Quantitative easing (QE) refers to large-scale asset purchases by the US Federal Reserve to inject liquidity in the world’s biggest economy after the onset of the global financial crisis in late 2008. In September 2012, stubbornly high US unemployment and faltering economic growth prompted it to launch QE3, under which it planned to buy US$40 billion worth of bonds per month, with no set end date. As of late 2012, it had bought some US$2.3 trillion in long-term securities. In December 2012 it announced it was increasing its purchases to US$85 billion a month.
The weight of paper
Gold price falls are intriguing, but huge-scale money printing is what really rules the markets
The recent sharp drop in the gold price has taken many investors by surprise, setting off a scramble to understand why, and what lies ahead.
The past years' series of crises and the onset of quantitative easing by the world's major central banks a few years ago invited new interest in gold. The thinking being that if excessive money printing unleashes significant inflation, gold is a currency that cannot be devalued. More than that, gold acts as a form of insurance against political and economic crises that send investors fleeing riskier assets.
So what lessons can be gleaned from gold's recent dramatic decline? Mainly that central banks have succeeded in stabilising the economies of the United States and Europe. Employment numbers are rising in the US, and so are housing prices. The European Central Bank seems to have printed enough euros and bought enough bonds to convince investors that Greece, Spain, Italy and company will not spiral into insolvency.
The Cyprus drama was a case in point. Even when the headlines were at their most hysterical, investors barely blinked. Cyprus did not incite fresh rounds of euro-zone panic.
Investors have been taking all this in. Essentially they have come to the view that the worst will not happen. Put another way, they need less insurance in the form of gold than they thought.
So there is something slightly counter-intuitive about the recent chain of events. Central banks responded to crises by printing boatloads of new money (the Bank of Japan has now joined the fray and is on track to print US$1 trillion of new yen, doubling the country's money supply). In normal times, such money printing would spark fears of inflation and send investors into fits of gold-buying. But quantitative easing has instead calmed investors' worst fears, luring them back into stocks and bonds, and out of gold.
So where do we go from here? Gold still has some insurance value, but private bank Julius Baer forecasts that gold will trade at US$1,400 to US$1,350 per ounce one year from now - a drastic departure from its US$1,900-plus heights not so long ago.
Meanwhile, central banks remain fixed on the essential task of keeping the global economy afloat. The US Federal Reserve will not exit quantitative easing until it is convinced that the American economy is on a solid footing - the principal indicator being a falling unemployment rate at or below 6 per cent.
Investors are keeping an eye on the end of quantitative easing. At least some of the recent choppiness on stock markets was a reaction to the release of minutes by the Fed's board suggesting the central bank is thinking of unwinding quantitative easing. Investors are already contemplating the day when the Fed is not buying up to US$80 billion of bonds a month with freshly printed greenbacks. They know the retreat could be painful, and that it will certainly be volatile.
Hopefully, on the other side of this chasm, lies a world that no longer clings to central banks' liquidity measures. While investors have become accustomed to quantitative easing, the endless expansion of central-bank balance sheets is akin to economic science fiction: it is simply not a realistic policy solution.
What are the implications of this? Fundamentally, I still believe that gold has its place as insurance against inflation and political shock. But the sheer mass of money out there is stimulative, and this perspective suggests the place to be is in riskier assets such as equities and high-yield bonds, and not gold.
Stefan Hofer is emerging markets economist for Bank Julius Baer