Warren Buffett on Gold
(vs. Hommel on Gold!)
Silver Stock Report
by Jason Hommel, September 24, 2013
Warren Buffet explained why he does not see the value in gold in his annual report from 2011.
It was republished by ivanhoff, and came to my attention last week, which gave me this occasion to respond. Here I go.
The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. Tulips, of all things, briefly became a favorite of such buyers in the 17th century.
Buffett is claiming that Gold's value exists only because other people will buy it. True. True of all assets. And this is exactly why gold is a good thing, because of all things, gold is most likely to be valuable in more places to more people than nearly any other item that you can consider, precisely because it is money. But Buffett presents this as a bad thing, calling gold "unproductive". Well, let's see, how is gold productive? It can go up in value, just like stocks or bonds or housing, or any other asset. People recognize that gold has value not because it gains value, but because it does not decay or rot or go bad. Food makes a horrible form of money, partly because it goes bad. One of the longest lasting kinds of food is the wheat kernel, which can last up to twenty years. Gold lasts 6000 years, with no decay.
This type of investment requires an expanding pool of buyers, who, in turn, are enticed because they believe the buying pool will expand still further. Owners are not inspired by what the asset itself can produce – it will remain lifeless forever – but rather by the belief that others will desire it even more avidly in the future.
Hommel: True, gold buyers do not buy gold for what gold will produce, but most of my gold buyers are buying gold because they do believe it will go up in value, because they do believe that others will see what they can see, that gold is special, and cannot be printed to excess like paper money is being created to excess these days. Gold buyers buy gold also because they recognize that gold does not decay, because it has a very high value for the weight and density which makes it portable, and because it can be hidden.
Buffett: The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative. True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production. Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end.
Hommel: True, gold is not procreative. But this does not mean that gold cannot go up in value. Gold does have a use. The use is as a store of value. The use is to communicate value over time. Gold has three primary uses: as a store of value, as a unit of account, and as a medium of exchange. These days, it is not used much as a medium of exchange, because no government on earth is issuing gold as circulating currency, but because all nations issue paper money. This is making gold an excellent store of value, because gold is increasing in value more than all the paper money being continually printed. The key use of gold in our times is not only in that it holds value, but gains value. This is because the new supply of gold is far less than demand. The world prints nearly $5 to $10 trillion worth of paper money per year, which is $5,000 to $10,000 billion. In contrast, the world mines about 83 million ounces of new gold, at $1334/oz, is worth only a mere $111 billion. Clearly, there will be more and more buyers of gold in the near and far future.
Buffett: What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow. During the past decade that belief has proved correct. Beyond that, the rising price has on its own generated additional buying enthusiasm, attracting purchasers who see the rise as validating an investment thesis. As “bandwagon” investors join any party, they create their own truth – for a while.
Hommel: Gold buyers are derided as "fearful" by Buffett. And he notes this has recently been correct. But also wise. He could have written, "The ranks of the wise will grow". Perhaps more apt.
Buffett: Over the past 15 years, both Internet stocks and houses have demonstrated the extraordinary excesses that can be created by combining an initially sensible thesis with well-publicized rising prices. In these bubbles, an army of originally skeptical investors succumbed to the “proof” delivered by the market, and the pool of buyers – for a time – expanded sufficiently to keep the bandwagon rolling. But bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop. And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”
Hommel: True, bubbles happened in stocks and houses. And probably still are in a bubble. Is gold in a bubble? When less than $100 billion is being mined each year? I think not. His buddy Bill Gates could buy half the world's annual gold production, and would probably become a lot more wealthy if he tried. I say tried, because there is no way he would succeed, because his stock is not liquid enough to sell that much, and the gold market is too tight to buy half the gold market without pushing the gold price up, too. My point is that the gold market boom is still in the beginning stages.
Buffett: Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A.
Hommel: Today, one to two years later, gold prices are down to $1335. Buffet was right for one year out of a thirteen year bull market in gold. Buffett will likely be wrong next year. But 170,000 metric tonnes at $1335/oz. is x 32,151 oz/tonne is $7.3 trillion today.
