As usual, Warren Buffett sounds folksy and sharp in his casual dismissal of gold. But a look beneath the surface shows the Oracle’s true motives.
So Ben Stein interviewed Warren Buffett for Forbes last week. (You can find that interview here.)
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Ben Stein is notable for four things. First, he played the infinitely boring teacher in the classic ’80s movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (“Bueller… Bueller…”) Second, he had an epically bad game show for a while calledWin Ben Stein’s Money. Third, he was the Clear Eyes eye drops guy.
And last but not least, in an odd post-TV and movie career as a financial columnist, including a stint with The New York Times, Ben Stein has made a habit of penning some of the most vapid, schlocky nonsense ever put in print.
Think that’s unfair? Check out the opening of the latest Buffett piece, which is absolute classic Stein:
The first thing I notice on my most recent visit with Warren E. Buffett, who recently turned 80, is how incredible he looks. He would look terrific for 50; for 80, he looks like Charles Atlas. He’s modest about it, as he is about everything. “It all works great,” he says. “The eyes, the hearing — everything works great … which it will until it all falls apart.”
The second thing you notice is that he is so smart it curls your hair.
Oh, that Buffett. So charming, so self-deprecating. No wonder Stein got a littleverklempt. But “Curls your hair“? The guy sounds like Aunt Edna crooning over Lawrence Welk. At least the majority of groupthink Buffett worshipers out there have the common decency not to air their hot flashes in public.
Stein, being Ben Stein, then leads off with an utter softball of meat-headed conventional wisdom:
My first question, as I sit there on the couch in his office, is: “What about gold? Is this a classic bubble or what?”
One hesitates to ask why sitting on the couch (in Buffett’s office!) is important. Unless, of course, Stein is intimating the magic of being so close to WB he can smell his aftershave — no doubt the brand Charles Atlas would have worn.
Buffett, being Buffett, responds to the cream puff question by utterly trashing gold:
“Look,” he says, with his usual confident laugh. “You could take all the gold that’s ever been mined, and it would fill a cube 67 feet in each direction. For what that’s worth at current gold prices, you could buy all — not some, all — of the farmland in the United States. Plus, you could buy 10 ExxonMobils, plus have $1 trillion of walking-around money. Or you could have a big cube of metal. Which would you take? Which is going to produce more value?”
Which would I take — are you kidding? That’s a dumb question. I would take the gold. In a heartbeat.
See, what Buffett says about gold here sounds folksy and sharp and oh so smart. But it really isn’t. Instead, it’s a blatant misrepresentation of why gold has value, where that value comes from, and why investors should have exposure to gold in their portfolios.
Red Herring #1: Franchise Value
First off, to describe gold as “a big cube of metal” is disingenuous — a red herring. This is to suggest that, apart from its physical properties, gold is no different than, say, a “big cube” of nickel or tin or bauxite.
But we know this is not true, because gold has been money — that is to say, gold has been ubiquitously seen as a reliable and widely accepted store of value — forthousands of years.
If anyone understands the concept of franchise value, it should be Warren Buffett — he of the mountainous mass of Coca-Cola (KO:NYSE) stock. I mean, when you get down to it, what is Coke really (besides Buffett’s favorite drink and one of Berkshire’s major permanent holdings)?
Basically it’s just sugar water. A little fizz, a little syrup, and there you go.
So why does the Coca-Cola Company have a $140 billion-plus market cap? Because of franchise value. Because of the brand… the psychological hold and longstanding reputation that Coke as a drink of choice has on its customers.
Gold is the same, yet even more so. Those who say gold is “just another commodity” consistently ignore thousands of years of human history. They gloss over literal millennia’s worth of franchise value. They ignore the fact that, like the very concept of wealth itself, gold has a powerful psychological berth in the minds of men that stretches across virtually every border, to every country on the planet, dating back at least 80 generations to the Lydians of the 5th century BC.
“Lookit,” as Uncle Warren likes to say. Gold has been money since around the time man invented the plow. Meanwhile, the modern fiat currency system is less than 40 years old. Put that in your See’s Candies/Coca-Cola franchise pipe and smoke it.
