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Bernanke: After the Maestro, the Magician

Gold Prices set to rise as the Fed's "Money illusion" is played on savers...

NAMED AFTER what founder Mike Niehuser describes as the largest monolith in the western hemisphere, Beacon Rock Research is an independent investment research firm, says The Gold Report.

Committed to helping investors "attain an uncommonly better understanding of opportunities and risks, enhancing the possibility of timely and informed investment decisions," Beacon Rock research for an institutional audience and focuses in part on precious, base and industrial metals, oil and gas and alternative energy.

Mike Niehuser now says he has doubts about US economic growth, and believes that inflation may spook stocks and bonds. In this exclusive interview with The Gold Report, Mike recommends looking for leverage to the Gold Price through investment in exploration and development metal stocks with large world-class assets, and names a few of his favorites.

The Gold Report: Mike, it's a new year. How did your predictions for 2010 work out?

Mike Niehuser: At the end of 2009, gold was at a 52-week high of about $1100, and we forecast gold to range from $900 to $1200 per ounce, with the potential to reach $1500 should some catalyst emerge. With gold over $1200 for a good part of 2010, we were a little conservative. But on average, we feel vindicated as gold and other precious metals were not in the bubble that others thought them to be a year ago.

The Wall Street Journal pointed out last week that gold was up 26%, with silver and palladium up 74% and 86%, respectively. This is a broad statement that investors are looking to hard assets for a store of value relative to currencies and other intangible assets like stocks and bonds.

In our opinion, we would not be surprised to see gold holding within $1200 to $1500 through 2011, with a potential breakout to $1600. This again is a somewhat conservative perspective that lends itself to a barbell investment strategy of selecting low-cost producers with ramping cash-flow surprises in the near term and exploration and development companies with highly leveraged assets to production in the long term.

TGR: Do you see a bubble now or are you still bullish on precious metals for 2011?

Mike Niehuser: Taking into account deficits for as far as the eye can see, it is hard not to be bullish on precious metals. It really looks like Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke is between a rock and a hard place. I keep rewatching Bernanke's "60 Minutes" (12/5/2010) spot on YouTube. If you mute the moderator and listen to what Bernanke is really saying, it may provide some real insights into 2011. I can't help but think the interview on media like a talk show somehow degrades the prestige of the Fed, but it is useful as it may be historic.

We may be seeing the Great Maestro being replaced by a Great Magician who is able to dispel myths of not turning on the printing press while grossly expanding the monetary base. Increasing the monetary base and proposing to buy an additional $600 billion in Treasuries while claiming to have 100% control over inflation confirms that the Money Illusion trick is now a card up the Fed's sleeve.

Bernanke seems more concerned with his opinion that deflation was the cause of The Great Depression, and less concerned about inflation. I don't agree. In any event, while claiming that quantitative easing 2 (QE2) is a means of reducing unemployment, it appears that this is his means of keeping real estate prices from falling. This redistribution of wealth may actually be a redistribution of responsibility for the financial crisis away from politicians and policy makers. It is disturbing to see that the systematic risk of banks and others deemed too big to fail has been upstreamed to the government and the taxpayer.

The point here is that by not allowing the housing market to bottom and inventory to clear, the Fed may actually be inflating the currency and pumping up the real estate market to keep what looks to be an increasing number of banks from failing. While the Fed is charged with keeping money stable and full employment, they have also been tasked with maintaining the soundness of the banking system, and they are not looking very good at this point. There seems to be more self interest in Bernanke's comments than may be evident.

TGR: Are you saying that we are or are not experiencing a rise in inflation rates?

Mike Niehuser: Higher sustained metal prices and an uptick in mortgage rates suggest that inflation expectations are increasing. I really question what the real rate of inflation may be. Having put two kids through college, I can tell you that higher education is not getting cheaper; and getting sick or taking care of older folks is also not cheaper. Energy prices are creeping up as the economy appears to rebound. All of these are certainly highly regulated or subsidized, and it does not look like they are increasing the supply or reducing the demand in these areas. Clearly we are seeing lower costs and higher productivity in other areas. The reduced costs and higher product offering of technology is hard to keep up with. The power and reach of mobile electronic devices or the reduced costs of large-screen high-resolution televisions is remarkable. We may have China to thank for our low CPI, at least for now. In any event, I really don't have a high degree of confidence that it is all properly accounted for in the CPI's basket of goods as a useful measure of domestic inflation. Like the switch to GDP from GNP, maybe we need a new price index. What's more, it is not clear to me how any of this relates to what the Fed should or should not do.

