Saturday, November 29, 2014
Gold's rising convenience yield
While I may have taken some jabs at the gold bugs in two recent posts, please don't take that to mean that I have it in for the metal itself. Gold is a fascinating topic with a history that is well worth studying. (See this, for instance). In that vein, what follows is some actual gold analysis.
Something weird is happening in gold markets. The future price of gold (its forward price) has fallen below the current gold price. Now in fairness, this isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Over the last year or two, the price of gold one-month in the future has traded below the current, or spot price, a number of times. However, this observation has grown more marked as both the three-month and six-month rates have also recently fallen below the spot price.
This degree of inversion is rare. Except for a brief flip in 1999 when near-term forward prices fell below zero for a day or two, future gold has almost always traded for more than current gold. See chart below, which illustrates the one-month to twelve-month forward price premium/deficit in annual percent terms:
Here's why this pattern has dominated:
Gold's forward price indicates the level at which a buyer and seller will contract to exchange gold at some point in the future. The seller must be compensated for a number of costs they will incur in holding the gold until the deal's consummation, including: 1) taking out a loan to buy the gold and stumping up interest expenses; and 2) paying to store and insure it in a vault. Together, these are called carrying costs.
The buyer of future gold needs to compensate the seller for these costs. Rather than paying the seller an up-front fee, the buyer builds a premium into the price they pay for future gold in-and-above the current spot price, say $5. The future seller of gold can use this $5 premium to cover their carrying costs, thereby coming out even in the end. So future gold trades above spot gold by the size of its carrying costs.
The current inversion of spot and future gold prices seems to break all these rules. The premium that sellers have traditionally required has not only shrunk to 0 but become a deficit. Put differently, sellers of future gold are no longer demanding a compensatory fee for storing and financing the metal. In fact, they seem willing to provide these expensive services at a negative price!
One explanation for the inversion is that with interest rates being so low, the costs of carrying gold have become negligible. This is only party correct. Minuscule carrying costs would imply a future gold price that is flat relative to the current gold price, when in actuality future prices are below present prices.
That leaves only one explanation for the inversion: there is some sort of hidden non-pecuniary benefit to holding the stuff. In futures-speak, this benefit is typically referred to as a commodity's convenience yield, a term coined by Nicky Kaldor in 1939. An analogy to oil markets may be helpful. Oil prices often invert because merchants see potential for future supply disruptions. Having oil on hand during these disruptions is immensely useful as it spares our merchant the hassle of negotiating his or her way though an oil supply chain that may be severely crippled while ensuring that customer demand is smoothly met. So the convenience yield can be thought of as a flow of relief, or uncertainty-shielding services, provided to owners of inventories of a commodity. If that relief is sheer enough, than the convenience yield will be larger than the twin costs of financing and storage, resulting in inverted markets. (For an excellent explanation of the convenience yield in oil markets, check out this Steve Randy Waldman post).
That's what appears to be happening in gold. Gold merchants seem to be anticipating choppiness in the future supply and demand of the metal, and see growing benefits in holding inventories of the stuff in order to cope with this choppiness. The convenience yield on these inventories has jumped to a high enough level that it currently outweighs the costs of storing and financing gold, resulting in an inverted gold market.
Gold's convenience yield spikes every every few years due to market disruptions, with the last spike occurring during the 2008 credit crisis, the one prior to that in 2001, and the one before that in 1999 when central banks announced plans to limit gold sales. It just so happens that these earlier disruptions occurred when U.S. interest rates were already high enough that they continued to outweigh the metal's suddenly-augmented convenience yield. Inversions were brief and only on the 1-month horizon. Now that a disruption is occurring when interest costs are near zero, a more sharply inverted market is the result, dragging the 3 and 6-month horizons into negative territory. Going forward, all gold market disruptions could very well create sharp inversions of -1 to -2% in the 1 to 12-month horizons, insofar as we are living in an era of permanently low interest rates.
Is gold becoming money?
A number of gold bugs see the current inversion as something quite momentous. To understand why, you need to know that a gold bug's nirvana is when gold is once again 'money'. When something is money, it is highly liquid. The beauty of owning a highly liquid medium is that it can be mobilized to deal with almost any disruption to one's plans and intentions. Put differently, the convenience yield on stored money is very high. One measure of a paper dollar's convenience yield is the interest rate a government-insured certificate of deposit. Locking away cash for, say, 24 months means that the owner loses all the benefits of its liquidity. With 24-month certificates of deposit currently yielding 0.34% a year, the value of those forgone conveniences is 0.34%.
So when a gold bug's dream becomes reality and gold overtakes the dollar, yen, pound etc. as the world's most-liquid exchange medium, that is the equivalent of saying that gold is providing investors with the market-leading monetary convenience yield. And a permanently high convenience yield would result in a permanently inverted gold market (or at least a much flatter one).
Is the current inversion an indication that gold is becoming money? I don't think so. If the augmented convenience yield on gold was in fact rising due to gold's liquidity having surpassed that of fiat money, we'd expect this to be reflected not only in near-term forward prices but along the entire horizon of forward prices. Not only should the 3-month forward prices be inverted, but so should the 3-year forward price. Is this the case? Not really. If you've seen Crocodile Dundee, I'd suggest you go and check out this hilarious post by Bron Suchecki illustrating the extent of gold's inversion. If you haven't seen the movie (you should), check out the chart below.
The first data point is the spot price. Gold forward prices are inverted after that, but only over a narrow range of five or six-months. By mid-2015, forward prices return to their regular pattern of trading at a premium to current prices.
So no, gold is not becoming money. Rather, we are running into some short-term jitters, and merchants think that holding the stuff provides a few more ancillary benefits than before.
Could these short-term supply & demand problems crescendo into longer-term problems, resulting in inversion beyond 2015? I don't think so. Unlike oil and most other commodities, the supply of mined gold is never used up. Ounces that were brought out of the ground by the Romans are still in existence. This means that supply disruptions should never pose a significant problem in the gold market since gold necklaces and fillings can be rapidly melted down into bars and brought to market. While we care if Saudi stops all oil production or if the U.S. corn harvest is terrible, if South Africa ceases to produce gold—meh.
This means that the convenience yield on inventories of gold will almost always be less than the convenience yield on stocks of oil, since the sorts of disruptions in the gold market will always be shorter and less extreme than in oil markets. Oil supply shocks can be so sharp and enduring that oil's convenience yield remains elevated for long periods of time. The result is an inverted oil market over the entire time horizon. Such inversions are fairly common events in oil markets (once again, see Bron's post).
Gold shocks can never be enduring, so the types of price inversions we'd expect will be fleeting and only appear in the near-term time horizon. Like the one we are seeing now. In sum, we've seen this all before, and no, it's not the end of the world.