The week began with your editor wondering how the bond market would choke down another $81 billion in U.S. Treasury debt. On Monday, it swallowed $40 billion in three-year notes with gusto, and even belched in satisfaction. Demand, analysts said, hadn’t been that strong since 1990-when the bond vigilantes used the bond market as a weapon to discipline government spending.
Then on Tuesday the market snapped up $25 billion in ten-year notes and yields fell. Sovereign debt? Big whoop! Whether it’s the end of the year and investors feel safer in Treasuries, or some other reason, Tuesday’s auction showed no signs of an impending “bond fire of the vanities.” The bond bubble keeps getting bigger.
Today, though, the market gagged. In an effort to lock-in low rates for longer terms, the Treasury served up $16 billion in 30-year bonds. The market turned sour. Reuter’s reports that demand for the 30-year was the weakest since May and that yields moved up as the weak auction triggered selling.
And then everyone seemed to lose their nerve. Stocks fell across the board. Gold set a new high at $1,123.40 in New York trading, before retreating. The weak 30-year auction has people thinking…what happens when Treasury supply overwhelms demand?
What will happen to bond prices then? To inflation? What should I do?
The rest of today’s Markets and Money will be devoted to some constructive apocalysm. We may have left the impression yesterday that there was nothing but pain and heartache ahead for investors. But that doesn’t have to be the case. But you have to start with the big picture. And that begins with the end of the bull market in bonds.
Check out the chart below from Ron Greiss at the www.thechartstore.com. Ron’s chart shows long-term U.S. bond yields since 1941. Mostly this reflects the yield on 30-year bonds, although there were periods where 30-year issuance was discontinued. Either way, it shows a great cycle…which appears to be bottoming out.
What story does this chart tell? We reckon it shows you why the U.S. government (and so many banks and borrowers) are eager to sell as much debt now as possible. Rates are near historic lows. If and when they go up, it’s going to make borrowing and servicing new debt even more expensive. Bond prices will fall and yields will rise again.
Now you could say that, according to the chart, there is room for another decade of low yields. The Fed, for example, could move to set rates further out on the yield-curve. It only sets rates right now for short-term debt. But the quantitative easing program has moved the Fed out to ten-year yields. It’s done this to try and keep mortgage rates low, as mortgage-rates are keyed to U.S. ten-year yields.
But we reckon not even the Fed can keep yields low forever by supporting prices. It will have to wind down its programs eventually. For example, the U.S. government ran its largest October deficit ever last month, at $176 billion. Between demographics and existing debt, the Fed may not have the resources to support bond prices too.
Besides, you’d think markets would begin to tire of U.S. debt, given the lousy fiscal position of the American government. At least that’s what we’d think. And if we were trading it, we’d look for put options on ETFs that track bond prices, or call options on ETFs that track bond yields. That would be the cheap trade.
The investment decision is to find assets that out run inflation as bond yields move up. Granted, this assumes there is going to be inflation, which is a whole other argument. But if you’ll grant us the assumption, we’ll continue with the strategy…of finding assets that beat inflation.
You don’t have to look far. Gold…oil…iron ore…tangible assets are what you’re after. Does this conflict a bit with our analysis yesterday that China’s resource demand is more fragile than reported? Yes, it does. But it still pays to focus on those resources that will be in demand no matter how bad the global economy gets again. What do nation states really want to own? What can they not do without?
You know they can’t do without oil. And you know more and more of them prefer to own at least some gold rather than rapidly devaluing foreign currencies. That leaves us where we began, buying oil and gold and selling U.S. sovereign debt. Production of the first two is hard to increase. Supply of the last one is growing.
“There is a strong case to be made that we are already at ‘peak gold’,” Barrick’s Aaron Regent told London’s The Daily Telegraph today. Regent was speaking at RBC’s annual gold conference in London. “Production peaked around 2000 and it has been in decline ever since, and we forecast that decline to continue. It is increasingly difficult to find ore.”
Gold exploration budgets are up. But with the exception of China, gold production from traditional stalwarts like South Africa and Australia has trended down. Alex Cowie at Diggers and Drillers recently wrote a report suggesting that the best Aussie gold stories are listed here in Australia but digging for gold in Africa, where they incur production costs in U.S. dollars and where there are more greenfield projects than recycled brownfield projects.
Frankly, we have no idea if gold production has peaked. Mine supply could grow this year for all we know. But finding and mining gold is not easy and it’s not cheap. And even if the gold supply does grow, we’d take it to the bank that the global gold supply will not grow faster than global money supply.
And oil? Any scenario in which an economic collapse leads to falling GDP ought to mean lower demand for oil and lower oil prices. But the case for oil is not really about the demand side. You reckon that’s bound to grow over time anyway, unless someone comes up with table top cold fusion. The real oil bull story is on the supply side.
Earlier this week the U.K.’s Guardian reported that, “The world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit, according to a whistleblower at the International Energy Agency who claims it has been deliberately underplaying a looming shortage for fear of triggering panic buying.”
” ‘The IEA in 2005 was predicting oil supplies could rise as high as 120m barrels a day by 2030 although it was forced to reduce this gradually to 116m and then 105m last year,’ said the IEA source, who was unwilling to be identified for fear of reprisals inside the industry. ‘The 120m figure always was nonsense but even today’s number is much higher than can be justified and the IEA knows this.'”
We remember writing about the IEA figure a few years ago. And we remember pointing out that producing 120 million barrels of oil per day would be a 44% increase on producing 83 million barrels per day. And you’d have to find that oil first. You’d have to explore, drill, and produce it. And you’d have to maintain existing production levels at the world’s big elephant fields like Cantarell and Ghawar.
In point of fact, production at Cantarell has fallen by 25% since 2004. Energy expert Matthew Simmons says Mexico’s days as an oil exporter will end in 18 to 36 months. This makes Mexico’s government-which derives 40% of its revenues from oil sales-the most likely candidate for “next failed state.”
By the way, if you think illegal immigration is problem in America now (and it is), imagine what would happen if the finances of the Mexican state imploded with a production catastrophe at Cantarell. The Obama administration would face another crisis, but this one right on its massive southern border.
Not everyone believes in Peak Oil. But it’s not really a matter of faith. Either oil production is declining or it is not. It does not mean there isn’t any oil left. In fact, technology has lengthened the life of productive fields. And technology has also made it possible to find and produce oil in increasingly hostile environments (deep water drilling, the Arctic, etc.)
Even rank and file petroleum geologists are mostly in agreement (and sometimes in disagreement with their corporate overlords) that Peak Oil is real and it’s here now. But we make this point not to say that all is lost. It isn’t. It’s just the great changes in the world are afoot.
You have a secular bond bull that’s long in the tooth. The post-war monetary system that supported the expansion of the fiscal welfare state through perpetual debt is failing. Energy, which has been getting cheaper and cheaper for years as we found more and more of it, may start becoming more expensive and harder to find.
That’s going to make the world a slightly less friendly place. But for investors, there are heaps of opportunities. For example, right now Alex is looking at what the fallout from next month’s Copenhagen summit is. It has opened the door to a great entry point for energy investments, but not necessarily oil. Fear not! Or fear a little. But prepare.
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