Losing our marbles

How much can we still trust prices and statistics?
Right from playground days we came to understand the basic laws of a sound market economy, yet everywhere one looks one sees transgressions, says the author. Image: Shutterstock

As kids one of our favourite schoolyard games was marbles. We would draw a circle and each player would place some marbles in it and then take turns in pitching a bigger marble or ‘goon’ at them. Those struck out of the circle would be claimed by the pitcher. The initial marble supply would be bought from the local ‘café’, a mining town store that sold anything from stale chicken pies to bicycles. Soon a secondary market developed in sales and swaps between players. Occasionally some kid would bring a large bag of marbles and for a brief period we enjoyed discounted prices.

Sometimes a schoolmate would borrow a few with the promise to pay back with an additional marble or two. Then he would lose all his marbles and skulk around the playground for weeks to avoid his creditors. Frequently the playground bully would raid the game, grab a handful of marbles and go play with his peers, or sell them back to his victims at inflated prices.

So having spent two paragraphs on my marbles, the reflective point that needs to be made is how strongly entrenched some natural economic laws are in our human DNA.

The crude marble economy has all the makings of large sophisticated markets today.

Supply, demand, price, debt, interest, market manipulation, monopolies and the difference between value and price.

Intuitively, perhaps even instinctively, we came to understand the basic functions of a sound market economy:

  • Freedom of choice
  • Maximum number of suppliers
  • Free moving prices, and
  • Optimum information by participants.

Yet everywhere one looks one sees transgressions of these principles. The worst and perhaps most harmful is in price discovery: the critical tool to ensure a balance between supply and demand.

The extent and depth of price manipulation is quite astounding.

Virtually all of the main global markets that influence our daily lives have been contaminated – exchange rates, interest rates, bonds, equities, gold, oil and other main commodities. Each could take more than a master’s thesis to explore and even in a narrow context we often hear of supplier collusion, corruption, taxes and tariffs as well as other interventions that blunt the price mechanism.

In the background are two main contributing factors: departure from the gold standard and the explosion of derivatives.

According to Investopedia, citing BIS research, the total notional amounts outstanding for contracts in the derivatives market is an estimated $542.4 trillion. But the gross market value of all contracts is significantly less: approximately $12.7 trillion. 

In effect, it means derivatives are 40 times larger than the underlying assets.

Because of the difficulty in measuring over-the-counter trading, the size of these markets could be as high as $1.2 quadrillion. With significant leveraging, in which investors have a minimum of their own funds at risk, and the sheer size of these instruments, there can be no doubt that they have switched from being guided by underlying supply and demand fundamentals and spot prices to fixing these prices. This article by the California-based Gibbs Law group, gives good examples of market manipulation.

Explosion of debt

Gold’s suppression as an anchor for the purchasing power of money and the cost of using money as reflected in interest rates has culminated in an explosion of debt that underpins fiat currencies today. In May this year, Forbes Magazine wrote: “It’s a well-documented phenomenon, with real actors and real ramifications.”

As interest rates move into unknown territory with nearly $20 trillion long-term bonds having negative yields, the future value of money is being destroyed. As this Moneyweb article points out: “Negative yields turn decades of accepted financial norms on their head, impacting how we understand matters such as the time value of money, and with serious implications for the pricing of money and thus risk in markets.”

Where to then for gold? It clearly has started to break the long bear trend, artificially maintained many believe by some major central banks determined to ensure that it does not threaten their own currencies, the global reserve status of the US dollar, and the use of interest rates in monetary policy. It is unlikely, although not impossible, for gold to skyrocket in the months ahead. More likely is that price massaging will continue, but with a growing deliberate restoration of the metal as a reserve asset in the face of currency and trade wars and de-dollarisation over and above gold purchases by China, Russia, India and Turkey. Central banks themselves must be becoming increasingly jittery about their large holdings of low- or negative-yielding bonds, dollars and other fiat currencies.

Countering the effect of impure pricing, economists will argue that in the longer run prices will reflect the underlying fundamental relationship between supply and demand. They point out that if this were not so there would be intolerable shortages and surpluses. That may be true, but ultimately what is long term is simply the culmination of many actions in the short term and actions in the present can be severely prejudiced by illegitimate prices. And how true is it that supply and demand are fundamentally in balance when we have huge wealth disparities and unprecedented asset inflation that has suppressed consumer price inflation?