The real problem is with the dual role of the Fed for stable prices and full employment. This is rooted legislatively in the Humphrey-Hawkins Act and philosophically in an unwavering devotion to the Phillips Curve that asserts that inflation and unemployment growth are mutually exclusive. The concern here is that Bernanke may have the narrow perspective that both unemployment or economic growth, and inflation, can be managed by the blunt instruments of monetary policy: open market operations, the discount rate and reserve requirements. This is troubling because it is an academic perspective, which inevitably requires big thinking supported by big macroeconomic equations that can only be made understandable by holding variables constant. This reinforces a closed system excluding outside influences, which they assume do not matter possibly because they are outside their control. For example, they may assume the government balances the budget or that deficits do not matter, or likewise they may fail to take into account unpredictable consumer and investor expectations and behavior, both in the US and globally. When Bernanke claims to have 100% control over inflation by being able to change interest rates in 15 minutes to slow the economy, I get really nervous.

TGR: What do you mean nervous?

Mike Niehuser: I get nervous when I am confused by apparently contradictory statements that may lead to a negative event, but like my college economics professor Dr. Watson used to say, "If you are not confused, you are not informed." On the one hand, Bernanke said it could take four to five years to reduce unemployment to 5% or 6%. To do so, he apparently has no problem today buying $600 billion in Treasuries, and more if warranted. On the other hand, he claimed that this way of stimulating the economy was not "printing money." In addition, while not inflationary, should inflation occur it could be dealt with in 15 minutes by crushing inflation expectations by raising rates and slowing economic growth. While this sounds reassuring, I thought the justification for the stimulus was, after all, increasing growth. This comes across to me like a shell game of sorts where additional stimulus is necessary for growth to be self-sustaining or maybe it is personal employment insurance.

TGR: If Bernanke succeeded in avoiding another depression, isn't that a good thing?

Mike Niehuser: While Bernanke is confident that the Fed's actions avoided a depression, we should recognize his comment is an opinion, or at least it is too early to tell, or that he is simply too close to the question to be objective. The important decision for investors today is to ask themselves where they think we are and what they should do. Right now, the US seems to be trying to decide whether it wants to go the direction of Europe or Asia. At the moment it looks like Europe is the more likely choice. If we are looking for historic parallels, I think we are revisiting the specter of stagflation of the '70s following the growth and turmoil of the '60s. Open market operations, buying Treasuries, fund the growth of government's aggressive actions to increase regulations, thereby curbing innovation, devaluing the currency, and discouraging saving and investment in private enterprise. I would agree with Bernanke that the tax code needs to be more efficient, hopefully flatter, but for him letting up on the stimulus accelerator is now out of the question.

TGR: Some economists are talking 4% growth in 2011 and 2% to 3% inflation over three to five years, with improving consumer confidence. How does that fit in with your perspective of stagflation?

Mike Niehuser: Just as it is hard to say inflation is under control when witnessing higher energy, education and healthcare costs, it is hard to be impressed with growth coming off the bottom of 2008. Bernanke noted that 8 million remain unemployed, and that 40% of them have been unemployed for over six months, making return to the work force problematic. Also, with graduating high schoolers pushed into college, what jobs are awaiting students when they graduate, and what about the 8 million unemployed? Clearly, the housing market is not out of the woods and neither is the banking system. For the gainfully employed, this remains an anxious concern, and despite increasing confidence, I would expect doubts about growth and inflation may spook stocks and bonds in 2011 and even the employed may see a correction in their asset base. While some may move late into commodities seeking diversification, they may experience a correction in metals.

There is a potential that with higher interest rates in the US or even China, specifically higher real interest rates, we may see metals prices hold at these levels or even decline. Having offered that warning, on the present course of stimulus with anemic real growth, we could see signs of growth in the near term concurrent with higher metal prices, the economy stalling in stagflation in the mid-term, and a scramble to commodities in five to ten years, just like in the late 1970s.

TGR: What are you suggesting to investors, given this murky outlook?

Mike Niehuser: It is reasonable to diversify with some exposure to commodities. In the past, precious metals linked with demand for jewelry have increased in the fall through winter season with a correction in the spring. As investment demand has become a larger factor, an increase in interest rates may trigger a correction in commodities should growth pickup.

In the meanwhile, if investors are of the opinion that metal prices may hold at current levels, move higher, or even decline in the near term, they may look to low-cost producers with the potential to positively surprise investors in 2011. Likewise, if investors are concerned about a correction in commodities and an overall pullback in stocks, but are still concerned about significant inflation and much higher commodity prices in the long term, they may look for leverage to the metal price through investment in exploration and development metal stocks with large world-class assets.

The producers provide a more immediate exposure to higher production margins today, while developers able to keep their projects on schedule may advance to production potentially corresponding with higher metal prices on the more distant horizon. This is a barbell approach that looks for value and cash flow in the near term with more speculative growth in the long term.

I am fascinated with companies that were constructed during periods of lower metal prices, based on even lower, more conservative long-term metal price assumptions. These companies with only relatively increases in costs may have exceptional operating margins. If these companies execute as scheduled, they may produce positive cash flow surprises. Even if metal prices stall or decline, or if costs increase, there appears to be plenty of operating margin to provide a return and remain viable, which should provide some protection if the general market or sector corrects. This may provide an element of value that has not been seen in the mining sector for some time.

TGR: Mike, we appreciate your time today. Thanks.

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