Black gold vs. dark gold

In a recent post, Peter Schiff makes an important point:
Once an individual locks his or her safe, that gold effectively disappears from the market at large. Unlike bank deposits or stocks, there is no way to tally the total amount of gold held by individual investors.
In this way, he introduces his concept of "dark gold" which he relates to dark matter:
Dark matter is a mysterious substance that scientists hypothesize is an essential building block of our universe. All we know is that the universe is a certain size and that a huge amount of its mass is unobservable - this is what we've come to call dark matter.
If we view dark matter as exerting gravitational force in the universe without disclosing its presence, perhaps we can see private gold as exerting a certain force in finance and economics.

The whole question of privately held ("dark") gold is, for me, a question distinct from "black gold," with private ("dark") gold sitting still and black (illegal or unaccounted for) gold moving around. "Dark" gold is a useful paradigm but Schiff spoils it by mixing dark and black: he counts as "dark" both the Chinese undeclared mining outputs and the US Fed's German gold (which has disappeared from New York vaults). 

Let's thank Schiff for a useful coinage. Behind "dark gold" is a real number, but one that cannot be measured. It is the factual counterpoint to the fictitious model or estimate of "all the gold ever mined." (We are constantly told that all the gold ever mined is still in existence and we are given a number for that. It is nonsense.)

"Dark gold" is a good term for all the private Au squirreled away but still accessible. Let "black gold" remain the term to describe undeclared mining output and illegal mining output. The movements of black gold, I would propose, have a greater financial and economic "gravitational effect" than private gold held in storage.

 A tip of the hat to Schiff for drawing attention to this important paradigm. Let's see what he does with it.


Illegal Peruvian gold

Some of the illegal mining information we see leaks into the American press through press releases by environmentalists or other activist groups. As these folks are less concerned about production levels, black gold data tends to be scanty.

An organization named Verite has issued a report on Peruvian slave labor and child labor in the illegal gold mining operations in the Madre de Dios and neighboring departments. Their report contains one data point of note: gold illegally mined in the remotest corner of the Amazon ends up in Switzerland, a refining center.

Thus, the illegal miners have middlemen who must be buying from the bush and then selling on to the Swiss refiners.

Now note that analysts are starting to use gold flows into Switzerland as a proxy indicator for Asian demand. In general terms it means that illegal gold flowing into Switzerland likely moves east. It would not be far fetched to say that major, unknown quantities of illegal gold is helping supply eastern demand. Consider what that means for gold prices.

Let's try a thought experiment here. Imagine the whole amount of illegal Peruvian gold passes through Switzerland. It's a stretch, but let's consider what that means. This story says, "the illegal gold industry is worth roughly $1.8 billion dollars. Cocaine trafficking is worth about $1.2 billion."

Using our trusty calculator, we apply a conservative gold price of $1,300 an ounce to $1.8 billion and work our way backwards to 43.2 short (American) tons (not tonnes) of illegal production per year which converts into 39.25 tonnes. By the way, Peru's declared national gold reserves are 34.7 tonnes. Canada's are 3.4 tonnes.

These numbers are estimates but suggestive. In terms of total official world gold production, 39.25 tonnes may not impress us terribly, especially when other illegal flows are factored in. But consider adding in Tanzania's illegal 20 tonnes. Toss in illegal output from Guyana and Surinam. To paraphrase Everett Dirksen, pretty soon, your talking real money.

We'll try, over time, to build a running list of these estimates country by country. The results should be stunning. But we can't hope to even guess at all the black gold beyond this illegal mining category.

Mainstream concept?

"Monetary reset" gets 3,100,000 results in a Google search.


Types of black gold

It would be a mistake to limit the idea of black gold to what is illegally mined and sold worldwide. We can propose several categories of black gold:

  1. Illegally mined gold, quantities unknown
  2. Undeclared production in states like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, etc.
  3. Missing state hoards (Libyan, Iraqi, etc.)
  4. Understated central bank reserves (we tend to focus on overstated, re-hypothecated gold)
  5. Gold privately owned in large quantities
  6. Disguised holdings (i.e. industrial inventory, museum artifacts. etc.)
  7. Small holdings of unknown provenance

The first two categories here are in continuous production, feeding into pools  4-7. Item 3 may be part of some state's item 4.

Consider the effect on world gold supply of a continuous production that is large and unknown and lasts for decades.

There is also a folkloric category or two which critics of black gold tend to focus on:

  1. Lost treasure
  2. Secret (private) discoveries/mines 

Those ideas gather more scorn than they deserve.

Here is a further more difficult concept: black gold reserves.

Everyone is familiar with the national strategic oil reserves. The U.S. federal government has a stated amount of oil that it owns and holds for emergencies. But what if the stated amount is not the full amount?

Moreover, what if the government holds known undeveloped discoveries under designated parks, test ranges or federal land restricted from mineral development? The feds hold over 60% of Utah and Idaho, to name just two mineral rich states.

