Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Over the last decade, it would have been possible for investors to make lots of money doing exactly the opposite of what Money Magazine has been telling their readers to do and one of the best examples of this can be found in their very consistent advice about gold.
Put simply, the yellow metal has no place in a Money Magazine reader's investment portfolio, that is, if they want to RETIRE RICH like the happy couple in the magazine cover below.
Don't you just love this type of imagery? They're so happy.
These trends look like they'll be carrying well into the new decade since, by the time it's over, we will likely have seen one of the most exciting final stages to a long-term bull market ever and Money Magazine will no doubt be advising their two million readers to stay away from precious metals all the way up until the end, at which time, their advice will finally be good advice.
But, that process will take years, and there's no telling how high the gold price may go between now and then.
What brings me to this discussion of Money Magazine and gold is that, recently, I've been on the receiving end of a steady flow of correspondence from the nation's most popular personal finance magazine regarding the upcoming expiration of my latest one-year subscription and the pressing need for me to send another $15 or $20 their way to keep it coming.
Well, they won't be getting any checks from me in the new decade since, around here, for most of the last decade, their publication was used as a contrary indicator of sorts and something to poke fun at. Now, both of these routines are getting a little old.
For a brief history as it relates to housing, see the following items:
May 23, 2005 - Shame On You CNN/Money!
Jun 02, 2005 - Money Magazine Does Real Estate
Sep 30, 2005 - Money Magazine Does a One-Eighty
Feb 09, 2006 - Leave Your Equity Alone!
They were wrong about the housing market up until it was obvious that the crash had already begun and they've been wrong about the stock market for a full decade, as many investors now know all too well. Yet, the encouragement continued to come even during the worst of it as seen in The market crash in Money Magazine covers from last March.
While their home remodeling tips and ways to save money on all kinds of expenditures have been helpful, their investment advice has been absolutely terrible as noted here about a year ago in Let Money Magazine fix your portfolio? where the graphic below first appeared.
Note that, in addition to the new black line representing an investment in gold, full-year data for 2009 has been added to the chart that includes all the mutual funds from Vanguard that the magazine's editors feel should be part of your investment portfolio.
This was part of a rather detailed comparison a year ago and its reappearance today along with that added black line was prompted by this article from the most recent issue, the issue that will likely be my last.
Though I haven't interspersed comments in a lengthy quoted article in some time, these latest Money Magazine thoughts about gold as an investment were just crying out for attention and, for old time's sake at least, it seemed like a good idea to have a look at the whole thing.
Off we go...
Coming down with gold feverReally? A 27-pound gold bar would cost almost a half million dollars. Do they stock half-million dollar gold bars at Harrod's and, if so, how do you get them out of the store?
By Stephen Gandel
At Harrod's department store in London, you can pick up a South African Krugerrand or a 27-pound gold bar along with a sweater and bed linens. Gold is sold like candy out of train station vending machines in Germany. Indian households are borrowing against jewelry the way Americans did not so long ago against their homes. And U.S. investors poured $15 billion into gold funds in 2009, as they were pulling money out of stock portfolios.
Well, apparently they do stock them, but you won't find the gold next to the bed linens.
What's interesting here is the tone, right from the start - "sold like candy" and early comparisons to the housing bubble make you realize early on that Stephen hates gold.
Once of interest mainly to central bankers, Swiss jewelers, and folks who are convinced the Trilateral Commission runs the planet, gold is now the world's "it" investment. The question for you: If you buy now, are you getting in on the precious-metal equivalent of Microsoft and Intel circa 1986, or a Miami condo circa 2007?Here we have conspiracy theory jab #1 (I've owned gold for about ten years and just learned what the Trilateral Commission is a couple months ago) and the first bit of spin about where we are in the current bull market.
We're obviously not at the beginning. It's more a question of whether we're half way through, 75 percent, 90 percent, or 100 percent, however, those weren't the options presented to the reader - it was either Microsoft in 1986 or condos in 2007.
It's funny how the last decade was one in which the magazine was a relentless promoter of buying stocks regardless of whether they may have just ended a 20 year bull market run, a fact that is only now dawning on the magazines' editors ten years too late.
Investors have turned to gold for centuries in times of trouble, and as panic over the global financial crisis took hold in late 2008, gold prices started heading up from around $700 an ounce. While panic has abated, fear remains -- of inflation building in the global economy, of an armageddon for the U.S. dollar, of Armageddon, period.Uh ... that would have been pretty good advice in the last decade as demonstrated in the chart above (particularly when compared to what the magazine was advising) and my guess is that a two-thirds weighting of gold bullion in this decade will do pretty well too.
