What the Smart Money is Saying About Gold

The Gold Report |

In the January BIG GOLD, I interviewed a plethora of experts on their views about gold for this year. The issue was so popular that we decided to republish a portion of the edition here.

Given their level of success, these fund managers are worth listening to: James Rickards, Chris Martenson, Steve Henningsen, Grant Williams, and Brent Johnson. Some questions are the same, while others were tailored to their particular expertise.

I hope you find their comments as insightful and useful as I did…

James Rickards is chief global strategist at the West Shore Funds, editor of Strategic Intelligence, a monthly newsletter, and director of the James Rickards Project, an inquiry into the complex dynamics of geopolitics and global capital. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Death of Money and the national best-seller Currency Wars. He’s a portfolio manager, lawyer, and economist, and has held senior positions at Citibank, Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), and Caxton Associates. In 1998, he was the principal negotiator of the rescue of LTCM sponsored by the Federal Reserve. He’s an op-ed contributor to the Financial Times, Evening Standard, New York Times, and Washington Post, and has been interviewed by the BBC, CNN, NPR, C-SPAN, CNBC, Bloomberg, Fox, and the Wall Street Journal.

Jeff: Your book The Death of Money does not paint an optimistic economic picture. What will the average citizen experience if events play out as you expect?

James: The end result of current developments in the international monetary system will almost certainly be high inflation or borderline hyperinflation in US dollars, but this process will take a few years to play out, and we may experience mild deflation first. Right now, global markets want to deflate, yet central banks must achieve inflation in order to make sovereign debt loads sustainable. The result is an unstable balance between natural deflation and policy inflation. The more deflation persists in the form of lower prices for oil and other commodities, the more central banks must persist in monetary easing. Eventually inflation will prevail, but it will be through a volatile and unstable process.

Jeff: The gold price has been in a downtrend for three years. Is the case for gold over? If not, what do you think kick-starts a new bull market?

James: The case for gold is not over—in fact, things are just getting interesting. I seldom think about the “price” of gold. I think of gold as money and everything else as a price measured in gold units. When the dollar price of gold is said to be “down,” I think of gold as a constant store of value and that the dollar is simply “up” in the sense that it takes more units of gold to buy one dollar. This perspective is helpful, because gold can be “down” in dollars but “up” in yen at the same time, and often is when the yen is collapsing against the dollar.

The reason gold is thought to be “down” is because the dollar is strong. However, a strong dollar is deflationary at a time when the Fed’s declared policy is to get inflation. Therefore, I expect the Fed will not raise interest rates in 2015 due to US economic weakness and because they do not want a stronger dollar. When that realization sinks in, the dollar should move lower and gold higher when measured in dollar terms.

The looming global shortage of physical gold relative to demand also presages a short squeeze on the paper gold edifice of futures, options, unallocated forward sales, and ETFs. The new bull market will be kick-started when markets realize the Fed cannot raise rates in 2015 and when the Fed finds it necessary to do more quantitative easing, probably in early 2016.

Jeff: Given what you see coming, how should the average retail investor position his or her portfolio?

James: Since risks are balanced between deflation and inflation in the short run, a sound portfolio should be prepared for both. Investors should have gold, silver, land, fine art, and other hard assets as an inflation hedge. They should have cash and US Treasury 10-year notes as a deflation hedge. They should also include some carefully selected alternatives, including global macro hedge funds and venture capital investments for alpha. Investors should avoid emerging markets, junk bonds, and tech stocks.

Steve Henningsen is chief investment strategist and partner at The Wealth Conservancy in Boulder, CO, a firm that specializes in wealth coaching, planning, and investment management for inheritors focused on preservation of capital. He is a lifetime student, traveler, fiduciary, and skeptic.

Jeff: The Fed and other central banks have kept the economy and markets propped up longer than some thought they could. How much longer do you envision them being able to do so? Or has the Fed really staved off crisis?

Steve: I do not believe we are under a new economic paradigm whereupon a nation can resolve its solvency problem via increasing debt. As to how long the central banks’ plate spinning can defer the consequences of the past 30-plus years of excess credit growth, I hesitate to answer, as I never thought they would get this far without breaking a plate. However incorrect my timing has been over the past two years, though, I am beginning to doubt that they can last another 12 months. Twice in the last few months the stock market plates began to wobble, only to have Fed performers step in to steady the display.

With the end of QE, a slowing global economy, a strengthening dollar, and the recent sharp drop in oil prices, deflationary winds are picking up going into 2015, making their balancing act yet more difficult. (Not to mention increasing tension from poking a stick at the Russian bear.)

Jeff: Gold has been in decline for over three years now. What changes that? Should we expect gold to remain weak for several more years?

