Gold and tax reform need to be considered. The Federal Reserve raised rates for the third time in 2017 following the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting on December 12. Since 2015, gold has established a year end pattern where it becomes oversold ahead of the December Fed rate decision. This pattern repeated again this year as the gold price trended to a five-month low of $1,236 per ounce on the day of the Fed meeting and then promptly rebounded from the Fed-induced low to end December with a $28.11 gain (2.2%) at $1,303.05 per ounce. Commodity price strength also aided gold as copper and crude oil both made multi-year highs in the last week of the year.
Gold stocks also tested their second half lows on December 12 and, like gold bullion, staged a comeback to end December with the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index1 (GDMNTR) rising 4.6% and the MVIS Global Junior Gold Miners Index2(MVGDXJTR) gaining 8.1% for the month.
Geopolitical Risk, U.S. Dollar Weakness, and Commodities Strength-2017
Gold and gold stocks performed well in 2017. The gold price advanced $150.78 per ounce (13.1%), the GDMNTR was up 12.2%, and the MVGDXJTR gained 6.2%. These gains were impressive for a market in which investors generally showed little interest in gold while being preoccupied with new records in the stock market, bitcoin, and ancient art. Gold also did not receive much help from the physical markets, as Indian demand remained near the lows of 2016 and China’s central bank refrained from purchasing gold.
The resilience in the price of gold came from a global sense of geopolitical risk and uncertainty, overall strength in commodities, and unexpected weakness in the U.S. dollar. Gold stocks typically outperform gold bullion in a positive gold market. However, this year was one of mean reversion after a strong 2016 (GDMNTR up 55%), along with a lack of sizzle that investors are seeing elsewhere. Healthy earnings and increased guidance among gold companies were not enough to capture much investor interest in 2017.
Tax Reform Impact
Anyone hoping that Washington D.C. would become fiscally responsible under Republican Party rule has seen their hopes go up in flames, as new tax rules appear likely to drive the U.S. deeper into debt. Some say economic growth created by tax cuts will likely generate more government revenue. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, ex-Congressional Budget Office (CBO) director Douglas Holtz-Eakin stated that he believes tax policy can partially offset costs if it is well designed. We believe the new tax code is not well designed, as it is nearly as complicated as the old one, widely unpopular, and contains many provisions set to expire in 2025. The tax windfall corporations will receive comes at a time when profits are high and cheap credit is plentiful. If companies were inclined to spend more on capital expansions, they would have done so already, but instead many companies have used cash to buy back stock and pay dividends.
We believe it is too late in the cycle for tax stimulus to have a lasting effect. In addition, fiscal stimulus has limited effects when debt levels are high, as they are today. None of the federal income tax cuts since 1980 have succeeded in shrinking the deficit through growth. The Reagan tax cuts of 1981 could not forestall a recession that started in July of that year, caused by tighter Fed policy. Similarly, any growth resulting from Trump’s tax cuts could give the Fed more latitude to raise rates.
Tax reform will add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the deficit over ten years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT). In October, the U.S. Treasury Department reported the budget shortfall increased 14% in 2017 to $666 billion, which is equal to 3.3% of GDP. At $16 trillion, public federal debt is 85% of GDP and Harvard University economist Jason Furman estimates debt escalating to 98% of GDP by 2028. The CBO figures interest charges will consume 15% of federal revenues in 2027, up from 8% currently. The annual report from the trustees of the nation’s largest entitlement programs show the trust funds running out for Medicare in 2029 and for Social Security in 2034. The new tax law only piles more onto this growing mountain of debt.
Total non-financial debt in the U.S. stands at $47 trillion, equal to 250% of GDP and $14 trillion more than at the peak of the last credit bubble when debt/GDP stood at 225%. Thanks to below market rates engineered by central banks, debt service has not yet become a problem. Low rates have forced investors to take on more risk in order to generate acceptable returns.
Another side effect is the proliferation of European “zombie companies”, meaning their interest cost exceeds earnings and kept on life support by banks fearful of losses if the companies declare bankruptcy. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) estimates that 10% of publicly traded companies in six major European countries are zombies. As central banks embark on tighter policies, at some point higher rates could create debt service problems. Gluskin Sheff reckons every percentage point rise in the level of rates will ultimately drain 2.5% out of nominal GDP growth.