Red Herring #2: Investment vs. Insurance
The idea that anyone could own all the gold in existence is another red herring. News flash: Most of the gold in the world simply isn’t for sale… and probably never will be, at ANY price.
And for those who don’t yet own gold — or who don’t own enough gold — the yellow metal is not a standalone retirement plan, an “all in” investment, or something to plunge one’s entire net worth into. It’s a form of insurance, plain and simple.
Buying gold is no less sensible and prudent than buying fire insurance on your primary residence — especially when gleeful pyromaniacs like Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke show every inclination of burning down your monetary house.
To talk about gold as a lousy investment versus, say, Exxon Mobil or farmland, then, is just another bait and switch. Who says you can’t own all three?
And of the three, which has the most historical value, ease of conversion, and natural reputation as a “neutral currency?”
Here’s the thing that Uncle Warren won’t talk about. From a pure insurance perspective, those who need gold as a form of protection still don’t have enough. Not nearly enough.
The idea that the investing public is loaded up on gold is a myth. For every investor who says they own gold, there are more investors who pooh-pooh gold and say it’s a bubble.
Apart from precious metals conferences, when you take surveys of who actually owns gold and how much, the net result is usually twofold: Those who actually own gold have a relatively small percentage of their portfolios allocated to such; and the percentage who don’t own any gold at all is still surprisingly high.
Then you have the institutions, the pension funds and the central banks — three giant sources of potential demand whose total allocations to gold are still miniscule. These three groups have net allocations to gold in the low single digits as a percentage of their total portfolios.
Were that percentage of gold allocation to double – while still remaining in the single digits – the price of gold would skyrocket. (That is one reason it probably WILL skyrocket.)
During the crash of 1987, there was an options trader who made millions by positioning himself the right way just before it happened. He saw that volatility was going to explode, and so he loaded up on puts and calls. Immediately after the crash, everyone wanted to buy the inventory he had on his trading book. As he described it (paraphrase), “The sun had just moved a lot closer to the earth, and I was the only guy with zinc ointment left.”
To borrow that metaphor, gold is like the “zinc ointment” investors need to protect their portfolios from fiat currency sunburn. And the stuff is in short supply.
Red Herring #3: Relative Value
The third implied statement of Buffett’s is that gold is expensive. But expensive relative to what? Equities?
There are credible arguments that present equity markets are 30% to 40% overvalued, based on a more realistic take in respect to earnings, and that lofty expectations of “quantitative easing 2″ is the main thing keeping markets propped up.
Or maybe the naysayers think gold is expensive because it has never traded at such high prices before. But guess what? These are nominal prices. To best its inflation-adjusted high, gold would have to trade well over $2,000 per ounce. We would have to go 50% higher from here — at least — just to top 1980!
And wouldn’t you think that, given the 25-year leverage and debt supercycle we have just been through, coupled with the biggest Keynesian experiment ever conducted in the history of markets by governments worldwide, that gold would atleast, as a reasonable minimum, beat out its old inflation-adjusted highs? Doesn’t seem too crazy to me…
Yes, all the gold in the world could buy all the U.S. farmland and 10 Exxon Mobils,yada yada. But so what. The size of the gold market relative to global demand — and long-run trends in respect to that demand — is tiny. There just isn’t enough to go around.
Ben Stein is enough of a hoity-toity lightweight that he might actually believe the “gold has no value” argument. But Buffett? That’s doubtful. Stein got one thing right — the Oracle of Omaha really is too smart to completely overlook gold’s monetary history, its embedded franchise value, and its usefulness as a form of insurance.
So why is Buffett trashing gold then? Because he’s an equity guy. And because Buffett knows there are legions of financial advisors who secretly despise and fear gold. These convention-minded advisors hate entertaining the thought that the system might be broken, or that the actions of the U.S. government might have severe negative repercussions for their clients.
So they put their heads in the sand, and try to justify just buying more good old blue chips instead. And in that mentality Uncle Warren is happy to encourage them.
Here is Justice Litle’s bio: Justice Litle is the Editorial Director of
Taipan Publishing Group, Editor of Justice Litle’s Macro Trader and Managing
Editor of the free financial market news e-letter Taipan Daily.”