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WELCOME! This is True Contrarian by the same yours truly. I will attempt to create an entertaining, readable viewpoint a few times per month. Each issue will feature my intermediate-term financial outlook, my long-term financial outlook, and a personal reminiscence from my journal. Please write to let me know how you like my new design.
Recent comments are in boldface.
INTERMEDIATE-TERM GOLD OUTLOOK: Gold mining shares are at an interesting juncture at this time. The long-term trend since October 2000 shows a classic multi-year bull market. The medium-term trend since May 2002 demonstrates a typical consolidation, with little net price change. The intermediate-term behavior since December 2003 shows a downtrend. The short-term pattern since May 10 shows a budding uptrend, and the very short-term pattern since August 20 shows a pullback after an overbought surge. The commitments for gold and silver are bearish, but not at an extreme, while currency commitments are mixed. Sentiment toward gold remains close to 75% bulls in most surveys, which is one of the clearer signals that a price decline is more likely than a price rise, but is not conclusive by itself. To me, the most important single number today for the near-term direction of gold mining shares is the same as the single most important number for the near-term direction of the Nasdaq: VIX and VXO are now each exactly 13.91. The multi-year low for each of these measures of implied index options volatility is above 13, so this means there is less than one point of downside in these values, unless one or both are about to set new historic lows. The obvious message here is one of investor complacency. Either because equities have not experienced a sharp price decline since the early autumn of 2002, or because the media keep harping on the concepts of a "trading range" and a "dull, flat market", or because investors naively believe that U.S. equities cannot fall significantly in a Presidential election year (obviously no one remembers the year 2000), or because of some other reasons, almost no market participants are prepared for U.S. equities to set new lows for the year. This is in spite of the fact that most of the equity groups which traditionally lead the market have already hit new annual lows, such as semiconductor shares, while chart patterns for most equity groups show a classic failure to regain 200-day moving averages. Among the best-known equity indices, the S&P 500, the Nasdaq, and HUI, the Amex index of unhedged gold-mining shares, all recently touched their 200-day moving averages (the HUI did so on August 20, almost two weeks ahead of most equity indices) before being rejected to the downside. It is also probably not a coincidence that Intel released its quarterly update on Thursday after the bell, since an Intel update has marked almost every major bear market turn since December 2001. The most likely interpretation is that the U.S. economy is slowing, and that liquidity is therefore drying up in the equity markets, which will negatively affect all stock groups, including gold mining shares. The price of gold itself moved below its 200-day moving average on Friday after having regained that key level just a few weeks ago. Quite a few gold mining analysts have proclaimed that gold is in a trading range with $380 as the downside limit, so there are likely many sell stops sitting very close to $380, and it will be tempting for gold bears to try to hit that target. With the sole exception of May, in which gold sagged to $371.25, the yellow metal has found repeated support at $387 this year, so it will be interesting to see if that key level is once again approached, and if so, if it can be broken to the downside. My guess is that a downside breach is more likely than not, since the strongest rallies for gold usually occur after a thorough shakeout, and small speculators in particular are heavily lined up on the bullish side at this time.
The Amex gold bugs index of unhedged gold mining shares retraced half of its losses from its early December 2003 peak of 258.60 to its May 10, 2004 nadir of 163.81. Not approximately half, but exactly half, to the penny; the intraday high on Friday, August 20 was 211.21. This continues the pattern, which began in October 2000, in which gold mining shares and the Nasdaq generally decline together and rise together, with the important difference in behavior occurring when the Nasdaq makes a modest bounce from each of its bear market low points. During these Nasdaq bounces, gold mining shares often surge sharply higher while the Nasdaq is staging an unimpressive dead cat bounce. Unfortunately for the Nasdaq, VXO closed at 13.91 on Friday, September 3, bringing it within less than a single point of its annual low. VXO is like the fuel that drives the Nasdaq sports car, and as such, the fuel is running low, since "empty" is around 13, and the "driver" doesn't usually run it that close to empty. As the Nasdaq therefore resumes its decline, gold mining shares should continue lower in tandem, and both will decline synchronously for the next several weeks, perhaps until the Nasdaq reaches its Fibonacci retracement level near 1500. HUI will almost certainly remain above its June 4, 2002 high of 154.99, and unless the Nasdaq actually crashes, which is unlikely in a Presidential election year, HUI should remain above its May 10, 2004 low of 163.81. Most individual gold mining shares have probably already set their low marks of the year. Current bullish sentiment toward gold and gold mining shares is near its annual high, which is a negative sign.
