New Covid Variant Spooks Markets; Gold Un-Moved But Fundamentals Solid

Mining Expert & Financial Writer
November 28, 2021

US and Canadian stock markets fell sharply on Friday in reaction to a new coronavirus variant originating in South Africa.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had its worst day of the year, at one point dropping over 1,000 points before recovering about 100 points at time of writing. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq each lost 2.2% while in Canada, the S&P/ TSX composite index sold off nearly 500 points, as the price of oil tumbled over 10% on demand destruction fears.

The World Health Organization on Friday declared the new South African strain of covid-19 a “variant of concern” and named it omicron. The WHO defines a variant of concern as one that shows genetic changes that in theory could give it the potential to affect transmissibility, severity of disease, or how well vaccines or treatments work on the virus.

Up to now the most serious version of covid has been the delta variant.  

According to a report by CNBC, South African scientists identified a new variant they say is behind a recent spike in infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. The covid mutation was also detected in travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana.

Cases in South Africa ballooned to 1,200 on Wednesday and 2,465 on Thursday, compared to a daily count of just over 200 in recent weeks. Scientists are worried that “omicron” has a high number of mutations (30) in the coronavirus’ spike protein which could affect how easily it spreads.

This concern was enough to prompt British authorities to make travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa and neighboring countries to self-isolate for 10 days. The United States will also restrict travel from the region starting Monday. CNBC quoted an infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London saying that the new variant has an “unprecedented” number of mutations and that compared to previous variants, the South African version might evade current vaccines.

That could trigger widespread travel restrictions and renewed curbs on social activity, potentially even lockdowns, throwing a wrench into the machinery of economic recovery for most of the world’s major economies.

Investors and traders didn’t like what they were hearing and on Friday they sold off risky assets like stocks and bitcoin, which was down over $4,600 at time of writing, or 7.5%, to $54,292.

Bond yields also fell sharply, with benchmark US Treasuries on track for their biggest drop since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. The yield on the 10-year slipped over 15 basis points to 1.485% while the 30-year fell to 1.826%, in mid-day trading Friday. Yields move in the opposite direction of bond prices, which typically rise on market uncertainty.

To us at AOTH it’s all good for gold.

There is a strong correlation between rising gold prices and falling bond yields, although gold’s performance Friday was oddly weak. Despite climbing to $1,814 per ounce at the start of the session, strong selling pressure pushed the precious metal to an intra-day low of $1,784; it was changing hands for around $1,791, at time of writing.

5-year spot gold. Source: Kitco

Gold has been on a run, a week ago trading at its highest level since June. The latest US inflation data (6.2% in October) has reinforced concerns over rising prices, especially after seeing the central banks’ approach to soothe the situation.

While a growing number of Federal Reserve officials have indicated they are open to tapering the Fed’s bond-buying program, if inflation holds, and would move more quickly to raise interest rates, the latest covid variant scare appears to be pouring cold water on that notion.

Bloomberg reports that Money-markets pushed back the timing of a first 25-basis-point rate increase by the Federal Reserve to September from June, while briefly pricing out any more hikes unit 2023…

It’s a similar story in the U.K. where the Bank of England is now expected to tighten policy in February instead of next month. Wagers that the European Central Bank will raise its deposit rate by the end of next year were also slashed…

With gold widely seen as a hedge against inflation, it makes sense for the safe-haven metal to be in demand.

It’s also important to note that gold has been rallying despite a stronger US dollar, which competes with gold as a safe store of value. This indicates that investors have looked past this to focus on its traditional role as an inflation hedge.

In the near term, there’s optimism that rising price levels could offer more support for the gold market.

Analysts at UBS have lifted their gold price forecasts, highlighting risks of further strength in inflation in early 2022. The Swiss investment bank’s March-end gold price target was raised to $1,800/oz, up from $1,700.

While some, including UBS, are predicting a moderation in inflation expectations for the coming year, this will likely take longer than most have anticipated.

The Fed’s official line is that inflation is “transitory” based on supply chain disruptions resulting from the pandemic. We don’t buy it. Sure, we accept the idea that high demand for products and services in countries coming out of the pandemic has led to supply shortages and higher prices in a number of industries. But there are several inflation manifestations that simply cannot be called temporary or transitory. We have reported on most, if not all of them.

