Saturday, September 24, 2011
Forget Gold—What Matters Is Copper
Copper fell from $4.20 to $3.25—close to 25%—in about three weeks. Most of that tumble has happened in the last ten days, and what’s worrisome is that, as I write these words over the weekend, there is every indication that copper will continue its free fall come Monday.
From the numbers that I’m seeing—and from the historical fact that copper tends to fall roughly 40% from peak to trough during an American recession—there is every indication that copper could reach $2.67 in short order. And even bottom out below that—say at $2.20—before stabilizing around the $2.67 level.
But we’ll see. The price of copper is not the point of this discussion. The point of this discussion is what the price of copper means.
What it means for monetary policy.
We all know the old saying: “Copper is the only commodity with a Ph.D. in economics”, or words to the effect.
The ongoing price collapse of copper signals that the markets have collectively decided that there is going to be no resurgence of the global economies—at least not for the next 9 to 18 months. Up until now, the economic data that has been coming out over the last couple of weeks seemed to indicate that there’s going to be a double-dip—but in my mind, this fall in the price of copper confirms this notion that the general economy is going down.
And remember: Market sentiment can not only be a predictor of future economic performance, but its determinant. If today the markets feel that the economy is going to suck tomorrow, often that very sentiment is what makes the economy suck canal water.
So if copper is falling like a mo-fo—which both signals and convinces the market that the economy is gonna suck—what does this mean for monetary policy?
Prima facie, the fall in the price of copper is deflationary: Less demand means that the prices fall—meaning the dollar acquires purchasing power.
What does it mean for monetary policy that copper has fallen so low?
It means that Bernanke will carry out more “non-traditional” Federal Reserve stimulus.
Ben Bernanke is famous for being terrified of deflation—and to his particular mindset, this is a reasonable fear. More to the point, Bernanke’s deflation-phobia actually matters—because after all, he is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He controls U.S. monetary policy.
Deflation is supposed to be bad because it shrinks an economy. (Personally, I am more afraid of inflation than deflation: The latter is self-correcting, while the former spirals out of control and into social chaos. But that’s for some other post.)
According to the deflationary world view, falling prices oblige producers to cut back on production—which means firing workers. These fired workers—husbanding their resources during their unemployment—spend less, further contracting demand, thus putting more downward pressure on prices, forcing more producers to cut back and fire even more workers, who thus spend less—
—you get the picture: A “deflationary death spiral”, in the Deflationistas’ parlance.
This is Bernanke’s fear—and he will do anything to alleviate it. Notice: It’s not that Bernanke will do anything to alleviate deflation—he will do anything to alleviate his fear of deflation.
As copper prices continue to tumble, signaling further economic contraction, there is no question in my mind that Ben Bernanke and his Fools of the Fed will view this as evidence of looming dollar deflation.
They will do everything to stop this looming deflation. But since the “traditional” Federal Reserve tools have been used up—that is, the Fed has its rate at zero, and for all intents and purposes all of its liquidity windows open—Bernanke will have no choice but to announce some new “non-traditional” liquidity injection scheme shortly.
Thus I expect some Banana Republic money-printing scheme to be announced by the Bernankster before the end of the year—perhaps as early as this coming October. The fall in the price of copper—more than anything else—is what Benny and his Fools will be looking at, to justify this new scheme.
And my bet is, this scheme they announce will be as big—and as controversial—as QE-II.
I am giving my people at The Strategic Planning Group a detailed analysis of what has happened over the past week, and what we can expect to happen in the markets over the coming weeks. You’ll have to pay to play for that.
But insofar as my overall view of the situation is concerned, this is what I think:
Bernanke will drive a schoolbus over small children, in order to prevent his notion of deflation from coming true. This fall in the price of copper is much more relevant to his course of action as Fed Chairman than the fall in the price of gold (which was just a combination of options expiration coming up, and gold positions being sold to cover losses in other asset classes).
This dramatic fall in the price of copper signals that the markets do not believe reactivation is anywhere near eminent—not for at least 9 to 18 months.
To the traditional twin Federal Reserve mandates of price stability and full employment, Bernanke has added a third mission: That of “growing the economy”—whatever it takes, however unorthodox or reckless the measures.
Therefore, it is my estimation that very soon now—end of this year at the latest—we will have QE-infinity—and beyond!
If you’re interested in SPG, check out a preview here.