25 May 2008

Investment timeframes Part I

When I moved to Perth from Sydney to take up the job of Depository Administrator I thought the best way to get up to speed quickly would be to go through each client file (we are talking good old paper here). This way I could see first hand how transactions were done, how I should word correspondence, etc. As I worked my way through the files, I started to see a pattern – the client would open the account, purchase a large amount of gold and then, nothing. No further contact, no further purchases or sales, no enquiries as to the price of gold, nothing.

Initially this puzzled me, I mean if you had a substantial investment, wouldn’t you be constantly reviewing your portfolio allocation and making adjustment accordingly? The behaviour seemed very odd, very un-investment like, especially for such obviously wealth persons. In a lot of a cases we were talking about periods of 5-10 years without any trading or contact.

As I got to trading and talking to a wide variety of the Depository clients, I came to understand that there were a lot of different reasons for buying gold. Associated with each reason was usually a timeframe, and by that I mean how long they expected to be invested in gold before selling out - hopefully at a profit. I ended up classifying them into three groups: short, medium and long term timeframes. The “no further contact” clients were in the long-term group, and specifically what I call insurers.

Now my definition of what those timeframes were may not accord with their definition as used in other markets or yours, but it does fit what I saw when analysing the transaction behaviour of the Perth Mint's Depository clients (and I did a fair bit of analysis, partly because I am a numbers person and partly because I was always looking to understand gold buyers).

Long Term

By long term I mean timeframes that are measured in years, indeed in some cases we are talking decades. This group can also be broken down into two sub groups - strategists and insurers. Common to both is the fact that they have a very strong, if not emotional, attitude towards gold. These are your classic buy-and-hold investor. Their view is historic and economic, broad brush. Their investment is more about wealth preservation than wealth generation.

The main difference between the strategic sub-group and the insurance is that the strategic do have an end game where they will get out of gold at a profit once the economic cycle has shifted back towards conventional investment classes like stocks. They are in for the long haul, but only because they see an extended period of poor returns but do generally prefer wealth creating assets. They may also hold a small permanent position in gold (say less than 1-2% of wealth) and are just upping the allocation to precious metals as a defensive measure for a period of time and then back down to a relatively low level.

The insurance sub-group on the other hand have no end game in sight, they hold a core position in gold that, once established, is rarely added to. They don’t care about the price and profit is not the focus. They are using gold as insurance, insurance against events that you cannot get insurance for – major depression, civil war, world war, societal breakdown, currency collapse. There are invariably very large amounts involved. These are people who have enough money that they can park some “lazy” capital into gold, enough that they can reestablish themselves with should the unthinkable occur.

Why I was initially puzzled by these clients was because I assumed that you bought gold as an investment, but the motivations of insurance are different. The way I like to think about this reason for buying gold is if you buy car insurance and then at the end of the year you have not had an accident, you don’t say to yourself “well that was a waste of money, I paid the premium and never got to claim on the insurance policy”. Instead you say “great, I didn’t have an accident, how lucky” and you write-off the premium. This is the same attitude these clients have towards gold – if the price goes down, they don’t moan about the money lost, they consider themselves lucky that there was no economic breakdown. They don’t want to make a lot of money out of gold, because in their view this means that they have lost all their other investments.

Medium Term

Medium termers, or tacticians, talk in timeframes of months, usually 6 months to less than 2 years. A lot of times they end up in gold for longer than that, usually because their assessment was out or they want to ride a trend a little bit longer, but in mindset they are generally not long termers. The motivation here is purely profit, the analysis behind their position is usually economic/currency valuation based.

Sometimes there is a blurring between medium and long temers, with some holding a strategic view on gold and so they plan on being invested in gold but cannot resist the opportunity to sell out at peaks and buy back in on corrections as they ride the bull market. They are definitely not buy-and-hold type investors.

