Gold's Best Start Since 1974 Shows Not Just Inflation Hedge

Is Gold's Gain Sustainable?
  • As deflation looms, metal has best start to a year since 1974
  • Gold investors are on the longest buying spree in five years

For an asset touted as a hedge against inflation, gold’s doing pretty well right now.

The metal is off to its best start to the year since 1974 even as expectations for gains in consumer prices are near their weakest since the global financial crisis seven years ago.

That’s odd. Gold has soared during times of high inflation in the past. In the late 1970s when annual U.S. consumer-price gains were on their way to a peak of almost 15 percent, it had its biggest ever rally. One reason for the shift now is that low inflation may be a sign the economy remains weak, deterring the Federal Reserve from tightening policy.

“Gold is a great inflation hedge when you need it to be, particularly when interest rates won’t protect you,” Adrian Ash, head of research at online-trading service BullionVault, said in London. “Any inflation right now will be seen as a sign of growth, and that could be negative for gold if faster Fed rate hikes follow.”

QuickTake The Rise and Fall of Gold

As a result, stagnation fears appear better for gold than signs of inflation. The correlation between a gauge of anticipated inflation, the five-year break-even rate over 120 days, and the cost of the metal has flipped from positive to negative, to reach the strongest inverse relationship in more than 12 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Gold has surged as investors piled in, pushing the metal into a bull market this month to $1,253.71 an ounce by 8:42 a.m. New York time, according to Bloomberg generic pricing. Holdings in exchange-traded funds backed by the metal are up 18 percent this year, increasing at the fastest pace since 2009. Investors bought into the funds for 18 straight days through Monday, the longest spree in five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Adding to the allure are fears that policy makers are losing traction over economies.

“Gold does well when central bankers appear to be losing control, and in the present environment that means signs that deflation is getting a grip,” said Matthew Turner, a precious metals analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in London. “Any signs of inflation will be broadly welcomed as a sign economies are on the right track.”

Monetary authorities responsible for about two dozen countries around the world have dropped policy rates below zero to try to revive economies. The Bank of Japan adopted negative rates this year, joining counterparts in Denmark, the euro area, Sweden and Switzerland. About $7.9 trillion of sovereign debt also offers sub-zero yields.

Deflationary Bias

Even the U.S. may now be saddled with a "deflationary bias" making it harder for the Fed to achieve its price targets, according to research the central bank published this month.

The resulting low or negative rates provide another driver for buying gold.

As long as real interest rates, or yields minus inflation, on assets like bonds are positive, gold can look like a poor investment as it costs money to store or roll over futures and yields nothing. But with the world flirting with deflation, even yields on securities like German 10-year bonds have been trading below inflation rates for more than a year.

Gold’s surge at the end of the 1970s followed not only high inflation but also negative real rates.

“There is a cost to holding gold,” Joni Teves, a UBS Group AG strategist, said in a note. “Negative interest rates essentially even out the playing field and makes holding gold relatively more attractive especially against the backdrop of broader macro uncertainty.”

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