Steve: I cannot remember an asset more maligned than gold is currently, as to even admit one owns it receives a reflexive look of pity. While most have left our shiny friend bloodied, lying in the ditch by the side of the road, there are signs of resurrection. While I’m doubtful gold will do much in the first half of 2015 due to deflationary winds and could even get dragged down with stocks should global liquidity once again dissipate, I am confident that our central banks would again step in (QE4?) and gold should regain its luster as investors finally realize the Fed is out of bullets.

The wildcard I’m watching is the massive accumulation of gold (and silver) bullion by Russia, China, and India, and the speculation behind it. Should gold be announced as part of a new monetary system via global currency or gold-backed sovereign bond issuance, then gold’s renaissance begins.

Jeff: Given what you see coming, how should the average investor position her or his portfolio?

Steve: Obviously I am holding on to our gold bullion positions, as painful as this has been. I would also maintain equity exposure via investment managers with the flexibility to go long and short. I believe this strategy will finally show its merits vs. long-only passive investments in the years ahead. I believe that for the next 6-12 months, long-term Treasuries will help balance out deflationary risks, but they are definitely not a long-term hold. Maintaining an above average level of cash will allow investors to take advantage of any equity downturns, and I would stay away from industrial commodities until the deflationary winds subside.

Precious metals equities could not be hated more and therefore represent the best value if an investor can stomach their volatility.

Grant Williams is the author of the financial newsletter Things That Make You Go Hmmm and cofounder of Real Vision Television. He has spent the last 30 years in financial markets in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, Sydney, and Singapore, and is the portfolio and strategy advisor to Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore.

Jeff: The Fed and other central banks have kept the economy and markets propped up longer than some thought possible. How much longer do you envision them being able to do so? Or has the Fed really staved off crisis?

Grant: I have repeatedly referred to a singular phenomenon over the past several years and it bears repeating as we head into 2015: for a long time, things can seem to matter to nobody until the one day when they suddenly matter to everybody. It feels as though we have never been closer to a series of such moments, any one of which has the potential to derail the narrative that central bankers and politicians have been working so hard to drive.

Whether it be Russia, Greece, the plummeting crude oil price, or a loss of control in Japan, there are a seemingly never-ending series of situations, any one (or more) of which could suddenly erupt and matter to a lot of people at the same time. Throw in the possibility that a Black Swan comes out of nowhere that nobody has thought about (even something as seemingly trivial as the recent hack of Sony Pictures by the North Koreans could set in motion events which can cascade very quickly in a geopolitical world which has so many fissures running through it), and you have the possibility that fear will replace greed overnight in the market’s collective psyche. When that happens, people will want gold.

The issue then becomes where they are going to get it from. Physical gold has been moving steadily from West to East despite the weak paper prices we have seen for the last couple of years, and this can continue until there is a sudden wider need for gold as insurance or as a currency. When that day comes, the price will move sharply from being set in the paper market—where there is essentially infinite supply—to being set in the physical markets where there is very inelastic supply and the existing stock has been moving into strong hands for several years. Materially higher prices will be the only way to resolve the imbalance.

Jeff: You’ve written a lot about the gold market over the past few years. In your view, what are the most important factors gold investors should keep in mind right now?

Grant: I think the key focus should be on two things: first, the difference between paper and physical gold; and second, on the continuing drive by national banks to repatriate gold supplies.

The former is something many people who are keen followers of the gold markets understand, but it is the latter which could potentially spark what would, in effect, be a run on the gold “bank.”

Because of the mass leasing and rehypothecation programs by central banks, there are multiple claims on thousands of bars of gold. The movement to repatriate gold supplies runs the risk of causing a panic by central banks.

We have already seen the beginnings of monetary policy divergence as each central bank begins to realize it is every man for himself, but if that sentiment spreads further into the gold markets, it could cause mayhem.

Keep a close eye on stories of further central bank repatriation—there is a tipping point somewhere that, once reached, will light a fire under the physical gold market the likes of which we haven’t seen before, and that tipping point could well come in 2015.

Jeff: Given what you see coming, how should the average investor position his or her portfolio?

Grant: Right now I think there are two essentials in any portfolio: cash and gold. The risk/reward skew of being in equity markets in most places around the world is just not attractive at these levels. With such anemic growth everywhere we turn, and while it looks for all the world that bond yields are set to continue falling, I think the chances of equities continuing their stellar run are remote enough to make me want out of equity markets altogether.

There are pockets of value, but they are in countries where the average investor is either disadvantaged due to a lack of local knowledge and a lack of liquidity, or there is a requirement for deep due diligence of the kind not always available to the average investor.

