Ambrose Evans-Pritchard: China, gold, and the civilization shift


By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The Telegraph, London
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stephen Jen from the hedge fund Blue Gold Capital has a warning for those who think that gold has risen far too high, is necessarily in a speculative bubble, and must soon come clattering back down.

Mr Jen is an expert on sovereign wealth funds from his days at Morgan Stanley. The gold story -- essentially -- is that the rising economic powers of Asia, the Middle East, and the commodity bloc are rejecting Western fiat currencies. China, India, and Russia have all been buying gold on a large scale over recent months.

Why should that stop when the AAA club of sovereign debtors is pushing towards the danger threshold of 100 percent of GDP?

These new players account for almost all the accumulation of foreign currency reserves worldwide over the last five years, so what they do matters enormously.

After crunching the numbers, Mr Jen found that the share of gold in their reserves is just 2.2 percent compared to 38 percent for the Old World (perhaps we should just call them the deadbeats from now on). They would have to buy $115 billion of gold at current prices to raise their bullion to just 5 percent of total reserves, and $700 billion to reach just half Western levels.

The killer-term here is "at current prices," since any such move in the tiny global market for gold would send prices into the stratosphere.

Mr Jen says that you know where you are in the currency markets -- more or less -- because there are concepts of "fair value" used by experts. Ditto for the equity markets, where you have P/E ratios (warts and all I might add, since the actual reported P/E of the S&P 500 was a record 141 in September before the agency stopped publishing the figure -- a far cry from the forward earnings in vogue).

How on earth do we determine what fair value should be for gold?

"We have no such concept," Mr Jen said.

Actually, that is not quite true. You can use the dollar monetary base as a proxy.

Mr Jen said China alone accumulated $150 billion in reserves in the third quarter, pushing the total to $2.3 trillion. These are colossal sums. China is amassing almost as much each month as the United States ($63 billion) has built up in the entire history of the country. True, the US understates the value of its gold, but you get the picture. Something big is going on.

So far, China has just 1.7 percent of its reserves in gold, or 34 million troy ounces. I was told by a top Chinese official that they are buying on the dips so as not to crowd out the market, which means of course that gold cannot "crash," unless you think China itself is going to crash -- or stop building reserves (which is possible: Albert Edwards from SocGen says China may be in current account deficit next year, leading to a yuan move -- down, not up).

The gold proportions are: Hong Kong (0), Singapore (0), Korea (0.2), Brazil (0.6), India (4.8) after its shock purchase of IMF gold, and Russia (5.5). Yes, the West still has a lot in percentage terms -- US (86), France (78), Italy (72), Switzerland (33), Germany (25) -- but they don't count for so much any more.

It is true that the Old World could meet demand for a while (a short while, actually) by selling some of their gold. But will they do so? They did not use up their quota for the last year under the Washington accord. My own guess is that they too are wondering whether it makes any sense to keep selling metal in order to buy the fiat paper of the bankrupt peers. (Note that the Bank of England's own pension fund has got rid of almost all its Gilts, buying inflation protection instead.) Britain may become a net buyer of gold under the Tories. Who knows?

Bottom line: "The scope for emerging-market central banks to buy more gold is substantial, if they choose to do so," he wrote cautiously in a note to clients.

Will they choose to do so?

"I suspect they will," he told me.

Personally, I have been feeling vertigo with gold near $1,180. All my contrarian instincts cause me to dislike momentum stories -- but there again, maybe this is not momentum. Perhaps it is a civilization shift. Can't make up my mind.

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