But at some point late last year, as gold touched $1,200 an ounce, greed seemed to take over from fear as the main motivation to buy.
Mark Hulbert, who tracks investment newsletters, notes gold scribes have become so enamored of their subject that they're telling subscribers to devote more than two-thirds of their portfolios to it. SPDR Gold Trust (GLD), an exchange-traded fund that invests in the metal, is now the second-largest ETF in the country, after one that tracks the S&P 500.
The author almost immediately reveals his emotional commitment to his position that gold is not a good investment despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Some people just have a "gold block" in their head that they can't seem to get around despite facts that are obvious to most everyone else. Some people just hate gold...
That's not so surprising. "When something goes up as quickly as gold has, the main thought is, Why am I not in it? And how can I get in it quickly?" says behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational. "That's the same thing that happened with housing."Housing, gold - the same thing, apparently - a common theme for many who will probably just hate the metal even more the higher the price goes.
Can fear and greed keep gold prices climbing? In the short run, perhaps. But the case for gold as an investment? That's built largely on straw, as you'll see from the discussion that follows.
And it's only in fairy tales that one can spin straw into gold.
Of course, owning gold goes against everything that the mainstream financial media has been taught over the last thirty years - a classic case of cognitive dissonance.
Let's get into the details...
Tale No. 1: Inflation is a looming threat, and gold offers you better protection than stocks or bonds.Yeah, that's more great investment advice - wait until there are unambiguous signs that rip-roaring inflation is here before you buy gold. This will allow millions of other investors to go out on a limb a little bit ahead of you, buying precious metals at much lower prices and bidding up the gold price.
The reality: The price of gold is the only thing that seems to be rising.
Inflation is the most common reason gold bugs give for why you need this metal in your portfolio. After all, gold is a hard asset, and real things are expected to hold up better to inflation than paper assets like stocks.
The fear of rising prices is why Peter Schiff, chief global strategist for Euro Pacific Capital, thinks gold could eventually climb to as high as $5,000 an ounce.
But consumer prices aren't actually rising. At least not yet.
Will we see high inflation in the future? We'll find out in a couple years, but, more than at any other time in the past thirty years, the potential for high inflation is now with us and, given the amount of money printing that is being done around the world, the threat is certainly not receding.
Gas, for instance, costs less than it did a year ago.No, gasoline actually costs about 50 percent more.
So does a gallon of milk -- down about 20%. A Big Mac costs a bit more, but not by much. You get the point. Prices on a number of consumer goods peaked in the summer of 2008 and have been falling or stabilizing ever since.It's "hoarding gold", not "investing in gold", and a classic case of "data-picking" in the performance comparison of gold vs. small-company stocks. The gold price reached a high of $850 an ounce in January of 1980, then plunged to around $500 in - surprise! - April of 1980 before rebounding.
5 centuries of bubbles and bursts
To be sure, ramped-up government spending could lead to higher inflation. But that's not a sure thing in recessionary times -- especially in downturns as bad as this one, when consumer demand for goods and services is so depressed.
"For inflation to happen, the government would have to spend more than the trillions of dollars that were lost in home values and bad loans in the credit crunch," says Frank Holmes, CEO of U.S. Global Investors. "We are not near that." And this comes from a guy who manages his firm's gold fund.
Even if Schiff is right and inflation is about to flare up, that's still no reason to be hoarding gold. The investment management firm Research Affiliates studied the last period of sharply rising prices -- the late 1970s -- to find out what was the best investment to own back then. The answer: not gold.
In fact, the study found gold prices and inflation had very little correlation. Between January 1977 and April 1980, small-company stocks were actually the best-performing asset, outpacing gold and other commodities by 4 percentage points a year during that stretch.
In all of 1980, the gold price averaged $612 and, without checking, my guess is that you could make any number of comparisons that would have gold bettering the performance of small-company stocks by a much wider margin than 4 percentage points, but, naturally, that would be unsupportive of the case being made here.
And over a much longer period -- since the end of 1974, when the federal government permitted U.S. households to own gold as an investment for the first time since the Great Depression -- even the S&P 500 index has whipped inflation by a wider margin than the metal has.The end of 1974 also happened to be the low for the 1966-1982 bear market in stocks, so, once again, the dates were selected to favor the point being argued, in this case, disguised as somehow being chosen to be helpful to gold.
That's some pretty impressive spin being employed here...