And if prices can’t be trusted, then neither can most statistics, including the questionable holy cow called gross domestic product.

When money loses its efficacy as an accurate means of exchange, it will create havoc in an economic system. The vehement defence of free enterprise comes mostly from either an ideological or political base. But the real enemy comes from within. Price manipulation is the greatest threat to free enterprise and many key markets have become little more than a playground for schoolyard bullies, stealing our marbles.




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Why gold? Why not perfectly round white beach pebbles with red dots?

To have a value, an item must either have utility value (I can eat corn or use a shovel to dig) or generate an income (rent out a house, earn interest on a loan, earn dividends on shares). For that share value to appreciate investors believe it will grow its earnings and dividends.

Anything else is no more than speculative value – like art.

There is something like 50 years of above ground gold reserves measured in its industrial use. Gold earns nothing – it costs money to secure. It is actually not rare, just expensive to extract to the pretty bars people prefer. It is speculative : imagine a passing meteorite shower dumps thousands of mainly gold meteors on earth.

But, I am with the author that the world is wacky. There are far too many businesses and markets based entirely on nothing. Hedges are supposed to be neutral in total : the mexican hotel group is ok to lose money on a hedge it took against lots of rain, the mexican corn farmer counter-party is grateful that his winning hedge paid him some compensation for the low rainfall. Zero sum game. There is no place in this for investment bankers and traders and hundreds of billions in profits. Most oil futures are owned by people in high rises or their parents’ basement that can not receive even a hundred barrels of oil. Add in options on oil futures and the value of oil actually delivered on 30 June 2020 was probably traded 30 times over between now and 30 June 2020. These people belong at the races, not in the oil industry.

The alternative investment industry do nothing, create nothing. If most investment bankers and hedge fund managers disappeared at midnight, only their trophy wives would notice.

There : Thursday rant complete

Thank you Johan_Buys for your entertaining and thought provoking response to Jerry’s article. Your response is refreshingly different from the usual “South Africa is doomed” and “[Enter political party name] is evil” shallow responses which normally populate the Moneyweb comments.

Very thoughtful and instructive comment, Johan. This applies to your comments more generally also, which are always a worthwhile read!

Many things can serve as money but over the millennia, people like you and me decided that gold is the best, most trustworthy unit of account, store of value, medium of exchange and standard of deferred payment. Gold as money developed naturally, due to the choices made by ordinary people after everything else have failed.

If there is no use for gold as money, then those modern institutions who control the money supply should be the last ones to be interested in holding gold. The opposite is true. The major Central Banks stock up on gold. Why would they still buy gold if gold is similar to shells or grain? https://www.gold.org/goldhub/data/monthly-central-bank-statistics

It is a mere coincidence that we are living during a time where “modern” fiat currency is the norm. There are these constant cycles over thousands of years that fluctuate between gold-standard, fiat currency and gold standard again. With interest rates at zero or negative, we are nearing the end of this cycle and this system will without any doubt, be followed by a gold standard once again. I hope this does not happen in my lifetime because, as a speculator and investor, I benefit enormously from the devaluation of money. I borrow in depreciating currency at low-interest rates to buy assets that beat inflation. This is a very crowded space as more and more “investors” increase their leverage. This is also the driving force behind the next financial crisis that is appearing on the horizon. The current monetary system has a critical central design flaw. The system itself creates inequality as those who understand the game become wealthy on the backs of those who are impoverished by the declining purchasing power of money.

Concerning the market for derivatives: Speculators provide the liquidity that hedgers need to execute their strategies. Speculators play a major role in the process of determining the appropriate price. It is impossible for ordinary speculators to manipulate the market because at the expiry of the futures contract, the price will reflect the supply and demand dynamics. Speculators who tried to manipulate the market will lose money. For every speculator who makes a profit, there are others who incur losses. Therefore, it is non-sensical to blame speculators on aggregate for the fact that prices are not what we think they should be.

Because there is a long position for every short position, the open interest, or the number of times that a certain amount of a commodity is traded, is irrelevant. In order for some participants to offset their risk, others must accept that risk. The derivatives market is a risk-transferring mechanism, similar to the insurance industry. Nobody accuses insurance companies of being manipulators or speculators.

