What’s Behind the Crash in the Gold Market?

One of the more interesting phenomena to take place in the markets in recent memory has been the seemingly invincible rise in the value of gold. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the price of gold rose from $256 per ounce to a high of $1,920 — a whopping 650% return for those lucky enough to have timed the trade perfectly. But since 2011, the gold market has shown signs of weakness, culminating in a multi-day crash that began Thursday and continued into Monday. According to the Wall Street Journal: “Gold futures for April delivery fell $140.40, or 9.4%, Monday to a two-year low at $1,360.60 an ounce on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange. That extended their bear-market descent of more than 20% from their 2011 all-time high. Since Thursday, gold prices have declined by more than $203 an ounce, a record skid since the futures began trading in the U.S. in 1974.” So what’s behind the remarkable rise in the value of gold — and what changed in recent days that has undermined investors confidence in it? (MORE: The Real Significance of the Bitcoin Boom (and Bust)) The first thing gold-skeptics like Warren Buffett will remind you about the precious metal is that it doesn’t have nearly the utility of other commodities like oil or copper. Sure, we use it for jewelery or dental fillings, but mostly we just let it sit there. In 1998 Buffett famously quipped: ”Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.” It’s true: Unlike stocks, gold doesn’t pay a dividend. And unlike oil, it isn’t a vital commodity that powers other parts of the economy. But though Buffett may be justified in personally shying away from investing in the shiny metal, in other respects he underplays it’s significance. Gold has held an enduring place in human history,

The Real Significance of the Bitcoin Boom (and Bust)

The volatile rise and fall of Bitcoins has prompted lots of stories explaining why the online virtual currency is a classic bubble. Many compare it with Tulipmania in 17th Century Holland, where the prices of rare tulip bulbs soared to absurd heights and then crashed, ruining the speculative investors who had bought them. But the Bitcoin phenomenon is more than a bubble. It says something important about the current and future state of the global economy. The scale of the recent boom and bust has been staggering indeed. At the start of the year, a Bitcoin was worth $13.51. Earlier this week, it traded as high as $266. And on Thursday, it plummeted to less than $100, as one of the exchanges where Bitcoins are traded closed temporarily. This would be comparable to the exchange rate for the British pound soaring from $1.62 (where it was on Jan. 1) to $31.90 and then falling back to $12. Such monumental appreciation and volatility is clearly the result of speculation – people buying the online currency just because they think its value will rise, not because they want to use it to purchase goods and services. But Bitcoins’ gains are not the result of speculation alone. They partly reflect the fact that the Bitcoin system is much better designed than previous online currencies. And more significantly, the runup also reflects anxiety about the safety of the global banking system and the stability of major international currencies. (MORE: No Money, No Problems: Canada Considers Completely Digital Currency) The technicalities of the Bitcoin system are complex, but to make this online currency more successful than previous versions, the designers overcame two key challenges. First, to prevent counterfeiting, they attached a history of transactions to each currency unit – but allowed users to keep their transactions nearly anonymous. Counterfeiting is hard because fake Bitcoins would need an authenticated history to pass muster. Second, they strictly controlled the supply of Bitcoins outstanding — thereby saving it from the disastrous fate of, for example, the paper currency known as assignats

Was Thatcherism Good (or Bad) for the Economy?

Margaret Thatcher was known as the woman who, from 1979 to 1990, brought austerity and — at least for part of her tenure — economic growth to a stagflation-riddled Britain. She’s also known as a heedless free-market deregulator who set the stage for financial boom and bust, as well as for growing inequality. At a time when the debate over growth and austerity is front and center in the U.K., the U.S., Europe and much of the rest of the world, what is the legacy of Thatcher economics? Below, a look at some of the Iron Lady’s key economic ideas and what, if anything, they have to teach us today. A focus on inflation vs. unemployment. Perhaps it was justified back then, given that inflation in Britain in the late 1970s was heading toward 20%. But as Capital Economics managing director Roger Bootle points out in his smart look at Thatcher’s legacy in the Telegraph, the result of the government’s policy of fighting inflation by hiking interest rates fast and hard was “a cripplingly high pound, which devastated much of British industry, causing unemployment to soar.” Poverty and inequality went up radically under Thatcher, and the latter has stayed high since, a factor that many economists believe has impeded a more robust consumer recovery. While mass privatization (some of it successful, some not) did eventually create growth during the Thatcher years, GDP never rose by more than a couple of percentage points annually, even during the 1980s boom years. The verdict: in an era in which globalization and technology are keeping inflation down over the long term, and unemployment high, the Iron Lady’s policies are retro, and would be counterproductive. Public spending and tax cuts. Both Thatcher and her U.S. counterpart Ronald Reagan wanted to boost markets and shrink the state, but Reagan was a supply sider who focused almost solely on tax cuts (indeed the amount of public spending relative to GDP actually increased under Reagan). Not so the British conservatives. Thatcher was somewhat less enamored of “trickle-down economics” than Reagan and ultimately believed

