Gold & Oil – a new paradigm

The expanding BRICS bloc is moving away from the PetroDollar, looking to settle oil imports in their domestic currencies. But that is unlikely to be achieved without the use of an alternative reserve asset that can be used to settle trade imbalances. The only likely candidate is Gold.

But first let’s start with a review of financial markets.

Financial Markets

The Chicago Fed Financial Conditions Index fell to -0.53, signaling further monetary easing.

Chicago Fed Financial Conditions Index

Bitcoin found support above $60K and recovery above $68K would signal a re-test of resistance at $72K, indicating ample liquidity in financial markets.


10-Year Treasury yields respected resistance at 4.35%. Breach of support at 4.20% would signal another test of 4.05%.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Janet Yellen at Treasury is doing her best to keep a lid on long-term Treasury yields in order to ensure a smooth run-up to the November elections. This includes limiting the supply of long-term Treasuries by issuing short-term T-Bills in their place.

Keeping long-term yields low helps to support stock prices. High stock prices in turn boost tax revenues which reduce the deficit and new issuance of USTs.

The S&P 500 weekly chart shows how the index has been rising since late-2023. Shallow corrections, of less than 3%, indicate exceptional buying pressure. That and a strong rise in the Trend Index (above zero) suggest that stocks are getting overheated.

S&P 500

The magnificent 7 technology stocks have been leading the advance but now two — Apple (AAPL) and Tesla (TSLA) — are falling behind. A stumble in more key stocks would be cause for concern.

Top 7 Technology Stocks

The Dollar

The Dollar Index, shown on the weekly chart below, is headed for a test of resistance at 105. Breakout would signal an advance to 107. The sharp rise on Friday is attributed to a surprise rate cut by the Swiss central bank.

Dollar Index - Weekly

The PBOC also relaxed its managed float, allowing the exchange rate to rise above 7.2 Yuan to the Dollar.


It is unusual to see the Dollar strengthening while long-term Treasury yields are falling. We need to monitor this closely.

Crude Oil

Brent crude is retracing to test support at $84 per barrel. But respect is likely and would confirm our target of $94 per barrel. If that occurs, we expect upward pressure on inflation in the months ahead.

Brent Crude


Spot Gold in London is retracing to again test support at $2150 per ounce. Respect would signal another advance and follow-through above $2200 would confirm our target of $2400.

Spot Gold

A New Paradigm

The global crude oil market dwarfs other commodities, with production of more than 100 million barrels per day (EIA). Gold production is only 5000 metric tonnes per year — a fraction of the crude market — but the two have close historic links.

High crude prices often coincided with high gold prices. It was believed that oil producers increased purchases of gold when they made excess profits but in the last decade, there has been greater divergence between Gold and Crude.

10-Year Treasury Yield minus CPI & Gold 12-Month Percentage Gain

Another historic factor was the relationship between gold and real interest rates. The chart below shows how gold made large 12-month gains (orange) whenever the real 10-year Treasury yield (adjusted for CPI) fell below zero.

Negative real yields were the perfect signal to go long Gold, in expectation of rising inflation, funded by negative real interest rates. But that relationship too broke down, with negative real yields of -5.0% accompanied by falling Gold prices after August 2020.

10-Year Treasury Yield minus CPI & Gold 12-Month Percentage Gain

Gold bulls have long accused the Fed/Treasury of manipulating the gold price. In the 1960s, it was done openly by the London Gold Pool, a consortium of 8 major central banks, led by the Fed, who collaborated to maintain a fixed gold price of $35 per ounce. The Gold Pool collapsed in 1968, allowing gold to appreciate above the fixed exchange rate. This led to Richard Nixon to end US Dollar convertibility to gold in 1971.

It makes sense for central banks to suppress the price of Gold — this would increase demand for US Treasuries and other sovereign debt as reserve assets.

We have also observed unusual activity on Comex futures, with heavy selling into rallies. Any rational seller would sell in smaller quantities and avoid off-peak times — when bids are thin — in order not to interrupt the trend and maximize prices achieved. Large sellers generally take pains to avoid alerting the market as to their intentions. The opposite of some of the “shock and awe” selling in futures markets that we suspect is intended to destroy momentum built up in preceding days.

Gold Futures - Dump

Typical Gold Dump in Futures Market, February 2nd 12:36 PM to 12:45 PM

These are merely suspicions. We have no definitive proof. But those suspicions are now being put to the test.


China and Russia have been uncomfortable with US dominance of the global financial system and have long been making efforts to establish an independent reserve currency as an alternative to the Dollar. Their efforts failed to gain much traction until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. US and European sanctions — blocking Russian assets held by European banks and removing Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system — alerted non-aligned countries to their vulnerability should they ever offend the US or its European allies.

The response has been an expansion of the BRICS bloc, with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Egypt and Ethiopia invited to join in August 2023. Argentina has since declined the invitation — after the election of Javier Millei — and the Saudis are “still considering”. The shift is motivated by a desire to reduce dependence on the US Dollar for trade — and US Treasuries as a reserve asset.

Central bank (CB) gold purchases are growing.

Central Bank Gold Purchases

Jan Nieuwenhuijs recently suggested that CB purchases may be far higher than official declarations (red below). He estimates that 80% of unreported purchases are made indirectly on behalf of CBs.

Central Bank Gold Purchases including estimates of Undisclosed Purchases

PBOC purchases account for a large percentage of unofficial buying.

PBOC Gold Purchases & Holdings

Crude Oil Payments

Major oil importers like India and China have signed agreements to pay for oil in their own currencies but that is likely to leave exporters like Russia and the Saudis holding excess Rupees and Yuan that they do not need and are unlikely to want to hold as reserves.

Non-USD trade in oil would only be viable if net trade imbalances are settled by transfer of gold between trading partners, with surplus countries like the Saudis purchasing gold from the Chinese with Yuan that are surplus to their needs. Demand for gold is expected to rise exponentially as the BRICS bloc expands and oil trades are increasingly settled in domestic currencies. Major oil importers like India and China are likely to require larger gold holdings in order to settle trade imbalances with oil exporters like the Saudis and Russians. Oil exporters are expected to recycle gold to fund purchases of goods and services from non-BRICS trading partners but the total “float” of gold in the system is likely to increase.

