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All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold, as silver breaks out

All that glitters isn’t necessarily gold, as silver breaks out

Nine years ago, in September 2011 gold prices hit a record high against the US dollar, above $1,900 an ounce before retreating sharply, and finding a base just over four years later in November 2015, rebounding from lows of $1,050 an ounce.

The rise in the price of the yellow metal, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 was primarily driven by concerns about inflation, as the US Federal Reserve, along with other central banks embarked on massive stimulus programs, with the US central bank leading the way with a strategy of weakening the US dollar.

At around that time we also saw crude oil prices rise sharply, with Brent crude trading over $120 a barrel, which in turn helped to push the Reuters CRB index to a post financial crisis peak of $370.  

Just prior to these record highs in gold prices, we saw silver prices hit their own record highs in April of 2011, trading just shy of $50 an ounce before the precious metal imploded spectacularly, as a sharp rise in the value of the US dollar saw prices fall briefly below $14 an ounce in December 2015.

Since then silver prices have languished in the doldrums, trading for the most part of the last five years below $20 an ounce, while also posting a new ten year low earlier in March, falling briefly below $12 an ounce as a new wave of selling hit the precious metal as concerns about weaker industrial use demand knocked sentiment further.

The sell off seen in both gold and silver prices over the last decade was primarily driven by reduced concerns about inflation, as well as an expectation that the US Federal Reserve would start the process of exiting its massive post crisis stimulus plan.

Who can forget the initial taper tantrum that we saw all the way back in 2013, which saw US treasury yields spike and emerging markets drop sharply over concerns that the US Federal Reserve would slam on the brakes too sharply?

The slow recovery in gold prices since the lows of 2015 has seen the yellow metal outpace the gains seen in the silver price.

For the first part of this century gold and silver prices did have a tendency to track each other quite closely, however in the last decade this relationship has decoupled somewhat as we can see from the green line in the chart below.

This relationship, which is called the gold silver ratio can be useful in determining whether the correlations between the two have gone too far in one direction, or the other.

The decoupling in the relationship between silver and gold over the past few years appears to have come about as a result of a combination of factors, which include increased central bank purchases of gold, as well as haven buying on the part of hedge and pension funds, while silver prices have to a large extent been depressed by its dual purpose of also being used as an industrial metal.

In the case of silver, there was also the added factor that a lot of people got burnt rather badly on the move down from the 2011 record highs, which may well have deterred more speculative accumulations.

 Source: Bloomberg

As we can see from the chart above the gold/silver ratio (green line) has seen gold prices (white line) diverge sharply away from the lows of the ratio seen in 2011, to trade at a record high earlier this year above $110.

This trend was always likely to reverse, however timing the turn of any trend is always problematic, however the price action in silver over the past few days does appear to suggest we could be on the cusp of a significant readjustment, the only question being in how it is likely to affect future gold and silver price moves.

The consensus appears to be that gold prices will continue to move higher, with a new record high against the US dollar expected in the coming weeks, helping to complete the set with gold prices already at record highs against all the other G8 currencies.

If that plays out as expected and the gold/silver ratio continues to narrow then the natural conclusion is that silver prices will have to rise at a faster rate, than gold.

There is certainly scope for them to do so given that silver prices are still well below their record highs of 2011, however a word of warning is needed in that a fall in gold prices relative to silver would also have the same effect in seeing the gold silver ratio continue to fall.

Another way to play the relationship between gold and silver prices is in the form of the CMC Markets Precious Metals index, which in the wake of the big breakout in silver prices has also seen a nice move higher.

Precious Metals Index

Source: CMC Markets

With a weighting of 41.25%, relative to gold’s 29.1%, any outperformance in silver prices is likely to help drive this index higher. The remaining percentages of the index are made up of platinum and palladium. 

It is important to note that while prices have seen a decent move higher, the gains seen since the March lows have been quite significant, begging the question as to whether we need to see a pause, now that prices are almost 20% away from their long term 200 day moving average.

As we saw with the move down from the February peaks to the lows in March, we saw a sharp snap back when the price move became over extended.

This suggests that while silver prices might well continue to outperform on their own, the prices of gold, platinum and palladium might also have a part to play in the equation as well.    

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