Are Arab Oil Kingdoms and China Attracted to Gold's Glitter?
American political history has repeated itself again. Since World War II, whichever political party controlled the White House during mid-term Elections has lost an average of 6 Senate seats and 30 seats in the House of Representatives. On November 7th, it was the Republicans' turn to endure a thumping, losing control of Congress to the Democrats for the first time since 1994.
The Democrats' 51-49 majority in the Senate was the result of the narrowest of victories in Montana and Virginia. Had 10,000 votes flipped, the Senate would be in the hands of the GOP by a 51-49 margin. Futures traders at Tradesports.com were stunned by the results. From January thru September, the odds of a GOP controlling the Senate at the online betting parlor ranged from 75% to 90%. On election eve, the odds were 73 percent, before crashing to zero the next day.
Traders betting on a GOP victory in the Senate had good reason to take the 73% odds. A few days earlier, US Labor Apparatchniks had revised their originally reported 128,000 increase in August payrolls into a gain of 230,000 jobs, and September's 51,000 increase was tripled to a 148,000 gain. The change for the two months combined was the biggest upward revision since July and August 2000. That sent the US jobless rate 0.2% lower to 4.4% of the workforce, a 5-year low.
However, the glowing jobs report, a 12,000+ Dow Jones Industrials, inflated 401-k's, and an 86 cents per gallon plunge in gasoline prices since August, could not brainwash enough US voters on Election Day. The GOP had wandered too far from its commitment 12-years ago to clean up corruption, shrink the federal government and slash irresponsible spending. Anger about America's war in Iraq, and frustration with the President Bush's trade polices with China, trumped the doctored employment stats and the wealth generated on Wall Street.
The initial reaction on Wall Street to the Democratic sweep was muted, with the Dow Jones Industrials ending 1% higher, while Treasury notes gained a half-point. Yet there were notable movements in the foreign exchange and precious metals markets. The Euro briefly jumped to as high as $1.2900, and the dollar skidded to a 9-year low of 928-Korean won. In a knee-jerk reaction, Gold soared by $20 per ounce to as high as $635/oz on Nov 8th and silver jumped above $13 per ounce.
Saudi Princes Rattled by Democrats, Shifting into Gold
Saudi princes, who control 70% of the stock market in Riyadh have been bailing out of local stocks and moving funds into Gold since early October. The Saudi elite are worried that Democrats could hasten an American withdrawal from Iraq. Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld's departure could well be a first move in that direction. Signaling a broad shift in his Iraq policy, President Bush on Nov 11th described his new pick for defense secretary, Robert Gates, as an "agent of change."
The Democratic chairman, Howard Dean, says Congress will keep up the pressure for change in Iraq. "Americans across the country made it clear that they want a new direction in Iraq and in the war on terror." A Newsweek poll showed that 48% of registered US voters would generally like to see a Democrat elected to the White House in 2008, compared to 28% who want a Republican, scaring jittery Persian Gulf kingdoms that depend upon US military protection.
"The first order of business is to change the direction of Iraq policy," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The American presence was not open-ended, and that, as a matter of fact, we need to begin a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq in four to six months," Levin said on ABC's "This Week" program on Nov 12th.
The man who is about to be isolated in the White House is Vice President Dick Cheney, the last neo-con left. Robert Gates, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft, have been called in for strategy on exiting Iraq over the objections of VP Cheney. But an abandoned Iraq could be seen as a major victory for Islamic insurgents, embolden Iranian and Syrian kingpins, lead to a full-blown civil war in Iraq, and future al-Qaeda or Hizbollah attempts to overthrow the Saudi kingdom.
Saudi Arabia's interior minister on Nov 12th called Iraq a major base for terrorism, a sign of growing concerns in the oil-rich kingdom over its violence-plagued neighbor. "There is no doubt that Iraq now forms a main base for terrorism," said Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif. "The situation in Iraq is deteriorating daily, and the country has become a threat in the region," he warned.
While stock markets around the world are standing at 5-year or new record highs, Saudi blue chips plunged to the 8000 level on Nov 11th, their lowest close in almost 20-months. The sudden collapse below the psychological 10,000 level, sent shockwaves through other Gulf bourses where investors are nervous over Iran's escalating nuclear weapons program, the Shiite revolution moving across the Middle East, and the slide of OPEC's benchmark oil price to below $60 a barrel.