@ Sensei….your comments are usually spot on, but I am going to have to disagree with you on this one boet

Your assertion that speculators are the market “balancer’s” so to speak, is off the mark

The paper trade as we know it [ futures/options/ etc ], is massively manipulated [ plse tell me you are even aware LOCALLY of the huge ongoing legal case of all our major banks implicated in the manipulation of our currency…and thats just locally…ie, the TIP of the iceberg….! ]

In this paper trade you basically get two parties to this market – the speculators, and then the banks

The speculators are the independent traders[ working from home etc ], which in itself is a huge market across the globe…but PALES in comparison to the banks and fund managers etc

And at the end of the day, the banks control and manipulate the paper market [ we looking at you JP Morgan, G&S etc etc ]


And the rest of us speculators do our best at trying to make a living – but the reality is, fundamentals have long ago been thrown out the window, and we are in fact gambling [ as the banksters will move markets at will, regardless of underlying fundamentals ]

One just has to look at the PM market and see for yourself [ basically, as an eg: gold should in fact be trading at about $5k to $10k an oz if all things were equal, silver should be way higher too ]

Till this party ends, the banks will massage and dictate direction, while continuing to use market advantage to basically plunder at will, while the rest of us try hang on the coat tails

@ Johan……Tks, your comment is both accurate and not so accurate, but refreshingly observant at the very least

Firstly,it has merit regarding bankers and futures traders etc, and I totally agree on this one

Yes, no doubt this bankster industry has created a gargantuan house of cards built on nothing but paper, and a subset of people with no real world skills [ please give us farmers over paper speculators any day ! ]

However, your assumption on gold is a bit off

Firstly,golds real value is its inherent value, precisely because of the large amount of effort required to obtain it [ your ‘industrial above ground’ comment is not valid due to the low demand for this spinoff for gold, and not the core value of gold itself ]

Your ‘white beach pebbles’ analogy is illogical too, precisely because if they were rare and difficult to obtain, they would indeed have value !!

This is borne out by the high values for other ‘pebbles’ like diamonds/exotic gems etc which are difficult to obtain and rare…exactly the reasons why these demand high premiums !

So, till the world comes up with an alternative to gold, this will be one of the benchmarks for a global established reference of value

PS…talking about alternatives…..watch Bitcoin closely – the analogy to gold is closer than one realises [ scarcity, difficulty in mining etc], and in fact Bitcoin even has way MORE uses than gold, which makes it in some ways far superior [ and plse, to all you naysayers out there: dont retort with the ‘I cant hold or feel it so it has no value’ excuse – it will only reveal your ignorance on this subject….you can’t hold the internet, yet its value probably surpasses anything else in the world today ]

Only the institution that prints money is able to manipulate prices, and then only if that institution is willing to lose a lot of money. By what mechanism can a bank manipulate prices without losing money. Manipulation implies moving the price away from supply and demand fundamentals. This can only be done of the manipulator is willing to lose money.

Read about the “Great Grain Robbery”. The USSR spread fake news, but they did not manipulate the grain futures market.

@Jerry….what a great article !!

And you one of the first locally to expose the fundamental flaw in our current financial system as we know it today, and the impending great financial crash when this extended party is over [ as opposed to all the local ‘ja boeties’ who keep glossing over this growing reality so that they can maintain their ivory tower positions ]

There is a great reset I firmly believe imminent and the introduction of the fully digitally controlled age [ via implanted microchip/crypto currency/IOT etc etc, which also unfortunately will usher in the NWO ]

I’m surprised this article even got to be published to be honest, and something I usually expect from my alternative [ and way more accurate and honest ] news sources

Well done Jerry !

Gold because there is a substantial tonnage of demand drivers from China and Russia systematic purchases. A luxery which no other commodity enjoys. Congrats you ranted ecos 101. Demand and supply drive prices and no inherent value. Woohoo such an insightful populist.

Years ago in a discussion I mentioned my idea that all the derivatives should have some very low, fraction of a percent government tax attached to it. To make the option or futures contract legal it should be registered with the tax office of the country where it is made and a 0.01% of the value registration fee should be paid by both parties immediately. To ensure that companies would not move to a different jurisdiction their operation to avoid this tax it would be enough that few of the most powerful countries would agree and create laws that would make enforcement of unregistered contracts illegal in their jurisdiction. Then somebody pointed out that most politicians and political parties depend on “donations” from rich people and companies and they would simply turn off the money tap if anybody would try to limit their moneymaking scam.

