Some Mild Economic Hassle Ahead

Third world market / mercado tercermundista
Sign of the Times - Image by Andreuchis via Flickr

Some may say I’ve been ignoring the global economic crisis, but the way I see it, if you’re at a funeral you don’t say “Jesus, it’s a dead guy in a freaking box!”

Let’s try to be positive. There has been a little good news in the last week. Some sort of half-assed budget deal was cut in the US, saving its economy from plunging to Third World status. Yet. The Euro still exists, even if it seems about as stable now as an upended pyramid. Full of nitroglycerine. On fire.

But otherwise, the outlook is not so good. The Americans cannot borrow and spend to get out of recession because the balance of power is held by political morons. In the eurozone, we apply band-aid after band-aid to a haemorrhage. Sooner or later we will need to face up to the facts: We either have one single economy with one single fiscal policy, or we can’t have a single currency. That’s not a decision we know how to even begin contemplating taking, and the longer we put it off, the more countries are going to be flung like screaming toddlers from the runaway merry-go-round.

And in a sure sign of economic brick-crapping terror, the gold price is skyrocketing again. Two weeks ago I pointed out that the world’s gold stocks were now worth eight trillion dollars. It’s estimated that in three months they’ll be worth over a trillion more. Funny how market chaos seems to be good for people who happen to own a lot of gold. But that’s probably just one of those coincidences.

We shouldn’t panic or despair yet though. There’s still China. China, that engine of the global economy, driving back collapse. Even when all of us in the West are too broke to buy each other’s stuff, we can always afford theirs. Guess what’s happening in China? Their buoyant, vibrant, export-fuelled high growth economy has led to – no go on, guess – has led to… Have you got it? Yep, that’s right. A housing bubble. China has a housing bubble.

But don’t worry, it’s bound to find a soft landing. Don’t they all? Ha ha ha. Oh God we’re so doomed.

Gold Panic

gold cast bar
Fifty-One Thousand Sexy Dollars

Brace yourself for more irritating, hyperactive adverts on TV, more men with laptops and weighing scales in shopping malls, and more burglaries. Gold has reached a new record price of over $1600 per ounce. This means that, for the first time ever, gold is now actually worth its weight in gold.

But I shouldn’t get surreal, the reality is ridiculous enough. Buying gold is the global economy’s answer to popping valium and praying. Whenever the markets don’t know what’s going to happen or what to do next, they run to the yellow metal. There is no clear reason why, it just has this talismanic ring to it. Weight. Historical value. Shininess.

Also of course, it’s an actual thing. All those brave traders out there, wildly speculating all day on derivatives and futures and other fanciful ways to bet on how other people will make bets on how you will bet suddenly realise that all they own are pieces of paper written in the conditional mood, and succumb to an urge to possess something that you can actually hold and touch and hug. Or at least, a piece of paper that says you possess something you can hold and touch and hug.

This superstition-based value is highly dysfunctional. The problem with the flight to gold is that there is not enough room in gold. You’ve heard that factoid about how much there is in the entire world? Enough to fill just two Olympic swimming pools. It depends of course on how deep those pools are, but this is roughly right. There are something like 155,000 tonnes of gold lying around. Assuming that ounce price is for troy ounces, the normal ISO (International Silly Old) unit, and that comes to about eight trillion dollars ($8 000 000 000 000).

That’s hardly the current account deficit of a small South American republic these days. With the Euro in dire straits, there is clearly a lot more money needing somewhere to hide than that, and all the gold in the world is not a big enough hiding place.

Unless, of course, its price goes up even further and even faster.

You can almost hear the new wars starting in Africa, as it becomes lucrative once more to arm some children and turn over a neighbouring country. (Arms manufacture is always a good secondary bet when gold goes up.) Oh and if you have any gold fillings, now would be a good time to cash them in. Before someone else does, with a brick.