OTHER FINANCIAL MARKETS: As already mentioned, most U.S. equity indices have recently rejected an attempt to move above their respective 200-day moving averages, while complacency as measured by the implied volatility indices VXO and VIX is at a surprising extreme, currently standing at 13.91 for each. With so few investors expecting U.S. equities to decline substantially, and with the financial markets' historic record of acting in the way for which the fewest participants are prepared, look for new annual lows for most equities to be set soon, with the Nasdaq bottoming near its 61.8% Fibonacci retracement level just above 1500 (see "Fibonacci Lives", below). October is traditionally a "bear killer" for equities, so the low point for 2004 should be reached within the next several weeks, probably by early October, since a Presidential election year usually sees a rally for equities ahead of the election, which occurs on November 2.
The commitments for U.S. Treasuries remain noticeably negative, while technical patterns show very limited remaining upside, and the Fibonacci 61.8% retracement level has already been reached and rejected to the downside after several attempts to move above that point. It rarely pays to hold any asset to squeeze out one or two percent if it can decline by a substantial multiple of that number, and readers should therefore continue to sell their Treasuries. As in late April and early May, we are likely to see U.S. equities, precious metals, crude oil, probably most commodities, and Treasuries all declining in tandem over the next several weeks. Only the U.S. dollar is likely to see a move higher.
At 9:17 a.m. on Thursday, August 12, 2004, the South African central bank surprised most observers by lowering a key lending rate by half a percent, instead of leaving it unchanged as had been expected. No reason was given for this decision, but many presume that the central bank was concerned about the rand's powerful rally from 13.5 to the U.S. dollar in December 2001 to 5.9 to the dollar in late July 2004. Since most South African workers are bound to union contracts which are denominated in rand and include annual raises of roughly 9% per year in rand terms, the rand rally caused these workers to be paid more than twice as much in U.S. dollar terms, which caused a significant erosion of profit margins for those manufacturers who sold their goods in U.S. dollar terms, such as precious metals miners. The rand responded to the central bank decision by falling from 6.18 rand to the greenback just before the announcement, to 6.48 rand to the dollar afterward. The current rand/dollar exchange rate is approximately 6.6, with rand volatility having dropped sharply in the past two weeks. South African gold mining shares responded to the rate cut decision with a sharp price surge that lasted for eight calendar days, through August 20. Since then, South African gold shares have declined about 50% more in percentage terms than have North American shares, but this probably represents merely a one-time erasure of their very recent euphoric gains rather than an omen of future relative weakness. It remains to be seen whether this is a permanent change in policy by the South African central bank, or merely a one-time event. Since the South African economy is growing sharply in real terms, it also remains uncertain whether or not the rand will continue to decline, or will resume its uptrend if currency participants perceive the current rand level as being undervalued.
Given the Presidential cycle, the current decline in U.S. equities is likely to be followed in September and October by a sharp rebound from its approaching late September or early October lows perhaps all the way back to its previous support level around 1880 on the Nasdaq. This was written two weeks ago; notice how the Nasdaq almost exactly reached this level before turning lower once again. Critical support often becomes key resistance, and vice versa, as we have seen in the opposite direction with HUI. Looking forward to 2005 and 2006, I would expect the October 2002 lows in U.S. equities to be retested in 2005, and then smashed convincingly in 2006 as the Nasdaq collapses all the way to fair value near 650.
