daily volatility, non-correlation …and beta

My wife and I are in the process of hiring a financial planner.  While I think this is important to do, our search has brought me back into vivid contact with some of what I consider the nonsensical jargon of academic finance.  I want to write about the general idea of “non-correlated assets,” but I’m going to start by writing about beta.


In the early days of computer-driven finance, just after WWII, economist Harry Moskowitz proposed beginning to assess the risk of a portfolio by analyzing the interrelationships among individual stocks in it.  That task proved too daunting for the computers of the day for anything but small numbers of stocks.  Others suggested correlating everything to one standard, an index like the S&P 500, for instance, instead.

The regression that would do this has the form of y = α + β(S&P).  This is how beta, the correlation between a given stock’s price movement and that of the market, was born.

So far, so good.

…and gold stocks

One day, people discovered that there was a class of stocks–gold stocks, in particular– that had a beta of 0.  This spawned the idea, encouraged by the gold-bug prejudices of the day, that one could lower the beta of a portfolio just by adding gold stocks.  One could add, say, technology stocks with a beta =2 and offset the risk by adding gold stocks in the same amount.  Simple math said the combination had a beta = 1, or risk exactly equal to that of the market.

Some institutional investors actually bought the theoretical argument about the “magic” property of gold and altered their portfolios in the way I just described.

By doing so, they exposed themselves to the 20-year bear market in the yellow metal that lasted from 1950 to 1970.  They lost their shirts.

They realized only afterward that a beta of zero did not mean that the asset in question had no risk.  It meant instead only that the zero-beta asset did not rise and fall in price in line with the stock market.  In this case, the “uncorrelated” price went straight down during a period when the S&P gained 500%+.  So much for non-correlation.

More tomorrow.




more on gold

just to clear the air

I was interviewing a prominent tycoon in Hong Kong  in the mid-1980s when the topic turned to gold.  He told me that he had long since sold all the gold bars he had once used to store his wealth.  He was now holding currency and currency derivatives instead.  I soon found that this was the norm among the rich and powerful in what had once been the center of gold bug-dom.

This was akin to travelling to southern California and seeing budding cultural trends in the US.  That’s when I began to realize that gold that had lost its function universal function as a store of wealth.  Yes, gold retains this function in third world countries like India, where people don’t trust or can’t afford banks, but–in my view–nowhere else.

As fun as it might be to elaborate on this theme, I want to write more about the mechanics/quirks of the gold market–mostly about production–than about popular delusions.

about supply

–Inventories, held either as gold bars or in jewelry, dwarf production.  As decision of holders in the three biggest markets–India, China and central banks– to liquidate can have a significant effect on price.

–Gold mines typically have pockets of ore that are very rich in gold and others that are relatively thin.  Industry practice is to aim for maximum sustainable mine life.  This means mining larger amounts of relatively poor ore are when prices are high and shifting the mix toward richer ore  when prices are low.  One practical consequence of this practice is that actual production cost figures from the past few years of high prices are going to overstate the cost of production in today’s lower price world. Another is that production amounts tend at least initially to expand when prices fall.

–When mines get in financial trouble they begin to “high grade,” meaning they produce exclusively from their richest ore deposits and they cut the amount they usually spend on maintenance and on developing newer areas to mine.  This is ultimately destructive of a mine’s long-term prospects, but it ups near-term cash flow–and it can go on for an extended period.

–When I began studying gold mining companies in the late 1970s – early 1980s, gold miners were very financially conservative because they understood clearly that their industry was subject to violent ups and downs in price.  Their number one rule was to have no debt and a large cash reserve.  That’s no longer the case.  Heavy borrowing urged by CFOs with academic finance training but little industry experience has meant that mines need to generate enough cash to service debt as well as pay operating costs.  This intensifies the need to generate maximum cash flow, even at the expense of diminishing long-term mine viability.

–Bankruptcies may help the orebodies.  But because they remove the burden of debt service, they make the near-term supply situation worse, not better.

my conclusions

The gold price can go lower, and stay depressed for a longer period, that I think most people expect.

oil and gold: finding the commodity cycle bottom

I got my first couple of portfolio manager jobs in the 1980s because one of my industry specializations as  a securities analyst was natural resources.  Back then, there were an enormous number of mining analysts in an information industry based in London.  The large size and vitality of the analyst community were partly because there had been an enormous spike in the prices of gold and oil in the late 1970s-early 1980s. So investors were willing to pay handsomely for information and interpretation.  Also, the prevalent economic theory of the day, since proved to be woefully incorrect, held that a necessary condition for global economic growth was a continuously expanding supply of mineral resources.

When the Chinese economic expansion-driven commodities boom began a decade and a half later, I found that, unsurprisingly after 15 years of no one being interested, the entire stock market information infrastructure for metals had disappeared.  There were still the odd steel or oil analyst around eking out a living and staggering toward retirement, but little else, either in London or New York.