We continue to see a growing pile of evidence that gold is re-becoming an oil currency, which by virtue of the oil market alone being some 12-15x the size of the global physical gold market annually, suggests a continued relentless bid for gold in coming quarters and years that will puzzle many on Wall Street. ~ Luke Gromen

Physical Gold Flows

Physical gold is flowing out of London and Zurich as Asian buyers bid up prices.

A recent Doomberg interview pointed out that Gold quoted on the Shanghai Gold Exchange is at a premium of between $20 and $40 per ounce above the London Gold price. Friday’s PM Benchmark of CNY 511.40 per gram converts to $2200 per troy ounce, compared to the London spot price of $2165 per ounce — a premium of $35.

Arbitrage will ensure a steady flow of physical gold out of London and Zurich for as long as that premium is maintained.

Shanghai Gold Exchange: Yuan/Gram of Gold

Gold in CNY/gram as quoted on Shanghai Gold Exchange
(red = AM, blue = PM benchmark price).


Stocks continue their bull run, supported by strong liquidity in financial markets and weakening long-term Treasury yields.

The Dollar has diverged, however, rising sharply against the Euro and China’s Yuan. Dollar Index breakout above 105 would warn of an up-trend with an immediate target of 107.

Gold is retracing to test support at $2150 per ounce. Respect would signal another advance. But we need to be careful of the rising Dollar. Breakout above 105 would be likely to weaken demand for Gold.

Brent crude is testing support at $84 per barrel. Respect is likely and would confirm our target of $94. High crude oil prices would be expected to increase inflationary pressures in the months ahead and force the Fed to delay rate cuts. The resultant rise in long-term Treasury yields would be bearish for stocks.

We expect a new paradigm to emerge, where the Gold price is no longer determined by Western buyers seeking an inflation hedge to protect against erosion of currency purchasing power and as a safe haven when risk is high. Marginal buyers are likely to be BRICS+ (the expanded BRICS bloc) central banks, seeking to use gold to settle trade imbalances from oil and gas imports paid for in non-USD currencies. The supply of Gold is inelastic, so the price is expected to rise steeply until a new equilibrium is reached.


What really drives inflation?

Every month, after the FOMC meeting, Fed Chairman Jay Powell fronts the media and tells everyone how the Fed is determined to maintain the fed funds rate in the same 5.25% – 5.50% range in order to contain inflation. But he is well aware that the Fed funds rate has had close to zero impact on inflation.

CPI peaked in June 2022 when the fed funds rate was an eye-watering (sic) 1.25%. CPI then plunged sharply when the Fed was still in the early stages of hiking rates. The lag between rate hikes and the resultant decline in inflation is normally 12 to 18 months. Now the Fed would have us believe that CPI declined in anticipation of rate cuts.

CPI & Fed Funds Rate Target (Minimum)

Financial conditions did tighten when the Fed introduced QT, with the Chicago Fed Financial Conditions Index (FCI) rising to -0.1%. But then FCI started a sharp decline in June 2023, when the Fed was still hiking rates, indicating monetary easing.

Chicago Fed Financial Conditions Index

Rising interest rates and tighter financial conditions had even less than usual impact on consumer spending because of a strong upsurge in personal savings during the pandemic. A large percentage of government transfers were not spent but went to increase bank deposits.

Government Transfers & Commercial Bank Deposits

Energy is driving inflation

The primary cause of the strong upsurge in CPI in ’21/22 was energy prices. The chart below shows how energy CPI (orange) led CPI (red) higher, reaching a peak of 41.5% in June 2022 — the same month that CPI peaked at 9.0%. Energy prices then plunged to a low of -16.7% in June 2023. CPI followed, reaching a low of 3.1% in the same month. Since then, CPI energy has recovered to close to zero, producing a floor in the annual CPI rate.

CPI & Energy CPI

Energy CPI is a relatively small component of CPI — 6.6% of total CPI — but it is a major cost component of most other variables. Food, for example, requires energy for planting, irrigation, harvesting, processing, refrigeration and transport. Cement requires energy for heating limestone in kilns, crushing and transportation. Steel needs energy for extraction and transport of iron ore, smelting and transportation. Even online services. The latest AI data centers require up to 1 GW of electricity capacity — enough to power 300,000 homes.

The most important determinant of energy prices is crude oil. Nymex light crude peaked between March and June 2022 at prices of $100 to $120 per barrel before commencing a prolonged decline to between $70 and $80 by December of the same year.

Nymex WTI Light Crude


Raising the fed funds rate has had little impact on actual inflation. Rate hikes are more about restoring the Fed’s credibility as an inflation hawk after a disastrous performance in 2021. High energy prices and easy monetary policy and were a recipe for inflation.

CPI & Fed Funds Rate Target (Minimum)

The sharp decline in CPI in the 12 months to June ’23 was caused by falling energy prices. Energy CPI fell from an annual increase of 41.5% in June 2022 to a low of -16.7% a year later.

Nymex light crude has now broken resistance at $80 per barrel. Expect retracement to test the new support level but respect is likely and would confirm another advance, with a target of $90 per barrel.

Nymex WTI Light Crude

A sharp rise in crude prices would be likely to cause a significant upsurge in CPI — and long-term interest rates. With bearish consequences for stocks and long-duration bonds.

Australia: Monthly CPI proving “sticky”

Australian monthly CPI fell to 4.9% for the 12 months to October while trimmed mean — the RBA’s favorite measure of underlying inflation — edged down slightly, from 5.4% in September to 5.3% in October. This supports the RBA governor’s message that services inflation may prove difficult to tame.

Australian CPI, Core CPI, and Trimmed Mean

Especially when one considers that electricity prices are measured net of government rebates and relief payments. Before adjustment, electricity prices increased by 14.0% over the past 12 months and not the 10.1% included in CPI.

Australian CPI: Electricity Prices

Monthly rent inflation also shows a surprising fall from 7.6% for the 12 months to September — to 6.6% in October. The decline of 1.0% was again due to adjustment for Commonwealth Rent Assistance payments.