I am expecting official U.S. government data to show a "sudden" drop in real estate prices, which will change the entire perception of real estate as a "sure thing" and likely cause a sharp drop in investor confidence, and perhaps even help to trigger a recession which could become quite severe as early as 2006. REIT investors already know about this decline (look at the very bearish chart patterns of IYR and RWR), but most U.S. homeowners and recent home buyers, aided and abetted by the media, foolishly believe that record high real estate prices will continue to show significant annual gains for many years to come. The consensus is about as strong as the surveys four years ago that showed the average investor expecting the Nasdaq to continue to rise 30% per year for at least another decade.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2060: I'll make a very far forward prediction by stating that I believe U.S. equities will make a double bottom in 2010 and 2018, with the Nasdaq bottoming near 300 in 2010, rebounding to around 550 sometime thereafter, and then making a final double-bottom retreat to around 400 in 2018, followed by a roaring bull market that will bring the Nasdaq to the 3000-3500 level by perhaps 2035, followed by a relatively mild bear market. The all-time Nasdaq high of 5132 from March 2000 will probably not be seen again until 2060 at the very earliest.
PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: Assuming that the U.S. Presidential election in early November 2004 is between Bush/Cheney and Kerry/Edwards, this will have an important impact upon the world financial markets. If Bush wins, then his lame-duck second term, which will last until January 20, 2009, will have little incentive to prop up the economy, as he and his advisers will have no possibility of a third term, because of the U.S. constitution forbidding it. Therefore, the U.S. financial markets will likely fall apart quite rapidly and in a sustained manner, with the Nasdaq most likely collapsing to its historic mean fair value around 650, perhaps in September or October 2006. With Bush opposed to tax increases, while promoting every ridiculous spending plan on the planet, and even off the planet (such as the manned Mars mission), the deficit will reach historic proportions and the U.S. dollar will continue to stage a sustained long-term decline, as it has already been doing anyway for more than thirty years. If Kerry wins, then he will not want the economy to fall apart, as he and his associates will be working hard for re-election. Kerry, or any Democrat, will almost surely create a new series of significantly higher tax brackets for the wealthy, probably very closely matching the tax code during the Clinton administration, and thus sharply reducing the deficit. The lower deficit will keep the U.S. dollar from falling as much, and will keep Treasury yields from rising as much, although the U.S. stock market will still likely decline significantly, as there is no way to overcome its fundamentally overvalued condition. Extreme overvaluations in the financial markets almost always lead to equally extreme undervaluations, and vice versa.
RE-ELECT GEORGE W. BUSH: Make no mistake about it, President George W. Bush is one of gold's best friends. By ensuring the huge increase in the U.S. account deficit through idiotic temporary tax cuts, which are scheduled to gradually expire each year from now through the end of 2010; by intentionally depreciating the U.S. dollar and by extension causing the U.S. trade deficit to soar; and by artificially depressing short-term interest rates to devastate normally conservative savers while encouraging them to become market and real estate speculators, the price of gold in U.S. dollar terms has increased by about half during Bush's first term as President. If re-elected, gold is likely to rise by a roughly equal percentage during a second Bush stint. True goldbugs should be campaigning aggressively for the President's re-election, as Kerry might attempt to improve the long-term health of the U.S. economy, or even do something really crazy such as establishing a coherent economic policy.
FIBONACCI LIVES (and so does WD Gann)!: I have found the Fibonacci retracements to be quite accurate in predicting retracement levels within the context of long-term bull and bear markets. If one takes the Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. (each number represents the sum of the two previous numbers), one finds that the ratio of these numbers eventually approaches almost exactly .618. Similarly, in the financial markets, if any financial instrument in a long-term trend has a retracement in the opposite direction of that trend, most often .618 of the most recent previous gain is surrendered during such a retracement. (There are other retracement levels that apply in certain situations, but the .618 level is the key for most multi-month studies.) Now, let's put this theory to work. Gold shares as measured by HUI bottomed at 112.61 in the morning of March 13, 2003, its lowest level that year. HUI peaked at 258.60 on December 2, 2003. If HUI had given up 61.8% of this gain, then its bottom this year would have been 168.38. The actual bottom for HUI was 163.81 just after the open on Monday, May 10, 2004, which I suspect may have been the final low for 2004. Gold itself rose from $319.10 on April 7, 2003 to $431.25 on January 6, 2004, so that would signal an upcoming 2004 nadir of almost exactly $362.00. The 2004 low so far was on May 10 at $371.25, suggesting that the bottom for gold itself has not yet been made. For the Nasdaq, the post-bubble intraday low was 1108.49 on October 10, 2002; the recovery peak on January 26, 2004 was 2153.83. Assuming the January peak is not exceeded in the near future, if 61.8% of the gain is retraced, then the bottom for the Nasdaq later this year will be 1507.81. Be sure to save these numbers for future reference, so you can either congratulate me (or Fibonacci, a monk who lived in the twelfth century; they had gold back then, but not the Nasdaq), or else curse the both of us if "we" are wrong. To give credit where credit is due, this observation was first discussed in detail by W. D. Gann (1878-1955). Since the late great Gann had only a slide rule, not a calculator, he used the 5/8 level, which is .625, and almost exactly matches .618.