I love this article, Jerry. You are not the only one to lose your marbles, my brother. Every primary producer lost their marbles in this deflationary spiral that started in the year 2000 and picked up speed in 2009 after the Great Financial Crisis.

The Bloomberg Commodity Index is trading at the lowest levels since inception in 1991. In real terms, the index is 89% below the high of the year 2000. The extent of the deflationary collapse is described clearly by the ratio of the BCom Index to the gold price. Prices are determined by supply and demand dynamics ok?. So, what does it tell us when the price of commodities crashed by 89%, in terms of purchasing power, in two decades? Well, it tells us that there is a massive oversupply in the midst of slow demand. The market is supposed to correct itself in a situation like this. The supply is supposed to adapt to the level of demand. Why does this not happen? How can producers manage to stay in business when margins have evaporated?

The previous secretary-general of OPEC, Abdallah Salem el-Badri, told it like it is: “It is not an oversupply of oil that drives the price down, there is an oversupply of cheap credit”.

German, American, Canadian, Japanese and Brittish pension funds looking for yield, buy the bonds of fracking companies and mining companies. They buy farms and invest in hedge funds that produce agricultural commodities. Unlike farmers, pension funds have a steady monthly inflow of cash. Pension funds can afford to produce at a loss because the alternative, the government bond, has a negative yield anyway. What we see here is that low- and negative interest rates, or reserve bank action, is driving traditional farmers off the land, because they cannot afford to produce at a loss.

Reserve Banks can use monetary policy to prop up the financial system, but they fail to prop up the primary industries. The relatively higher interest rates we have locally, keep the currency relatively strong. This leads to a further squeeze on the margins of local producers.

Low interest rates create a deflationary spiral in commodities. Farmers are paying the price for the Financial Crisis. Reserve Bank action is bankrupting primary producers across the globe. We are living in a deflationary collapse.

Reserve Banks in the developed world are stealing our marbles.

@Sensei…and here you are 100% on the button !

Yes, at the end of the day we have now found ourselves in a hugely perverted economic system, where the GENUINE producers [ farmers/miners/artisans/etc ] generally find themselves at the short end of the stick on a downward spiral, while at the other end we have the non-producer financial power players who are in effect parasitic by nature, determining and gaming the system to their advantage

It does not take much to realise this is a race to the bottom

Which begs the question :

Where does it all end ????

A situation like this ends in war. Nations were in a similar situation between the first and second world wars. They went off the gold standard for socialist reasons, then they had to wage currency wars and tariff wars to keep up the pretences. This is where we find ourselves now. The “positive” about war is that countries abolish all restrictions over devaluation when they declare war. The Patriot Act after 9/11 legalised the monetization of debt in the USA. Politicians use war to hide their mistakes.

Another very interesting piece by Jerry S. Thank you from a layperson battling to understand how money and investments work in this world.

I am not convinced. The links Mr Schuitema supplies to support his arguments are cherry picked to support his arguments and are not at all convincing (the Forbes article is by Frank Holmes, a well known gold bug, of course he will say the gold price is manipulated). Yes, there probably is some manipulation, but are all the actors in it together manipulating the entire market?
Government debt is too high? What is the appropriate level then?
Negative interest rates turning the world of finance on it’s head? Maybe not. Maybe it is just a reflection that in the developed world the price of goods will be less in the future than today (i.e., deflation).