Australian CPI: Dwellings & Rent

In monthly terms, Rent prices fell 0.4% in October, following a 0.3% rise in September. The fall in Rents this month was due to the remaining impact of the changes to Commonwealth Rent Assistance. From 20 September the maximum rate available for rent assistance increased by 15%, on top of the regular biannual indexation. An increase in rent assistance reduces rents for eligible tenants. Excluding the changes to rent assistance, Rents would have risen 0.7% over the month. (ABS)


CPI inflation is understated by adjustment for Government rebates and assistance payments. Trimmed mean CPI is proving “sticky” and may require further rate hikes from the RBA.


Westpac and CBA call a rate hike

Luci Ellis, new Chief Economist at Westpac, believes the inflation overshoot in September was enough to expect an RBA rate hike:

Last week we noted that the RBA would leave rates unchanged so long as they saw inflation coming down as they had expected. But if the data flow showed inflation declining slower than that, they would raise rates. This message was reinforced in the Governor’s first speech, on Tuesday, where she said “The Board will not hesitate to raise the cash rate further if there is a material upward revision to the outlook for inflation.” The September quarter CPI release was always going to be crucial.

Has the RBA seen enough to move? At 1.2% in the quarter, both headline and trimmed mean inflation was a little higher than the Westpac team expected (see Westpac Senior Economist Justin Smirk’s note). We assessed that it would take a significant upside surprise to induce the RBA Board to raise rates at the November meeting. A 0.1% difference might not seem like a lot, but the underlying detail was sobering.

So yes, I’ve seen enough to make my first-ever rate call to be a prediction of a hike. (Westpac)

Gareth Aird and Stephen Wu at CBA expect the RBA to raise the cash rate by 25bp (to 4.35%) on Melbourne Cup day:

The RBA has a hiking bias. And on Tuesday night, RBA Governor Bullock stated, “the Board will not hesitate to raise the cash rate further if there is a material upward revision to the outlook for inflation”.

We are not sure what constitutes a ‘material upward revision’ to the RBA’s inflation forecasts. But we consider the lift in underlying inflation over Q3 23 to be sufficiently strong for the RBA to act on their hiking bias at the upcoming Board meeting. (Commbank Research)

The Big Picture: War, Energy, Bonds and Gold

Two inter-connected themes likely to dominate the next few decades are War and Energy.

War may take the form of a geopolitical struggle between opposing ideologies, with conventional wars limited to proxies in most cases and nuclear exchanges avoided because the costs are prohibitive. But it is likely to involve fierce competition for energy and resources in an attempt to undermine opposing economies. The impact is likely to be felt throughout the global economy and across all asset classes, including bonds, stocks and precious metals.


War can take many forms: conventional war, nuclear war, proxy war, cold war,  economic war, or some combination of the above.

Nuclear war can hopefully be avoided, with sane leaders skirting mutually assured destruction (MAD). For that reason, even conventional war between great powers is unlikely — but there is a risk of it being triggered by escalation in a war between proxies.

Cold war, with limited trade between opposing powers — as in the days of Churchill’s Iron Curtain — is also unlikely. Global economic interdependence is far higher than sixty years ago.

Greg Hayes, chief executive of Raytheon, said the company had “several thousand suppliers in China and decoupling . . . is impossible”. “We can de-risk but not decouple,” Hayes told the Financial Times in an interview, adding that he believed this to be the case “for everybody”.

“Think about the $500bn of trade that goes from China to the US every year. More than 95 per cent of rare earth materials or metals come from, or are processed in, China. There is no alternative,” said Hayes. “If we had to pull out of China, it would take us many, many years to re-establish that capability either domestically or in other friendly countries.”

What is likely is a struggle for geopolitical advantage between opposing alliances, with economic war, proxy wars, and attempts to build spheres of influence. This includes enticing (or coercing) non-aligned nations such as India to join one of the sides.

Such a geopolitical arm-wrestle is likely to have ramifications in many different spheres, but most of all energy.


You can’t fight a war without energy. A key element of the geopolitical tussle will be to secure adequate supplies of energy — and to deprive the opposing side of the same.

The situation is further complicated by the attempted transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources.

Since the Industrial revolution, development of the global economy has been fueled by energy from fossil fuels, with GDP and fossil fuel consumption growing exponentially. Gradual transition to alternative energy sources would be a big ask. To attempt a rapid transition while in the midst of geopolitical conflict could end in disaster.

Global Energy Sources

The challenge is further complicated by attempts to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar which generate intermittent power. Base-load power — generated from fossil fuels or nuclear — is essential for many industries. Microsoft are investigating the use of nuclear to power data centers. The US Department of Defense (DoD) has commissioned Oklo Inc. to design and build a nuclear micro-reactor to power Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. Renewables are a poor option for critical applications.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine highlighted Germany’s energy vulnerability despite billions of Euros invested in renewables over recent decades. You cannot run a modern industrialized economy without reliable energy sources.

Low investment in fossil fuel resources — which fail to meet ESG standards — has further increased global vulnerability to energy shortages during the transition.


War and pandemics cause high inflation. Governments run large deficits during times of crisis, funded by central bank purchases in the absence of other investors. This causes rapid expansion of the money supply, leading to high inflation.

Geopolitical conflict and the attempt to rapidly transition to carbon-free fuels — while neglecting existing resources — are both likely to cause a steep rise in energy costs.

Energy Prices

Bond Market

The bond market has the final say. The recent steep rise in long-term Treasury yields is the bond market’s assessment of fiscal management in the US. The deeply divided House of Representatives has effectively been awarded an “F” on its economic report card.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Failure of a divided government to address fiscal debt at precarious levels and rein in ballooning deficits raises a question mark over future stability, with the bond market demanding a premium on long-term issues.

The rating downgrade of the United States reflects the expected fiscal deterioration over the next three years, a high and growing general government debt burden, and the erosion of governance relative to ‘AA’ and ‘AAA’ rated peers over the last two decades that has manifested in repeated debt limit standoffs and last-minute resolutions. (Fitch Ratings)

CBO projections show federal debt held by the public rising from 98% of GDP today to 181% in thirty years time.

CBO Debt Projections

Rising long-term yields also add to deficits as servicing costs on existing debt increase over time. The actual curve is likely to be even steeper. CBO projections assume an average interest rate of 2.5%, while current rates are close to 5.0%.

