Back in the day, I was, among other things, a gold mining analyst. That period left me with an enduring fascination, not about the yellow metal itself, but about gold “bugs”–the people who are obsessed with gold and who buy it as an “investment.” I have the same complex mixture of feelings about gold bugs that I have about survivalists, Civil War reenactors, model railroad buffs and people from Brooklyn. It’s not exactly “There but for the grace of God…”, but that’s the general direction.
I really don’t get gold as an investment. Yes, it’s shiny and there may actually be gnomes in Zurich. Until the mid-1970s, gold did serve as a kind of money worldwide. But no longer. One exception: developing economies where either there are no banks for businesses to use, or where people don’t want/trust banks to know about their finances.
Contrary to what I think is popular belief in the US, virtually all the demand for gold comes from the developing world. The US accounts for 5% of purchases, the EU 10%. Japan is a non-factor. Last year, as usual, India was the #1 buyer of gold, at 28% of the total. Greater China took 25%.
Before the Great Recession, the large bulk, maybe 3/4th, of the world’s demand for gold was for jewelry (although much of this did double duty as chuk kam 99.9% gold trinkets). 10% was for technology or dentistry. The rest was gold bars and coins bought as an “investment.” The bulk of that demand was supplied by mine production, with the rest coming from recycling and steady selling by central banks in developed countries.
The GR changed that pattern, in two ways. Demand for gold bars and coins more than tripled. Central banks in the developed world stopped selling, while their counterparts in emerging economies began to buy gold like there was no tomorrow. Between 2009 and 2011–which appears to have been the peak of this activity–the gold price doubled in US$.
Gold ETFs? They peaked in 2009 at about 17% of world gold demand. By 2011 they had shrunk to 4%.
What’s happening now?
The gold price has been slowly declining for two years, without attracting much attention, as panicky buying by gold bugs has waned.
What’s new is India. The biggest drain on India’s growing trade imbalance is its citizens’ continuing demand for gold–both for jewelry and because the country’s banks don’t work. New Delhi has decided to deal with the steady flow of cash out of the country by taxing gold imports. At least to some degree, this will put the metal’s chief buyer on the sidelines. That won’t stop mines from churning out the stuff, however, until/unless the gold price drops below their cash cost of production. That’s a looong way down.
Elsewhere, “investment” demand appears to be waning. Less significant in the short term, Chinese tastes seem to be slowly shifting away from chuk kam to fashion or statement jewelry with lower gold content. And, of course, more dentists are using ceramic teeth and PC demand is slowing.
In other words, the supply/demand picture for gold is looking less favorable for prices. The price decline has nothing to do with inflation fears in the US or EU subsiding, or renewed faith that either area is suddenly on a sounder economic footing.
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