A Yen for Cash: How the Bank of Japan Could Threaten the Global Economy

Japan has been an experiment in economics ever since its crushing defeat at the end of World War II. First, Tokyo employed inventive techniques to rebuild its economy and wealth — the export-led, state-directed system in which bureaucrats “targeted” industries for special support — that broke with economic tradition and became a development model for the rest of the region to follow. Then after the country’s massive stock-and-property-price bubble exploded in the early 1990s, Japan became a much examined case study in how to handle (or not handle) a financial crisis. After that, economists have puzzled over why Japan has been unable to escape the long stagnation it has suffered ever since. Now Japan is embarking on yet another set of unconventional policies in an attempt to revive itself, which, if successful, could rewrite the rules of fiscal and monetary policy. Whatever the result, economists will likely be studying Japan for decades to come. On Thursday, the new governor of the Bank of Japan (BOJ), Haruhiko Kuroda, announced that the central bank would double the monetary base of the country — adding an additional $1.4 trillion — by the end of 2014 in an attempt to end the deflation plaguing the economy. To achieve that, Kuroda will buy government bonds and other assets to inject cash into the economy — what has now become familiar as quantitative easing, or QE — to bump inflation up to a targeted 2%. The plan is part of a greater strategy ushered in by new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to restart the economy through massive fiscal and monetary stimulus. It also expands on the efforts by the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and European Central Bank to stimulate growth and smooth over financial turmoil by infusing huge sums of new money into the global economy. Even by the standards of central-bank largesse since the 2008 financial crisis, however, the BOJ’s plan is massive, unprecedented and untested. You’d think that traditional economists would be screaming that revving up the cash printing presses on such a scale would spark hyperinflation and turn

Why Derivatives May Be the Biggest Risk for the Global Economy

Four years after the U.S. recession ended, the global economy is still beset by problems. The present danger comes from Cyprus – where the sea foam once gave birth to the goddess Aphrodite but now only creates froth in panicky financial markets. The proposed bailout plan for troubled Cypriot banks would impose losses of up to 40% on the largest depositors. And that, in turn, could undermine confidence in the banks of other troubled euro zone countries. Cyprus is only the latest challenge for global financial stability, however. In the U.S., deteriorating urban finances – from Detroit to Stockton, Calif. – threaten municipal bond holders, public-sector workers, and taxpayers. In addition, a rise in long-term interest rates seems inevitable sooner or later, either because of inflation or because the Federal Reserve backs away from its easy-money policies. Higher interest rates would mean big losses for bond investors, and also for government-sponsored entities, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that hold mortgage-backed assets. The greatest risk of all, however, may be one of the least visible – namely, the expanding, shadowy market for derivatives. These highly sophisticated investments have contributed to financial disasters from the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers to J.P. Morgan’s 2012 trading losses in London, which totaled more than $6 billion. (MORE: The $600 Billion the IRS Can’t Collect) Basically, derivatives are financial contracts with values that are derived from the behavior of something else – interest rates, stock indexes, mortgages, commodities, or even the weather. Just as homebuyers make only a down payment when they buy a house with a mortgage, derivatives traders put down only a small amount of cash. Moreover, one derivative can be used to offset or serve as collateral for another. The result is that a massive edifice of derivatives can be supported by a relatively small amount of real money. Some derivatives, such as typical stock options, trade on exchanges. But many are simply private contracts between banks or other sophisticated investors. As a result, it’s hard to know the total

Can the U.S. Dollar Become Almighty Once Again?

