David Weidner’s Writing on the Wall: Why gold is falling and won’t get up again
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Do you remember gold? It was kind of an analog bitcoin.
It was a universal legal tender. Governments held it in forts. Your bank kept it in a safe. It was the most precious of precious metals. And investors bought gold GCQ5, -2.20% for safety’s sake when markets and economies crashed and the value of paper currency was in doubt.
But that was a long time ago. Gold is down 40% from its financial-crisis peak in 2011. As Jeff Reeves notes in his column Monday: “The long-term trend remains decidedly against gold.”
Reeves honorably calls himself a gold “agnostic” because he doesn’t want to get into conspiracy theories and some of the nonsense that surrounds the gold market. He wants to talk about the investment.
I want to talk about the investors.
Because I don’t think it’s possible to separate the two. Gold has always been the favorite commodity of a fringe crowd that doesn’t trust governments, central banks, politicians and the financial system. This part of the gold market drives a lot of the buying and selling; it whips up a lot of frenzy. I don’t have any hard evidence, but I’d argue that gold’s value is inflated by people who aren’t investing in a commodity but in a belief system that may or may not include black helicopters and a U.S. invasion of Texas.
What is different is how deep and long this gold bottom could go.
The sad part is that gold always has been a sucker’s bet. It’s supposed to protect against inflation. It doesn’t. It’s supposed to retain its value. It doesn’t. For those reasons, gold is supposed to be the ultimate currency. It’s not.
As fund manager and blogger Barry Ritholtz said of gold’s fundamentals: “It has none.”
Wall Street, of course, welcomes the business. Gold, after all, is hardly a useful commodity. If it had significant real purpose, it wouldn’t be sitting in vaults around the world. But, hey, we’ll trade it. We’ll trade anything.
By and large, these special breed of gold bugs have ignored history. In the past century, gold has bubbled and popped at least a half dozen times, with crashes coming in 1915-20, 1941, 1947, 1951-66, 1974-76, 1981, 1983-85, 1987-2000 and 2008. If many of those dates seem to have a common thread, it’s because they do. They were, for the most part, periods of economic expansion. Who wants gold, when the stock market is booming or housing prices are soaring?
Fundamentally, today’s gold market is no different. Stocks are holding near all-time highs. Interest rates could rise before the end of the year. Gold, on the other hand, is slip-sliding away.
What is different is how deep and long this gold bottom could go. As we move into an ever-techier world, gold has more competition: namely cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin that cater to the new generation of skeptics. The bitcoin market touts itself as an alternative to the currency markets and a hedge against inflation. Bitcoin’s value, like gold, is based on the confidence of the buyer, nothing more. Cryptocurrencies may also even prove to be useful (at which point they most likely will be unattractive to bitbugs).
This isn’t to say gold trading will disappear. It’s just that there’s more competition. In the near term, many asset classes including real estate, bonds and stocks are producing, or poised to produce, better returns. And in the end, even gold bugs want profit over protection.
When the cycle turns, gold will have its day again. But as alternatives emerge, that day will be less bright, less shiny.