The other problem is the ETF phenomenon. The thirst for ETFs in order to simplify complex investing decisions, as well as to throw a blanket over an idea in order to be sure to get the “winner” within a specific theme or sector, is not a problem in a rising market (though it does tend to cause severe value dislocations amongst stocks that are included in ETFs versus those that are not). In a falling market, however, when liquidity is paramount, any sudden upsurge of selling in the ETF space will require the underlying equities be sold into what may very well be a very thin market.

In a rising market, there is always an offer. In a falling market, bids can be hard to come by and in many cases, nonexistent, so anybody expecting to divest themselves of ETF positions in a 2008-like market could well find themselves with their own personal Flash Crash on their hands.

Unlevered physical gold has no counterparty risk and has sustained a bid for 6,000 straight years (and counting). Though sometimes, in the wee small hours, those bids can be both a little sparse and yet strangely attractive to certain sellers of size.

Meanwhile, a healthy allocation to cash offers a supply of dry powder that can be used to gain entry points which will hugely amplify both the chances of outperformance and the level of that performance in the coming years.

Remember, you make your money when you buy an asset, not when you sell it.

Caveat emptor.

Chris Martenson, PhD (Duke), MBA (Cornell), is an economic researcher and futurist who specializes in energy and resource depletion, and is cofounder of Peak Prosperity. As one of the early econobloggers who forecasted the housing market collapse and stock market correction years in advance, Chris rose to prominence with the launch of his seminal video seminar, The Crash Course, which has also been published in book form.

Jeff: The Fed and other central banks have kept the economy and markets propped up longer than some thought possible. How much longer do you envision them being able to do so? Or has the Fed really staved off crisis?

Chris: Well, if people were being rational, all of this would have stopped a very long time ago. There’s no possibility of paying off current debts, let alone liabilities, and yet “investors” are snapping up Italian 10-year debt at 2.0%! Or Japanese government bonds at nearly 0% when the total debt load in Japan is already around $1 million per rapidly aging person and growing. I cannot say how much longer so-called investors are willing to remain irrational, but if pressed I would be very surprised if we make it past 2016 without a major financial crisis happening.

Of course, this bubble is really a bubble of faith, and its main derivative is faith-based currency. And it’s global. Bubbles take time to burst roughly proportional to their size, and these nested bubbles the Fed and other central banks have engineered are by far the largest ever in human history.

As always, bubbles are always in search of a pin, and we cannot know exactly when that will be or what will finally be blamed. All we can do is be prepared.

Jeff: If deflationary forces pick up, how do you expect gold to perform?

Chris: Badly at first, and then spectacularly well. It’s like why the dollar is rising right now. Not because it’s a vastly superior currency, but because it’s the mathematical outcome of trillions of dollars’ worth of US dollar carry trades being unwound. So the first act in a global deflation is for the dollar to rise.

Similarly, the first act is for gold to get sold by all of the speculators that are long and need to raise cash to unwind other parts of their trade books.

But the second act is for people to realize that the institutions and even whole nation-states involved in the deflationary mess are not to be trusted. With opaque accounting and massive derivative positions, nobody will really know who is solvent and who isn’t.

This is when gold gets “rediscovered” by everyone as the monetary asset that is free of counterparty risk—assuming you own and possess physical bullion, of course, not paper claims that purport to be the same thing but are not.

Jeff: Given what you see coming, how should the average investor position her or his portfolio?

Chris: Away from paper and toward real things. If the outstanding claims are too large, or too pricey, or both, then history is clear; the perceived value of those paper claims will fall.

My preferences are for land, precious metals, select real estate, and solid enterprises that produce real things. Our view at Peak Prosperity is that deflation is now winning the game, despite everything the central banks have attempted, and that the very last place you want to be is simply long a bunch of paper claims.

However, before the destruction of the currency systems involved, there will be a final act of desperation by the central banks that will involve printing money that goes directly to consumers. Perhaps it will be tax breaks or even rebates for prior years, or even the direct deposit of money into bank accounts.

When this last act of desperation arrives, you’ll want to be out of anything that looks or smells like currency and into anything you can get your hot little hands on. This may include equities and other forms of paper wealth—just not the currency itself. You’ll want to run, not walk, with a well-curated list of things to buy and spend all your currency on before the next guy does.

We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way. Expect the big deflation to happen first and then be alert for the inevitable central bank print-a-thon response.

Because of this view, we believe that having a very well-balanced portfolio is key, with the idea that now is the time to either begin navigating toward real things, or to at least have that plan in place so that after the deflationary impulse works its destructive magic, you are ready to pounce.

