The writer is Allianz’s chief economic adviser and president-elect of Queens’ College, University of Cambridge
Until recently, the rapid rise in the price of gold had more to do with opportunistic financial trading than any larger structural investment theme, let alone a drop in physical supply or an increase in industrial use.
Now, the metal is seen to offer something for everyone. That is yet another unintended result in a lengthening list of the exceptional involvement of central banks in the functioning of markets. Their expanded interventions to counteract the effects of the pandemic have pleased many now but will create problems for the central banks and the economy at large, if a sharp and lasting economic recovery continues to elude us.
After rising 17 per cent in the first half of the year, gold prices surged to record highs before retreating on Tuesday to just below $2,000. In the process, investors went from treating gold as a short-term momentum trade to seeing it more as a legitimate standalone option in long-term portfolios. You need only look at real yields on government bonds after adjusting for inflation to see why so many investors are buying gold as a long-term option.
Contrary to what most textbooks would suggest, the recent drop in nominal yields has coincided with a rise in inflationary expectations. This makes gold a more attractive substitute for government bonds in two ways. Investors who opt for gold forgo less income than they would if bond yields were higher. They also hedge against what would be a dramatic loss in the value of those bonds, should central banks stop trying to keep interest rates low by flooring official rates and buying massive amounts of market securities.
Gold is also proving compelling for other reasons, collecting quite an unlikely cast of backers in addition to the usual bugs who worry about currency debasement and geopolitical shocks. Some believe it will protect investors against further depreciation of the US dollar; others want it as a hedge against a global economic depression and a collapse in stock markets that, already, are stunningly decoupled from corporate and economic realities. Today’s gold camp even manages to attract those looking to protect against competing outcomes: deflation and inflation.
Gold is not the only asset to have developed this multiple and seemingly bipolar personality. Big Tech stocks have also been seen as offering everything to everybody. They promise growth based on the shift from physical to virtual activities in the pandemic, but also downside protection because they have massive cash holdings, low debt and positive cash-flow generation. The collapse in nominal yields on government and safe corporate bonds is also leading some investors to ask whether non-investment grade “junk” bonds can be a safe place to park their money.
Underpinning these contradictory developments is investor faith that central banks will protect them from big losses by continuing to intervene whenever markets slide. Gold is evolving into a “must-have” asset. That drives the price upwards as the pool of potential buyers shifts from a small group of quirky bugs to the much larger pool of investors seeking risk mitigation. Like many sudden structural shifts, it is likely to involve an initial price overshoot.
Think of this as part of a broader shifting baseline. Investors are treating an ever growing number of traditionally risky assets as low risk, or even hedges against risk. In the short term, this pushes prices higher, reinforcing the attitude change and lulling politicians and central bankers into believing that the market cycle has been conquered. But they are likely to prove as wrong as those who, before the 2008 financial crisis, erroneously believed they had vanquished the business cycle.