We flatter ourselves that we know the levels of international gold production and the amount produced in history. This false knowledge will lead many traders to grief and many political forecasters into expectations that do not correlate to reality.


Black fiat

Mish Shedlock has famously been a deflationist for some time, against our personal experience of the cost of living. In recent interviews, Jim Rickards posed the question, what if deflation and inflation are now contending with each other to produce an overall inflationsit or deflationist effect (or even a wash)? Today, on Keiser Report 507, Antal Fekete characterized the overall environment as profoundly deflationist based on the magnitude of the destruction of productive capital. Now considering the immense effects black gold can have on gold flows and gold pricing, it seems Fekete has developed an interesting fiat counterpoint. For where the river of black gold is a net positive (economically) that can help explain certain gold market phenomena, the black hole of ongoing, accelerating capital destruction explains much in finance and the general economy. The question arises, what if our insane money printing is an effort to replace continuously destroyed capital? Yesterday, Jim Willie told Greg Hunter that the fire consuming capital was a collapsing credit swaps derivatives market. He said that he believed the stated QE figure of a trillion-dollars-per-year was a fraction of the new money supply being created to stave off capital losses among the TBTFs. In other words, there is a river of black fiat being poured onto the fire of new bankster derivative losses. Capital destruction may have elicited black fiat. It's not far fetched.


Exploring the Rickards reset

Although we associate Another's views with an overnight repricing apocalypse in which all paper burns, he took care on a couple of occasions to say that if the transition to gold was managed right, all would benefit.

The suggestive power of these remarks was given full form by FOA, who began his Gold Trail series of musings with, "Truly, the stream [gold market] is being prepared for the great flood that must come, will come!" The great change would be freegold. The composition of the European Central Bank reserves was a harbinger. The powers that be were preparing the way.

None of this is news to any of you, but please note how widespread this idea is becoming. Recently, even Greg Hunter, a very basic kind of zero hedger, alluded to the preparations being made for the new (post dollar) monetary order. 

This scenario originates with Jim Rickards, or at least he is its most popular mainstream proponent. Rickards says the monetary reset can only happen when major powers in gold deficit accumulate the precious metal at a certain proportion to national GDP. He mentions China and sometimes Russia and China as lagging and says that gold prices are kept down to allow China to accumulate what it needs for parity in a new gold-backed monetary regime.

In Rickards' view, launching into the new arrangement before China is ready would create a revanchist, outsider state and the world wants China at the table. By the same token, the dollar dies the day China is deemed to have caught up in the gold accumulation game. Gold is repriced by agreement. It's as if world leaders had read Another and want to avoid armageddon. 

This scenario is compatible with China encouraging private gold accumulation; with Venezuela, Germany and others repatriating their gold stocks. It is not so strong on the geopolitical side.

The first objection we might raise is that with the declared U.S. gold holdings, the U.S. would be the gold superpower, dwarfing the other monetary system participants, which few would want to agree to. Rickards would certainly counter with the point that as a proportion of the world's largest economy. U.S. gold is not outsized and the targeted, proportional accumulation of other nations would bring all participants into balance. 

The greater test is in goodwill and intentions. History teaches us about arms races. These are partly public, partly secret. 

If gold will confer an advantage in the post-dollar monetary regime, why wouldn't states accumulate it in secret? Wouldn't they understate production and purchases in order to build secret stockpiles? When the music stops and the true reserves are declared, cheaters will be declared winners.

Another told us of really large deals managed by cutouts for giants (including governments). We should believe him and make the small leap of trust that this is also happening today. Has George Soros warehoused the bullion GLD delivered to him or has it passed on to other hands? Or has he fulfilled his mission, as Goldman and JPM are accomplishing theirs?

The Rickards scenario has merit (and Rickards is well connected) and it is not exclusive of other outcomes. States may be moving toward a new system as he describes. They might do so openly and honestly or competitively in secret. They may be heading toward freegold or towards a basket of currencies / commodities / gold. The SDR may be mixed up in this or not. 

Or Rickards may be on to an initiative that will fail. Or Rickards may be flat wrong about everything.

Another of Jim Rickards' memes is the currency war. Interestingly, this meme lives in its own space and is unconnected to the new monetary order except that he says currency wars bring forth new monetary orders.

Rickards sees currency wars as random incidents, somewhat ad hoc, planless, ill-considered.

But currency war is a controlled demolition of the fiat system. You would start a currency war as a countdown to the new system. It would incentivize laggards to climb onto the new monetary regime. The question then becomes, who started the current currency war? Was it an accident or by design? Isn't this the signal that China has attained its gold quota?

More important, this is not the post-war period and the world is no longer just the anglosphere plus Western Europe. Can there now be sufficient cooperation to launch a new monetary system?