The tiny size of the cube of gold in pile A also explains why gold is valuable. It contains a lot of value in a small space, making it very portable. Some people wonder why gold should be any different than copper or any other metal, asserting that the other metals could be used just as easily as silver and gold. Really? Well, I have a 33 kilo block of copper that cost about $300, about the same as a ten oz. bar of silver. Which would you rather carry to the grocery store? Also, the copper has a spread on it to buy and sell of over 50%. Or, would you prefer a quarter oz. of gold for about $330?
Buffett: Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B?
Hommel: Can you imagine an investor with $7.3 trillion to begin with? There are no investors who are worth so much, are there Mr. Buffett? Besides, even if there were, there is no evidence that the entire world supply of gold is being all offered at the current asking price for gold. The vast majority of gold does not trade each year. World annual mine supply ads only about 1.5% to the pile per year. Well, let's calculate it. http://www.goldsheetlinks.com/production2.htm 170,000 tonnes in existing stock. World annual production about 2600 tonnes. 1.529%. Yup, still the same after all these years.
But Buffett's point is that he cannot imagine any investor buying the gold instead of the farmland and oil companies. But let's compare more clearly, $40 billion x 16 Exxon Mobils is $640 billion, plus the $200 billion from crops, which means the oil companies and land produce about $840 billion. Well, how much does the pile of the world's gold produce? Gold is likely to exceed $1900 in the next year or two, from $1336 today. As it does, the pile of gold will go up from $7.3 trillion to $10.4 trillion. Now let's compare shall we? $640 billion gain in the oil companies, and $3.1 trillion, or $3100 billion in the gold pile. I think I've made my point, but let me go further. In actual fact, 16 Exxon Mobils don't exist. It's a pure fantasy choice, as in, "not real". The gold is real. That makes the gold choice not only several times better, but infinitely better, doesn't it?
Buffett: Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices.
Hommel: As we have seen, the existing annual production of gold is now $111 billion, and being purchased not by "frightened individuals, or speculators", but by "wise investors," and even central banks now! And again, with $5000 to $10,000 billion dollars worth of currency being printed world wide, I think the new gold will have plenty of ready buyers for decades to come. In fact, Gold is acting not only as a value preserver, but value gainer, for those investors who don't want be robbed by governments.
Buffett: A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.
Hommel: I'd wager that a century from now, none of the world's currencies today will have any value at all, but the gold still will. Gold is not a choice between oil and gold, it's a choice between paper money and gold. No investor will ever go out and buy 100 barrels of oil at $103/barrel to store on his lawn, to preserve $10,000 worth of paper money value, because the oil is extraordinarily inconvenient, and expensive to store and ship for the relative value. But anyone can buy 7 gold eagles that will fit into the palm of your hand for $10,000, which takes up about 1/10th of the space as a stack of 100 of the $100 bills.
Buffett: Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.
Hommel: In contrast, I'm supremely confident that the world's pile of gold will increase in value far faster than oil. The reason is that gold has been money for about 6000 years of human history, and mankind has only been using oil for about 160 years or so. Furthermore, the world's bankers began attacking gold as money about that far back, so the world has never had a good historical gold to oil ratio in place during a time when the world used gold as money! Therefore, we have to use intuition to determine a proper value for gold as compared to oil, assuming the world returned to using gold as money, and it probably will. I would supsect that the world's gold production should be valued more than the world's oil production, because the world'd gold production must be spend on more than "just oil". As it is, oil is no more than 5-10% of the world's economy, but let's assume oil were as much as 50%. Well, then, the world's gold production would be worth about twice as much as world oil production, because people would need some gold left over to buy everything else. That would assume a value for gold as follows:
World annual oil production is about 90 million barrels per day.
x 365 days/year x $100/barrel =
That's about $3.3 trillion per year in dollar value, of oil production.
If world gold production of 83.5 million oz. were worth $6.6 trillion per year, that divides out to $79,000 per oz. for gold!
Oh yes, in the last five years, gold and silver have solidly outperformed Birkshire Hathaway stock.
And I suppose gold and silver have significantly outperformed BRK in the last 13 years.
Since the year 2000, BRK.B has gone from $40 to $114, an increase of 2.85 times.
Since the year 2000, Gold has gone from $255 to $1314, an increase of 5.1 times.
I strongly advise you to take possession of real gold and silver, at anywhere near today's prices, while you still can. The fundamentals indicate rising prices for decades to come, and a major price spike can happen at any time.