My apologies: I did indeed lightly cherry-pick on the assumption that my readers would be at least vaguely aware of all of the court cases and fines imposed on some reputable institutions for market manipulation in recent times. But if one wants to cherry pick, pick the right cherries! I did not refer to sovereign debt but overall debt! And when is too much? That’s self evident …

Thank you Jerry for the thought-provoking philosophical article forming the foundation where the smart MW readers can exchange ideas. “Just how much debt is enough” is a highly relevant question. There are two things to consider. Firstly that the debt is irredeemable. Under a pure fiat money regime the debt can on grow as the the money valuable to repay it all does not exist. Money is always created by an act of borrowing but the interest is never created as money. Without gold in the system we cannot increase the money supply and pay down debt at the same time. Secondly people use metrics like Debt/GDP which is arbitrary. What is important is what is the marginal productivity of debt. We should be asking what is the extra GDP created by adding one [currency unit] of debt. If this value exceeds unity, then it means that the debt is good debt. If this is less than unit is means we are eating our seed corn. For example, the ANC regime borrows money to pay people to have babies and not to work. An impending catastrophe. In essence we are eroding our capital. It is all about using debt [wisely] to increase production rather than fund consumption. Can the ANC do this? I would think being governed by ministers who regurgitate April fool jokes, in all seriousness, in an overseas public mining forum, would mean a resolute “no”.

@Lemon…..We don’t need to convince you – logic already does that

Lemon wrote:

“the Forbes article is by Frank Holmes, a well known gold bug, of course he will say the gold price is manipulated)”

So what..!?…in fact, there should be way more gold bugs out there, considering the economic situation we find ourselves in today

The reality is most of them got driven out in this last almost decade long PM drought where the bankers artificially suppressed the true values through paper manipulation to their huge advantage, and squeezed everyone else out

“Yes, there probably is some manipulation, but are all the actors in it together manipulating the entire market?”


Basically only a handful [ grab yourself a beer and go do some thorough research on JP Morgan/Goldman etc and their stranglehold on the paper market ]

Remember, a fish always rots from the head !

“Government debt is too high? What is the appropriate level then?”

Well, common sense will simply tell you, if one of the worlds so called most powerful economies, ie USA, cant even repay the INTEREST on the debt [ yes you read that right ], you on the proverbial SHTF train

“Negative interest rates turning the world of finance on it’s head? Maybe not.”

Are you serious ???

Oh really….why don’t you borrow me R100k, and in 5 years I am allowed to pay you back R50k

Sound good ?

” Maybe it is just a reflection that in the developed world the price of goods will be less in the future than today (i.e., deflation).”

Ok…excuse the pun, but have you lost your marbles !!?

Lemon, go tell this to generations of people now in their 30’s and 40’s that are STILL living with their parents, and for most of the world population where owning a house and a car has now become a pipe dream !!!

And the squeeze continues as even BASIC things are becoming more and more un-affordable, even for those that COULD previously afford them


Jerry- I also learned lessons about economics while playing marbles. My first years of schooling were at the local school in the gung ho mining town in the Transvaal where the kids were street wise and tough. The game was different, though. We had to set up a “shy”, draw a line in the sand and other kids had to knock down the shy to get the marbles, standing behind the line. If they missed you kept their marble. Once you ran out of marbles your status was “cuss”. One friend had father in the TVL roads department who gave us cat’s eyes. Large green marbles. Of course, he flooded the school with these things and they become worthless, unwanted. I had a whole drawer full of them. Then I moved to CT with my cats eyes where the kids were naive and told tales without getting beaten up behind the bike shed. I did notice there were no cats eyes in the CT school, but the marble rules were the same. One day I brought a cat’s eye to school and the kids went ape over it. I drew the line in the sand about 20m meters away and collected enough marbles to fill both my pockets and Damons’ my sidekick. Of course, I was allowing “sides” so a fight broke out as to who had actually hit the cats eye- the big guy got it. I split. Damon was invaluable as he taught me lessons about which kids one could easily fleece and which kids were “crack” i.e. to be banned from your shy.

“Such is life” (said Ned Kelly before they hanged him). Learn the rules and the nuances to play the game. What is the rule with gold? gold is the ultimate form of money. People value gold because it is fungible and has the lowest declining marginal utility of all commodities. There is 100 years mined supply on the earth’s surface but people still go crazy for it. The only other metal that behaves similarly is silver. This is why these are monetary metals and not commodities.