Yield Curve

Continuing large fiscal deficits in the next few decades appear unavoidable. The result is likely to be massive central bank purchases of fiscal debt — as in previous wars/pandemics — with negative real interest rates (red circles below) driving higher inflation (blue) and rising inequality.

Moody's Aaa Corporate Bond Yield & CPI

Political instability

Interest rate suppression effectively subsidizes borrowers at the expense of savers. Only the wealthy are able to leverage their large balance sheets, buying real assets while borrowing at negative real interest rates. Those less fortunate have limited access to credit and suffer the worst consequences of inflation, further accentuating the division in society and fostering political instability as populism soars.


Resources are likely to be in short supply, from under-investment during the pandemic, geopolitical competition, and the attempted rapid transition to new energy sources. Prices are still likely to fall if global demand shrinks during a recession. But growing demand, shrinking supply (from past under-investment) and inflation pushing up production costs are expected to lead to a long-term secular up-trend.



High inflation, negative real interest rates and geopolitical competition are likely to weaken the Dollar, strengthening demand for Gold as a safe haven and inflation hedge. Breakout above $2000 per ounce would offer a long-term target of $3000.

Spot Gold


We expect large government deficits and shortages of energy and critical materials — such as Lithium and Copper — the result of a geopolitical struggle and attempt to transition to low-carbon energy sources over several decades.

Rising government debt will necessitate central bank purchases as the bond market drives up yields in the absence of foreign buyers. The likely result will be high inflation and interest rate suppression as central banks and government attempt to manage soaring debt levels and servicing costs.

Our strategy is to be overweight commodities, especially critical materials required for the transition to low-carbon fuel sources; short-term bonds and term deposits; and defensive (value) stocks.

We are also overweight energy, including: heavy electrical; nuclear technology; uranium; and oil & gas resources.

Gold is more complicated. Rising long-term interest rates will weaken demand for Gold, while geopolitical turmoil will strengthen demand, causing a see-sawing market with high volatility. If long-term yields fall — due to central bank purchases of US Treasuries — expect high inflation. That would be a signal to load up on Gold.

We are underweight growth stocks and real estate. Rising long-term interest rates are expected to lower earnings multiples, causing falling prices. Collapsing long-term yields due to central bank purchases of USTs, however, would cause negative real interest rates. A signal to overweight real assets such as growth stocks and real estate.

Long-term bonds are plunging in value as long-term yields rise, with iShares 20+ Year Treasury ETF (TLT) having lost almost 50% since early 2020.

iShares 20+ Year Treasury ETF

The trend is expected to reverse when Treasury yields peak but timing the reversal is going to be difficult.


Economic Outlook, March 2023

Here is a summary of Colin Twiggs’ presentation to investors at Beech Capital on March 30, 2023. The outlook covers seven themes:

  1. Elevated risk
  2. Bank contagion
  3. Underlying causes of instability
  4. Interest rates & inflation
  5. The impact on stocks
  6. Flight to safety
  7. Australian perspective

1. Elevated Risk

We focus on three key indicators that warn of elevated risk in financial markets:

Inverted Yield Curve

The chart below plots the difference between 10-year Treasury yields and 3-month T-Bills. The line is mostly positive as 10-year investments are normally expected to pay a higher rate of investment than 3-month bills. Whenever the spread inverted, however, in the last sixty years — normally due to the Fed tightening monetary policy — the NBER has declared a recession within 12 to 18 months1.

Treasury Yields: 10-Year minus 3-Month

The current value of -1.25% is the strongest inversion in more than forty years — since 1981. This squeezes bank net interest margins and is likely to cause a credit contraction as banks avoid risk wherever possible.

Stock Market Volatility

We find the VIX (CBOE Short-term Implied Volatility on the S&P 500) an unreliable measure of stock market risk and developed our own measure of volatility. Whenever 21-day Twiggs Volatility forms troughs above 1.0% (red arrows below) on the S&P 500, that signals elevated risk.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Volatility (21-Day)

The only time that we have previously seen repeated troughs above 1.0% was in the lead-up to the global financial crisis in 2007-2008.

S&P 500 & Twiggs Volatility (21-Day)

Bond Market Volatility

The bond market has a far better track record of anticipating recessions than the stock market. The MOVE index below measures short-term volatility in the Treasury market. Readings above 150 indicate instability and in the past have coincided with crises like the collapse of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) in 1998, Enron in 2001, Bear Stearns and Lehman in 2008, and the 2020 pandemic. In the past week, the MOVE exceeded 180, its highest reading since the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

MOVE Index

2. Bank Contagion

Regional banks in the US had to be rescued by the Fed after a run on Silicon Valley Bank. Depositors attempted to withdraw $129 billion — more than 80% of the bank’s deposits — in the space of two days. There are no longer queues of customers outside a bank, waiting for hours to withdraw their deposits. Nowadays online transfers are a lot faster and can bring down a bank in a single day.

The S&P Composite 1500 Regional Banks Index ($XPBC) plunged to 90 and continues to test support at that level.

S&P Composite 1500 Regional Banks Index ($XPBC)

Bank borrowings from the Fed and FHLB spiked to $475 billion in a week.

Bank Deposits & Borrowings

Financial markets are likely to remain unsettled for months to come.

European Banks

European banks are not immune to the contagion, with a large number of banking stocks falling dramatically.

European Banks

Credit Suisse (CS) was the obvious dead-man-walking, after reporting a loss of CHF 7.3 billion in February 2023, but Deutsche Bank (DB) and others also have a checkered history.

Credit Suisse (CS) & Deutsche Bank (DB)

3. Underlying Causes of Instability

The root cause of financial instability is cheap debt. Whenever central banks suppress interest rates below the rate of inflation, the resulting negative real interest rates fuel financial instability.

The chart below plots the Fed funds rate adjusted for inflation (using the Fed’s preferred measure of core PCE), with negative real interest rates highlighted in red.

Fed Funds Rate minus Core PCE Inflation

Unproductive Investment

Negative real interest rates cause misallocation of capital into unproductive investments — intended to profit from inflation rather than generate income streams. The best example of an unproductive investment is gold: it may rise in value due to inflation but generates no income. The same is true of art and other collectibles which generate no income and may in fact incur costs to insure or protect them.