LONG-TERM GOLD OUTLOOK: Gold will continue to make a pattern of higher lows as its strong bull market from April 2001 to the present continues throughout the next 10 or 15 years. The most recent major low was at $319.10 on April 7, 2003, so the next low will likely be between $350 and $370 an ounce later this year. Gold's lowest recent price was $371.25 spot in the morning of Monday, May 10, 2004. Gold has surpassed $400 per ounce in many years in the past dating back to 1979, but has gone above $440 per ounce in only a few years, so that barrier has apparently reasserted itself once again. Inevitably gold will go above $500 per ounce, perhaps even as early as 2005, and then above $600 at some point in the next several years. A decade or so from now, after the U.S. stock market has had some time to recover from a very deep bottom, gold might stage a typical late-recession rally and spend a few years above $1000 per ounce. Since gold averaged about $350 per ounce from 1979 through 1996, it seems reasonable that its median price in the next two decades will be perhaps at twice that level, near $700. My guess is that gold will probably not ever exceed in inflation-adjusted terms its all-time peak from January 21, 1980, but given the recent U.S. equity euphoria, perhaps anything goes.
Since gold's rally has been almost entirely due to the U.S. dollar's decline, gold's price has been basically flat in terms of most other major world currencies. This is likely to change in the future, with gold rising perhaps twice as much as the U.S. dollar declines, and gold generally rising in terms of most world currencies. The reason is that the world's major industrialized nations are not just going to sit back and let the U.S. devalue its currency uninhibitedly. Given any threat of recession, the European central bank and Japan's central bank and Canada's central bank and Australia's central bank are going to depreciate their currencies aggressively, and given that their short-term rates are generally far above those of the U.S., they can depreciate more aggressively and more impressively than the U.S. can, given that the U.S. has basically exhausted nearly all of its interest-rate cutting potential already. This process of competitive devaluation will help gold to rise even without cooperation from a falling U.S. dollar. For that reason, gold producers in South Africa, which have been suffering from the price of gold actually declining in South African rand terms while wages have been rising at about 10% per year, will see far improved profits relative to most other producers. Meanwhile, gold coins and collectibles are still selling at historically low premiums to their melt (intrinsic) values, and therefore merit consideration whenever gold is oversold.
U.S. equities in general will continue to decline until the dividend yield on the S&P 500, currently at only 1.78%, is between 7.5% and 10.5%. Great bull excesses are usually followed by equally severe recessions.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: When I was nine years old, I went to a special summer class on geology. Each Sunday, we would travel to a different site to look at some unusual rocks at that location. One of my fellow students, named Alan Kahn, would grab several large chunks each week and load them into his car. After about a month, I became curious as to what was happening with all these big rocks that he was taking home, so he invited me for lunch. To my amazement, he and his brothers had built a huge, artistic gerbil maze from these rocks in the basement for their several furry pets. I taught he and his brothers to play bridge, and they were so good that they were able to beat me and my best friend after just one month. Later I figured out that they were kicking each under the table to tell each other exactly which cards they had. We used to invent our own card games and try them out. Unfortunately, just before sixth grade, his family moved to Pennsylvania and I never heard from them again. I wonder if he is still interested in big rocks.