Another foresaw either a "natural" dollar crash or one engineered by a nuclear option in which some cowboy pulled the gold trigger first, vaporizing competing currencies overnight.

Choosing between cooperation and anarchy, the latter seems more natural in the world. The easy stuff yields to cooperation not the hard stuff.


Black gold - a hint of the dimensions

Most of our analysis of gold market shenanigans works backwards from certain "givens," including "all the gold ever mined" still being in circulation and assertions about annual gold production.

We really need to step back and ask ourselves how we know what we know and why we believe what we know.

Consider Tanzania's gold production. This is a small example of a large challenge.

Our friends at Wikipedia give The British Geological Survey's estimate of 2006 Tanzanian gold production at 39 tonnes. Our American friends at the U.S. Geological Survey say the 2006 figure is 47 tonnes.

Here are their Tanzania figures 2006-2010: 2006, 47; 2007, 40.193; 2008, 36.434; 2009, 39.112; 2010, 42. (The rounder numbers tell me "estimators at work" and "no definitive data.")

Now let's look at Reuters; consulting government sources for 2011, it says "Tanzania's gold production rose to 40.4 tonnes in 2011 from 35.6 tonnes a year ago [2010] ..."

Reuters is talking off Tanzanian official sources and is saying 2010 saw 35.6 tonnes. The U.S. Geological Survey says 42,000. We're seeing U.S. estimates 20% higher than British and Tanzanian estimates.

Not that Reuters can even paraphrase a government press release correctly. Notice the source government statement says (emphasis added):
" ...the export volume increased to 40.4 tonnes from 35.6 tonnes recorded in 2010," the central Bank of Tanzania said in a report on its website.
The folks at Reuters have confused the export figure with the production figure. Trust them only as far as you can throw them.

After all this numerology, you deserve a payoff. This is a pretty good one. From Mining Weekly, 26 July (emphasis added):
According to [Tanzania Minerals Audit Agency CEO Paul] Masanja, small- and medium-scale gold miners produce about 20 t a year, yet less than 2 t is recorded by government.
We have these terrible give-or-take 20% production/export figures or estimates. The gold that falls between these statistical chairs is a very big deal, especially if we extrapolate the error rate to worldwide production. Think about the implications if worldwide production figures are off 20%.

It gets better. Masanja is saying (if I read him right) that the Tanzanian official export figures, cited by Reuters (in the example above) embed 2 tonnes of small/medium output in the total of 40.4 tonnes while not counting an additional (estimated) 18 tonnes.

Tanzania exports 40.4 tonnes of gold. Another 18 tonnes is knocking around somewhere. Where? Dubai? In jewelry? In central bank vaults?

Do you see the implications for our estimates, models, frameworks? We have gross variations in "official" numbers compounded by even bigger variations factoring in undocumented production.



Thanks for looking in on a new blog.

 About 15 years ago, two anonymous Listserv members gave us lots of new paradigms for understanding the gold market, particularly its pricing and the pricing implications for a new monetary order. I speak of Another (paper will burn) and Friend of Another - FOA (freegold will emerge).

 They have a number of interesting students posting in the blogosphere who are focused on this or that A/FOA insight. None of them is sketching the emerging picture and none are interested in black gold, it's movements, or its collection into dark pools (analogous to dark pools of capital). This is especially odd, since both A/FOA were very interested in off-the-books transactions.

 There is, among gold fans generally, a common concern around the eventual repricing of gold. You hear numbers like $5,000 an ounce and higher. These repricing scenarios do not consider the allocation of black gold, nor do they consider the geopolitics of a repricing event. (A more basic problem, is that they forget to delink the "price of gold" from the futures market where it is set, more on which in another post). This represents one kind of problem.

 Attempts to speculatively price gold depend on different yardsticks and parameters. You see the gold/silver ratio, the gold/M1 ratio, the gold/GDP ratio, etc. You have people tell you that all the gold ever mined will fit into a certain sized swimming pool or a large room, or some such. But we do not actually know how much gold has been and is being mined, nor where the black gold is flowing, nor where it is stored (I'll give some spectacular illegal mining output projections in another post).

Our production models wildly undercount what is being produced. Our above-ground estimates impinge on state secrets. We have to be brave and confront the known unknowns.

 There is a second problem. The leading edge of FOA's readers are braced for the emergence of a new monetary order but they overdetermine the outcome as a freegold system (in which fiat and gold run on parallel pricing tracks). Some of them envision an orderly transition now in preparation (look at the gold reserves at the ECB). Others accept Another's apocalypse in which all paper burns either due to the laws of the market or because of a "nuclear option" (someone deploys gold backed currency first, causing an overnight revaluation of world currency and a freeze-up of paper trading).

 This blog proposes that FOA's students are probably correct in saying that central banks are preparing for a new international monetary regime and that this regimen may have a gold component. However, this is not necessarily a freegold solution and it will not necessarily bonus private collection, as we will see.