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If gold supplies are rising, why aren't prices falling?

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Newmont Mining/AP/File

(Read caption) This undated file handout photo released by Newmont Mining Corp. shows gold nuggets and bars. Gold has hit highs recently, despite large new supplies from gold mines.

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Brett Arends, writing in the Wall Street Journal Why I Don’t Trust Gold explains the rise of gold in the following way:

If the price rises you’d think there must be a shortage. But data provided by the World Gold Council, an industry body, tell a remarkable story.

Over that period the world has produced—or, more accurately, recovered—far more gold than anyone actually wanted to use. Since 2002, for example, total demand for gold from goldsmiths and jewelers, and dentists, and general industry, has come to about 22,500 tonnes.

But during the same period, more than 29,000 tonnes has come on to the market.

The surplus alone is enough to produce about 220 million one-ounce gold American Buffalo coins. That’s in eight years.

Most of the new supply has come from mine production. Some, though a dwindling amount, has come from central banks. And a growing amount has come from recycling—old jewelry and the like being melted down for scrap. (This is a perennial issue with gold. I never understand why the fans think gold’s incredible durability—it doesn’t waste or corrode—is bullish for the market. It’s bearish.) So if supply has consistently exceeded user demand, how come the price of gold has still been rising?

In a word, hoarding.

Gold investors, or hoarders, have made up all the difference. They are the only reason total “demand” has exceeded supply.

Arends’ explanation is based entirely on a series of misconceptions about how the gold price is formed. He looks at it as if it were a commodity that is produced and then used up. But this is not the case. Gold is produced primarily to be held in the form of bars, coins, or jewelry.

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We all agree that prices are the mechanism by which supply and demand come into balance. Arends is working from the assumption that the price of gold must balance annual mine production against the annual use of gold for fabrication and dentistry. That is not the case at all. This could only be true under the following two (false) assumptions: if all of the gold that already exists – about 100 times annual mine production — were destroyed or otherwise permanently removed from the market, and if potential gold buyers could only purchase gold that was mined in the last year.

The market for gold does not consist only of gold that was mined in the past year. In the gold market, newly mined gold and existing gold form a single market. As I have written on this site, the supply of gold that participates in the price mechanism is all of the gold that exists.. Gold mining has very little impact on price. If mining were halted entirely that would not affect the price by much.

The demand for gold does include fabricators, gold smiths, jewelers and dentists, but these sources of demand constitute a tiny fraction of the total demand. The largest component of gold demand is reservation demand, or demand-to-hold gold by people who own it – also known as hoarding. By not selling their gold at or below the current price, gold hoarders ensure that the price stays at or above that level. By not bidding at or above the current price, dollar (and other money) hoarders ensure that the prices stays at or below the current level.

Trying to understand the gold price on an annual basis leads to the conclusion that there is a phony surplus (or deficit according to others).

Arends writes that more gold was mined than anyone wants to use, as if that has some kind of bearish implications. The mined surplus, according to Arends, has not yet depressing the gold price due to investors dramatically stepping up their hoarding. He implies that this big bump in hoarding is sure to be temporary, and then, gold will crash.

But there is nothing new, or special as Arends seems to think, about hoarding. Hoarding, or demand-to-hold, is the mechanism by which the price of any stockpiled good is set. Arends makes the quantitative increase in hoarding during the last few years seem about 100 times more important than it is by looking only at annual supply. In fact, the demand-to-hoard only needs to increase by about 1% per year in order to keep the market in balance because that is the rate of growth of supply. As long as investors, collectively, are willing to add to their hoards by 1% per year, the price of gold could stay at the same level.

The overwhelming majority of the world’s gold supply is hoarded by someone. The annual demand for destructive uses of gold, e.g. dentistry or irrecoverable industrial use is minuscule and can be met out of annual mine production. The importance of hoarding applies as well to money or any other financial asset as to gold. Take, for example shares of equity of a corporation. Like gold, financial assets are not “used” as in “used up”, they are hoarded. The price of any asset is set by the competition between asset hoarders and dollar hoarders as they balance the sizes of their hoards (otherwise known as accounts or portfolios). The question is, what price will existing gold hoarders choose to increase their stockpiles of money, and at what price will existing money hoarders choose to increase their stockpiles of gold?

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Suppose that you read a research report from a brokerage like this:

Corporation XYZ plans to issue 1 million shares in an upcoming equity offering. Last year’s trading volume in this stock was 0.5 million shares. This new share issuance represents two times annual consumption of XYZ shares. Unless there is a 100% increase in the demand for XYZ shares this year as compared to last year, then the stock price of XYZ will clearly fall. Last year’s demand of 500,000 shares of XYZ was based on investor “hoarding” of XYZ shares. This hoarding demand is clearly temporary, speculative, and irrational; as such, it cannot be relied on to carry into the current year. Therefore the price outlook for XYZ is bearish.

What are the problems with this analysis? The analyst fails to look at how many shares of XYZ are outstanding and then to compare the size of the new offering to the total share count. Suppose that XYZ has already issued 100 million shares, then the new shares only dilute XYZ’s equity by 1%. If the equity offering is priced at fair value, then an equal asset is added to the firms’ balance sheet and existing equity holders are not diluted at all.

The analyst fails to understand that all shares of any equity are “hoarded”, that is, held in a stockpile by an investor somewhere; it is the nature of an asset to be “hoarded”. The analyst confuses trading volume with demand: the 500,000 shares of XYZ that traded last year is not a measure of the total demand for shares, only of the turnover. The trading volume tells you nothing about the price – a stock can trade either up or down on rising or falling volume. The analyst fails to take into account that it is existing bids for the shares that are responsible for maintaining the price where it is. All demand to hoard is speculative in nature though not necessarily irrational. And so it goes with gold.

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