Residential real estate is also widely used as a hedge against inflation. While it may generate some income in the form of net rents, the returns are normally negligible when compared to capital appreciation.

Productive investments, by contrast, normally generate both profits and wages which contribute to GDP. If an investor builds a new plant or buys capital equipment, GDP is enhanced not only by the profits made but also by the wages of everyone employed to operate the plant/equipment. Capital investment also has a multiplier effect. Supplies required to operate the plant, or transport required to distribute the output, are both likely to generate further investment and jobs in other parts of the supply chain.

Cheap debt allows unproductive investment to crowd out productive investment, causing GDP growth to slow. These periods of low growth and high inflation are commonly referred to as stagflation.


The chart below shows the impact of unproductive investment, with private sector debt growing at a faster rate than GDP (income), almost doubling since 1980. This should be a stable relationship (i.e. a horizontal line) with GDP growing as fast as, if not faster than, debt.

Private Sector Debt/GDP

Even more concerning is federal debt. There are two flat sections in the above chart — from 1990 to 2000 and from 2010 to 2020 — when the relationship between private debt and income stabilized after a major recession. That is when government debt spiked upwards.

Federal & State Government Debt/GDP

When the private sector stops borrowing, the government steps in — borrowing and spending in their place — to create a soft landing. Some call this stimulus but we consider it a disaster when unproductive spending drives up the ratio of government debt relative to GDP.

Research by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff (This Time is Different, 2008) suggests that states where sovereign debt exceeds 100% of GDP (1.0 on the above chart) almost inevitably default. A study by Cristina Checherita and Philip Rother at the ECB posited an even lower sustainable level, of 70% to 80%, above which highly-indebted economies would run into difficulties.

Rising Inflation

Inflationary pressures grow when government deficits are funded from sources outside the private sector. There is no increase in overall spending if the private sector defers spending in order to invest in government bonds. But the situation changes if government deficits are funded by the central bank or external sources.

The chart below shows how the Fed’s balance sheet has expanded over the past two decades, reaching $8.6 trillion at the end of 2022, most of which is invested in Treasuries or mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Fed Total Assets

Foreign investment in Treasuries also ballooned to $7.3 trillion.

Fed Total Assets

That is just the tip of the iceberg. The US has transformed from the world’s largest creditor (after WWII) to the world’s largest debtor, with a net international investment position of -$16.7 trillion.

Net International Investment Position (NIIP)

4. Interest Rates & Inflation

To keep inflation under control, central bank practice suggests that the Fed should maintain a policy rate at least 1.0% to 2.0% above the rate of inflation. The consequences of failure to do so are best illustrated by the path of inflation under Fed Chairman Arthur Burns in the 1970s. Successive stronger waves of inflation followed after the Fed failed to maintain a positive real funds rate (green circle) on the chart below.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI in the 1970s

CPI reached almost 15.0% and the Fed under Paul Volcker was forced to hike the funds rate to almost 20.0% to tame inflation.

Possible Outcomes

The Fed was late in hiking interest rates in 2022, sticking to its transitory narrative while inflation surged. CPI is now declining but we are likely to face repeated waves of inflation — as in the 1970s — unless the Fed keeps rates higher for longer.

Fed Funds Rate & CPI

There are two possible outcomes:

A. Interest Rate Suppression

The Fed caves to political pressure and cuts interest rates. This reduces debt servicing costs for the federal government but negative real interest rates fuel further inflation. Asset prices are likely to rise as are wage demands and consumer prices.

B. Higher for Longer

The Fed withstands political pressure and keeps interest rates higher for longer. This increases debt servicing costs and adds to government deficits. The inevitable recession and accompanying credit contraction cause a sharp fall in asset asset prices — both stocks and real estate — and rising unemployment. Inflation would be expected to fall and wages growth slow.  The eventual positive outcome would be more productive investment and real GDP growth.

5. The Impact on Stocks

Stocks have been distorted by low interest rates and QE.

Stock Market Capitalization-to-GDP

Warren Buffett’s favorite indicator of stock market value compares total market capitalization to GDP. Buffett maintains that a value of 1.0 reflects fair value — less than half the current multiple of 2.1 (Q4, 2022).

Stock Market Capitalization/GDP


The S&P 500 demonstrates a more stable relationship against sales than against earnings because this excludes volatile profit margins. Price-to-Sales has climbed to a 31% premium over 20-year average of 1.68.

S&P 500 Price-to-Sales

6. Flight to Safety

Elevated risk is expected to cause a flight to safety in financial markets.

Cash & Treasuries

The most obvious safe haven is cash and term deposits but recent bank contagion has sparked a run on uninsured bank deposits, in favor of short-term Treasuries and money market funds.


Gold enjoyed a strong rally in recent weeks, testing resistance at $2,000 per ounce. Breakout above $2,050 would offer a target of $2,400.

Spot Gold

A surge in central bank gold purchases — to a quarterly rate of more than 400 tonnes — is boosting demand for gold. Buying is expected to continue due to concerns over inflation and geopolitical implications of blocked Russian foreign exchange reserves.

Central Bank Quarterly Gold Purchases

Defensive sectors

Defensive sectors normally include Staples, Health Care, and Utilities. But recent performance on the S&P 500 shows operating margins for Utilities and Health Care are being squeezed. Industrials have held up well, and Staples are improving, but Energy and Financials are likely to disappoint in Q1 of 2023.

S&P 500 Operating Margins


Commodities show potential because of massive under-investment in Energy and Battery Metals over the past decade. But first we have to negotiate a possible global recession that would be likely to hurt demand.

7. Australian Perspective

Our outlook for Australia is similar to the US, with negative real interest rates and financial markets awash with liquidity.

Team “Transitory”

The RBA is still living in “transitory” land. The chart below compares the RBA cash rate (blue) to trimmed mean inflation (brown) — the RBA’s preferred measure of long-term inflationary pressures. You can seen in 2007/8 that the cash rate peaked at 7.3% compared to the trimmed mean at 4.8% — a positive real interest rate of 2.5%. But since 2013, the real rate was close to zero before falling sharply negative in 2019. The current real rate is -3.3%, based on the current cash rate and the last trimmed mean reading in December.

RBA Cash Rate & Trimmed Mean Inflation

Private Credit

Unproductive investment caused a huge spike in private credit relative to GDP in the ’80s and ’90s. This should be a stable ratio — a horizontal line rather than a steep slope.

