Media Spin on Swiss Referendum over Gold Reserves Getting Ridiculous

If you do not know already, the Swiss are voting on a referendum which will force its government to pass legislation to the following effect:

  • Back 20% of its reserves in gold,
  • Repatriate the gold that Switzerland owns from abroad,
  • Prevent the Swiss National Bank from selling off any more gold.

The Swiss have a very interesting form of government, where the people can vote directly to force their government to create legislation. A majority of more than 50% of the Cantons must agree.

The reason this is so important, is that if this measure passes, it will force the Swiss National Bank to purchase gold from the market, which is already stretched thin on the supply side. According to a note from the SNB, they would have to buy roughly 10% of annual mining supply each year through 2019. Some estimate this to be over 1700 tons of gold, over a 5 year period.

This is where it gets dicey. Since gold dropped below the average global cost of production in June of last year ( http://www.cnbc.com/id/100851209 ) , the amount of gold available in the supply pipeline has been getting tighter. To make matters worse, according to the CEO of the worlds largest mining company, because the price has dropped so low mining exploration has taken a huge hit and will result in less gold production moving forward. He claims the industry will hit “Peak Gold” in 2015 ( http://bit.ly/peak-gold ).

I have read a few articles which claim that if the physical supply was tight, then the price would reflect that because as we all know, traders who deal in these markets are efficient, and above all very smart, therefore gold should be priced in a way that reflects its true market value…kind of like triple A rated mortgage backed securities….right?

Just in case anyone has forgotten what financially incentivized traders are willing to do, I present without comment the following recent articles:

1. Regulators in US and UK mete out record fines after finding a ‘free for all culture’ on currency trading floors at RBS, HSBC, Citibank, JP Morgan and UBS http://bit.ly/FX-free-for-all

2. Six Banks to Pay $4.3 Billion in First Wave of Currency-Rigging Penalties  http://bit.ly/FX3bfines

3. Swiss regulator finds “clear attempt to manipulate fixes in the precious metal markethttp://bit.ly/clear-evidence

4. UBS agrees to settle charges in gold and silver manipulation http://bit.ly/ubs-metals-manipulation-settlement

5. Reuters: EU fines JPMorgan, UBS, Credit Suisse for taking part in cartels http://reut.rs/1BN0ajC

6. SEC charges High Frequency Traders with Fraud manipulating prices http://bit.ly/SEC-charges-HFT

There are many more recent examples in this fact freight train, but I am sure you get the point.

Vote Yes Argument

The group that wants this initiative to pass says that if it is not passed, then Switzerland’s economy will be dictated by the EU, the Swiss Franc will (continue to be) tied to a weak Euro, inflation will increase dramatically, the Swiss National Bank will print hundreds of billions of Francs (to maintain the Euro/Franc 1.2  peg), the Swiss Franc will weaken, and the Swiss citizens will be stuck with hundreds of billions of devaluing Euros.

A few comments:

  • Even if the measure passes, the SNB might still print hundreds of billions of Francs to retain the Euro 1.2 peg, it will just have to buy an amount of gold equal to 20% of the Euro’s it buys. This shouldnt be that much of a problem, they do have a printing press, they could just do what my friend Jim Rickards says and print fiat / buy gold. It would of course create other problems, explained below.
  • Yes, if it doesn’t pass, the Franc will weaken, but that is the entire point of currency wars and the reason the SNB (and the government) hates this idea, aside of course from the fact that it destroys the credibility of the Central Bank (not just the SNB, but globally).
  • What will happen if this measure passes is the Swiss Franc will be reinforced as being a safe haven currency with real value, and that will cause a massive inflow into the Swiss Franc in times of fear, which does indeed create problems – the Swiss have experienced this in the 1970’s and were forced to resort to negative interest rates (charging you to hold your money instead of paying you interest) to discourage capital flow into the Franc. The amounts of Euros the Swiss would have to buy to maintain order could end up being …I have no words for it…huge…and therefore also force them to be big buyers of gold. In time, this could erode confidence in the entire system as the pressure could cause the price of gold to skyrocket which would cause people to start asking questions.

Vote No Argument

For this section, I am going to reference an article in Yahoo today which closely reflects the attitude and presentation of other articles I have read regarding this subject.

For starters it says “economists warn a ‘Yes’ vote could wreak havoc in financial markets” – but then conveniently fails to reference those economists or why they think this.

“Industry organisations have also warned that the move would tie the central bank’s hands and damage its credibility” – With the loss of credibility part I agree. After all, if the central bank itself starts buying gold to support its currency as demanded by the citizens, then it messes with their job stability doesn’t it? Are central bankers really needed if all you have to do is buy gold and call it good? This may be why the Fed has tried to convince the world that gold has no monetary use for the last 45 years. It would not, however “tie their hands”. They could still print up all the Francs they wanted and buy Euros to maintain the Euro peg, they would simply have to buy more gold when doing so, which comes back to that destroying their own credibility thing again.

Most observers expect the Swiss to snub the motion, and low global gold prices indicate investors agree – Some facts here would be nice.

