The Super Bubble to Come
by Ted Butler. September 9, 2009Print
Sometimes, a number of forces come together to greatly alter events. I’m reluctant to employ the overused cliché, “A Perfect Storm,” but I am at a loss to imagine a better one to describe the confluence of forces I see converging for silver. Any one of the factors about to impact the price would be formidable, but in conjunction with one another should prove historic in force.
Consider first world supply and demand. Although current production (mining plus recycling) exceeds total industrial demand that’s not the case when investment demand is included. Prior to 2006 a structural deficit existed, where total fabrication demand exceeded total production, causing world silver inventories to decline to the lowest levels in hundreds of years. That ended in 2006. However, starting in 2006, the world began to wake up to the investment merits of silver.
Evidence suggests that investment demand is just beginning. For sure, industrial demand is not disappearing and is certain to grow in the years ahead as world economic growth and population increases kick in. But investment demand is the most immediate potent force in the silver equation. Investment demand, not industrial demand, can spread like wildfire. Investment demand is the real wild card.
Look at the facts. Silver investment demand kicked in with a vengeance in 2006. That’s primarily due to the introduction of new silver investment vehicles called ETFs (exchange traded funds) that allowed entities, especially institutional investors, to buy physical silver where that was not practical before. And buy they did. In the 3.5 years since the introduction of the first silver ETF, the total amount of silver purchased by these investment vehicles is around 400 million ounces. This is a staggering sum that no one ever anticipated. This is silver taken off the market. We can debate when it may come back to the market, but we can’t debate whether it was taken off. And new silver ETFs seem to be created daily throughout the world, promising the trend of growing demand will continue. Never has the world seen such silver investment demand.
Please remember, we are talking about a commodity of finite supply. Every ounce purchased for investment is one ounce less that is available today. After 60 continuous years of inventory destruction, there is very little silver inventory remaining. Every ounce purchased for investment purposes effectively shrinks the remaining inventory further. Compared to the mountain of money and credit available, the amount of available silver is miniscule. The 400 million ounces purchased by the ETFs over the past 3 to 4 years only amounts to $5.5 billion. That’s nothing in terms of dollars, but immense in terms of metal. Future attempts to put equivalent amounts of money into equivalent amounts of metal will send the price to the heavens.
This is not the only part of the silver investment boom. Retail demand in newly minted bullion coins, such as the American Silver Eagle, Canadian Maple Leaf, Austrian Philharmonic, and other coin series has never been stronger. The US Mint and others have struggled for most of the past two years trying to keep up with demand. Generic coins and bars have also experienced record demand and the retail market teeters on the verge of outright shortage.
What is motivating this record silver investment demand? I think it is three things: the greatest quantity of investment funds available to purchase silver, the lowest availability of actual metal that can be purchased, and the growing awareness of what a great investment silver represents. Let’s face it – in an investment world full of uncertainty and risk, there are not many assets that offer protection against total loss with exceptional profit potential. Silver can’t go bankrupt or become worthless, but can and will soar to many times its current price.
The new, and some say permanent, move to frugality and savings brought about by worsening economic conditions also favors increased demand for silver. When savers and investors are uneasy, the appeal of holding an asset that is no one else’s liability is especially comforting, particularly when such an asset can soar in value. Silver satisfies both the fear and greed aspects common to man. How many assets fit that profile?
The China Card
As powerful as those forces are, they are not the main factors of the perfect storm and coming bubble. A force that threatens to profoundly disrupt the silver market is China. After 60 years of it being illegal for Chinese citizens to buy and hold silver (and gold), it has recently become legal. Not only that, the government is actively encouraging citizens to buy silver, allowing it to be sold by banks. Early reports suggest that the Chinese government is succeeding, with stories of bank lines developing for people waiting to buy silver. With the world’s largest population that has an established and ingrained propensity to save, and with an historically attractive asset suddenly available after a void of 60 years, it’s hard to imagine how a rush into silver won’t develop.
In addition, reports of pending export restrictions from China, the world’s largest refiner and third largest miner of silver, threaten to create a one-two price punch never witnessed before. Years ago I wrote, at the urging of my friend and mentor, Izzy Friedman, how China was likely the big silver short, depressing the price to pick up refining market share and dominance in the world production of silver. After the low price drove out world refining competition, China could then be in the position of controlling the price and driving it as high as they desired. I can’t help but think that not only was such analysis by Izzy correct, but it may be about to be realized.
The most immediate potential force in silver is an issue that has dominated my attention for the past 25 years. The ongoing silver manipulation, caused by an unprecedented concentrated short position on the COMEX, appears to be racing towards a resolution. The main driver behind the pending resolution is the new chairman of the CFTC, Gary Gensler. After only three months, he has grasped and articulated the concept of concentration. I think he may use the term more than I do, as hard to believe as that may be. He understands the role of legitimate position limits in commodity law and has effectively communicated this concept. He is proactive, a rare quality in a public servant. It is an understatement to say he may be the best CFTC Chairman ever.