Australia: Private Credit/GDP

Government Debt

Private credit to GDP (above) stabilized after the 2008 global financial crisis but was replaced by a sharp surge in government debt — to create a soft landing. Money spent was again mostly unproductive, with debt growing at a much faster rate than income.

Australia: Federal & State Debt/GDP


Money supply (M3) again should reflect a stable (horizontal) relationship, especially at low interest rates. Instead M3 has grown much faster than GDP, signaling that financial markets are awash with liquidity. This makes the task of containing long-term inflation much more difficult unless there is a prolonged recession.

RBA Cash Rate & Trimmed Mean Inflation


We have shown that risk in financial markets is elevated and the recent bank contagion is likely to leave markets unsettled. Long-term causes of financial instability are cheap debt and unproductive investment, resulting in low GDP growth.

Failure to address rising inflation promptly, with positive real interest rates, is likely to cause recurring waves of inflation. There are only two ways for the Fed and RBA to address this:

High Road

The high road requires holding rates higher for longer, maintaining positive real interest rates for an extended period. Investors are likely to suffer from a resulting credit contraction, with both stocks and real estate falling, but the end result would be restoration of real GDP growth.

Low Road

The low road is more seductive as it involves lower interest rates and erosion of government debt (by rapid growth of GDP in nominal terms). But resulting high inflation is likely to deliver an extended period of low real GDP growth and repeated cycles of higher interest rates as the central bank struggles to contain inflation.

Overpriced assets

Vulnerable asset classes include:

  • Growth stocks, trading at high earnings multiples
  • Commercial real estate (especially offices) purchased on low yields
  • Banks, insurers and pension funds heavily invested in fixed income
  • Sectors that make excessive use of leverage to boost returns:
    • Private equity
    • REITs (some, not all)

Relative Safety

  • Cash (insured deposits only)
  • Short-term Treasuries
  • Gold
  • Defensive sectors, especially Staples
  • Commodities are more cyclical but there are long-term opportunities in:
    • Energy
    • Battery metals


  1. The Dow fell 25% in 1966 after the yield curve inverted. The NBER declared a recession but later changed their mind and airbrushed it from their records.


1. Which is the most likely path for the Fed and RBA to follow: the High Road or the Low Road?

Answer: As Churchill once said: “You can always depend on the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have tried everything else.” With rising inflation, the Fed is running out of options but they may still be tempted to kick the can down the road one last time. It seems like a 50/50 probability at present.

2. Comment on RBA housing?

We make no predictions but the rising ratio of housing assets to disposable income is cause for concern.

Australia & USA: Housing Assets/Disposable Income

3. Is Warren Buffett’s indicator still valid with rising offshore earnings of multinational corporations?

Answer: We plotted stock market capitalization against both GDP and GNP (which includes foreign earnings of US multinationals) and the differences are negligible.

Our 2023 Outlook

This is our last newsletter for the year, where we take the opportunity to map out what we see as the major risks and opportunities facing investors in the year ahead.

US Economy

The Fed has been hiking interest rates since March this year, but real retail sales remain well above their pre-pandemic trend (dotted line below) and show no signs of slowing.

Real Retail Sales

Retail sales are even rising strongly against disposable personal income, with consumers running up credit and digging into savings.

Retail Sales/ Disposable Personal Income

The Fed wants to reduce demand in order to reduce inflationary pressure on consumer prices but consumers continue to spend. Household net worth has soared — from massive expansion of home and stock prices, fueled by cheap debt, and growing savings boosted by government stimulus during the pandemic. The ratio of household net worth to disposable personal income has climbed more than 40% since the global financial crisis — from 5.5 to 7.7.

Household Net Worth/ Disposable Personal Income

At the same time, unemployment (3.7%) has fallen close to record lows, increasing inflationary pressures as employers compete for scarce labor.


Real Growth

Hours worked contracted by an estimated 0.12% in November (-1.44% annualized).

Real GDP & Hours Worked

But annual growth rates for real GDP growth (1.9%) and hours worked (2.1%) remain positive.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

Heavy truck sales are also a solid 40,700 units per month (seasonally adjusted). Truck sales normally contract ahead of recessions, marked by light gray bars below, providing a reliable indicator of economic growth. Sales below 35,000 units per month would be bearish.

S&P 500

Inflation & Interest Rates

The underlying reason for the economy’s resilience is the massive expansion in the money supply (M2 excluding time deposits) relative to GDP, after the 2008 global financial crisis, doubling from earlier highs at 0.4 to the current ratio of 0.84. Excessive liquidity helped to suppress interest rates and balloon asset prices, with too much money chasing scarce investment opportunities. In the hunt for yield, investors became blind to risk.

S&P 500

Suppression of interest rates caused the yield on lowest investment grade corporate bonds (Baa) to decline below CPI. A dangerous precedent, last witnessed in the 1970s, negative real rates led to a massive spike in inflation. Former Fed Chairman, Paul Volcker, had to hike the Fed funds rate above 19.0%, crashing the economy, in order to tame inflation.

S&P 500

The current Fed chair, Jerome Powell, is doing his best to imitate Volcker, hiking rates steeply after a late start. Treasury yields have inverted, with the 1-year yield (4.65%) above the 2-year (4.23%), reflecting bond market expectations that the Fed will soon be forced to cut rates.

S&P 500

A negative yield curve, indicated by the 10-year/3-month spread below zero, warns that the US economy will go into recession in 2023. Our most reliable indicator, the yield spread has inverted (red rings below) before every recession declared by the NBER since 1960*.

S&P 500

Bear in mind that the yield curve normally inverts 6 to 18 months ahead of a recession and recovers shortly before the recession starts, when the Fed cuts interest rates.

Home Prices

Mortgage rates jumped steeply as the Fed hiked rates and started to withdraw liquidity from financial markets. The sharp rise signals the end of the 40-year bull market fueled by cheap debt. Rising inflation has put the Fed on notice that the honeymoon is over. Deflationary pressures from globalization can no longer be relied on to offset inflationary pressures from expansionary monetary policy.

S&P 500

Home prices have started to decline but have a long way to fall to their 2006 peak (of 184.6) that preceded the global financial crisis.