The reason gold may have been such a popular inflation hedge in the '70s was that there were few alternatives for small investors back then. Not only was that before the rise of low-cost stock index funds, it was decades before Uncle Sam came out with a class of bonds -- Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS -- that are guaranteed to keep pace with rising prices.You hear that a lot - buy TIPS instead of gold if you want "protection" from inflation.
And let's face it: It's a lot easier to keep an electronic record of your TIPS bonds on your firewall-protected hard drive than to store gold bricks in your living room.
What you don't hear a lot is that buying "insurance" from the government to "protect" you from inflation that the government creates is a lot like buying "protection" from the mob. There should be no need for such insurance, but there is.
And, yes, "gold bricks in your living room" elevates the level of the discourse
Tale No. 2: Unlike stocks, gold is real and tangible. So it will hold its value.OK, another not-so-subtle housing bubble-gold bubble tie in, which, if I were writing an anti-gold piece, I'd probably go for too.
The reality: Gold prices fell for a quarter-century before the recent rally.
Gold bugs will argue that you can put more faith in a 27-pound block of metal that you can see and touch than in bits of data sitting on a Treasury Department server.
But remember that the whole "real equals safer" argument was cited as the reason housing values would never sink precipitously -- and you know how that played out.
What's funny is that Money Magazine was so late to warn their readers about the housing bubble, yet so early to warn of a gold bubble. Very odd...
At least stocks give you a share of a firm's earnings, and many pay dividends to boost your overall return. Gold is merely a commodity, and a volatile one at that. Gold prices fell in 14 out of 20 years between 1981 and 2000, and finished that two-decade run having dropped by more than half -- and that's before the effects of inflation are considered.Can it get any more stupid than "The truth is, no one really needs gold"?
But isn't there a limited supply of gold around the world? And doesn't that mean prices will have to go up?
Not exactly. The truth is, no one really needs gold. Besides its use in jewelry, gold serves very few functions. In fact, industrial demand for the metal has been falling for years.
Then why the heck does it cost $1,100 an ounce? Is every single holder of the world just plain nuts? Central banks too?
What is most irksome about all the historical gold vs. stocks comparisons is that you can make whatever argument you'd like depending upon what time periods you pick and, while I'll be the first to admit that gold was great in the 70s, horrible in the 80s and 90s, and now great again, you'll never read in Money Magazine that stocks were horrible in the 70s, great in the 80s and 90s, and bad for the last ten years ... advertisers like Vanguard probably wouldn't be pleased.
Tale No. 3: Despite its spectacular run, gold is still cheap by historical standards.Hello... People are rushing to buy Nasdaq stocks and Las Vegas houses.
The reality: Gold isn't that inexpensive. And who says it's guaranteed to return to old highs?
Gold hit a record $850 an ounce back in 1980. In today's dollars, that comes out to about $2,200 -- or about twice the current price.
But just because gold is cheaper than it once was doesn't mean that it's a screaming bargain. If deflated price is the sole reason something is worth buying, then you should be rushing out to pick up Nasdaq stocks or houses in Las Vegas instead. On an inflation-adjusted basis, both are down off their all-time highs more than gold is.
Okay, but is gold at least attractively valued? A common tool used to determine if an asset is cheap is its price/earnings ratio, which takes what an asset is trading for and divides that by the profits it produces. But because gold doesn't generate earnings, that's impossible to ascertain.Granted, buying gold at $400 an ounce a few years ago was a much better idea than buying it at over $1,000 today, but, trying to "value" gold is a fools' game.
Gold-mining stocks, however, do have P/E ratios, because they're shares of companies that mine and process the metal. And since these stocks are influenced by movements in gold prices, they can be a decent proxy for whether the metal itself is over- or under-valued.
Two of the largest publicly traded gold companies, Newmont Mining (NEM, Fortune 500) and Barrack Gold (ABX), sport P/E ratios of around 17, based on 2010 estimated earnings. Thanks to surging earnings, the P/Es for both stocks are actually lower than they've been in years. Yet the shares are still more expensive than the S&P, with a P/E of 15. This doesn't mean gold can't go higher. But you can't call it cheap.
Moreover, trying to value gold by looking at the P/Es of the biggest gold mining companies is even worse since changes in the gold price directly affect the 'E' in 'P/E'. Assessing the relative value of the primary input to a company's bottom line by looking at how investors value the company's shares? You can't get there from here.
And, as we learned back in 2008, gold and gold stocks are two entirely different things - valuing the former using the latter is about the dumbest thing I've ever read.