As far as I can see, from an information perspective the situation is at least as bad today.  In the perverse way that Wall Street works, however, that lack itself is the basis of the positive thesis for mining in general.

industry characteristics

Mineral extraction industries are very capital-intensive.  This means that projects typically require large amounts of up-front money. But they can often continue, once up and running, for long periods without new funds being put in.

Mining projects often have very long lives.

Very often, projects are also huge.  This is partly the nature of the beast, partly a function of the temperament of the people who run minerals companies.  This means that new supply is often added in gigantic chunks.  New supply almost invariably arrives in amounts way above the increase in demand and typically, therefore, marks the high water mark in terms of price.  Boom and bust, boom and bust–the rhythm of these markets.

finding the bottom

Falling prices indicates that there’s more supply than demand.  In theory, that situation can be reversed either by demand expanding or by supply contracting.  In practice, the first rarely happens.

What establishes the bottom for these markets, in my experience, is a price decline that’s deep enough to force high-cost capacity to close.  This does not mean the price at which companies stop earning a financial reporting profit.  That price is too high.  That’s because it includes as an expense a non-cash allowance for recovering the money spent to open the project.  A company can also be compelled to sell at unfavorable prices by creditors.

What actually matters is the point at which the out-of-pocket cash cost of getting output out of the ground is less than what it can be sold for.  That’s the point at which projects begin to shut themselves down.  They may not do so immediately.  They may continue to bleed in the hope of an imminent turnaround.

For gold, the relevant figure is around $850 an ounce, I think.  Oil is a bit more complicated, but the magic number is likely about $40 a barrel.

More tomorrow.



uncorrelated returns: hedge funds as the new gold

Every stock market person knows what beta is.

It comes from a regression analysis, y = α + βx, where y is the return on a stock and x the return on the market).  It shows how a given stock’s past tendency to rise and fall is linked to fluctuations in the market in general.  A stock with a beta of 1.4, for example, has tended to rise and fall in the some direction as the market, but move 40% more in either direction; a stock with a beta of 0.8 has tended to exhibit only 80% of the market’s ups and downs.

The professor in a financial theory course I took in business school asked one day what it meant that gold stocks had, at the time, a beta of zero.

The thoughtless answer is that it means they aren’t risky, or that they don’t go up and down.

A consequence of this thinking is that you can lower the beta, and therefore the risk, of your investment portfolio by mixing in some gold stocks.What’s interesting is that in the early days of beta analysis that’s what some institutional portfolio managers actually did with their clients’ money.

That didn’t work out well at all.

What should have been obvious, but wasn’t, is that the zero beta didn’t mean no risk–or that gold stocks are/were a good investment.  It meant what the regression literally indicates–that none of the movement in gold stocks could be explained by movements in the stock market in general.

The riskiness of gold stocks is there, but it came/comes in other dimensions, like:  how mines develop new supply, the ruminations of the gnomes of Zürich (in today’s world, Mumbai and Shanghai), the potential for emerging country craziness, the propensity of the industry to fraud.

Why write about this now?

I heard a Bloomberg report that institutional investors as a whole are upping their exposure to hedge funds, despite the wretched performance of the asset class.  Their rationale?   …uncorrelated returns.

It sounds sooo familiar.

Admittedly, there may be a deeper game in progress.  It’s impossible to say your plan is fully funded by projecting a gazillion percent return on stocks or bonds.  But who’s to say that a hedge fund can’t do that?



gold mining stocks?

gold mining stocks

I spent part of the day yesterday looking at gold mining stocks.

the potential attraction?  …over two years of dreadful performance.

Since mid-2011, the gold price is down by about a third.  Over the same time span, many gold stocks have lost between half and three-quarters of their value.  And that’s during a period when the S&P is up by about 50%.

Sentiment about gold has also taken a decidedly negative turn.  Hedge fund managers are no longer bloviating (how about that word?) about the superiority of the yellow metal over “fiat money.”  Boiler rooms are no longer filling the airwaves their odd sales pitch that “Gold has tripled over the past five years.  (Therefore you should) buy some now!!”

In addition, I think that 2014 will be a year of consolidation for the S&P.  So a 3% dividend yield plus the chance of, say, a 15% gain looks to me to be substantially more attractive than it might have been a year or two ago.

my verdict

I’m not so interested, for two reasons:

1.  I think the gold price is still too high.  In the past, the gold price hasn’t bottomed until it reaches a level where at least some existing mines become uneconomical.  This means that the cash a company must spend (not including non-cash costs like depreciation) to produce an ounce of gold is greater than the selling price.  As best I can tell (a long time ago, I would have considered myself an expert, but I’m certainly not one now), that’s below $1,000 an ounce.  The price may never get there, but, as an investor, I’m looking for situations with more upside than downside.  I don’t see that here.

2.  I don’t think companies have completely stabilized themselves yet.  The industry took on a lot of debt to fund what have turned out to be ill-advised capacity expansions at the top of the market.  That’s par for the course.