S&P 500


The S&P 500 is edging lower, with negative 100-day Momentum signaling a bear market, but there is little sign of panic, with frequent rallies testing the descending trendline.

S&P 500

Bond market expectations of an early pivot has kept long-term yields low and supported stock prices. 10-Year Treasury yields at 3.44% are almost 100 basis points below the Fed funds target range of 4.25% to 4.50%. Gradual withdrawals of liquidity (QT)  by the Fed have so far failed to dent bond market optimism.

10-Year Treasury Yield & Fed Funds Rate

Treasuries & the Bond Market

Declining GDP is expected to shrink tax receipts, while interest servicing costs on existing fiscal debt are rising, causing the federal deficit to balloon to between $2.5 and $5.0 trillion according to macro/bond specialist Luke Gromen.

Federal Debt/GDP & Federal Deficit/GDP

With foreign demand for Treasuries shrinking, and the Fed running down its balance sheet, the only remaining market  for Treasuries is commercial banks and the private sector. Strong Treasury issuance is likely to increase upward pressure on yields, to attract investors. The inflow into bonds is likely to be funded by an outflow from stocks, accelerating their decline.


Brent crude prices fell below $80 per barrel, despite slowing releases from the US strategic petroleum reserve (SPR). Demand remains soft despite China’s relaxation of their zero-COVID policy — which some expected to accelerate their economic recovery.

S&P 500

European natural gas inventories are near full, causing a sharp fall in prices. But prices remain high compared to their long-term average, fueling inflation and an economic contraction.

S&P 500


European GDP growth is slowing, while inflation has soared, causing negative real GDP growth and a likely recession.

S&P 500

Australia, Base Metals & Iron Ore

Base metals rallied on optimism over China’s reopening from lockdowns. Normally a bullish sign for the global economy, breakout above resistance at 175 was short-lived, warning of a bull trap.

S&P 500

Iron ore posted a similar rally, from $80 to $110 per tonne, but is also likely to retreat.

S&P 500

The ASX benefited from the China rally, with the ASX 200 breaking resistance at 7100 to complete a double-bottom reversal. Now the index is retracing to test its new support level. Breach of 7000 would warn of another test of primary support at 6400.S&P 500


Optimism over China’s reopening may be premature. Residential property prices continue to fall.

S&P 500

The reopening also risks a massive COVID exit-wave, against an under-prepared population, when restrictions are relaxed.

“In my memory, I have never seen such a challenge to the Chinese health-care system,” Xi Chen, a Yale University global health researcher, told National Public Radio in America this week. With less than four intensive care beds for every 100,000 people and millions of unvaccinated or partially protected older adults, the risks are real.

With official data highly unreliable, it is hard to track exactly what impact China’s U-turn is having. Authorities on Friday reported the first Covid-19 deaths since most restrictions were lifted in early December, but there have been reports that funeral homes in Beijing are struggling to handle the number of bodies being brought in.

“The risk factors are there: eight million people are essentially not vaccinated,” said Huang Yanzhong, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Unless this variant has evolved in a way that makes it harmless, China can’t avoid what happened in Taiwan or in Hong Kong,” he added, referring to significant “exit waves” in both places.

The scale of the surge is unlikely to be apparent for months, but modelling suggests it could be grim. A report from the University of Hong Kong released on Thursday warned that a best case scenario is 700,000 fatalities – forecasts from a UK-based analytics firm put deaths at between 1.3 and 2.1 million.

“We’re still at a very early stage in this particular exit wave,” said Prof Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. (The Telegraph)

China relied on infrastructure spending to get them out of past economic contractions but debt levels are now too high for stimulus on a similar scale to 2008. Expansion of credit to local government and real estate developers is likely to cause further stagnation, with the rise of zombie banking and real estate sectors — as Japan experienced for more than three decades — suffocating future growth.

S&P 500


Resilient consumer spending, high household net worth, and a tight labor market all make the Fed’s job difficult. If the current trend continues, the Fed will be forced to hike interest rates higher than the bond market expects, in order to curb demand and tame inflation.

Expected contraction of European and Chinese economies, combined with rate hikes in the US, are likely to cause a global recession.

There are two possible exits. First, if central banks stick to their guns and hold interest rates higher for longer, a major and extended economic contraction is almost inevitable. While inflation may be tamed, the global economy is likely to take years to recover.

The second option is for central banks to raise inflation targets and suppress long-term interest rates in order to create a soft landing. High inflation and negative real interest rates may prolong the period of low growth but negative real rates would rescue the G7 from precarious debt levels that have ensnared them over the past decade. A similar strategy was successfully employed after WWII to extricate governments from high debt levels relative to GDP.

As to which option will be chosen is a matter of political will. The easier second option is therefore more likely, as politicians tend to follow the line of least resistance.

We have refrained from weighing in on the likely outcome of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Ukraine presently has the upper hand but the conflict is a wild card that could cause a spike in energy prices if it escalates or a positive boost to the European economy in the unlikely event that peace breaks out.

Our strategy is to remain overweight in gold, critical materials, defensive stocks and cash, while underweight bonds and high-multiple technology stocks. In the longer term, we will seek to invest cash in real assets when the opportunity presents itself.


  • Hat tip to Macrobusiness for the Pantheon Macroeconomics (China Residential) and Goldman Sachs (China Local Government Funding & Excavator Hours) charts.


* The yield curve inverted ahead of a 25% fall in the Dow in 1966. The NBER declared a recession but later changed their minds and airbrushed it out of their records.

Australia: Hard times

You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure out that 2023 is going to be a tough year. Australian consumers have already worked this out, with sentiment plunging to record lows.

Australia: Consumer Sentiment

The bellwether of the Australian economy is housing. Prices are tumbling, with annual growth now close to zero.

Australia: Housing

Iron ore, another strong indicator, rallied on news that China is easing COVID restrictions but prices are still trending lower.

Iron Ore

The Chinese economy faces a host of problems. A crumbling real estate sector, over-burdened with debt. Threat of a widespread pandemic as COVID restrictions are eased. Private sector growth collapsing as the hardline government reverts to a centrally planned economy. And a major trading partner, the US, intent on restricting China’s access to critical technology.


