King Midas lusted after it. The Incas worshipped it. Shiny flakes of it set off a 19th-century rush to California and ship captains never stop looking for it at the bottom of the sea. While gold has ignited passions for centuries, for today’s investors, it seems, the metal has been losing its allure. After surging sevenfold during a 12-year bull market — a run matched by only a handful of assets, including U.S. Treasuries and stamps — investors sold it wildly in 2013, triggering the first annual drop in 13 years. Is the epic boom and bust in gold just another market cycle or is it a change in human appetites?
Gold’s time-honored appeal as a haven from financial storms sent it to a record $1,921.17 an ounce in 2011. Investors sought safety from the threat of faster inflation and weaker currencies as governments printed money to stimulate flagging economies. As economic growth returned, stock markets rallied and the metal began to tumble. The price plummeted 28 percent in 2013, as only corn and silver performed worse among commodities. The rout hurt holders such as billionaire John Paulson, producers like Barrick Gold and the biggest owners of gold, central banks. Investors sold as much from physically backed gold exchange-traded products in 2013 as they bought in the previous three years combined. Interest in gold revived this year as an emerging-market sell-off, the promise of interest rates remaining low in the U.S. and turmoil in Ukraine and the Middle East stoked demand for a protection of wealth. Yet prices, which reached this year’s high in March, remain down about a third from the peak, fueling the debate about the lessons of the metal’s spectacular fall.
Discarded as a monetary system when the dollar’s peg to gold ended in the 1970s, gold spiked to $850 in 1980. Prices slumped in the following two decades, spurring central banks around the world to shrink their reserves. When the financial crisis sent the metal higher in 2008, central banks started buying again and are still accumulating, though at a slower pace. Investors flocked to gold-backed exchange-traded products after the first one was listed in 2003. Investors trusted an asset that governments can’t produce at will. Similar arguments are cited for the surge in popularity of bitcoin, a virtual currency with limits on supply.
More than perhaps any other investment, bullion acts as an echo chamber for anxieties about economic growth, fears of geopolitical conflict and guesses about what the globe’s central bankers are thinking. Warren Buffett famously expressed his disdain for gold because it’s not productive like, say, companies or farmland. He wrote in 2011 that investors in the metal are motivated by their “belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow.” Gold bears say there are fewer reasons to own it now because central banks have engineered an economic recovery without sparking inflation. The U.S. Federal Reserve is shrinking its bond-buying program and a faster U.S. economy will boost the dollar, another favorite haven. Goldman Sachs predicts that gold will extend its slide and head toward $1,050 an ounce. For many periods in history, though, gold has proved its worth among the arsenal of investments. Bulls say that consumer price gains will emerge again and that supply could be restrained by higher mining costs. Demand for gold is also supported by rising incomes in Asia, where farmers buy the metal for dowries and there are fewer safe stores of wealth.
The Reference Shelf
- Peter Bernstein explores the history of the metal in his book, “The Power of Gold.”
- Comments from former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke on understanding gold.
- The World Gold Council website has explanations of everything from the gold standard to central bank gold agreements.
- The National Gallery of Australia’s “Gold and the Incas” exhibition explores gold art and shows how ancient cultures of Peru used the metal.
- Supply and demand figures.
- Industry facts and specifications.