Of all the precious metals, gold is the most popular as an investment. Investors generally buy gold as a hedge or harbor against economic, political, or social fiat currency crises (including investment market declines, burgeoning national debt, currency failure, inflation, war and social unrest). The gold market is subject to speculation as are other markets, especially through the use of futures contracts and derivatives. The history of the gold standard, the role of gold reserves in central banking, gold’s low correlation with other commodity prices, and its pricing in relation to fiat currencies during the current global financial crisis, suggest that gold behaves more like a currency than a commodity.
Gold has been used throughout history as money and has been a relative standard for currency equivalents specific to economic regions or countries. Many European countries implemented gold standards in the latter part of the 19th century until these were dismantled in the financial crises involving World War I. After World War II, the Bretton Woods system pegged the United States dollar to gold at a rate of US$35 per troy ounce. The system existed until the 1971 Nixon Shock, when the US unilaterally suspended the direct convertibility of the United States dollar to gold and made the transition to a fiat currency system. The last currency to be divorced from gold was the Swiss Franc in 2000.
Since 1919 the most common benchmark for the price of gold has been the London gold fixing, a twice-daily telephone meeting of representatives from five bullion-trading firms of the London bullion market. Furthermore, gold is traded continuously throughout the world based on the intra-day spot price, derived from over-the-counter gold-trading markets around the world (code “XAU”).
In March 2008, the gold price exceeded US$1,000, achieving a nominal high of US$1,004.38. In real terms, actual value was still well below the US$599 peak in 1981 (equivalent to $1417 in U.S. 2008 dollar value). After the March 2008 spike, gold prices declined to a low of US$712.30 per ounce in November. Pricing soon resumed on upward momentum by temporarily breaking the US$1000 barrier again in late February 2009 but regressed moderately later in the quarter.
Later in 2009 the March 2008 intra-day spot price record of US$1,033.90 was broken several times in October, as the price of gold entered parabolic stages of successively new highs when a spike reversal to $1226 initiated a retrace of the price to the mid-October levels.
On August 22, 2011 gold reached a new record high of $1908.00 at the London Gold Fixing
Factors influencing the gold price
Today, like most commodities, the price of gold is driven by supply and demand as well as speculation. However unlike most other commodities, saving and disposal plays a larger role in affecting its price than its consumption. Most of the gold ever mined still exists in accessible form, such as bullion and mass-produced jewelry, with little value over its fine weight — and is thus potentially able to come back onto the gold market for the right price. At the end of 2006, it was estimated that all the gold ever mined totalled 158,000 tonnes (156,000 long tons; 174,000 short tons). This can be represented by a cube with an edge length of 20.2 metres (66 ft).
Given the huge quantity of gold stored above-ground compared to the annual production, the price of gold is mainly affected by changes in sentiment (demand), rather than changes in annual production (supply). According to the World Gold Council, annual mine production of gold over the last few years has been close to 2,500 tonnes. About 2,000 tonnes goes into jewellery or industrial/dental production, and around 500 tonnes goes to retail investors and exchange traded gold funds.
Central banks and the International Monetary Fund play an important role in the gold price. At the end of 2004 central banks and official organizations held 19 percent of all above-ground gold as official gold reserves. The ten year Washington Agreement on Gold (WAG), which dates from September 1999, limits gold sales by its members (Europe, United States, Japan, Australia, Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund) to less than 500 tonnes a year. European central banks, such as the Bank of England and Swiss National Bank, were key sellers of gold over this period. In 2009, this agreement was extended for a further five years, but with a smaller annual sales limit of 400 tonnes.
Although central banks do not generally announce gold purchases in advance, some, such as Russia, have expressed interest in growing their gold reserves again as of late 2005. In early 2006, China, which only holds 1.3% of its reserves in gold, announced that it was looking for ways to improve the returns on its official reserves. Some bulls hope that this signals that China might reposition more of its holdings into gold in line with other Central Banks. India has recently purchased over 200 tons of gold which has led to a surge in prices.
It is generally accepted that interest rates are closely related to the price of gold. As interest rates rise the general tendency is for the gold price, which earns no interest, to fall, and as rates dip, for gold price to rise. As a result, gold price can be closely correlated to central banks via the monetary policy decisions made by them related to interest rates. For example if market signals indicate the possibility of prolonged inflation, central banks may decide to enact policies such as a hike in interest rates that could affect the price of gold in order to quell the inflation. An opposite reaction to this general principle can be seen after the European Central bank raised its interest rate on April 7, 2011 for the first time since 2008. The price of gold responded with a muted response and then drove higher to hit new highs one day later. A similar situation happened in India: In August 2011 when the interest rate were at their highest in two years, the gold prices peaked as well.
Hedge against financial stress
Gold, like all precious metals, may be used as a hedge against inflation, deflation or currency devaluation. As Joe Foster, portfolio manager of the New York-based Van Eck International Gold Fund, explained in September 2010:
The currencies of all the major countries, including ours, are under severe pressure because of massive government deficits. The more money that is pumped into these economies – the printing of money basically – then the less valuable the currencies become.
If the return on bonds, equities and real estate is not adequately compensating for risk and inflation then the demand for gold and other alternative investments such as commodities increases. An example of this is the period of stagflation that occurred during the 1970s and which led to an economic bubble forming in precious metals.
Jewelery and industrial demand
Jewelery consistently accounts for over two-thirds of annual gold demand. India is the largest consumer in volume terms, accounting for 27% of demand in 2009, followed by China and the USA.
Industrial, dentistry and medical uses account for around 12% of gold demand. Gold has high thermal and electrical conductivity properties, along with a high resistance to corrosion and bacterial colonization. Jewelery and industrial demand has fluctuated over the past few years due to the steady expansion in emerging markets of middle classes aspiring to Western lifestyles, offset by the financial crisis of 2007–2010.
The price of gold is also affected by various well-documented mechanisms of artificial price suppression, arising from fractional-reserve banking and naked short selling in gold, and particularly involving the London Bullion Market Association, the United States Federal Reserve System, and the banks HSBC and JPMorgan Chase. Gold market observers have noted for many years that the price of gold tends to fall artificially at the start of New York trading.
War, invasion and national emergency
When dollars were fully convertible into gold via the gold standard, both were regarded as money. However, most people preferred to carry around paper banknotes rather than the somewhat heavier and less divisible gold coins. If people feared their bank would fail, a bank run might result. This happened in the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930s, leading President Roosevelt to impose a national emergency and issue Executive Order 6102 outlawing the “hoarding” of gold by US citizens. There was only one prosecution under the order, and in that case the order was ruled invalid by federal judge John M. Woolsey, on the technical grounds that the order was signed by the President, not the Secretary of the Treasury as required.
In times of war people fear that their assets may be seized and that the currency may become worthless. They see gold as a solid asset which will always buy food or transportation. Thus in times of great uncertainty, particularly when war is feared, the demand for gold rises.