Now the gold price is rising because fiat currencies are suffering a deflationary debt collapse. Fiat money can only be created by an act of borrowing. The debt always exceeds the supply as the interest is never paid, which is why fiat has value. The debt is irredeemable and compounds with the magic of compounding interest. Only it is not so magic. The system is designed such that “they” get the gold and you are left holding the debt. Unless you know the rules. How then does one know the end is nigh when the fiat money game is over. The rules are simple: first the deflation then the inflation. The second rule is watch the gold basis. The gold basis is the difference between the spot price and near future price. The normal condition is contango. This means the future price is more than the spot price. To suppress the price of gold there is a lot of paper gold around. People swap physical gold for paper promises to pay. Paper promises are used to suppress the POG. If the promise was guaranteed and impeachable then why not swap your tonne (1000kg) of gold for 1010kg is a years time? The problem is there are now more than 10 promises for every ounce out there. When gold goes into backwardation the future price is less than the spot price. This does not only indicate a shortage of physical gold but more importantly people NO LONGER TRUST the promise to pay. Don’t watch the gold price, watch the gold basis. It has been shrinking for half a century. When it goes into permanent backwardation, physical gold goes into hiding and the game is up. If you don’t believe in gold you are finished.

Thank you! Insightful, informative, and a good lesson.

Thank you Richard! Insightful, informative and entertaining.

oops… repeat not intended … funny fingers.

@RichardtheGreat…thanks for this excellent analysis!

Gold in permanent backwardation is basically the manifestation of Gresham’s Law: “bad money drives out good”.

Owners of gold become unwilling to exchange gold for paper contracts(promises to pay) because they lost trust in promises to pay. A shortage of physical stock causes the spot price to become higher than the futures contract – backwardation. What can cause backwardation when investors, banks, Reserve Banks and mining companies are sitting on these huge stockpiles of gold? The answer is simple- the owners of gold will hoard their gold and spend only the paper they own. People will become unwilling to exchange gold for paper. Paper will be abundant while gold disappears from circulation. This has been a regular occurrence over the ages and is the sure signal that the currency has been debased.

Further, the declining gold basis is also a function of the declining carrying cost which reflects the declining interest-rate environment. Negative interest rates and especially negative “real” interest rates are part of the reason why gold can go into backwardation. The implications are the same. When real interest rates are negative, then money has no value, credit is for free and the monetary system is a farce.

Gold goes into backwardation because, the risk-free alternative, the government bond, measured in terms of purchasing power, is in backwardation.

True, Sensei. The deflationary debt collapse will drive gold into hiding. When governments did away with the gold standard, what they did was destabilise the interest rate structure. If the money was as good as gold then money + interest would not force the savvy into gold. You would be compensated for this risk of holding paper. This is the natural way of things i.e. contango -you must be compensated for holding paper by interest. Under a gold standard, one cannot destabilise interest rates. What then sets the low bound of interest rates under gold standard? This is simply about the propensity for hoarding gold. When interest rates fall too low people junk overpriced bonds for physical gold, thus raising interest rates which are a market phenomenon. If money is fully exchangeable for gold, then this puts a break on further interest rate falls. This is not to say that people won’t do the swap under the current fiat regime, but under pure fiat there is nothing limiting rates falling further. This is driving gold into hiding. Backwardation, anyone?


Sensei wrote:

“Only the institution that prints money is able to manipulate prices, and then only if that institution is willing to lose a lot of money.”

Mmm……you contradicting yourself here

Yes, the institutions print the money, and yes they manipulate the prices

That should reveal the ability for them to MAKE money, and not LOSE it

And, remember, the casino never bets against itself

Sensei,I dont think you have grasped the extent of manipulation currently going on by the fractional banking system as we know it

“By what mechanism can a bank manipulate prices without losing money. Manipulation implies moving the price away from supply and demand fundamentals. This can only be done of the manipulator is willing to lose money. ”

Really ?…..go tell that to any kingpin of ANY market, whether it be a drug lord,monopolistic telecoms [ looking at you, Vodacom and MTN ] right up to the Googles of the world, who all profit by virtue of dominant price control

The gatekeeper determines the ticket price my friend…and at the end of the day, we the punters have to PAY

The reality is the banks of the world are the ultimate ringleaders, kingpins and gatekeepers, all rolled into one


And yes, of course this greed will not end well……but greed as we know from the history of mankind, blinds till the very end

Till then, they will continue to profit as the winners in this game

“The USSR spread fake news, but they did not manipulate the grain futures market.”

Yes, even worse, in the rest of the world, the economic overlords control the news AND the futures market

Jerry now how about an article on exactly how to get our pension fund monies overseas with the least amount of tax and other costs ??

End of comments.



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