To recap, an energy crunch has pushed coal and natural gas prices to record highs. We also have energy inflation because of too massive a shift to renewables and a de-investment in fossil fuels, before renewable energy is ready to take the place of oil, natural gas and coal. The problem isn’t about to sort itself out anytime soon, because even though solar and wind power are getting less expensive, many parts of the world still depend on coal and natural gas as a primary source, or as a backup.

Research from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, quoted by BNN Bloomberg, shows that food inflation in Canada is close to 5%, well above the normal 1-2%. A similar trend is happening in the United States. In September food prices jumped 0.9% with the largest rise since April 2020 driven by a surge in meat costs.

It isn’t only retail food shoppers that are feeling the pinch of climbing prices. Recently the Green Markets North American Fertilizer Index hit a record high, rising 7.9% to US$996.32 per ton, and blasting past its 2008 peak. Higher fertilizer prices are usually passed onto the end user, the buyer of grains, fruits, vegetables and meats, for the grower/ farmer/ rancher to preserve his profit margin. This is precisely what we see happening right now.

Climate change is affecting not only the prices of agricultural commodities and food, but the entire commodities complex. As global temperatures warm, practically everything that is grown or mined is impacted. The prices of a number of industrial metals, including copper, zinc, nickel and aluminum, have seen healthy gains this year due to a constellation of factors, including robust demand from top commodities buyer China.

As for what the new coronavirus variant could mean for gold, we see a “rinse and repeat” scenario taking place.

If the new stain turns out to be as potent as it seems, central banks will shrink away from monetary tightening, instead choosing to fall back on their current dovish monetary policies (low interest rates, bond-buying, money-printing), which are great for precious metals.

Depending on how quickly and to what extent it spreads, US states (and Canadian provinces) may be forced to re-instate mask mandates, social distancing measures, school closures, etc., to prevent health care systems from being overloaded. If stimulus check disbursements continue, along with potentially hundreds of billions in new stimulus measures to fight a strengthened pandemic, it could easily push inflation higher.

Note that in 2008, “quantifornication” i.e., rock-bottom interest rates and the monthly purchases of mortgage-backed securities and government bonds did not cause inflation, so the idea that tapering QE will stop inflation doesn’t make sense, imo.

Finally there is a good amount of geopolitical risk in the world right now that should boost safe-haven demand for gold.

Despite a friendly online meeting between US President Biden and Chinese President Xi, the US government recently added a dozen more Chinese companies to its restricted trade list, citing concerns that some of the firms are help to develop the Chinese military’s quantum computing program.

Tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan are also ratcheting up, after five US lawmakers this week arrived in Taiwan to meet with government officials. Beijing considers the island to be a renegade province and has made re-unification with the Motherland a top priority.

Meanwhile over in Belarus, there are fears that Russia is trying to sow chaos in the landlocked Eastern European country as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine to the south. The European Union has blamed Minsk, the capital and seat of government, for flying in thousands of Middle Eastern migrants, who are hoping to make it to Europe, yet instead are stranded on the border between Belarus and Poland in terrible conditions. This week Ukraine reportedly deployed 8,500 troops to the Belarusian border in anticipation of a clash with Russia, which according to the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, has massed 92,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders and is preparing for an attack by the end of January or early February.

The world is clearly getting more dangerous and when combined with the resurgent threat of a covid variant that may be resistant to current vaccines, investors should be looking at safe investments that won’t be diminished by inflation yet offer solid growth potential. Junior gold stocks are an excellent choice in this type of environment and four of my favorites — all of them are undervalued and offer major exploration upside — are listed below.

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Richard Mills is a mining expert, financial writer, and the owner of Aheadoftheherd.com. He invests in the junior resource/bio-tech sectors and his articles have been published on over 400 websites, including: WallStreetJournal, SafeHaven, MarketOracle, USAToday, NationalPost, Stockhouse, Lewrockwell, Pinnacledigest, UraniumMiner, SeekingAlpha, MontrealGazette, CaseyResearch, 24hgold, VancouverSun, CBSnews, SilverBearCafe, Infomine, HuffingtonPost, Mineweb, 321Gold, Kitco, Gold-Eagle, The Gold/Energy Reports, CalgaryHerald, ResourceInvestor, Mining.com, Forbes, FNArena, Uraniumseek, FinancialSense, Goldseek, Dallasnews, Vantagewire, Resourceclips and the Association of Mining Analysts.

Gold is the official state mineral of Alaska.

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