Tag Archive for 'Investment'

Warren Buffet on gold

This is a week or so old by now, but it’s so good I wanted to make sure it was permanently on my blog.

From his latest letter to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway, the Sage of Omaha‘s opinion on gold as an investment:

The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.

This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future.

The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative. True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production. Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end.

What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while.

Over the past 15 years, both Internet stocks and houses have demonstrated the extraordinary excesses that can be created by combining an initially sensible thesis with well-publicized rising prices. In these bubbles, an army of originally skeptical investors succumbed to the “proof” delivered by the market, and the pool of buyers – for a time – expanded sufficiently to keep the bandwagon rolling. But bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop. And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”

Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A.

Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B?

Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices.

A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.

Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.

Brilliant stuff.

What effect does a change in interest rates have on today’s consumption?

A common, even standard, way of thinking about the effect of interest rates on household decisions is to suppose that consumption tomorrow is just another “good” that the household may choose to spend money on today, it’s price being 1/(1+r) where r is the real interest rate (so if r = 5%, then to buy $1 in tomorrow’s dollars, it will “cost” you $0.9523 today).  In that framework, an increase in the (real) interest rate will lower the price of consumption tomorrow relative to the various goods on offer today and households will consequently shift some of their income to savings.  An increase in interest rates increases savings and lowers consumption today.  Obvious, right?

That brings me to this article on Bloomberg today.  Here are the first three paragraphs:

Peking University professor Michael Pettis was discussing declining bank-deposit returns when a student interrupted with a story about her aunt that may stymie China’s plan to boost consumer spending.

“To send her son to university in six years it means she must replace each yuan in lost income with one from her wages,” the student said, according to Pettis.

The government’s policy of keeping interest rates low to reduce the burden of soaring municipal debt is costing savers as much as 1.6 trillion yuan ($236 billion) a year in lost income on bank deposits, according to Pettis, former head of emerging markets at Bear Stearns Cos. To make up the shortfall, savers have to set aside a larger proportion of wages, undermining China’s efforts to counter slower export growth with consumer spending at home.

This is essentially saying that savings can act as a type of Giffen good — one for which consumers increase the quantity demanded when it’s price increases — when households take a future spending constraint into account today.  When you know that you must have at least $x set aside tomorrow, an increase in the interest rate lowers the minimum amount of savings required today to meet the target.  If that lower bound on savings was binding (i.e. without the future constraint you’d have preferred to spend more today) before the change, then higher interest rates will lead to a decrease in savings and an increase in consumption today.

To get this, we need is some (edit: non-divisible) future spending commitment that for some reason can’t be paid for with future income — two simple examples would be saving for retirement or, in America, for the university tuition of your children when they will be credit-constrained — and sufficient forward planning on the part of households so as to take it into account today.  Both seem plausible for a large fraction of households.