BOSTON — Gold has been having a great run lately. On Nov. 9, it closed at a record high of $1409.80 per ounce. It’s being hoarded as the only safe bet in a world threatened by European debt and Fed printing presses run amok.
And just before this week’s crucial G20 meeting in Seoul, the yellow metal’s prestige got a strong jolt from World Bank President Robert Zoellick. With global currency wars set to be a hot topic in Seoul, Zoellick suggested that finance ministers consider re-adopting a modified global gold standard for the world’s currencies.
But have things really gotten that bad? Is gold really the answer to what ails us? Or in this digital age, is basing the global economy on hefty slabs of metal a bit like promoting horse and buggies as a solution to Beijing’s traffic jams?
The usual argument in favor of gold is that it is, essentially, value incarnate — that regardless of how much debt the U.S. government accrues, no matter how much money the Fed prints, and no matter how high inflation soars, gold will retain its value. It’s the asset of choice for the worried and distrustful.
Not everyone agrees that gold is so invincible. Billionaire hedge fund investor George Soros has called gold “the ultimate bubble,” stating that while “it may be going higher, it’s certainly not safe and it’s not going to last forever.”
As usual, Soros has no shortage of detractors. But that’s not to say that he’s wrong.
Gold’s indomitable aura has been promulgated by many in recent years, including the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, as well as serious investment advisers looking for a safe haven for their clients’ savings.
Luminaries from the populist right have also breathlessly extolled gold — sometimes for profit. As Jon Stewart revealed, Fox News’ Glenn Beck has been hailing gold by “fanning the flames of fear” on his show — while being paid by Goldline, an internet site where you buy gold.
At RushLimbaugh.com, you’ll find a “Rush Commodity Center” ticker in the upper right hand corner hawking Krugerands and American Gold Eagles. Visit the Lear Commodity Center, a gold merchant (whose ads reassure worried investors that “It’s Never Been worth ZERO!”) and there’s Rush’s reassuring mug at the top of the screen.
Wall Street has also helped juice gold’s soaring price through financial innovation (the same term associated with the mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps that nearly sunk the economy in 2008).
Thanks to this financial innovation, these days, rather than purchasing actual gold from the likes of Goldline and stashing it in a basement safe, you can purchase shares in an “exchange traded fund” that tracks the price of gold for you. That means you can login to the internet any time and — like any speculator — pour your savings into the yellow metal. This innovation has worked, at least in driving demand for gold. If you’d invested in a fund called GLD at the beginning of 2005, you would have tripled your money by now. And such funds are helping to drive the trend: their holdings have likewise roughly tripled between 2006 and July of 2010, according to exchangetradedgold.com.
Of course, in investing it’s the future, not the past, that matters. Thanks to the ETFs you (or other speculators) can also sell gold just as quickly as you can buy it. This renders the risk of loss when the bubble bursts just as steep.
Despite the hype, a closer look at gold raises questions about whether it has much intrinsic value at all.
Think about what you get when you buy gold versus stock in, say, Google. With Google, you’re wagering on a company with some 23,000 employees — smart people who are working hard every day to make a profit. From July to September, Google netted over $2 billion, and profits have been growing for years. (That’s not to say Google is a sure bet — successful investing is a matter of timing and patience, not just picking good companies).
Now think about the value that emerges from an investment in gold. Unlike Google, buying gold doesn’t produce anything (other than the gold itself). It doesn’t employ teams of smart innovators. There’s no value that grows the way Google does — a gold ingot will always be an ingot. It will never wake up some morning and pay its investors a dividend. The economic benefits, in other words, are minimal.
But the real irony of gold is that while a lot of people seem to want it (at least for now), very few people need it. Investors who buy gold and sit on it hoping to make a profit account for more than half of gold’s demand. Of the rest — gold that’s actually used in commerce — about 80 percent is used in jewelry, according to the World Gold Council. Only a fraction of all gold, about 10 percent, is used in industry and dentistry. Unlike metallic workhorses such as copper and platinum, gold has very few actual industrial applications.
Making matters worse, what if the world were to find out that the jewelry we give our loved ones was hiding a big, dirty secret?
Modern mining is deeply destructive. To extract the quantity of gold in a wedding ring typically means digging some 20 tons of rock, according to a study by advocacy group Earthworks (pdf). Gold’s waste stream contains dangerous toxins like cyanide, arsenic and mercury, which often leach into the water and pollute the air. While some companies try to mine responsibly, doing so is expensive, and many cut corners. From Peru to Indonesia to Nevada, the gold mining industry is replete with persistent pollution problems. It also causes widespread disruption to communities unlucky enough to live near a deposit.
This begs the question, why is a metal that’s so dirty and unessential considered a safe haven? If Armageddon erupts, are people going to shop for jewelry? Or is gold valuable for the same reason that, say, tulips skyrocketed in 17th century Holland — because of some abstract, perceived value?
And how soon will people discover that the emperor has no clothes?
In the near or medium term, gold may continue to rise. The price of an ounce may even hit $2,000, as advertised on Lear Commodity Center’s website. As we know from past bubbles, when people see other people getting rich, they can’t help jumping on the band wagon, regardless of whether they’re too late to benefit from the ride.
Moreover, with so many people still feeling the pain in their 401K retirement accounts, and with interest rates almost non-existent, alternative investments like gold may retain their luster for a while. The Chinese, who are creating so much of the world’s new wealth, may continue to buy gold, largely because there are so few investment alternatives allowed by their government, and because people in emerging markets tend to trust tangible investments (like gold and real estate) over ones that demand trust in banks, governments and other institutions.
In the long run, Soros appears to be right in stating that gold is a bubble. If recent history is any indicator, the price of gold rises in uncertain times, only to crash and remain dormant when economies recover. Investors made a killing if they bought gold in 2005. But as this chart shows, if you’d bought in the gung-ho market of 1980 — when it reached $2,359 in inflation-adjusted dollars — you would have lost big-time. Far from being a safe-haven, gold is a deeply risky investment, buoyed by little more than the hope that its value will keep rising.
In advocating a stronger role for gold on the world stage, the World Bank’s Zoellick deferred to the wisdom of the market. In a Financial Times op-ed, he wrote: “Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.” Had he been writing in 2006 when property prices were soaring, would he have suggested indexing global currencies to the price of real estate?
Given that gold’s price depends almost entirely on a perception of value — on speculation, in other words — perhaps the world’s finance ministers could find a more solid foundation for the global economy.
Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport