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The US money markets and the price of gold

The US money markets and the price of gold
Profile photo of Martin Sibileau

(republished from “A View from the Trenches“, August 19, 2012)

Click here to read this article in pdf format: August 19 2012

What do USD money markets have to do with gold? Money market funds invest in short-term highly rated securities, like US Treasury bills (sovereign risk) and commercial paper (corporate credit). But who supplies such securities to these funds? For the purpose of our discussion, participants in the futures markets, who look for secured funding. They sell their US Treasury bills, under repurchase agreements, to money market funds. These repurchase transactions, of course, take place in the so-called repo market.

The repo market supplies money market funds with the securities they invest in. Now…what do participants in the futures markets do, with the cash obtained against T-bills? They, for instance, fund the margins to obtain leverage and invest in the commodity futures markets.

In summary: There are people (and companies) who exchange their cash for units in money market funds. These funds use that cash to buy –under repurchase agreements- US Treasury bills from players in the futures markets. And the players in the futures markets use that cash to fund the margins, obtain leverage, and buy positions. What if these positions (financed with the cash provided by the money market funds) are short positions in gold (or other commodities)? Now, we can see what USD money markets have to do with gold!

Let’s propose a few potential scenarios, to understand how USD money markets and gold are connected:

If money markets have liquidity, there is abundant cash to buy US Treasury bills (i.e. the repo market is more liquid), and to finance those who short commodities in the futures markets. This is negative for the spot price of gold. If money markets lack liquidity, shorting commodities becomes more difficult. This is positive for the spot price of gold.

If the US Treasury bills become riskier, on the margin, the incentive to buy them will be lower and either money market funds will reallocate the cash towards commercial paper or they will face redemptions from fearful investors. The repo market will then lose liquidity. This is positive for the spot price of gold.

Alternatively, if the rate paid by the US Treasury increases AND the risk of these bills is NOT perceived to be higher (something possible in these rigged markets with doubtful ratings), investors will be more eager to place their cash with money market funds (falling prey to an illusion) and the liquidity of the repo market will increase. This is negative for the spot price of gold.

Why do we bring this up? To be honest, it is not the first time we do so. We have introduced the topic in our letters of July 2nd, July 30th and August 6th. We bring this up today because we want to raise awareness on some measures under consideration by the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve, that will have a direct impact on the USD money market, and hence, the repo market and the price of commodities. These policies are:

1) Minimum Balance at Risk (MBR): Kills USD money markets = lowers liquidity in repo market = Positive for gold

This has been in the works since 2010, but is only now taking shape. On August 15th, Bloomberg had a post on this under the title “Fed’s Dudley backs money fund rules to protect US Economy”. If enforced, there will be a minimum balance, which holders of money market fund units will not be able to redeem, but after a lock period. Effectively, under distress, redemptions will be restricted. As well, there are other potential measures, like floating the funds’ Net Asset Value and capital requirements. But the MBR one is the most relevant: It will make market participants see money market funds as a risky investment.

Personally, we do not see the motive behind this move because if, as some deduce, policy makers in all honesty believe that the savings currently in these funds will be reallocated as a result to bonds or stocks (boosting asset prices), they are being naïve at best and utterly idiotic at worst. Whoever invests in money market funds does so to make an extra buck on liquidity. If he/she cannot make it, then the funds will simply remain in a chequing account. Would banks use these funds in the chequing accounts to lever up their investments? Into what? Money market funds? The recent experience in the Euro-zone (discussed further below) shows it is not the case. Banks will not lend more just because they have more deposits available.

In any case, this policy would drain liquidity from the repo market and financing positions in the futures markets (i.e. shorting gold, for instance) would be more expensive. This would be positive for the spot price of commodities.

2) Introduction of Floating Rate Notes by the US Treasury: Positive for USD money markets = Negative for gold in the short-term, positive in the long-term

We introduced this point in on August 6th, after reading a series of articles at Zerohedge.com. Floating Rate Notes are variable rate notes. If floating rate notes were issued and interest rates rose (either driven by the Fed’s policy or by the market) they would have a strong bid from money market funds, bringing liquidity to the repo market. This could continue supporting speculative shorts in the futures markets, which would be negative for spot commodity prices in the short term.

However, if these rates are seen to be sticky, the Fed would have to intervene, targeting rate caps. But to guarantee the cap on the price of a good, one has to offer unlimited supply of that good. If the Fed had to guarantee a cap on NOMINAL interest rates, it would have to offer unlimited supply of US dollars. It is now easy to see why, in the long run, issuing floating rate notes would therefore be positive for the spot price, in US dollars, of commodities.

3) Zero interest on excess reserves: Would kill USD money markets (just like it did in the Euro zone) = lowers liquidity in repo market = Positive for gold

After the July 5th decision by the ECB, to pay nothing on its deposit facility, Euro-zone banks’ deposits at the European Central Bank plunged (see below, source: Bloomberg), by the tune of EUR484BN!!!

Did this money go to stocks? No! To bonds? No! Where did it go then? To a chequing account at the ECB. In the process, the Euro money markets died and the repo market suffered heavily. We had warned here that this measure would only make Euro banks less profitable and hence, riskier.

Because commodities are not traded in euros, this has not impacted the commodities market. But should a zero-interest-on-excess-reserves policy be implemented in the US dollar zone, the effect on the repo market would be to drain liquidity, a negative for futures markets and a positive for spot commodity prices.

In conclusion, there are currently three potential policy measures that would have a relevant impact in the commodities markets. Forewarned is forearmed.

Martin Sibileau

Articles
Profile photo of Martin Sibileau

Martin Sibileau graduated from the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1997, with a BA in Economics. He holds a Masters in Finance from the Centro de Estudios Macroeconomicos (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and a Masters in Business Administration from the Richard Ivey School of Business (Univ. of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada). Mr. Sibileau currently works as Director for the Loan Portfolio Management team of a Toronto-headquartered financial institution. In his free time, he regularly writes on global macroeconomic developments at www.sibileau.com. Since 1997, he has held various positions in the areas of corporate finance, strategy consulting, international banking, commercial banking and risk management.

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