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What's the Safest Way to Hedge Against Inflation With Gold?

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Until inflation becomes recognized, the investor holding gold as a hedge must have both patience and the ability to hold for an extended period.

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Historically, the price of gold protected the purchasing power of the currency invested in it, as the price rose in some reasonable correlation with existing or expected inflation of that currency. But today, the price of gold is set in a speculative market where traders and hedge fund managers make bets, and little or no attention is paid to gold's traditional role. (See the first part of this article, Why Gold Prices Dropped in 2013.)

According to John Hathaway of Tocqueville.com, in 2010, the physical gold market consisted of 121 million ounces. With a growth rate of about 1.5% per year, there are currently about 127 million ounces in existence, as of Hathaway's writing. Using futures and options data, and OTC clearing data from the London Bullion Market Association, Hathaway calculates that the paper gold market is 92 times that of the underlying physical market. If each investor in a paper gold ounce believes it is backed by an ounce of physical gold, then each physical gold ounce must have been loaned or hypothecated, on average, 92 times. If everyone decided that they wanted physical possession, which of the 92 paper gold ounce owners really owns the physical metal?

That, of course, explains why it took so long (17 months) for the London banks to deliver the physical gold that Hugo Chavez's Venezuela demanded. They either didn't have it and had to purchase it in the open market, or they had to unwind trades where the gold was loaned or pledged as collateral, or both. As for the seven years that it will take for the US Fed to deliver Germany its gold, the only conclusion can be that the web of hypothecation must be long and complex.

Let's now consider the characteristics of the London financial markets, where gold's price is fixed twice each day. Nearly every well-known financial calamity over the past 20 years has originated from London offices of major financial corporations. That's because in the UK, financial institutions have little regulatory oversight. Just think about JPMorgan's (NYSE:JPM) $6+ billion 2012 loss from its London trading office. We learned from the MF Global (OTCMKTS:MFGLQ) fiasco that client assets can be hypothecated and re-hypothecated an infinite number of times, and that there are no customer protection rules. If you have been wondering what happened to Jon Corzine's (MF Global's CEO) clients' funds, you now have a pretty good idea.

Recently, we've seen major UK financial institutions pay hefty fines for manipulating certain commodity prices and for fixing the price of LIBOR, a short-term rate that plays a key role in the world's financial markets. Apparently, the illegal activity had been going on for years. There are five London banks that control the two daily London gold price fixes. Given the known shenanigans of the London banks regarding LIBOR and other commodities, and the infinite re-hypothecation allowed, how much confidence should we have that the daily gold price-fixing is impartial, that in a crisis or panic the hypothecations can be unwound with every paper claim on gold made whole, or, in fact, that some of the underlying gold even exists in the vaults? As Hathaway says, "It would be hard to imagine that the culture of [London] did not extend to gold."

There has been a great deal of political angst by Bernanke and Co. over the demand by some members of Congress for a Fed audit, and great political maneuvering to avoid it. Some commentators, like John Williams (Shadowstats.com), believe that the Fed and government officials disdain rising gold prices because that suggests that the government and the Fed are not doing their jobs in maintaining price stability. Hence, Williams believes that heavy selling in 2013 was an orchestrated government intervention. In his January 8, 2014 issue of Hyperinflation 2014 – The End Game Begins, Williams says, "A number of times, very large sell-orders from one customer were placed in the global markets before the open of US trading. For someone looking to move out of gold, orderly sales would make the most sense in terms of getting the best prices. Instead, these actions were designed to pummel the gold markets, and they did."

Remember what happened to credit default swaps, issued by AIG (NYSE:AIG), just five years ago? Remember what happened to AAA-rated mortgage-backed securities that turned out to have a lot of sub-prime loans? Could something like that happen to the paper gold market?

If it's discovered that some of the underlying gold has disappeared from the vaults, or in a panic the competing hypothecations for the underlying gold ounces tie up the assets in a long-term court battle, or, as in the case of General Motor's (NYSE:GM) senior secured bondholders and some depositors in Cypriot banks, it becomes politically correct to single out a class to bear losses, some holders of paper gold could be out of luck. It might be very painful one day to wake up to find that the paper gold investment you thought you had turns out to have not been collateralized.

So, what should gold investors do?

First, understand the difference between hedging and speculating. If it is your intent to hedge against an inflation that you believe will inevitably come due to current worldwide monetary- and fiscal-policy excesses, then the systematic purchase of gold, like mutual fund dollar-cost averaging, is a good practice.

In what form should you hold your precious metal assets? What about the ETFs traded on the exchanges? If you want to keep the gold in your brokerage account, there are some funds or ETFs that say that they hold bullion in a vault and do not hypothecate it. You need to do careful research to make sure this is the case and know if the paper you hold is convertible into the underlying asset. Gold mining stocks are another way, since the gold is there in the ground. Unfortunately, the typical gold mining company continuously dilutes shareholders with new rounds of equity offerings as they continue their search for the "mother lode." So, research here is also essential.

The safest way, of course, is to hold the gold yourself, i.e., take physical possession and put it into a safety deposit box or in your own safe. Many Americans are doing this, but the Chinese and Asians are way out ahead in this area. To do this you need to find a reputable gold or coin shop that will sell to you for a reasonable commission, say 3-4%.

Today's gold investors must also understand that the price of gold is currently a 100% function of hedge fund speculation. In the future, as inflation becomes recognized, this may change, but until it does, the investor holding gold as a hedge must have both patience and the ability to hold for an extended period -- oh yes, and the ironclad belief that the laws of economics haven't changed, i.e., that "this time is different" is a lot of bunk.

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert Barone is a Mangaging Partner / Portfolio Manager of Universal Value Advisors.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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