Since October 29th, the Saudi All-share Index has plunged 25%, and the average P/E has fallen to 14 from around 40 times earnings at its peak in February. New listings in Saudi Arabia are also taking a hit as the Arab world's largest stock market posts its sharpest decline since losing half of its capitalization between February and May during a region-wide stock market crash.
Proving its mettle as a safe haven in dangerous times, gold has climbed steadily against the price of OPEC's benchmark crude oil prices from 8.75 barrels in early August to a high of 11.5 barrel last week. Gold traders in London, New York, and Tokyo, have noticed that gold diverged from its tight linkage to the crude oil market over the past few weeks, and the phenomena might have its origin in the Gulf.
Abu Dubai's stock index fell below the 400-level to its lowest close in nearly two years as investors sold shares in the largest companies across the Gulf in response to a slump in Saudi Arabia. Qatar's market fell to its lowest close since Jan 2005, after Iran's Revolutionary Guards fired missiles into Gulf waters. "We have improved the range of our missiles to 170 kilometres (105 miles). This will bring the entire Persian Gulf from the Straits of Hormuz and most of the Sea of Oman within range," said Revolutionary Guards naval chief General Ali Fadavi.
Iran said it fired its longer-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile for the first time, which has a range of up to 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles), sufficient to threaten US bases in the Gulf, Tel-Aviv, and parts of Eastern Europe. The next day, on November 4th, six Arab states including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE said they want to acquire the technology to unlock the secrets to the atomic bomb.
The specter of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is linked to the failure of Europe and Washington to adopt any meaningful measures that can block Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Also, does the recent collapse of Saudi's stock index represent expectations of another big slide in global oil prices in the months ahead? Or perhaps, a general lack of transparency and liquidity, a market that is closed to outside investors, and a dependence on hot money from royal princes?
What's Behind the Plunge in Oil prices?
Weighing on oil prices, US crude inventories are 16.3 million barrels above year-ago levels while heating oil supplies are 18.1 million barrels higher. On October 25th, British Petroleum said its recoverable oil reserves in the Caspian Sea had risen to 6.5 billion barrels from 5.4 billion. The Caspian fields are the main source of crude for the BP-led Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which will eventually pump more than 1 million bpd from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean coast in 2007.
Still, nearly three-quarters of the $20 per barrel plunge in oil prices was linked to the evaporation of the Iranian "war premium", after traders gave up on ideas of a US or Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. UN Security Council members have been dithering for months over divisions over a text, calling for sanctions against Iran, with no agreement in sight. Bush toned down his war mongering rhetoric with Tehran after the Hizbollah-Israeli war in Lebanon, helping to unwind the "fear factor" that inflated $15 per barrel into oil prices earlier this year.
Futures traders at Tradesports.com have progressively lowered the odds of an air-strike against Iran's nuclear facilities before March 31st, 2007, from a high of 43% in December 2005 to a new low of 8% last week. In the aftermath of the Democratic sweep of Congress, the odds of an air strike against Iran's nukes by the end of 2007 are bid at 20.5 percent. In a world with industrial economies increasingly dependent on oil imports, Tehran can flex its muscles as a major oil producer and its control of the Strait of Hormuz, fending off ideas of a military solution.
Are Israel and Iran on a Collision course to full scale War?
In the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. On September 29th, the Israeli Yediot Achronot newspaper reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had held a secret meeting with Saudi Prince Bandar in Jordan. Yediot said Israel and Saudi Arabia had been holding secret talks since fighting erupted in July between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, due to Saudi Arabia's realization that a nuclear Iran, which backs and funds Hezbollah, was capable of destabilizing the Middle East.
Israel and the Arab oil kingdoms in the Gulf are deeply worried that US President George W. Bush is shrinking into a lame duck and won't confront Iran in the final years of his presidency. On November 9th, Israeli deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said that "Israel must be ready to prevent Iran's nuclear program at all costs. Israel cannot afford living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction. International sanctions against Iran won't succeed. My top priority is preparing Israel for victory in the next round with Iran and its proxies."
On Nov 11th, Israel PM Ehud Olmert compared the threat posed by Iran achieving nuclear weapons technology to that of Nazi Germany. "Ahmadinejad is a man who is ready to commit crimes against humanity, and he has to be stopped. I don't believe that Iran will accept a compromise unless they have a very good reason to fear the consequences of not reaching it. It is absolutely intolerable for Israel to accept the threat of a nuclear Iran. Israel has many options," Olmert told Newsweek.
