Why gold has a dull future

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 4:44pm

Gold’s attraction seen dull for the long term

Business headline

August 17


I remember holding forth on these pages with this same opinion years ago. That was with gold at just under US$300 oz. Let me tell you that more things than gold have a yellow colour. There was, for instance, the subsequent egg on my face.

But if our sub-editors are going to be so bold in their headlines as to try this thought again, well, why shouldn’t I?

I can think of three intrinsic qualities that have made gold valuable from ancient time onwards and one that has given it value in modern times.

The three ancient qualities are that gold is lustrous (it glitters), it is malleable (it can quite easily be worked into different shapes) and it does not rust away.

These were very impressive qualities indeed to my distant ancestors when, clad in bearskins, they chanted to the moon god around the sacred fire circle.

Today the cheap spoon in the coffee cup in front of me is lustrous, malleable and does not rust. What makes gold so special any longer?

There is, of course, always that modern quality that it is a good conductor.

So is the leader of our orchestra and so is the man who checks tickets on the train to Guangzhou. So also are many other substances that conduct heat and electricity and, anyway, it is semiconductors that really lead the charge in conductivity these days. Being a good conductor is not a huge plus.

But while one can take the peasant out of the paddy in five minutes, it takes many more generations to take the paddy out of the peasant. Freighting heavy bangles of gold will no longer advance your standing at society events in New York but it still goes down a treat for brides in India. Old ways die out slowly.

There is no longer such a thing as a precious metal. They are all base metals now

I think it is mostly this that keeps the price of gold up, along with the similarly primitive thinking of central bankers who hoard the stuff whenever they (regularly) run out of ideas.

Of course there was also a time when the world was on the gold standard as the basic tool of monetary discipline. The value of every currency was stated in terms of how much gold a unit of that currency could buy. If your country’s gold reserves dwindled, its interest rates would have to go up to attract gold back again.

It worked, more or less, while growth in world domestic product more or less matched the growth in the world supply of gold. But it began to break down at the end of the nineteenth century when world GDP growth far outpaced new gold discoveries. The gold standard finally blew up in the 1970s.

Today the value of a US dollar in your wallet or investment account rests entirely on your confidence that the US government will not create too many of them. This is called fiat money and the gold bugs don’t trust it. Let’s go back to gold, they say. The US government will cheat.

Too late. Have you heard tell of something called quantitative easing? You spell that C-H-E-A-T. The US government has long already cheated on its responsibilities with fiat money.

The hard fact, however, is that world will never go back to the gold standard, no more than I will go back to bearskins because my ancestors wore them. We’re stuck with fiat money and that’s that. The link to gold is gone.

So why should you want a financial asset that has lost its traditional attractions and pays you no interest, coupon or dividend but does cost you storage and insurance fees?

“Cuz it’s going straight up, Sunshine, so fill your boots,” blare the gold bugs in a thousand blogs, which, for almost all of them, is no change at all from what they have been saying for the last four years, during which the price of gold has fallen by more than a third. You look to them in vain for anything but bluster.

There is no longer such a thing as a precious metal. They are all base metals now. You value them for their commercial uses and this puts gold well down the value chain.