I would also put into this category non-goldbugs who are just hitching on the “commodities story” and think the bull market in gold will run for a few years at most and that they will get out at the top (or near to it) in time, ready to deploy their profits into the next investment fad.

Short Term

Short termers have timeframes counted in days or weeks. Speculation is another word for it. My definition of 6 months or less is probably debateable and could be shorter. In any case, quick profit is the goal and there is no philosophical belief in gold.

Unlike the medium and long termers, this approach is one that I do not recommend, because I have seen few, if any, who have been able to do it. Why that is the case has little to do with the investor’s competency (although I have seen some who did lack any trading acumen) and more to do with the nature of the gold market itself.

Anyway, that for next week’s blog …

17 May 2008

So what is the gold price going to do?

My first job with The Perth Mint was as an Administration Officer in their now closed Sydney retail outlet. It was an exact copy of the Perth shop, both in fitout (jarrah cabinets) and stock (jewellery, bullion and numismatics). I sat downstairs in an office doing, well, administrative things, but it also involved cashing up the till and stock control. The fact that I spent each day counting cash and gold bars and coins might account for why I'm still in this business 14 years later - maybe tiny specks of gold rubbed off the thousands of bars and coins I handled and it has seeped into my skin.

Anyway, the shop was lightly staffed and the job somewhat boring so any chance I got I would run upstairs to cover lunch breaks and the like. I’d worked in retail while at university but this was a completely different ball game. For example, you didn’t give refunds at the original selling price but did “buybacks” at current prices. This was investing, of the pointy end style. People would hand over $5,000 cash, get a lump of gold, and then come back later and exchange that lump for $4,800 or $5,200 cash, as the case may be. Unlike virtual numbers in a stock broking account that you could rationalise away, the results of your investment decisions were very physical and thus very real. I loved it.

Behind the waist high jarrah trading counter were some price screens with buy and sell prices of the various coin and bar sizes and the last and current spot price. Only two types of people would come in – those with cash in their pocket or a lump of gold – and without fail they would all ask “So where is the gold price going” or “What’s the gold price going to do” or some such variation. It was a natural enough question considering they were investing, not buying a pair of shoes, but a minefield for me on the other side of the desk. I couldn’t give or imply any sort of advice, otherwise they might be back if I got it wrong asking for a “refund” and I’d be in trouble with the boss.

I soon realised that “If I knew the answer to that question, do you think I’d be behind this counter” was a response that didn’t go down too well. You wanted to do business with everyone, so you had to say something and if you had any integrity, you had to say the same thing to both buyer and seller, which would likely mean getting one person’s business but not the other’s. What to do?

Eventually I hit upon two foolproof answers:

“The price has been going up”
“The price has been going down”

or if I felt a bit more talkative:

“Yesterday the price was $380, today it’s $385”
“Yesterday the price was $385, today it’s $380”

The beautiful thing about it was that it was factual (not advice or a prediction) and amazingly, the same answer worked with both buyers and sellers!

I found that if the price had gone up, buyers felt that they better get in before it went higher whereas sellers felt they should sell at the top before it fell. If the price had dropped, buyers felt it was a great opportunity to buy at the bottom before it went higher but sellers interpreted it as the time to sell before the price dropped further.

I realised that the person walking into the shop with cash in their hand had already made the decision to buy, the judgement that the price was going to go up, and would interpret my factual statement to fit their preconceived view. Similarly, the person with gold in their hand had already decided to sell, no matter what I said.

It was a lesson in human behaviour and retail psychology. It was also a personal lesson to look at new information afresh and always challenge/test my current theory or view.

15 May 2008

About this blog

I started reading commentary on the net about precious metals in 1998, when the The Perth Mint transferred me from Sydney to Perth to take up the position of Depository Administrator. In that time I have seen some intelligent writing but also a lot of stuff that could be described as emotional, misinformed, misguided, driven by hidden agendas or all of the above, and a fair bit by people who have never worked in the industry.