Then on Nov 12th, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Hosseni called Olmert's bluff. "Israel does not have the means or the capability to dare threaten Iran. If the Zionist regime commits such a stupidity, the Islamic republic and its defenders will give a swift, strong and crushing response. Iran will take no longer than a second to respond," Mohammed Ali Hosseini warned.
The war of words escalated again on November 13th, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel is destined for destruction and will soon disappear. "The world's powers had created the Zionist regime to increase their dominance in the Middle East. But Israel is a contradiction to nature, and we foresee its rapid disappearance and destruction," Ahmadinejad declared.
Should traders bet on a big skirmish between Israel and Iran that could send crude oil and gold soaring higher and global stock markets tumbling? In the Middle East, surprise attacks against one's enemies usually occur without warning. When Mid-East leaders pre-broadcast hostile intent to the media, the threats usually are scare tactics, and nothing more than propaganda or empty threats.
That's the working assumption on the Tel-Aviv stock exchange, where the top-25 blue-chip index climbed to a record high of 930 points, an increase of 20% since the August cease-fire with the Iranian Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon. Foreign investment into Israel for the first 10 months of 2006 has reached a record $17.1 billion, an increase of 72% compared with all of 2005. The Israeli shekel has risen 7% against the US dollar since April and remains stable against the Euro.
Thus, Tel-Aviv stock traders are in complete agreement with futures traders at tradesport.com, and see little likelihood of an Israeli or US attack on Iran's nukes anytime soon. Yet the Saudi royal family and other kingdoms in the Persian Gulf see matters differently, and are deeply worried about a break-up of Iraq from a hasty US withdrawal, and might explain the latest surge in Gold above $600/oz.
Beijing Disturbed by Democrats, Signals shift from US$
Democrats are likely to take aim at China's mushrooming trade surplus with the US, which has skyrocketed from $4 million per month in 1976 to $4 billion per week in 2006. There could be greater Congressional pressure on Beijing to push up the value of the yuan against the US dollar, putting China's portfolio of $700 billion of US bonds at risk from currency devaluation.
On October 31st, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton suggested US efforts to get China to move toward a more flexible exchange rate has been frustrated by the leverage given to the Chinese through their huge ownership of US Treasury debt. "How do you get tough on your banker? We have to hope every morning that Beijing and other nations will continue to buy our debt instruments. The trade deficits with China give the US a weakened hand in global trade and economic diplomacy."
On November 4th, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the ranking Democrat on the JEC, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Senior House Democrat on the JEC, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, released the report, "Relying on the Kindness of Strangers: Foreign Purchases of US Treasury Debt." Key findings from the study include the following:
"At the end of fiscal year 2005, 42.1% of the public debt of the United States was held by foreigners. That foreign ownership share rose by 11.8% just since 2001 and will be higher still when the data for 2006 are released. Foreign ownership of Treasury securities more than doubled from $1.0 trillion in January 2001 to $2.2 trillion in August 2006. China's holdings rose 450% to $339 billion. The OPEC nations have doubled their holdings to over $100 billion in the past two years."
"If the United States does not begin to take steps to reduce its unsustainable dependence on foreign borrowing in an orderly way, there could be a run on the US dollar and that could precipitate an international financial crisis and a sharp increase in interest rates," the report warned.
Trying to pre-empt a Democratic showdown on China's $210 billion per year trade surplus with the US, Beijing issued a veiled threat that it might stop buying US bonds, thus exerting upward pressure on US mortgage rates and downward pressure on US home prices. "China has a clear plan to diversify its $1 trillion foreign exchange reserves and is considering various options to do so," warned Chinese central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan on Nov 9th.
Zhou's signal of a possible shift away from US dollars was in quick reaction to harsh rhetoric from Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, who wants to get tougher on trade with China. "I don't think the Bush administration has taken up any trade issue with the Chinese. We should insist if they are going to trade with us it's going to be fair trade. We have to protect American jobs," he said. Under the Bush administration's trade policies, 3.1 million US manufacturing jobs have been lost.
