Gold and oil: a tale of two commodities

How money works -- and sometimes doesn't

Enjoy this extra edition of Contention analysis. Like it? Forward it to others who might like Contention too. Got it forwarded to you? Read more and subscribe here.


Gold broke $1,930 an ounce on Monday, its highest level ever. This follows weeks of record inflows to gold-related exchange traded funds (ETFs), and comes alongside silver’s biggest weekly gain in four decades.

Oil also advanced, but prices remain depressed -- the fracking industry now faces “extinction.”

Solving the puzzle of how metals can be gaining while the production of the most crucial commodity of our times can “peak without ever making money in the aggregate” unlocks important insights into how our global system works at its core. 

Money and the world of commodities

To repeat: money exists to circulate commodities. Anything can serve as money as long as there is a stable relationship between the value of money at large and the world of commodities it circulates. The best way to do this: pick a representative commodity to serve as money. Metals have low carrying costs and are easily divisible, so most epochs have settled on gold or some other metal for this purpose.

Since 1971, however, the world money system has not relied upon a representative commodity. Instead it has relied upon the United States to use political and military means to keep commodity prices stable. The easiest way to keep prices steady: pin them down. Prices and profits serve as the signal for action: higher commodity prices = higher input costs = squeezed margins. 

Politicians don’t have to worry about the monetary system, they just have to think about corporate earnings. 

Oil prices and economic crisis

This worked for most of the world’s commodities save one: petroleum. The oil crises of the 1970s prompted a multi-year inflation crisis and economic “stagflation.” The United States responded with the Carter Doctrine, which defined the free flow of oil in the Persian Gulf region as a matter of U.S. national interest, justifying persistent military presence in the region and strategic alliances with key oil-producing states to keep prices low.

This system broke down between 2003 and 2008, with oil prices spiking more than $120 a barrel over that period. What caused the spike? The most likely causes:

This price rise reached crisis levels in 2008 immediately prior to the Great Recession. Correlation isn’t causation, but it isn’t out of line to think that rising fuel and other commodity costs might have prompted an uptick in mortgage defaults. The same goes for investors selling off previously iron-clad securities as prices in general grew unstable. 

Fracking provides a crucial response to this kind of crisis. Not profitable under normal conditions, rising prices draw investment into the sector, bringing on new supply, driving prices down again. Companies borrow big to get started and go bust quickly, but executives get their golden parachutes, creditors get their settlements, attorneys make killer fees, and large firms gobble up all the abandoned assets. Only oil workers, royalty owners, and taxpayers lose.

Gold’s $1,900 moment

Now a new crisis from outside the energy sector has destroyed demand and plummeted prices. Central bank “money printing” in response should be inflationary, and thus the rise in gold prices, according to conventional economic wisdom.

Except that conventional wisdom is actually backwards. The money supply does not determine prices, commodity production determines how much money you need. If production goes up or production costs get bid upwards, you need more money. Money gets pulled out of savings, banks increase lending, and the supply and velocity of money goes up.

Simply pouring more money into a depressed market, on the other hand, drives that cash into savings. This oversupplies money markets, driving down interest rates. As real rates -- interest minus expected inflation -- dip into negative territory, gold’s zero yield becomes a better bet than anything else. That’s how you end up with low oil prices, a collapsing fracking industry, and rising gold values. 

But now U.S. political failure is putting the whole dollar system into question over and on top of this. The result: investment flowing out of the dollar and into the yuan and the Euro. Without a clear alternative to the dollar as “world money,” gold is even more attractive as an asset. If rising demand in countries outside the United States drives up oil costs, price instability could make it even better. 

The puzzle still has pieces that have yet to be placed, but the image is clear: a fragile system is coming to an end, and when it falls who has the gold will rule. 

Disclaimer

Nothing here is investment advice. Not even this.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons