This post will make me about as popular as a fart in a spacesuit, I know. Certainly the PM blogosphere will react with a mix of mockery and vicious hatred. And even my esteemed fellow contributors at Screwtapes will probably run out of eyebrows to raise at what follows.
But I don’t care. There is so much nonsense talked about the PM markets on the web, and so many people are being unwittingly dragged into cult-like devotion to lumps of metal they think will make them millionaires, that I believe it’s becoming ever more important to present every possible side of the case.
So here’s an article about how silver is not the only fruit, and anyone whose sensibilities this offends can b(l)og off and instead read the latest spittle-flecked pant scrapings from SGS (which will no doubt be about Blythe destroying nuclear power plants in Japan at the request of Mossad, or – the new comment section favourite – aliens hoping to steal silver from the COMEX).
Bubble curves and the ‘Smart Money’
But the silver chart has nothing of the Smart Money about it. Real silver bears would say that actually we’re between the ‘Return to normal’ and ‘Fear’ stages. I personally don’t agree with this (QE, and its effects on commodity prices, the continuing push for a mania in the tiny community that is silver, and the fact that silver is not currently too far from its trend line suggest otherwise). However, at best – I mean, in the most positive possible interpretation – we are somewhere in the Mania phase.
I’ll repeat: this does not mean that silver won’t now rise (possibly quite dramatically) for the next few months. I think it will, and I hope to profit from it. But Smart Money it ain’t.
So where should Smart Money go now?
1) The vehicle (stock, bond, commodity, whatever) should have been in a lull (i.e. stagnant) for a considerable period of time. Like gold was between 1998 and 2002 (range: around $270 - 350) or silver between 2000 and 2004 (range: $4 – 6).
2) It will thus have been written off by all pundits. The price gets so low that no-one will sell. But new buyers aren’t drawn in because of the perceived opportunity cost of having their money sat stagnant in a non-performing asset. Like silver in 2003.
3) The vehicle is, however, sound. In other words it is not a company facing bankruptcy or a commodity or good that no-one will ever need again. The business is still profitable (perhaps only just) or the country (referring to bonds, here) is still solvent (also perhaps only just). In the case of silver, it was always going to be valued for jewellery and industrial uses and by ‘eccentric’ retail investors, so there would always be some support to prevent the price dipping (much) further or – in the worst case scenario – to zero.
4) There are clear upside events on the horizon, which – once they take hold – will bring in new buyers, and potentially very quickly. Using gold as an example, we could have said that the Smart Money buying at $280 was anticipating currency devaluation, Middle East crises/oil shocks, whatever. The point is that although the Smart Money did not know the timescale, it knew (or hoped) it would happen. These people are now getting seriously paid (and, in some cases, doing the selling...)
So what assets are there currently floating around that look like they fit these criteria?
Enter stage left, the bank stocks
Now that’s out of the way, let’s have an objective look at the situation. I’m going to use the example of Lloyds-TSB (LON:LLOY), simply because it’s a UK company so I’m familiar with it and the back story, and have some experience from trading it for a while. But I’ll make my disclosure right here: I’m long Lloyds-TSB (and RBS and a few other banks) and I hope to initiate new positions in the next few months. However, I receive no payment from, or have any kind of professional relationship with, any bank (which is a shame, because it would mean I could stop wasting my time blogging and finally land that foxy Brazilian lingerie model of which I’ve always dreamt).
Lloyds-TSB, like many banks, lost most of its value post-2008. In fact, it went from 591 BPC (British Pence) in 2007 to a low of 21.84 BPC in November 2011. In short, it has been in a period of decline/stagnation for over three years (criterion 1). Its chart sure looks like the Smart Money part of our bubble curve:
Lloyds, however, is not bankrupt. Sure, they’re not the money-sucking machine that they once were, and they’ve had a few years of losses, but it looks like 2012 will be the first year since the crash that they declare a profit. Their customer base (on the high-street banking side) is as strong as it ever was, and their efforts to recapitalise have been successful. Their exposure to foreign debt is not great (and has, in any case, been insulated against by their recapitalisations and UK government protections). So, on criterion 3, it’s looking pretty good too.
[An aside: There are always those who will say that the Western banking model is dead, and that the shares will go to zero. Maybe they’re right. But my response to this is that if the UK’s largest banks go bust, then we’ll be so royally [insert expletive] that the best we can hope for is a life of trading acorns and eating our grandmothers and less-favoured children. Good luck buying tinned bacon with your silver in such circumstances: all that awaits a genuine apocalyptic financial meltdown in the US/Europe is death, destruction and chaos. Your PMs will either stay in your possession for approximately a femtosecond or live out their days buried in whatever forest in Montana or Wales you left them. Regardless, the loss of your investment in banking shares will be the least of your problems.]
Now, back to reality, 2012 is likely to see a dividend paid (again, for the first time since 2008) by Lloyds-TSB. And, as mentioned above, its first profit announcement since 2008. Even more important is the fact that the UK government has a 43% stake in the company, at an average of 74 BPC per share acquired during the part-nationalisation. This actually came about not directly because of the 2008 crash, but rather because Lloyds was heavily arm-twisted into bailing out the doomed HBOS during the crash. In any case, the UK government wants its money back. Further, it has to get its money back, as the UK faces decades of austerity if its investments in Lloyds-TSB and RBS don’t pay out. This part should appeal to those who implicate TPTB in every financial machination: the British government has a massive interest in doing whatever it takes to get the share price of Lloyds-TSB at least back up to 74 BPC. Otherwise, ‘good-bye’ ministerial cars and Yes, Prime Minister, and ‘hello’ back bench obscurity. What would you bet on? I rest the case for criterion 4.
Are we at the end of the Smart Money phase for bank stocks?
The night is always darkest before the dawn breaks, goes the old cliché. Continuing with the example of Lloyds-TSB, last year was very dark indeed. The Euro crisis hit it hard, as did the threat of extra regulation and the temporary loss of its chief executive, António Horta-Osório. All of this pushed its share price down to what feels like a bottom of 21.84 BPC. Tellingly, trading in this particular bank stock has since been exceptionally volume-heavy: investors are piling in. It’s risen nearly 50% since then (from 21.83 to 29.97; cf. silver’s move of $32 – $26 – $29 during the same period), and shows no sign of abatement even in the face of potentially very bad news. On Friday, when the news of France’s downgrade was announced, it dipped in line with the rest of the FTSE, and then surged on new buying to finish nearly 3% up on the day.
Why should this be? My theory – and I accept that it is only a theory – is that we are nearing the end of a Smart Money phase in some bank stocks. Those banks that remain profitable and relatively insulated against further risks, and for which most risk has already been priced in, seem to have very little further downside and a hell of a lot of upside. For silver to make a x10 return, it needs to go to $300 an ounce. For Lloyds-TSB to do the same, it needs to go to 220 BPC a share.
It all comes down to which you think is more likely in the next three – five years: $300 silver to achieve six times its best ever price, or Lloyds to claw its way back to one-third of its pre-2008 price. I know there are many who read this site who would say, “that’s easy – silver every time”. Fine. I have silver too, and will be happy with that. But a good investor is a hedged investor, and is also a realistic one. And, for now, I expect TPTB to look after their own interests and restore value to their directors’ shares far more quickly than they will enable silver investors to reap massive rewards.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Long LON:LLOY and LON:RBS and physical silver and physical gold. New positions in each of these are likely to be taken throughout 2012.