As far as I can see, these projects have by and large been at least temporarily mothballed.  However, there’s still the debt to deal with.  It isn’t so much that there are borrowings on the balance sheet that bothers me.  It’s that financially leveraged firms have to continue to mine in order to repay their lenders.  So supply isn’t taken off the market as quickly as it might otherwise be.  A number of companies had stock offerings last year.  Good for them, but this just prolongs the adjustment period.

All in all, I don’t find the risk/reward to be favorable enough right now.  Maybe in six months.





where’s the bottom for the gold price?

falling gold

The gold price has fallen steadily from a high of just under $1800 an ounce last October to the current spot price of $1231 this morning.

How low can the gold price go from here?


In the simplest terms, prices fall when producers supply more to the market than buyers want at a given price.  The price drops to the point where buyers are willing to absorb the excess supply.  Typically, producers read the market signal and begin to cut back on the amount they put on the market.  When cutbacks are large enough, the price stabilizes.

For most things, adjustment happens quickly.  For gold   …not so much.

…for gold

Gold is mined in remote, inhospitable places by hardy workers who operate expensive and highly specialized machinery that needs considerable maintenance.  Once a mine shuts down, chances are it won’t reopen.  It’s hard to reassemble the needed mining crews…and it’s expensive to bring the plant and equipment back up to snuff.  So mining companies try to avoid shutdown at all costs.

Part their planning tends to make over/undersupply worse rather than better.

As the gold price rises, mines continue to process the same amount of ore, but switch to lower-grade areas.  This means they produce less gold, increasing the supply squeeze.  Conversely, when prices being to fall–the situation we’re in now–mines routinely shift to processing higher-grade deposits.  The idea is to keep their revenue steady–and therefore the mining crew together and the mine profitable.  But putting more gold on the market tends to depress prices further.

waiting for the weak to falter

Experienced mining firms also know how any market downturn will play out, even if no one voluntarily withdraws supply from the market.  At some point, the gold price will drop below the cash outlays of the highest-cost mines.  When red ink causes enough of these to cease production, supply will shrink, restoring equilibrium.


…the gold price bottom question boils down to what cash costs for gold miners are and at what price do high-cost gold mines begin to die.

the Thompson-Reuters report

On April 4th, Thompson Reuters issued its 2013 Gold Survey.

TR says current average cash costs for the gold mining industry are $738 an ounce.

Average cash costs in 2009 were well under $500 an ounce, suggesting that that price level is highly defensible.   The addition of high-cost South African supply (averaging over $1,000 an ounce) and cost increases in Australia (much of it currency-induced, I think) are responsible for most of the rise since.

my take

Relative to nine months ago, gold looks cheap.  But supply probably isn’t going to be withdrawn from the market until the gold price falls below $1,000.  And rock-bottom (sorry) is probably $600 or so.

That’s a long way down.

To my mind, no one other than dyed-in-the-wool gold bugs will be interested in gold today.

the FT’s “listen to gold” op-ed

The other day the Financial Times carried an op-ed column titled “We should listen to what gold is really telling us.”  It was written by regular contributor Mohamed El-Erian, the  marketing voice of bond fund giant, Pimco.

I usually skip over what Mr. El-Erian writes.  His prose style is weak and the solution to every economic or financial worry he discusses is to buy more bonds.  In this case, I made an exception.  I was curious to see whether Pimco would be in the old-school camp that says gold is money or whether, like me, Pimco would maintain that it’s an industrial metal that new mine development has put into chronic oversupply (just like in the 1980s).

The article isn’t really about gold, though.  It’s about the fact that when more money than is needed is sloshing around in the world economy–and central banks around the globe continue to print new money at a rapid rate–some (all?) of the excess finds its way into speculative investing.  Sometimes, according to Pimco, even though the overall speculative tide has not yet crested, some prices become so divorced from reality that localized bubbles still burst.  Three examples:  gold, AAPL and FB.

At this point in the article, I thought what would come next would be an assertion that these three are harbingers of the behavior of all sorts of financial investments once monetary stimulus starts to be withdrawn.  If so, I thought to myself, Pimco will have a hard time ducking the issue of the popping of the biggest bubble of them all, the bond market.

That’s not the tack Mr. El-Erian takes, though.

He asks what happens if all the global monetary stimulus fails to reignite economic growth.  Put in a different way, what happens if world economies begin to roll over and enter recession?  The money taps are already wide open, so there’s nothing central banks can do to cushion the fall.  Fiscal policy is the only tool available.  But that takes time to work–and requires well-functioning legislatures to understand what’s going on and act both appropriately and quickly.  Fat chance.

This is a really scary scenario.  There’s absolutely no current evidence I can see that it’s likely.  El-Erian just poses the question and doesn’t say what he thinks.

Still, from a financial planning perspective, it’s something we all have to consider and be on the alert for the signs of.  Of course, conveniently for Pimco, this is the only situation I can think of where it makes sense to be holding government bonds.