Fayyaz Alimohamed, CEO of Altair Ventures Inc. and publisher of the Acamar Journal, offers historical perspective and predictions on the global economic crisis. In this exclusive Gold Report interview, he foresees a “mania” in junior mining stocks and recommends holding physical gold outside the banking system as a safety net.
The Gold Report: Fayyaz, in June 2008, using readily available economic data, you wrote that the global economy was on the verge of financial collapse. What do those sources tell you about where the global economy is headed today?
Fayyaz Alimohamed: In November 2006, I predicted that the U.S. was headed into a recession. Seven months later, the Bear Stearns funds cracked, beginning the crisis. By June 2008 it was obvious to me that the crisis would escalate into a crash.
Today, the U.S. cannot meet its gargantuan future unfunded liabilities. Europe and Japan face debt levels that ensure eventual sovereign debt defaults and declining standards of living. There is potential for all of this unwinding to seriously affect an entire generation.
These economies cannot grow their way out of their problems and the cuts needed to balance budgets would create massive social turmoil because the cuts themselves would lead to sharp drops in gross domestic product, creating vicious negative spirals. The current solution being utilized is more debt and quantitative easing. That can only keep things afloat until it can’t anymore. I would say that we will have the next major crisis within the next two years.
TGR: I would like to flesh that out a bit. What do you believe will trigger the next crisis?
FA: Genuine reform has not been implemented. This crisis was caused by unprecedented levels of consumer and corporate debt and Wall Street greed. When the crisis happened, government rescued distressed debt by massively increasing its own debt. For example, the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank are using their balance sheets at about a 30:1 leverage. This is the same sort of leverage that Wall Street banks had recklessly indulged in. When government debt was substituted for corporate and consumer debt, the whole system rolled over into a much more dangerous phase.
TGR: Do you think the European debt crisis will remain the dominant theme in 2012 or will other themes take center stage?
FA: The European crisis is simply a proxy for a global debt crisis. It happens to be focused on Europe because Germany has not been as eager as the Federal Reserve to print money. Germany remembers the hyperinflation of 1924, when unbridled money creation led to prices doubling every two days.
Today, governments have a preponderant influence on the economy, while large corporations, through lobbying, have inordinate influence over the government, to the detriment of other stakeholders. As the danger of a deflationary depression increases, governments are attempting to reinflate the economy; they may well overreach and create hyperinflation.
Thus, the broadest theme by far is debt and the reaction to debt. We just saw France’s debt downgraded and a negative watch put on the European Financial Stability Facility. This negative spiral will continue. Even though the U.S. has tepid signs of economic growth, it is at the cost of enormous amounts of stimulus being put into the economy.
Given that the U.S. and Europe are its two largest export markets, China also is headed for a hard landing unless it can increase internal consumption substantially.
TGR: Much of the discussion of the European crisis has centered on Greece. But a recent auction of six-month Italian bonds was priced at an interest rate of 6.5%—the highest rate of a bond auction since Italy joined the Eurozone 13 years ago. What do you make of that?
FA: In literature, readers are invited to enter into a “suspension of disbelief” to go along with the story, even if implausible. Before the 2008 crisis, that was the mindset of investors. Now they want to believe that governments can solve these problems.
Greece was not the primary cause of the European crisis. It was caused by German, French and U.S. banks. These banks are all insolvent if they were to mark their assets to market and not to theoretical models. But, we are suspending disbelief because we all have skin in the game and need things to work out.
The drive for austerity ensures that Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIIGS) will continue to see their economies shrink, leading to lower tax revenues and the continued inability to meet budget targets, which will require larger debt relief. It is a vicious downward spiral that will lead to declining standards of living.
Greece, Portugal and Ireland would be much better off leaving the EU, defaulting on their debts and devaluing their currencies. That is a time-honored tradition. After some pain things will work out, as they did in Argentina and Russia in the 1990s.
Investors want to believe that heavily indebted countries can solve the problems of other heavily indebted countries; that an insolvent banking system can be rescued by governments through more debt issuance and debt monetization.
TGR: The European Central Bank has floated the idea of euro bonds, backed by all 17 members of the Eurozone, as a solution to this problem. But Germany does not want to go down that path unless the indebted countries adopt more severe austerity measures. Do you think we’ll ever see euro bonds?
FA: We are really into the realm of absurdity. For example, the European Financial Stability Facility is a private company authorized to borrow €450 billion (B) from the private sector backed by a guarantee from all the EU members who are already heavily in debt and being downgraded periodically. One proposal I saw was that it would use the €440B of debt as collateral to borrow another €1–2 trillion of debt to lend to the PIIGS!
Can this type of thinking ever end well?
As Europe enters a recession, the problems will only get worse. Euro bonds issued by indebted countries just mean France and Germany are putting their own balance sheets at risk. It may provide time, but it does not solve the problem. The question is, should they bailout the PIIGS or take the same money and bailout their own banks? There are no good solutions.
A final thought on yields: when I studied economics we were taught that U.S. Treasuries were the risk-free asset to be used as an absolute benchmark. Given the recent downgrade and outlook, perhaps the economics profession should start looking for another risk-free benchmark, just as the U.S. dollar replaced the pound sterling.
TGR: Given all of this, how are you protecting yourself?
FA: One of the primary measures of protection is a healthy cash balance. You have to be in a position where you are able to ride out any crisis and also to take advantage of valuations in case of a crisis. If the crisis is as bad as I think it will be, you will be able to find and acquire assets at generationally low prices.
