The mysterious quiescence of the gold market

AMERICA has bombed Syria, and its relations with Russia have deteriorated. North Korea is developing a long-range nuclear missile, a development which Donald Trump has vowed to stop, unilaterally if necessary. There is talk of a “reflation trade”, with tax cuts in America pepping up global growth.

All this ought to be good news for gold, the precious metal that usually gains at times of political uncertainty or rising inflation expectations. But as the chart shows, gold took a hit when Mr Trump was elected in November and is still well below its level of last July. As a watchdog, gold has failed to bark.

Bullion enjoyed a ten-year bull market from 2001 to 2011, when it peaked at $1,898 an ounce. This long upward run was bolstered in its later stages by two developments: first, the use of quantitative easing (QE) by central banks, which gold bugs argued would inevitably lead to high inflation; and second by the euro crisis, which caused nervousness about the potential for a break-up of the single currency and about the safety of European banks. By 2013, however, euro-zone worries were fading and, despite QE, no inflation had been seen. The gold price fell sharply and has stayed in a narrow range since.

Last year was a disappointing one for jewellery demand, with an annual survey by Thomson Reuters finding that jewellery fabrication fell by 38% in India (where it was hit by a new excise duty) and by 17% in China. The Chinese central bank was also a less enthusiastic gold-purchaser than before: net central-bank buying dropped to a seven-year low.

The big change in the gold market since the turn of the millennium has been the rise of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), which have made it easy for investors to get exposure to the metal without worrying about storing it or insuring it. At the peak, gold ETFs held around 2,500 tonnes of gold, according to Citigroup, worth around $100bn at today’s prices.

Gold ETFs were bought as a classic “momentum trade” by investors who try to make money by following trends. Once the price trend changed in 2013, such investors scrambled to get out of the metal. At the moment ETFs hold just 1,800 tonnes.

The problem with gold is that there is no obvious valuation measure. The metal pays no real “earnings”. Although gold is seen as a hedge against inflation, it cannot be relied on to fulfil this function over the medium term; between 1980 and 2001, its price fell by more than 80% in real terms.

The general rule is that gold is seen as an alternative currency to the dollar, so when the greenback does well, bullion does badly. But this also means that gold’s performance can look rather better in other, weaker currencies. Since the Brexit referendum, for example, bullion is up by 19% in sterling terms. Another factor is real interest rates. When they are high, the opportunity cost of holding gold is also high. Conversely, very low interest rates mean that there seems little to lose by holding gold.

Those two factors explain why the “Trump trade” was initially not very good for gold. In the immediate aftermath of the election, investors hoped that tax cuts would revive the American economy; this would force the Federal Reserve to push up interest rates and that rate boost would drive the dollar higher. Neither prospect would be good for gold.

But the Trump trade has lost momentum. The president’s failure to repeal Obamacare has raised doubts about the prospect of a tax-reform programme being passed by Congress. Gold has duly perked up a bit since the start of the year, and the price rose by 1.6% on April 11th. But, although inflation may be a bit higher, nothing suggests a return to the kind of double-digit rates seen in the 1970s, when gold enjoyed a spectacular price rise.

Even so, the metal has not performed as well as it might have done, given the geopolitical headlines. Perhaps this is because Mr Trump has backed away from some of his pre-election threats—on trade with China, for example. The bombing in Syria may turn out to be a one-off, and his statements on North Korea could be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. With the help of advisers such as Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and James Mattis, the defence secretary, Mr Trump may turn out to be a more conventional foreign-policy president than expected.

So buying bullion is really a bet that things will go spectacularly wrong: that events escalate in the Middle East and North Korea or that central banks lose control of monetary policy. It could happen, of course, but it helps explain why gold bugs tend to be folks with a rather gloomy attitude towards life.

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