ANOTHER REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: When I grew up in Baltimore, I had a classmate who lived on the same street named Glen. Sometimes he would sing Broadway tunes while I would accompany him on the piano. When we were both 23, Glen decided to move to Brooklyn. One Saturday I decided to give him a real surprise, so I woke up very early, drove four hours to Brooklyn, and parked around the corner from his apartment. I then called him from a pay phone, being sure that he couldn't possibly see me from any of his apartment windows. I also tried to keep my voice casual. After about five minutes, Glen suddenly shouted, "You're right around the corner, aren't you!" I was stunned, and sheepishly replied, "How did you know that? Did someone tell you I was in the neighborhood?" "No," he laughed, "I saw an ambulance pass by my apartment, and then I heard the same ambulance siren through the telephone."
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: I used to attend a summer music composition camp known as the Walden School. It was run by an energetic, inspiring man named W. David Hogan, Jr. We were each assigned to a kitchen crew in order to set out the dishes and silverware, and to serve the food and drink. There were two crews per meal. One day, our crew showed up as usual, but the other crew was nowhere to be found. We didn't know what to do, so we decided to do the best we could with our limited numbers. Naturally it took twice as long to set up as usual, so we still had a few tables to go when the counselors and kids began to pour in for supper. We tried to work a little faster, when the other crew suddenly showed up. It turned out that they had been playing a close game of handball that went into overtime, and they didn't want to interrupt the game to do something boring like setting the tables. The second, tardy crew tried to cover up for their misdeed by rushing to set out the final table, which was comprised of the most senior staff and counselors. They did a good job at first, but when they served Mr. Hogan himself, the head of the tardy crew rushed just a little too energetically, and tipped an entire meal and large cup of grape juice onto David Hogan's freshly washed shirt, tie, jacket, and pants, not to mention splattering the director's face with some kind of vegetable medley. Needless to say, that particular crew did quite a bit of floor scrubbing, lint cleaning, and every other conceivable and inconceivable task for the remainder of the summer without a complaint.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: When I was a kid, the most popular birthday activity by far was to have a duckpin party. In Baltimore, unlike other American cities, almost every bowling alley is divided into two halves. In one half, there are lanes with tenpins that require fifteen-pound balls and where you throw the ball twice per frame, as you can find throughout the U.S. In the other half, there are lanes with pins that are much smaller, known as duckpins, for which you throw a ball weighing only 3-1/2 pounds, and where you get three throws per frame. It's more difficult to throw a strike (all pins down in a single throw) or a spare (all down in two throws) with duckpins, since the ball is far less powerful, so a score of 120 is considered very good. Kids almost always prefer duckpins, because they can hardly lift the larger balls needed for regular tenpins, and because it has been the norm for Baltimore youth for decades (although this tradition has somewhat faded in the past twenty years, alas). Our parents would drop us off at the bowling alley, whereby we would bowl for about 1-1/2 hours. Afterward, we would gather in a big room nearby to eat strawberry ice cream and pound cake, and be entertained by someone dressed as a clown, who would then suffer the indignity of having leftover melted ice cream and cake thrown at him whenever any of his antics were less than excellent. As a true contrarian even then, I decided that for my ninth birthday, I would have my friends meet at Patapsco State Park just west of the city limits. Instead of bowling, we all went on a five-mile hike along a stream with a waterfall, and instead of ice cream and cake, we had barbecued goodies with lemonade and root beer. The general attitude afterward was "it was weird, but we had a lot of fun and we learned something". I guess that's similar to the reaction of those who read this page after perusing the usual web sites.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In the summer of 1983, I went to visit my best friend from high school, who had moved to Chicago to attend the university in Hyde Park. He was rather busy during the daytime hours, so I explored a lot of the city on my own. One morning around 10 a.m. I headed for a park, and discovered an elaborate sculpture which looked like it might be or once have been a fountain. I walked over to it, and finding it intriguing in its design, I went toward its center to examine it more closely. Suddenly I heard a whirring sound, and soon discovered that it was very much a live fountain, which began to spout prodigious amounts of water. Since it took me quite some time to climb out of the middle of the contraption and move away from the range of the spray, I was thoroughly drenched, at which time the fountain shut down as rapidly as it had started up. I walked around to the other side of the massive sculpture and saw that it was called "Buckingham Fountain", which I later discovered was the most famous fountain in the city. Its posted hours of operation were clearly in the afternoons and evenings only, so the person in charge of its maintenance must have turned it on that morning solely for my benefit.