Central banks that were net sellers of gold a decade ago are buying the precious metal to reduce their reliance on the dollar as a reserve currency, signaling demand that may extend a record rally in prices.
As developing countries accelerate purchases, gold may reach $2,000 an ounce this year, compared with a record of $1,569.80 today in New York, said Robert McEwen, the chief executive officer of producer U.S. Gold Corp. Euro Pacific Capital’s Michael Pento, who correctly predicted gold’s highs for the past two years, forecasts a 2011 high of $1,600.
Prices reached a record 15 times this month on demand from investors seeking an alternative to the dollar after the currency slumped to the lowest since 2009, U.S. debt widened, and the Federal Reserve signaled April 27 that borrowing costs will remain near zero percent for an extended period. The economy in China, the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries, grew 9.7 percent in the first quarter.
“China is out to have more gold than America, and Russia is aspiring to the same,” McEwen said yesterday in an interview at a Bloomberg Link conference in New York. “When you have debt, you don’t have a lot of flexibility. China wants to show its currency has more backing than the U.S.”
In 2010, central banks became net buyers for the first time in two decades, adding 87 metric tons in official-sector purchases by countries including Bolivia, Sri Lanka and Mauritius, according to World Gold Council data. China, with more than $3 trillion in foreign-currency reserves, plans to set up new funds to invest in precious metals, Century Weekly reported this week. Russia purchased 8 tons of gold in the first quarter.
China’s Gold Reserves
China, which has just 1.6 percent of its reserves in gold, may invest more than $1 trillion in bullion, Pento said. “China wants to be an international player, and they need to own more gold than they currently have.”
The U.S. Treasury Department projects the government could reach its debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion as soon as mid-May and run out of options for avoiding default by early July. The Fed has kept its benchmark rate between zero percent and 0.25 percent since December 2008 to help stimulate the economy, driving the dollar down 11 percent against a basket of six major currencies during the past year.
“Until monetary policy changes, you’re going to continue to see gold go up,” said Michael Cuggino, who helps manage $12 billion at Permanent Portfolio Funds in San Francisco.
“Ultimately the best thing we can do to create strong fundamentals for the dollar in the medium term is first, keep inflation low, which maintains the buying power of the dollar, and second, create a stronger economy,” Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said on April 27.
As of April, China was the sixth-largest official holder of gold, with 1,054.1 tons, according to World Gold Council estimates. The U.S. has the most, with 8,133.5 tons, or 74.8 percent of the nation’s currency reserves, council data show.
Central-bank buying may have the same impact on gold as the introduction of exchange-traded funds, Cuggino said. Prices have more than tripled since the SPDR Gold Trust, the biggest ETF backed by bullion, was introduced in November 2004.
Central banks in emerging markets may aim to hold 2 percent to 8 percent of their foreign-currency reserves in gold, Francisco Blanch, the head of commodities research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York, said in an interview.
Gold is “close to” its cyclical high, said Blanch, who expects the metal to average $1,500 this year.
“The enemies of gold are rising interest rates and a balanced budget,” said Pento of Euro Pacific Capital in New York. “I look for a summer swoon once Bernanke exits the bond market. You’re going to have a temporary rise in real interest rates.”
The Fed said it would buy $600 billion in U.S. Treasuries through June.
The Federal Funds rate would have to rise to “Volcker” levels before gold enters a bear market, said Gold Corp.’s McEwen, who expects the metal to rise to $5,000 over three to four years.
Prices have advanced 10 percent this year, extending a decade of gains in which gold jumped sixfold from a low in 1999. The all-time inflation adjusted record is $2,338.92, based on the value on Jan. 21, 1980, according to a calculator on the Web site of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker ended gold’s rally to a then-record $873 by raising borrowing costs to 20 percent in March 1980.