Precious metals had a wild ride in 2016, launching higher in the first half of the year and then falling much of the way back to earth in the second half. Our outlook for 2017 hinges on some of the drivers that figured prominently in last year's trading. There are also a couple of new wrinkles.
We'll start with some fundamentals that metals investors have become well acquainted with in recent years. The troubles plaguing Europe seem to be forgotten, but they certainly aren't gone. The question is whether or not officials in Europe will be able to keep the wheels on in 2017.
Several major European banks remain in jeopardy, plagued by bad debts, too much leverage, and mounting legal expenses. Germany's Deutsche Bank (DB) was often in the headlines last year as its share prices made all-time lows. Deutsche Bank paid out $60 million to settle charges of manipulating the gold market.
In addition, regulators in the U.S. had proposed a crushing $14 billion fine related to the bank's marketing of dodgy mortgage backed securities prior to the 2008 financial crisis.
Since then share prices have recovered significantly. The bank agreed last month to a settlement of just over $7 billion, roughly half the amount originally proposed but still a hefty penalty. The bank's loan book still looks ugly and its exposure to risky derivatives remains a wild card.
The recent failure of Italy's third largest bank – Monte dei Paschi – may put the spotlight back on the European banking sector. Particularly if other institutions, such as Deutsche Bank, have been aggressively selling credit default swaps they will now have to pay out on.
Investors grappled with the Brexit referendum in 2016. This year they will find out if Britain's vote to leave the EU will actually get implemented. Negotiations around the departure are expected to commence in May.
Italians are going to select a new government shortly and there are elections coming up in Germany, France, and the Netherlands in the months ahead. Anti-European Union forces are making real headway in the polls.
This year looks pivotal for the EU, the euro as its currency, and its banks. Turmoil there will boost safe haven buying in precious metals and the U.S. dollar. Alternatively, should the establishment and the banks weather the storm, metal prices could suffer, at least in terms of euros. Right now, turmoil in Europe looks like the better bet.
Once again markets enter a new year in thrall to Janet Yellen and the rest of the Federal Open Market Committee. Like last year, we just had one rate hike. Officials are telegraphing three to four additional hikes in the coming 12 months.
Last time around the stock market suffered stimulus withdrawals. Fed officials threw in the towel and reversed course almost immediately. We can expect officials are watching equity prices carefully now. If the S&P 500 keeps powering ahead, they'll have the cover they need to deliver rate increases.
If, on the other hand, we find out that markets are still addicted to low rates and officials can't tolerate the pain of a withdrawal it will be bad news for the dollar and good news for metals.
A Donald Trump Presidency
The election of Donald Trump is what makes this year different. Many people are optimistic about the prospects for a major infrastructure program, tax cuts, and less regulation. Investors are ready to take on risk. Since the election, they have been mostly getting out of safe haven assets such as bonds and gold, while paying top dollar for stocks.
The rub is that Trump has yet to assume office. The expectations are high and, frankly, something has to give. Trump might deliver a big infrastructure program and some tax relief. However, that would spell trouble for the current dollar rally as people anticipate ballooning deficits and borrowing.
Or, Trump may find his proposed measures are easier said than done. Republicans control Congress, but there is no certainty they will accept big spending increases and even higher deficits. If optimism bumps up against a bleaker political reality, it'll be bad news for investors playing the Trump rally.
2016 closed with investors positioning for smooth sailing and economic growth. They may get it but a number of things will have to go right. If they don't, jettisoning safe haven assets to buy stocks at record high valuations won't look like a very good idea.