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In my senior year in high school, there was a family living next door that had grown up in the farm belt of North Carolina. They grew corn and other crops in the back yard, instead of planting the traditional lawn grass, and they had a huge dog which lived in a doghouse in the front yard. One day in January they went on vacation for two weeks to visit their family back on the farm. While they were gone, a small brown-and-white stray dog moved into the doghouse and begged for scraps in the neighborhood. Whenever I left the house for a walk, the stray dog would follow me for a block or two, unless our own family dog was with me, in which case it would stay at a distance and whimper. After a week had passed, the dog was still in the doghouse and I knew it would get kicked out the following Sunday when the next-door family was scheduled to return. On Saturday afternoon, as snow flurries fell, I walked to the library to return some books, and the dog followed me all the way, more than a mile, but stayed just outside the library door. I only took about half a minute to drop off the books, but when I went back outside, I couldn't see the dog anywhere. I looked around for almost an hour, then gave up and walked home. Perhaps the stray dog somehow sensed that the doghouse would no longer be available, and decided to head for a new place to live.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: Several years ago I was teaching piano in Chinatown in downtown Manhattan. My star pupil not only improved his performing ability, but also began to write his own songs. One day, he surprised me by telling me he was treating me to supper for my birthday. I selected my favorite Thai restaurant called "Thailand" at the corner of Baxter and Bayard Streets (it has been there now for twenty years). My protégé asked me what to order, and I told him probably he should get one of their excellent curries, but not the "jungle curry", since that would be too spicy for him to eat. Naturally, he ordered the jungle curry, telling me that since he was from southern China, he could certainly eat much hotter food than any red-haired wimpy American from Baltimore. I warned him again to get either the red, green, or yellow curries instead, but he insisted, so I intentionally ordered the yellow curry for myself, the mildest of their signature dishes, so that he could swap later without losing face. When the jungle curry arrived, my overeager student took one bite, then without a word switched plates with me. I was truly surprised when he discovered that even the yellow curry was a lot spicier than anything his mother usually cooked (he was only a high school junior at that time, and had not eaten out very frequently), since that was mild even to my taste. I ended up eating both of our entrees, encouraging him to order something even more harmless than a Big Mac, such as pad thai, but he was too embarrassed to want to order anything further at that point. Finally, the bill arrived, and he made a great show of very proudly taking out his first, very recently obtained credit card to pay for both of us, only to discover that the restaurant accepted only cash; he had less than five dollars in his pocket. We have since become good friends, although to this day he becomes upset if I remind him of this incident.
REMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK: In the late summer of 2001, my brother and I visited Iceland. We went horseback riding, swam in thermally heated pools, went biking, and marveled at the Northern Lights (the aurora borealis). I had met an Icelandic man while playing bridge on the internet; we later sent e-mails and talked on the phone, and he was kind enough to drive my brother and myself around the country for two days. We saw amazing geysers and waterfalls, wide open countryside with a few domestic animals, and a generally austere landscape. Rainbows were almost an everyday occurrence. On the second day together, after we had just visited an ancient Icelandic graveyard, my friend said, "I'm not sure why, but I'd like to hear the news on the radio for a few minutes if you don't mind." My brother and I couldn't understand what was being said, but my friend told us "the World Trade Center was just hit by an airplane." That didn't make any sense to us, and then shortly thereafter he told us "another plane just hit the other tower, and they say it's terrorism." We drove immediately to my friend's house and, just as we arrived and turned on the television, on CNN we saw the South Tower fall.
(c) 1996-2004 Steven Jon Kaplan Your comments are always welcome.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH: I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., and was graduated from the Johns Hopkins University with a Bachelor of Engineering Science degree in May 1982. I have been studying the precious metals markets since the 1970s, and began this web site in August 1996. I have been writing music and short stories since the mid-1960s. I maintain a fiercely independent stand toward the financial markets and toward everything else in life, and am not compensated for my writings by any person or organization with the exception of the advertising banners posted on this site. I am also a pianist, computer programmer, bridge player, and runner, and enjoy world travel. I appreciate all those who have quoted the various sayings on my web site over the years, which have wound up in some pretty interesting collections.
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