. The powers of the presidency go a long way….Nixon pressured Arthur Burns, then the Fed chairman, to expand the money supply with the aim of reducing unemployment, and boosting the economy in order to insure Nixon’s re-election…Nixon imposed wage and price controls to constrain inflation, and won the election in a landslide.” (you can read the complete column here)
History is expected to repeat itself
Something similar has been expected from the current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. It has been widely expected that Bernanke will unleash the third round of money printing to revive the moribund American economy. Bernanke has already carried out two rounds of money printing before this to revive the American economy. This policy has been technically referred to as quantitative easing (QE), with the two earlier rounds of it being referred to as QE I and QE II.
The original idea was that with more money in the economy, banks will lend, and consumers and businesses will borrow and this in turn would revive the economy. But the American consumer had already borrowed too much in the run up to the financial crisis, which started in September 2008, when the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust. The consumer credit outstanding peaked in 2008 and stood at $2.6trillion. The American consumer had already borrowed too much to buy homes and a lot of other stuff, and he was in no mood to borrow more.
The wealth effect
The other thing that happened because of the easy money policy of the American government was that it allowed the big institutional investors to borrow at very low interest rates and invest that money in the stock market. This pushed stock prices up leading to more investors coming into the market.
As Maggie Mahar puts it in Bull! : A History of the Boom, 1982-1999: What drove the Breakneck Market–and What Every Investor Needs to Know About Financial Cycles: “In the normal course of things, higher prices dampen desire. When lamb becomes too dear, consumers eat chicken; when the price of gasoline soars, people take fewer vacations. Conversely, lower prices usually whet our interest: colour TVs, VCRs, and cell phones became more popular as they became more affordable. But when a stock market soars, investors do not behave like consumers. They are consumed by stocks. Equities seem to appeal to the perversity of human desire. The more costly the prize, the greater the allure.”
As more money enters the stock market, stock prices go up. This leads to what economists call the “wealth effect”. The stock market investors feel richer because of the stock prices going up. And because they feel richer they tend to spend some of their accumulated wealth on buying goods and services. As more money is spent, businesses do well and so in turn does the economy.
As Gary Dorsch writes “Historical observation reveals that the direction of the stock market has a notable influence over consumer confidence and spending levels. In particular, the top-20% of wealthiest Americans account for 40% of the spending in the US-economy, so the Fed hopes that by inflating the value of the stock market, wealthier Americans would decide to spend more. It’s the Fed’s version of “trickle down” economics, otherwise known as the “wealth effect.”
Why Bernanke won’t launch QE III soon
Given these reasons it was widely expected that Ben Bernanke would start another round of money printing or QE III this year to help Obama’s reelection campaign. Bernanke has been resorting to what Dorsch calls “open mouth operations” i.e. dropping hints that QE III is on its way. In August he had said that the Federal Reserve “will provide additional policy accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery.” This was basically a complicated way of saying that if required the Federal Reserve wouldn’t back down from printing more money and pumping it into the economy.
But even though Bernanke has been hinting about QE III for a while he hasn’t gone around doing anything concrete about it. The reason for this is the fact that Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate against the incumbent President Barack Obama has gone to town criticizing the Fed’s past QE policies. He has also warned the Federal Reserve to stay neutral before the November 6 elections, says Dorsch. As Romney told Fox News on August 23 “I don’t think QE-2 was terribly effective. I think a QE-3 and other Fed stimulus is not going to help this economy…I think that is the wrong way to go. I think it also seeds the kind of potential for inflation down the road that would be harmful to the value of the dollar and harmful to the stability of our nation’s needs.”
Romney even indicated that he would prefer someone other than Bernanke as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. “I would want to select someone new and someone who shared my economic views…I want someone to provide monetary stability that leads to a strong dollar and confidence that America is not going to go down the road that other nations have gone down, to their peril.” With more and more dollars being printed, the future of the dollar as an international currency is looking more and more bleak.
Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan also echoed his views when he said “Sound money… We want to pursue a sound-money strategy so that we can get back the King Dollar.”
Given this it is highly unlikely that Ben Bernanke will unleash QE III before November 6, the date of the Presidential elections. And whether he does it after that depends on who wins.
Of Obama and Salman Khan
As far as pollsters are concerned Obama seems to have the upper hand as of now. But at the same time the average American is not happy with the overall state of the American economy. “According to pollsters, two thirds of Americans think the US-economy is still stuck in the Great Recession, and is headed in the wrong direction. Only 31% say it is moving in the right direction – the lowest number since December 2011. The dire outlook is explained by a recent analysis by the US Census Bureau and Sentier Research LLC, indicating that US-household incomes actually declined more in the 3-year expansion that started in June 2009 than during the longest recession since the Great Depression,” writes Dorsch.
But despite this Americans don’t hold Obama responsible for the mess they are in. As Dorsch points out “Although, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the future, many voters don’t seem to be holding it against Democrat Obama. Instead, the embattled president is getting some slack because he inherited a very tough situation. In fact, Obama’s strongest base supporters are among also suffering the highest jobless rates and highest poverty rates in the country.”
Obama’s support is similar to the support film actor Salman Khan receives in India. As Manoj
Manoj Desai, owner of G7 theatres in Mumbai, recently told The Indian Express “Even when the fans are disappointed with his film, they never blame him. You will often hear them say, bhai se galat karwaya iss picture main. (They made Bhai do the wrong things in this movie)”
What’s in it for us?
Indian stock market investors should thus be hoping that Barack Obama wins the November 6 elections. That is likely to lead to another round of quantitative easing. As had happened in previous cases a portion of that matter will be borrowed by big Wall Street firms and make its way into stock markets round the world including India.
(The article originally appeared on on September 5,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a Mumbai based writer and can be reached at [email protected])