The other way to protect yourself is to invest in precious metals. I believe precious metals will do well whether we continue to stagnate or actually see another crisis. I think silver and gold equities will do very well in the long run.
TGR: Investors have been seeking greater security for at least seven months. How long do you think that risk-off sentiment will last?
FA: Brian, U.S. domestic stock funds have seen net redemptions for five straight years. Due to negative real interest rates, equities are undervalued in historical terms. This is tempered by the dangerous, rising systematic risk. Fund managers are paid to perform or else they face redemptions. So, the bias is for stocks to rally as we are seeing now, unless the second phase of the crisis clearly emerges, which in my opinion is inevitable.
Ironically, in another crisis, governments will likely turn to quantitative easing with a vengeance, which means that, despite a crisis in sovereign debt, we will see a substantial rally in commodities, particularly gold and equities, as substantial sums of newly created money finds its way into the system and money leaves the bond markets. You may find prices rising while the economy is being undermined.
TGR: Fayyaz, your background is in insurance and finance, how did you find your way into the gold and silver space?
FA: From 2001 onward, I realized that the U.S. seemed to lack the political will to deal with its increasing levels of budget and trade deficits. In fact, the Fed was creating asset bubbles that were bound to end badly. At the same time, I knew from history that fiat money generally ends badly, starting with Kublai Khan. I came to anticipate the decline of the U.S. dollar and the rise of gold. I believe that the price of gold will be much higher in the coming years and that gold will become part of the monetary system in some capacity.
Gold is interesting in another way. Throughout history booms have been localized geographically. As an example, the average Canadian investor is unlikely to invest in, say, Argentinian real estate or in its stock market even if they are booming. The Internet bubble was the first time that a global audience became aware of an asset category that was rising dramatically, ironically thanks to the Internet itself. But you could not participate unless you had a U.S. brokerage account. Gold is the first truly global asset boom that investors at all levels can participate in. Today investors are more savvy and more heavily invested across markets and categories but gold is fundamentally money and all investors and savers can buy it. Local yet global.
TGR: Investors also have different tools.
FA: That’s right. They can do a lot of research. They have a lot more liquidity. The potential impact on the market for gold as an asset class is phenomenal. It appeals to all levels of investors. Someone buying a few grams of gold in China creates demand that directly helps the value of your gold holdings. I mean, how many people sleep with a barrel of oil tucked under their mattress?
TGR: Not if you could help it.
FA: Historically, gold and silver equities leveraged the returns on gold. In 2011, mining companies were producing gold at an average cash cost just under $600/ounce (oz) and were getting about $1,600/oz in revenue. Cash flows are very impressive and price earnings are healthy. Mining companies continue to buy juniors with good assets, especially at these low share-price values. I moved into the sector to take advantage of this bull market in gold. And, I believe we will see a mania in junior mining stocks before this is over.
TGR: And, when will that be?
FA: I think we will see this happen within the next two years as people begin to realize that solutions to the global economic situation are not forthcoming. There will be more and more nervousness and gold will find a larger and larger audience.
We now have a situation where central banks, which were net sellers of gold for 20 years, became net buyers in 2009 and are accelerating their buying programs. We are seeing tremendous support for gold from central banks, institutional and retail investors across the world.
TGR: In your time in this space, what have you learned that the average retail investor ought to know?
FA: This is a very volatile sector, subject to investors jumping in when there is a bullish trend and a lot of enthusiasm, and those same investors not wanting any part of equities when there’s a pullback in prices.
Given the overall increase in volatility in the markets, investors really should take a look at gold and silver. If they are bullish, any pullbacks in the commodity prices or in the associated equities should be seen as buying opportunities. When there is a lot of enthusiasm, it should be seen as creating selling opportunities.
You also have to have physical gold and silver in your possession. We learned a lesson with MF Global. We saw $1B of segregated funds in clients’ accounts vanish. My understanding is that some of those funds were comingled and used to settle MF Global’s liabilities to other financial institutions. There is this whole issue of counter-party risk, which gold does not have. That should be a cautionary reminder to people. You need to have physical cash balances. You need to have physical gold and silver outside of the banking system as a safety net because, as Warren Buffet said, we are in uncharted waters now.
TGR: You grew up in Pakistan, where gold is part of the culture, given as gifts at weddings and such. Do you think you would have that same opinion about physical gold as a personal asset if you had grown up somewhere else?
FA: Not in my case. I had no involvement or affinity with gold. I was a finance professional. My involvement with the gold sector is purely intellectually driven, from looking at trends within the macro economy and realizing that gold and silver really are hedges against turmoil and currency debasement.
But that is a very good question and it points up the importance of watching out for biases in the commentaries that you read. People have vested interests and they do tend to have agendas, both in the mainstream media and elsewhere. For your own protection, you need to be sensitive to those influences and to study track records at key inflection points before relying on other people’s judgment.
TGR: Fayyaz, thank you for your time and your insights.
Fayyaz Alimohamed is president, CEO and director of Altair Ventures Inc. and publisher of the Acamar Journal. He has over 20 years of experience in investment management, finance and consultancy. He previously worked at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Financial and Management Services Ltd. (a management consultancy set up by Morgan Grenfell & Co. Ltd. and Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.) and as the chief financial officer of the Key Capital Group before becoming director of investments for the Cupola Group, a large operating and investment conglomerate based in Dubai. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Honors) degree in economics from the London School of Economics, University of London, and is a Certified General Accountant (CGA).
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