Brent Johnson is CEO of Santiago Capital, a gold fund for accredited investors to gain exposure to gold and silver bullion stored outside the United States and outside of the banking system, in addition to precious metals mining equities. Brent is also a managing director at Baker Avenue Asset Management, where he specializes in creating comprehensive wealth management strategies for the individual portfolios of high-net-worth clients. He’s also worked at Credit Suisse as vice president in its private client group, and at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ) in New York City.

Jeff: The Fed and other central banks have kept the economy and markets propped up longer than some thought possible. How much longer do you envision them being able to do so? Or has the Fed really staved off crisis?

Brent: As much as I dislike the central planners, from a Machiavellian perspective you really have to give them credit for extending their influence for as long as they have. I wasn’t surprised they could engineer a short-term recovery, and that’s why, even though I manage a precious metals fund, I don’t recommend clients put all their money in gold. But I must admit that I have been surprised by the duration of the bull market in equities and the bear market in gold. And while I probably shouldn’t be, I’m continually surprised by the willingness of the investing public to just accept as fact everything the central planners tell them. The recovery is by no means permanent and is ultimately going to end very, very badly.

But I don’t have a crystal ball that tells me how much longer this movie will last. My guess is that we are much closer to the end than the beginning. So while they could potentially draw this out another year, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see it all blow up tomorrow, because this is all very much contrived. That’s why I continue to hold gold. It is the ultimate form of payment and cannot be destroyed by either inflation, deflation, central bank arrogance, or whatever other shock exerts itself into the markets.

Jeff: As a gold fund manager, you’ve watched gold decline for over three years now. What changes that? And when? Should we expect gold to remain weak for several more years?

Gold has been in one of its longest bear markets in history. Many of us in the gold world must face up to this. We have been wrong on the direction of gold for three years now. Is this due to bullion banks trying to maximize their quarterly bonuses by fleecing the retail investor? Is it due to coordination at the central bank level to prolong the life of fiat currency? Is it due to the Western world not truly understanding the power of gold and surrendering our bullion to the East? I don’t know… maybe it’s a combination of all three. Or maybe it’s something else altogether.

What I do know is that gold is still down. Now the good news is… that’s okay. It’s okay because it isn’t going to stay down. The whole point of investing is to arbitrage the difference between price and value. And right now there remains a huge arbitrage to exploit. As Jim Grant said, “Investing is about having people agree with you… later.”

Now all that said, I realize it hasn’t been a fun three years. This isn’t a game for little boys, and I’ve felt as much pain as anyone. I think the trend is likely to change when the public’s belief in the central banks starts coming into question. We are starting to see the cracks in their omnipotence. For the most part, however, investors still believe that not only will the central banks try to bail out the markets if it comes to that, but they also still believe the central banks will be successful when they try. In my opinion, they are wrong.

And there are several catalysts that could spark this change—oil, Russia, other emerging markets, or the ECB and Japan monetizing the debt. This “recovery” has gone on for a long time. But from a mathematical perspective, it simply can’t go on forever. So as I’ve said before, if you believe in math, buy gold.

Jeff: Given what you see coming, how should the average investor position her or his portfolio?

Brent: The answer to this depends on several factors. It depends on the investor’s age, asset level, income level, goals, tolerance for volatility, etc. But in general, I’m a big believer in the idea of the “permanent portfolio.” If you held equal parts fixed income, equities, real estate, and gold over the last 40 years, your return is equal to that of the S&P 500 with substantially less volatility. And this portfolio will perform through inflation, deflation, hyperinflation, collapse, etc.

So if you are someone who is looking to protect your wealth without a lot of volatility, this is a very strong solution. If you are younger, are trying to create wealth, and have some years to ride out potential volatility, I would skew this more toward a higher allocation to gold and gold shares and less on fixed income, for example.

Because while I generally view gold as insurance, this space also has the ability to generate phenomenal returns and not just protect wealth, but create it. But whatever the case, regardless of your age, level of wealth, or world view, the correct allocation to gold in your portfolio is absolutely not zero. Gold will do phenomenally well in the years ahead, and those investors who are willing to take a contrarian stance stand to benefit not only from gold’s safety, but also its ability to generate wealth.

One other thing to remember about gold is that while it may be volatile, it’s not risky. Volatility is the fluctuation in an asset’s daily/weekly price. Risk is the likelihood of a permanent loss of capital. And with gold (in bullion form), there is essentially no chance of a permanent loss of capital. It is the one asset that has held its value not just over the years, but over the centuries. I for one do not hold myself out as being smarter than thousands of years of collective global wisdom. If you do, I wish you the best of luck!

Of course, bullish signs for gold have been mounting, which begs the question: could the breakthrough for the gold market be near?

Well, no one knows for sure. But what we do know is that when the market recovers, the handful of superb mining stocks that have survived the slaughter won’t just go up—they’ll go vertical.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer


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