According to the Swiss Central Bank Chief Thomas Jordan, if the measure passes then “The central bank’s capacity to take action would be weakened. This would also lead to higher unemployment”. – Not weakened, again it would reduce credibility because actions taken to devalue the currency intentionally by printing and buying other currencies would force them to buy gold.

He has appealed to Swiss voters to pay attention, warning that if the gold initiative passes the consequences could be disastrous. – Yes, for the credibility of the central bank.

However, “if the ‘Yes’ side wins, gold risks reacting strongly, since the market is not expecting that result,” Nannette Hechler-Fayd’herbe of Credit Suisse. - I also think the gold market will react strongly, but not because an affirmative vote is unexpected, further explanation coming up.

Strategists at Commerzbank (Xetra: CBK100 – news) said the ban on selling gold would put the very credibility of SNB at stake. – Near the end of the article, and there we have it. Economists are heralding doom, but cant seem to be found in the article after that. This whole thing about concern over a loss of credibility is pretty consistent though. If people start looking at gold as money, then that paper becomes less important, and if that happens then so does the role of the paper printer.

If SNB’s gold “reserve can no longer be sold in the event of a crisis it no longer constitutes a reserve in the stricter sense,” they said, stressing that “if the gold reserves cannot be sold they are ‘lost’ for the Swiss.” – You can always take one last swing at this issue with a straw man. This is complete non-sense. Central Banks have been using their gold reserves in a leasing capacity for decades, it serves as collateral of the highest caliber bar-none and can be put to use as such without being required to sell it.

Talking to the Swiss

Last night I was having dinner with a Swiss client and the subject of the gold initiative came up. He said that in the early part of the month it did not seem anyone was taking it seriously. Since then, there has been alot of debate, and the issue is gaining more awareness to the point that his feeling is the Swiss Government and SNB are now panicking. They are advertising in the trains to vote no, while the group that wants the measure to pass had its donation accounts frozen.

You have to know a Swiss to understand this. They are a stubborn and fiercely independent people. The idea that they are becoming lackeys to the Euro is disturbing to them. His comment to me was that if the people think the government is panicking, they will vote yes by instinct, even if they do not fully understand the underlying issues.

Gold Physical Supply

Once a year (or more often as needed) AFE travels over to Switzerland to participate in the audits of the gold in custody, as well as handle other administrative work and meet with our strategic partners. Each time we do this we are able to talk to key people within the industry.

One of the gentlemen we regularly meet with is a Director for one of the largest refineries in the world. He has perhaps one of the best views into global physical gold flows from a practical hands on perspective than any other I am aware of, and has more than 30 yrs experience under his belt. The way he puts it, paper trading in gold (on exchanges such as COMEX) is being done by young men who have no interest in the physical fundamentals, and have very little concern nor care about physical movements. My thought is he may be right, after all despite what is happening in physical flows, reservoirs of gold such as COMEX which should act as a gauge on available physical don’t seem to move much, regardless of moves in the price.

We will be doing a round table interview soon with the Board of Directors of AFE where we go into more detail about this, but I will make a few comments about the available physical gold float now.

In October, backwardation re-entered the gold market http://goldmarketmacro.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/backwardation-returns-as-the-gold-market-tightens/

The best explanation of backwardation in gold I have found is this, hat tip to Bron Suchecki of the Perth Mint (from http://goldmarketmacro.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/eastern-physical-demand-versus-western-financial-supply-who-will-win-out/ ) :

Negative gold forward rate (GOFO) is a true backwardation of gold prices.  It means participants can sell physical gold now and instantaneously buy it for delivery in 2 months time at a 0.145% discount.  Not only that, but the entrepreneurial arbitrageur can also invest the proceeds from the spot sale in risk-free securities over the period.  In two months time, they will have their gold back, have banked 14.5 basis points profit, have banked the risk free security return and will have save on 2 months storage and insurance of the physical gold.

This is why backwardation of gold is so fascinating, it just should not happen.  The arbitrageur may not be so smug if the future delivery never occurs (in trying to make 0.145% he has lost 100% of his gold), and that is the risk which backwardation effectively prices in.

It implies a very tight physical gold supply in what we call the “float”, which is gold available for sale. It is important to bear in mind that the amount of gold in the “float” changes, based on the price of gold and if owners of existing gold turn into sellers. Float gold consists of gold from mines, gold outflows from ETF’s such as GLD if they are selling, scrap, and also from an estimated 165,000 tons of gold above ground which was mined since antiquity, all of which can come available for sale if the price is high enough.

A point some of you may find interesting is that the LBMA has decided to stop reporting GOFO as of Jan. 30th 2015, claiming banks do not want to report rates dues to increased regulatory scrutiny ( http://www.ubs.wallst.com/ubs/mkt_story.asp?docKey=1329-L2N0T11GZ-1&first=0 ).

I will not say more on this topic at this time as we are reserving some important information we have to share for the upcoming round table interview, but I will say that if the current situation in the physical float continues and then this referendum passes, it will have a substantial impact on price and it will not be because “it was not expected”, but because the float is so tight right now.