Tale No. 4: As the world sours on the U.S. dollar, the demand for gold will take off.Yes, like many others in the world, China would like to buy a lot more gold but is a bit put off at the rising price - a common dilemma these days.
The reality: Even China is wary of gold prices rising too much.
It would have been helpful to note that, while they don't like the rising price, they do like the metal, having announced purchases last year in the amount of 400 tonnes with reports of future buying expected to be in the thousands of tonnes.
Some think recent shifts in the global economy's balance of power are what's causing gold prices to spike.Kudos for mentioning this very important factoid.
Foreign governments have long stockpiled U.S. dollars to shore up their own currencies. And as the buck has sunk with our weakened economy, nations like China have been selling dollars to boost their gold holdings. Global central banks are expected to have bought more gold in 2009 than they sold -- the first time that's happened in 20 years.
But the fear that gold is going to replace the dollar as the world's store of value is largely unfounded. The fact is, governments don't act like pure currency speculators. They hold dollars for economic and political reasons that go beyond the day-today value of the buck. Even with its recent purchases of gold, China still holds 20 times more of its reserves in the greenback than in gold.Yes, and they'd like to get that ratio much, much lower, down to less than 10-to-1...
And as this metal gets more expensive, central banks are becoming price-sensitive. A deputy governor of the Bank of China in early December said higher prices might slow that country's gold purchases.Everybody wants to get a good deal and the Chinese central bank is no exception.
What would you expect them to say as they contemplate the purchase of another 9,000 tonnes of gold, "We think gold is under-valued so we're buying more?"
It's more than a little interesting to note that, in addition to being the word's number one holder of U.S. dollars, China is now the world's number one producer and consumer of gold. If they could trade many more of their dollars for gold without causing the global financial system to collapse, they probably would.
If you fear the dollar's slide, there are far easier (and cheaper) ways to wager against it. "The U.S. economy is in some serious trouble down the road, but I'm not going to pay this much for insurance," says Steve Leuthold, chief investment officer for the Leuthold Group.Buying foreign stocks makes sense, but it's not an either-or decision - you can own both and, as we saw not long ago, gold can be quite resilient when foreign stocks are falling to pieces.
Instead, Leuthold says he is buying stocks in Latin America and Asia, which are a natural hedge against the dollar's demise. After all, if you buy assets denominated in foreign currencies, and those currencies rise in value while you hold them, you can make money simply on the exchange rates -- even if the underlying assets don't appreciate.
Tale No. 5: The "smart money" is buying gold. So you should too.OK, I haven't really been keeping track - this is at least conspiracy theory reference #2...
The reality: Only a small number of sophisticated investors are getting in on the action.
Gold has always been a favorite of doomsayers and conspiracy theorists. But last year it started to go more mainstream. Some of Wall Street's most successful investors are now into gold, including star hedge fund managers such as John Paulson and David Einhorn.
But before you join this movement, consider who these converts are. Paulson made money betting correctly that tens of thousands of mortgage loans would go bust in 2007 and 2008. As for Einhorn, he's best known as a short-seller -- someone who wagers that stocks are going to go down. In other words, it's really Wall Street's version of the same doomsday crowd that's caught the gold bug. It would be different if, say, Warren Buffett was buying up this stuff. He isn't.Don't get me wrong, I like Warren Buffet a lot but it's worth remembering that he bought about $100 million in silver back in the late-1990s for $5 an ounce and then sold it almost a decade later at $7 or $8 an ounce, less than half its current price.
He's not exactly the go-to guy when it comes to investing in precious metals and neither is Nouriel Roubini who, like most economists, probably has an aversion to the yellow metal because of the mere fact that the stuff selling for over $1,000 an ounce makes him lay in bed sometimes late at night wondering whether he wasted seven years of his life studying something that, not only has failed the world so miserably in recent years - contemporary economic theory where "sound money" is not required - but could be fundamentally wrong.
So you'd do well to heed the warning of economist Nouriel Roubini, who was ahead of the pack in predicting the credit crisis. People who argue that there's economic justification for gold prices continuing their rise, he wrote recently, "are just talking nonsense."What is really "nonsense" is the idea that you can keep saying that stocks are a good investment and gold isn't for an entire ten year period when it should be obvious to the most casual observer that the opposite has been true.
Money Magazine, it's been a great ten years (for me, but not for you) and, with this, I bid you a fond farewell - I'll seriously consider restarting my subscription in three to five years when the next bull market in stocks begins.