Financial turmoil in Cyprus, where the parliament rejected a plan an eurozone bailout deal that would have taxed bank deposits, is prompting investors to shift cash from the euro zone to the U.S. That’s boosting the value of the dollar — and it’s just the latest installment in a story that has helped the dollar strengthen for more than a year. Despite gridlock in Washington and a string of economic mishaps, the dollar has risen by 7% since late 2011. That’s a striking turnaround for a currency that was in relentless decline for decades. If the upward trend continues – and there are good reasons to think it will – then the U.S. dollar could become almighty once again. The dollar’s decline over the past 30 years has been far greater than most Americans realize. It has lost almost half its value against other major currencies since 1985 and is down 33% in the past 11 years alone. Indeed, the value of the U.S. dollar is lower today than it was in 2009 when the recession ended. In part, this fall occurred because of government policies in Europe and Japan that kept the euro and the yen overvalued. A weak currency can bolster a country’s economy in the short run, by making goods cheaper for foreign buyers and thereby encouraging exports. But over the longer term, a robust economy is typically accompanied by a strong currency. A currency rises in value when more foreign money is flowing in than is flowing out. These inflows occur not only because of export sales but also because foreigners see investment opportunities or are seeking safe places to park their cash. As a result, a stronger dollar is a bellwether of an improving economy and a brighter outlook for U.S. stocks. And there are three reasons economists think the dollar’s rise could continue: (MORE: Cyprus: The E.U. ‘Rescue That Risks Backfiring) Other major countries are worse off economically. The U.S. economy may be sluggish, but it has grown for 14 straight quarters since the recession ended

Why Many Americans Feel Like They’re Getting Poorer

Data released by the Commerce Department last week showed that personal income fell 3.6% in January, the biggest decline in 20 years. The drop was even bigger when taxes and inflation are taken into account. Real personal disposable income fell by 4%, the biggest monthly drop in half a century. In part, this is a statistical blip. Companies accelerated certain payments – giving year-end bonuses in December rather than January, for example – so that employees could avoid higher taxes going into effect for 2013. But even if that blip is smoothed out, real aftertax income is lower than it was six months ago. What this means is that the U.S. economy is not merely recovering from the recession more slowly than one might like, but is actually getting worse for many Americans. Despite three-and-a-half years of uninterrupted growth in real GDP and a decline of more than two percentage points in the unemployment rate since 2009, the standard of living is falling for as much as half the population, particularly if you look beyond monthly numbers to longer-term trends. (PHOTOS: America Copes with a Stagnant Economy) Commentators assessing a recovery in progress naturally tend to focus on changes from one month or quarter to another. But what really matters is not how the economy compares with where it was in earlier time periods, but how it compares with where it would now be if it were fully utilizing all of its resources. Economists call this level “full capacity,” and it rises over time as the population grows, technology improves and facilities are upgraded. When a recession occurs, the economy’s actual output drops significantly below the full capacity level, creating what’s known as an “output gap.” Once the recession ends and a recovery begins, there’s normally a period of well-above average growth so that actual output regains the ground lost during the recession and comes back close to full capacity. But since the most recent recession ended, growth has never been fast enough to close the output gap – indeed, the gap has

Is the World on the Brink of a Currency War?

The latest hot topic among economic talking heads is the coming currency war. According to conventional wisdom, there’s a risk that major countries will – simultaneously – try to revive their sluggish economies by pushing down the value of their currencies. That strategy could backfire, according to this line of thought, stifling international trade, tipping economies back into recession, and possibly causing Depression-style hyperinflation to boot. Get ready to sell apples on the nearest street corner and buy your morning coffee with a wheelbarrow full of paper money. It all sounds very unpleasant. But the dogs of war are unlikely to slip their leash. In a classic currency war, a country prints money, holds interest rates down, or intervenes in foreign exchange markets in order to depress the value of its own currency. That makes the country’s exports cheaper and more attractive for foreign buyers. In theory, this can enable an economy to grow faster than would be possible on the basis of domestic demand alone. Only trouble is, if every country pursues a similar strategy, they all devalue their currencies at the same time and no country gains an advantage over its trading partners. It may look as though that’s what’s happening now, since many of the largest economies are following policies that could depress the value of their currencies. But they’re doing so for fundamentally different reasons – to address domestic economic problems rather than to boost exports. And while this creates some real risks, they aren’t the ones that the term “currency war” implies. (MORE: Why Can’t People with Student Loans Refinance at Better Rates?) Currency wars – and trade wars generally – have their origins in a 17th and 18th century economic theory known as mercantilism. The idea was that a country’s wealth comes from selling more than it buys. A colonial empire could achieve this positive balance of trade by acquiring cheap raw materials from its colonies and then ensuring that it exported more finished goods than it imported. This was usually accomplished with tariffs that made