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The Bullion Report

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April 20, 2011 in 'The Bullion Report'

Your Money is No Good HereYour Money is No Good Here

Fear premium seems like an understatement following the Standard and Poor’s downgraded outlook for US debt. Markets reacted in kind, with and the threat of losing a AAA rating brought another round of potential haven seekers to gold and silver. What is it about the rating that is so special, and why should this change anything?


Past performance is not indicative of future results.

***chart courtesy of Gecko Software

 

Let’s get one thing clear – there were a few stories that reported the US’ credit rating was lowered from neutral to negative. The Ratings Service actually lowered their outlook for US debt. The reasoning? They lack confidence that Washington will get the federal deficit under control in the next two years or so. The long term outlook suggests that there is a roughly 30 percent likelihood that the US will lose its current investment rating. That rating was actually reaffirmed in yesterday’s Standard and Poor’s release, but with paragraph after paragraph of concerns over the future growth and expenses for this western superpower. 

The AAA rating is endangered by what the Standard and Poor’s views as “very large budget deficits and rising government indebtedness and the

path to addressing these is not clear to us” – exactly the kinds of things that have been moving more than a little investment in precious metals. Unlike the US dollar, I have often reiterated that gold and silver are difficult to manipulate with changes in policy. However, the key issue here is the cracks in the foundation.  

Since the start of the global recession, it was not uncommon to hear that a country was in trouble on the credit front. Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland – there is no shortage of areas of potential weakness. The thing is - it seemed a lot less dire when it was somewhere else. The idea that the Euro zone would have a country or two with fiscal weakness is one thing, but an industrialized nation of this size? The US is practically the backbone of a global economy, and one of the largest single economies in the framework of the world.  

Perhaps it is more unsettling because of the scope of foreign investment in the United States. As of February 2011, China held over $1 trillion in US treasuries. Japan had a cool $890 billion. The United Kingdom and other nations held more modest levels, around $200 billion or so, for a grand total of $4,474,300,000. (1) Of course, Japan’s finance minister was quick to state that US treasuries remained attractive, despite the warning against the US. China was less magnanimous. Their foreign ministry urged policy makers in Washington to move to protect investors in their debt. Besides debt obligations, foreign governments are probably eyeing their ample US dollar reserves. While it is anyone’s guess how much of China’s foreign currency reserves are dollar denominated, it cannot be comfortable on any level to see the recent troubles in the US devalue the currency. Uncertainty in the future of the US and the overall perceived risk of default has as much of a chance to drive investors from the US dollar and into other assets.  

The Treasury Department’s projection is that the debt-ceiling is within reach, to be breached as early as May. Default could come as early as this summer. 

Summary 

The US is unlikely to see the kind of real growth that the situation requires to sort out its massive deficit. Right now, the economic crisis has pared growth, and playing an eternal shell game with the fiscal deficit doesn’t seem close to over. The diminished outlook in a superpower like the United States is enough to rattle even the most stalwart investor’s cage. That means the chance for more investor uncertainty, and that usually means fresh highs in precious metals. The threat from Standard and Poor’s was a surprise to a lot of people. Everyone seems to be aware that things are not perfect, and that public finances are relatively tattered. The short term key will be how people feel this credit ruin stands up to global counterparts. If the US is viewed as the ‘best of the worst’ as it were, this initial gain in gold and silver will likely be met with some pressure. If all it does is create talking points ahead of re-election promises then people are less likely to assuaged, and that means a harder currency than a feeble buck.  

1. http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/tic/Documents/mfh.txt  

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Disclaimer: The prices of precious metals and physical commodities are unpredictable and volatile. There is a substantial degree of a risk of loss in all trading. Past performance is not indicative of future results.