Even if Chairman Gensler fails to live up to my high expectations in the Commission’s future actions, he may have done enough already to bring the silver manipulation to an end. He has elevated the issue of position limits and concentration to such a level that it guarantees that questions must finally be answered about the unusual short side concentration in COMEX silver futures. He has received many hundreds of public and private messages about this specific issue. He can’t and won’t ignore the questions and demands from the public. He will address them in some way.
We are now at the one-year anniversary of the current ongoing silver investigation by the CFTC. This is the third silver investigation in five years. The current silver investigation came into existence as a result of articles written by me about the revelations in the August 2008 Bank Participation Report. This report showed that one of two US banks (most likely JPMorgan) held a short position equal to 25% of total world silver mine production. This is an unprecedented concentration, never witnessed in commodity market history. I asked the public question – how can such a concentrated position not be manipulative to the price of silver? Instead of answering, the CFTC decided to launch another investigation. This is what a government agency usually does when it can’t answer a simple and direct question.
But the new chairman of the Commission has not evaded direct questions on the important matter of concentration and position limits. He wasn’t the chairman when the question of concentration was asked last year. He wasn’t the chairman when silver was investigated three times in five years. That’s the big difference between then and now. Gary Gensler is the chairman now and that is all that matters. In my opinion, he will soon address the questions in silver.
There is also the question of the short side without concentration. Recently, I indicated that I thought JPMorgan had probably covered its big concentrated short position in other markets, such as the OTC market. In other words, it is my speculation that JPMorgan passed the silver short hot potato to unsuspecting entities. Please remember, this would be a transfer of the short position and its inherent risk to other parties, not an elimination of the position and its risk. It doesn’t really matter if JPMorgan transferred the risk, as far as the market is concerned. The short position still exists.
On just the COMEX alone, including all futures and call options, but subtracting all spread positions, there is close to 500 million ounces of net silver short positions. I don’t care who holds it, this short position exists. Given the current and future realities in silver, this is an incredibly uninformed short position. It is not backed by real silver. Given how much silver exists in good-delivery bullion form and who owns it, there is a severe mismatch between that available silver and the amount the shorts have obligated themselves to deliver someday. The short holders have no prospect of securing real silver, except to buy it in the open market, thus driving prices higher and hurting themselves in the process. The collective COMEX short position stands to lose $500 million for every dollar that silver climbs in price. Silver is about to climb many dollars in price. My point is simple. Forget who owns the COMEX short position; just remember they don’t realize what a precarious position they have placed themselves in. That they will panic and rush to buy at some point is guaranteed.
On top of all these powerful forces set to launch a super price bubble the likes of which the world has never witnessed before, looms what I think is the most powerful force of all – the coming industrial user inventory buying panic. As I recently wrote in “A Date With Destiny,” it is almost impossible for the users not to panic, once tightness in the silver market results in delays in shipments to industrial consumers. Such delays will threaten the very existence of many users continuing as ongoing concerns. None of these users will cease to exist without a fight. That fight will involve buying silver, at any price available. This will feed on itself, until it burns out in a frenzied panic. Investors will panic and buy when silver prices soar, but no one will panic more than the users, with the possible exception of the shorts.
Price bubbles are rare. We throw the term around quite loosely nowadays, having recently experienced two bubbles, the Internet stock bubble ending in 2000 and the housing bubble. But bubbles remain the exception, not the rule. There are some characteristics common to all bubbles. You have to start with a good underlying story or investment premise, like a brand new technology or a belief that housing prices only go up. The story is usually legitimate to begin with, but everyone gets carried away and higher prices eventually outstrip the underlying story. But the price rise creates fortunes for those that know when to exit. The silver story is more compelling than any prior bubble. So will be the overrun in price.
You can only have a bubble if large numbers of people participate and there is widespread borrowing to buy the bubble asset. At the end, people are buying only because prices are rising. I believe this will occur in silver and we must be ready to exit when that takes place. But the point is that we are so far away from these excesses that it’s unnecessary to worry about them now. It is wise to put the coming silver super price bubble into proper perspective. We’re not close to it yet.
And please keep this in mind – with no other bubble did we have these conditions; a large and concentrated short position, a looming physical shortage, a downward manipulation that might be attacked by regulators, the entry into the investment equation of the most populous nation on earth, and a prospective industrial user inventory buying panic. It is hard to imagine how silver won’t be the largest bubble in history. You’ve just been given an invitation to participate beforehand.
Copyright © 2009 Ted Butler
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