I hope to contribute some reasoned and reasonable commentary without the hype; expose anonymous agendas, factual faults and logic lapses; provide information on how the market actually works; give an insight into what goes on on the other side (of the trading desk); and most importantly, have a bit of fun (although I’ll have to make sure my humour isn’t too dry). This blog is really written for those Depository clients I got to know when I was Depository Administrator (you know who you are), which means it will only appeal to intelligent people, so if you are one of those, welcome. If your looking for sensationalism or personal attacks, look elsewhere.

I think it is important to disclose any potential “agendas” or commercial interests because while in theory one should be able to assess the validity of an argument independent of the writer, full disclosure helps the reader to be vigilant. That's why I mentioned The Perth Mint first up. I have worked there since 1994, except for one year with Australia’s version of Wal-Mart – BigW – until gold’s siren call drew me back (OK maybe it was the pay packet). In that time I’ve held a number of roles across all levels and I'm currently working on the redevelopment of the Mint’s retail and exhibition business.

Having said that, this blog is not a Perth Mint mouthpiece and I will always strive for objectivity. All comments here are my personal opinion and not endorsed by the Mint in any way. And I'm not going to be answering specific question about the Mint's business - if you have a problem with them or a question for them, ask them directly yourself. However, I am happy to answer general questions readers may have. If you think that is a cop out, well I don’t want to test the confidentiality provisions of my employment contract or be a test case on what Section 74 of the Gold Corporation Act 1987 covers. As I work at the Mint no one is probably going to believe what I say about it anyway. This is a blog, not a newsletter, and I'm doing it on my time, not the Mint's time, so I'm not taking any risks.

Finally, while this blog is not about giving you my opinion about where the gold price is going (there are plenty of those out there), I probably won’t be able to stop myself from commenting on the market from time to time. In that case, note the following disclaimer - this blog is not giving investment advice and should not be relied upon at all! I mean, if what I had to say on the gold price was worthwhile, why would I be here writing this blog instead of sunning myself in some exotic location from all my trading profits?

Legal: of course I claim/retain copyright on any material published in this blog (as if it is worth much) but am happy for it to be quoted or republished as long as it is credited/linked back to this blog.


The Gold Standard Institute

Newsletters & Commentators

24h Gold
321 Gold
Aggregated Awareness
Antal Fekete
Bull and Bear - Timothy Green
Daily Reckoning
David Morgan
Financial Sense
Freemarket Gold & Money Report
Gold Anti-Trust Action
Gold Eagle
Gold Report
Golden Bar
Golden Sextant
Jeffrey Nichols
Kitco - Contributed Commentaries
Oxford Club
Safe Haven
Speculative Investor
The Global Speculator
The Privateer
The Silver Bear Cafe

Precious Metal Dealers

Ainslie Bullion Company
Asset Strategies International
Australian Bullion Company
EurAxxess AG
Euro Pacific Capital
Gold and Silver Investments
Sterling & Currency

ETFs & Exchanges

Bullion Management Services
Central Fund of Canada
Central Gold-Trust Latest Value
ETF Securities Ltd
Exchange Traded Gold
iShares Gold US
iShares Silver US

Gold as Money

Global Digital Currency Association
Honest Money - A Challenge to Banking
The Gold Economy Magazine

Info Sites

Gold Fields Mineral Service
Inflation Data
Kitco Charts
Kitco Lease Rates
MRCI's Futures and Options Prices
MSNBC - World Gold
Sharefin's Lair
Standard Bank London
The Perfect Financial Storm
Virtual Gold Research


International Precious Metals Institute
Platinum Guild
Silver Institute
The London Bullion Market
The London Platinum and Palladium Market
World Gold Council

Bits & Bobs

Silver Stackers Forum - Aussie Forum
Alex Cartoon
Carbon Causes Global Warming?
Periodic Table of Elements - Gold
TED Theme Not Business as Usual
Perth Mountain Bike Club