"Diversification includes currencies, investment instruments, including emerging markets," Zhou warned the next day. Asked if Beijing is buying gold, Zhou would only say, "That's a separate thing." Within minutes of Zhou's threats, the British pound and Euro rose to the upper end of their six month trading ranges last week, and gold soared $20 per ounce to as high as $635/oz, with silver above $13/oz.
At the end of 2005, central banks held FX reserves of around $3.5 trillion, with 15% invested in gold. Gold accounted for 70% of US reserves, 50% of ECB reserves, 40% held by Switzerland, 4% by India, 2% by Japan, and around 1% by Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Korea or Malaysia. The big players are China and Japan which hold a combined $1.9 trillion of FX reserves, followed by Russia's $265 billion.
In the 1990's, the prevailing question was, what if European central banks reduce their gold holdings to 10% of their reserves? Now, the question is what if Asian central banks increase their holdings to 10% of their reserves? said Philipp M. Hildebrand, member of the Swiss National Bank, on June 26th, 2006. But to what extent would the People's Bank of China shift into other currencies or gold, while shunning the US dollar, given its dependence on exports to the US to keep its economy humming at 10% per year?
Central Bankers to Resist Gold's Advance
Gold's latest surge from as low as $560 per ounce on October 6th, to as high as $635 per ounce on November 8th, disturbs central bankers in Japan and Europe. They don't want to see gold become a one-way bet to the upside that could signal higher global inflation on the horizon. The first line of defense against gold's advance is "Jawboning." The second option is European central bank gold sales. The third and least palatable option is higher short-term interest rates.
With gold reaching 75,000 yen per ounce in Tokyo on November 8th, Bank of Japan chief Toshihiko Fukui signaled the central bank would have to adjust rates "gradually and not too early, and not too late", based on economic and price conditions. "Waiting for inflation to build up in raising interest rates would cause sharp swings in the economy. Our task is to carefully take action before these conditions appear in order to achieve price stability and keep future economic swings gradual."
"Unexpected risks could arise in the area of asset prices as well as capital spending if the BOJ keeps monetary conditions too loose by being complacent about the economy," Fukui told a financial seminar in Tokyo. Fukui is trying to lay the ground work for a quarter-point rate hike to 0.50% in Q'1 of 2007, but much political wrangling with the inflationist regime of PM Shinzo Abe lies ahead.
Kozo Yamamoto, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, spoke out against the BOJ's plans on October 31st, "Nowhere can we see signs of inflation, and considering that consumer prices could turn negative any time, there is no reason for talk of a BOJ rate hike. With the US economy slowing and domestic price growth showing no sign of accelerating, the central bank's next move should be to lower, not raise, its policy target rate," argued Yamamoto.
Tokyo does not want to pay higher interest rates on new debt offerings slated for fiscal 2007/08 estimated at 27 trillion yen ($230 billion). "I believe Japan has yet to come out of deflation," said Shoichi Nakagawa, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party policy chief on Nov 13th. "I'm against the BOJ raising rates. Given the state of the Japanese economy, talking of a rate hike is absurd," he said.
But the BOJ is also under heavy pressure to hike its overnight loan rate from European finance ministers, who are criticizing the yen's weakness against the Euro, from the widening of interest rate differential between Japan and the Euro zone. That puts European exporters at a big disadvantage in world markets. The Euro's interest rate advantage over the yen has widened by 108 basis points to 3.18% from a year ago, helping to guide the Euro to an 8-year high of 150.60 yen.
Mizuno warned that unwinding Japan's ultra-low interest rate structure would have a decisive impact on short-term carry trades and global capital flows. "If the BOJ's future interest rate hike is taken as a surprise move while the United States and major European nations enter their final phase of monetary policy normalization, it could heighten volatility not only in Japan but in global financial markets. That is why maintaining dialogue with the market becomes even more important."
ECB Disturbed by Gold's Surge to 500 Euros/oz
With gold surging 10% from its October 3rd low to as high as 495 Euros/oz, Bundesbank chief Axel Weber began a Jawboning stint, and said inflation in the Euro zone was likely to pose a risk in 2007. "Economic growth has an increasingly strong foundation. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether the current stimulation of growth through monetary policy is still needed in 2007," he said.
Weber said the recent retreat of Euro zone inflation was transitory, adding that there could be no talk of lasting relief. "The possibility that energy prices can climb again and continued strong credit growth to business are among several risks that the inflation rate will certainly lie above 2% again," Weber said. "It's a signal that I find alarming, in particular when mirrored against strong money and credit dynamics."