Rate hikes and inflation

The RBA hiked interest rates by another 25 basis points this week, lifting the cash rate to 3.1%. But the central bank is way behind the curve, with the real cash rate still deeply negative.

Australia: RBA Cash Rate

Monthly CPI eased to an annual rate of 6.9% in October, down from 7.3% in September, reflecting an easing of goods inflation.

Australia: CPI

But a rising Wages Index reflects underlying inflationary pressures that may force the RBA to contain with further rate hikes.

Australia: Wages Index

The lag from previous rate hikes is also likely to slow consumer spending. Borrowers on fixed rate mortgages face a steep rise in repayments when their existing fixed rate term expires and they are forced to rollover at far higher fixed or variable rates. A jump of at least 2.50% p.a. means a hike of more than A$1,000 per month in interest payments on a $500K mortgage.

Australia: Housing Interest Rates

GDP Growth

The largest contributor to GDP growth, consumption, is expected to contract.

Australia: GDP Contribution

Real GDP growth is already slowing, with growth falling to 0.6% in the third quarter — a 2.4% annualized rate. Contraction of consumption is likely to take real GDP growth negative.

Australia: GDP Contribution

Plunging business investment also warns of low real growth in the years ahead.

Australia: Business Investment

Record low unemployment seems to be the only positive.

Australia: Business Investment

But that is likely to drive wage rates and inflation higher, forcing the RBA into further rate hikes.


We may hope for a resurgence of the Chinese economy to boost exports and head off an Australian recession. But hope is not a strategy and China is unlikely to do us any favors.

We expect rising interest rates to cause a sharp contraction in the housing market, tipping Australia’s economy into a recession in 2023.


Charts were sourced from the RBA and ABS.
Ross Gittins: Hard times are coming for the Australian economy

Bond market: No place to hide

Advance retail sales were flat in September, reflecting slowing growth, but remain well above their pre-pandemic trend. So far, Fed rate hikes have failed to make a dent in consumer spending.

Advance Retail Sales

Even adjusted for inflation, real retail sales are well above the pre-pandemic trend.

Advance Real Retail Sales

The culprit is M2 money supply. While M2 has stopped growing, there has been no real contraction to bring money supply in line with the long-term trend. A fall of that magnitude would have a devastating effect on inflated asset prices.

M2 excluding Time Deposits

Inflation is proving persistent, with CPI hardly budging in September. Hourly earnings growth is slowing but remains a long way above the Fed’s 2.0% inflation target.

CPI & Hourly Earnings Growth

Treasury yields have broken their forty year down-trend, with the 10-year testing resistance at 4.0%. Stubborn inflation is expected to lift yields even higher.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Inflation is forcing the Fed to raise interest rates, ending the forty-year expansion in debt levels (relative to GDP). Cheap debt supports elevated asset prices, so a decline in debt levels would cause a similar decline in asset prices.

Non-Financial Debt/GDP

A decline of that magnitude is likely to involve more pain than the political establishment can bear, leaving yield curve control (YCC) as the only viable alternative. The Fed would act as buyer of last resort for federal debt, while suppressing long-term yields. The same playbook was used in the 1950s and ’60s to drive down the debt to GDP ratio, allowing rapid growth in GDP while inflation eroded the real value of public debt.

Federal Debt/GDP


We are fast approaching a turning point, where the Fed cannot hike rates further without collapsing the bond market. In the short-term, while asset prices fall, cash is king. But in the long-term investors should beware of financial securities because inflation is expected to eat your lunch. Our strategy is to invest in real assets, including gold, critical materials and defensive stocks.

Will a recession kill inflation?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that recessions cause a sharp fall in the consumer price index. Alfonso Peccatiello recently analyzed US recessions over the past century and concluded that they caused an average drop in CPI of 6.8%.

MacroAlf: CPI & Recessions

A recession no doubt reduces inflation but it does not necessarily kill underlying inflationary pressures. It took massive pain inflicted by the Volcker Fed in the early ’80s to reverse the long-term up-trend in inflation. Average hourly earnings (gray) is a better gauge of underlying inflation as can be seen on the graph below.

CPI, Average Hourly Earnings & Recessions

Recessions cause a fall in earnings growth but do not interrupt the underlying trend unless the economy is administered a severe shock. In the early 1980s, it took four recessions in just over a decade, a Fed funds rate (gray below) peaking at 22% in December 1980, and unemployment (blue) spiking to 10.8%.

Fed Funds Rate & Unemployment

In the current scenario, we have had one recession, but cushioned by massive fiscal stimulus and Fed QE. Another recession would be unlikely to break the up-trend in underlying inflation unless there is a sharp rise in unemployment.

A study by Larry Summers and Olivier Blanchard maintains that unemployment will have to rise above 5% in order to tame inflation. The chart below suggests that unemployment may need to rise closer to 10% — as in 1982 and 2009 — in order to kill underlying inflationary pressures.

Unemployment(U3) & Average Hourly Earnings Growth


We are not suggesting that the Fed hike rates sufficiently for unemployment to reach 10%. That would cause widespread destruction of productive capacity in the economy and take years, even decades, to recover. Instead, we believe that the Fed should tolerate higher levels of inflation while Treasury focuses expenditure on building infrastructure and key supply chains, to create a more robust economy. Largely in line with Zoltan Pozsar’s four R’s:

(1) re-arm (to defend the world order);
(2) re-shore (to get around blockades);
(3) re-stock and invest (commodities); and
(4) re-wire the grid (to speed up energy transition).

An early Fed pause, before inflation is contained, would drive up long-term yields and weaken the Dollar. The former would cause a crash in stocks and bonds and the latter would increase demand for Gold and other inflation hedges.

A weaker Dollar would make US manufacturing more competitive in global markets and reduce the harm being caused to emerging markets. Unfortunately, one of the consequences would be higher prices for imported goods, including crude oil, and increased inflationary pressures.

The US Fed and Treasury are faced with an array of poor choices and in the end will have to settle for a strategy that minimizes long-term damage. In an economic war as at present, higher inflation will have to be tolerated until the war is won. An added benefit is that rapid growth in nominal GDP, through high inflation, would reduce the government’s precarious debt burden.

Federal Debt/GDP


Alfonso Peccatiello for his analysis of CPI and recessions.