On October 26th, ECB member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi said there is a lesson to be learned from the recent round of global rate hikes. "It would appear that in spite of the recent interest rate increases in the three largest areas, that monetary conditions have remained significantly expansionary, as confirmed by the ample liquidity conditions prevailing at the global level," he said.
"When embarking on rate hikes, a central bank should not wait for inflation to appear, and the lower the starting point for rates, the less it can afford to wait for confirmation of ongoing recovery. This would clearly imply falling behind the curve and having to correct more sharply at a later stage with sharper interest rate increases," Smaghi warned. Over the next seven days, 3 European central banks sold gold for 101 million Euros, slowing the yellow metal's advance.
On Nov 13th, Spanish central banker Jose Manuel Gonzalez-Paramo said the ECB was looking at rising house and share prices, and the explosive Euro money supply and credit trends. "When rapid price growth of house and stock assets coincide, there is an empirical association between this situation and inflationary pressures in three or four years, it's not difficult to understand it's like this," he said.
Swiss National Bank Signals higher rates
Swiss National Bank Chairman Jean-Pierre Roth warned on Nov 12th, that further interest rate rises were in the pipeline to fight inflation due to a weak Swiss franc against the Euro. "The weak franc influences the prices of imported goods. We are therefore importing inflation and we have to watch that closely." Traders expect a fifth consecutive increase in the SNB Libor rate target of 25 basis points to 2.00% when it meets again on December 14th and another rise in March 2007.
"If we were to leave interest rates where they are in this period of good business cycle development, we would have to expect inflation in the long term. We thus have interest rate rises in the pipeline," Roth said. The SNB often coordinates it rate adjustments with the European Central Bank, given the importance of the Swiss franc / Euro exchange rate for Swiss exporters.
"If we were to leave interest rates where they are in this period of good business cycle development, we would have to expect inflation in the long term. We thus have interest rate rises in the pipeline," Roth said. The SNB often coordinates its rate adjustments with the European Central Bank, given the importance of the Swiss franc / Euro exchange rate for Swiss exporters.
The franc has depreciated against the Euro over the past two years. The franc is still trading close to a 6-½ low of against the Euro, even after the SNB raised its benchmark interest rate to 1.75 percent. The Swiss franc is utilized as a carry trade currency, in which traders borrow in low-yielding currencies, such as the yen and the Swiss franc, in order to fund investments in higher-yielding assets or commodities.
Jawboning from Federal Reserve Officials
The Federal Reserve paused its 2-year rate hike campaign at 5.25% on August 8th, and has relied on other central banks to tighten their monetary policies to keep global commodity inflation in check. In recent weeks, the Bank of Australia, and the Bank of England, the ECB, have raised their rates by a quarter point. The Bank of China raised its bank reserve requirements by 0.50% to 9.00% last week, which would tie up about 150 billion yuan ($18 billion) in liquidity.
Now that crude oil prices are trying to stabilize near $60 per barrel, in the wake of cutbacks in oil output by the OPEC cartel, Fed officials are jawboning about a resurgence of inflation in 2007. Chicago Fed chief Moskow warned on November 6th, "My current assessment is that the risk of inflation remaining too high is greater than the risk of growth being too low. By my standards, inflation has been too high, and more interest rate increases may be needed," he said.
On October 30th, Richmond Federal chief Jeffrey Lacker sounded similar views. "The US economy is resilient enough right now to withstand further tightening. The longer inflation remains elevated, the more difficult it will be to bring it back down. If the Fed allows inflation to remain above target for too long, expectations could become tightly centered around a higher rate. This danger is what prompted me to vote at recent FOMC meetings for tactics aimed at bringing inflation down more rapidly."
But can the Fed go beyond the Jawboning phase and raise interest further to combat the gold rally and rescue the US dollar? An outright decline in US housing prices of about 5% next year would reduce housing wealth by more than $1 trillion, and that could put a significant dent into consumer spending in 2007. Depending on which estimate you accept, US consumers extracted about $550 billion through cash-out refinancing against the inflated value of their homes in 2005.
The upcoming November 17th edition of Global Money Trends will examine these questions and many other topics, with special analysis and future forecasts.
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