Nothing Shines Like Gold

Asset classes go up and down. Precious metals are, of course, another asset class. They move with the economic tides. In the past 30 years, gold has rocketed up and plummeted down.

At several points in the past 30 years, things were so bad that gold sellers were like the proverbial Maytag repairman. They led lives of quiet desperation about which no one cared. Because like the late Rodney Dangerfield, gold got no respect.

Heck, between 1999-2002, the British government sold a large amount of its national gold, nearly 395 tonnes (metric tons), for about $275 per ounce. The Bank of England used the proceeds to purchase (ahem) “high-yielding” assets, like bonds. I suppose it seemed like a good idea to somebody. But really. In hindsight, how dumb was that? The British used to fight wars for gold (remember the Boer War, anyone?) Now they’re selling gold to buy bonds? They used to hang people for lesser crimes.

Last March 2008, gold sold for over $1,000 per ounce. Then the price retreated 30% as oil rocketed from about $100 to $147 per barrel. But even though gold fell back in price, it was still selling, on average, for almost three times what the Brits took in less than a decade ago. You didn’t do that with bonds. So the lesson is that we have to keep our eyes open about cycles and trends, even with something like gold.

Just in the past six months, almost every nonprecious metal asset class has been headed down. The stock markets have been tanking. Prices for everything from aluminum to zircon are way down. Oil has been bottom-fishing. The world is sliding downhill into deep recession. It’s a long litany of bad news out there. Except for precious metals, which have held their own.

Lately, precious metals have been in a stealth rally. It was not front-page news, until last week when gold touched the $1,000 mark again. But the operating gold miners in the OI portfolio, hit lows in October 2008. And they’ve all been rising in the markets ever since.

What’s going on? It’s a worldwide trend. Investors have been flocking to gold and silver. There’s a money migration going on. And I mean BIG money is migrating. It’s like those herds of zebras or wildebeests or gazelles in Africa. When they migrate, the earth shakes and the ground is just a moving kaleidoscope of hides and footprints. The dust clouds blow high into the sky.

Yes, the world economy might be in a recession. People across the world are worried about their job and security for their family. But other people with big bucks are scooping up gold and silver. Those buyers are looking for investment safety.

Moneyed investors don’t trust the world’s governments or paper currencies. So they are going with gold and silver. The mines and mints are having trouble keeping up with demand. Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are buying huge volumes of gold and silver. (And they ought to be buying more. At the margins, at least, it appears that even the ETFs are holding “paper” gold rights, as opposed to the real McCoy metal.)

Let’s look at silver. In January 2006, the total silver held in ETFs was about 40 million ounces. By January of this year, 2009, the total silver in ETFs exceeds 280 million ounces. That’s an increase by a factor of seven in just three years.

The story with gold is just as dramatic. Who ever heard of a gold ETF until just a few years ago? But by the end of 2008, gold holdings of ETFs reached a record level of 1,090 tonnes, according to the World Gold Council (WGC). Thus, ETF holdings now exceed those of Switzerland and many other large and important nations. (Check the listing below.) In the fourth quarter of 2008, investors purchased ETF gold interests representing 96 tonnes of gold. (Far more than the total gold reserves of Australia.) This followed the purchase of an unprecedented 145 tonnes (more than the reserves of Saudi Arabia) in the previous quarter, according to the WGC. These are astonishing levels of demand, where there was almost none just a few years ago.

Much of the gold in the vaults of the worlds’ central banks has accumulated over many decades. Much of the U.S. government gold reserve, for example, dates from the national gold confiscation of 1933 under President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had a compliant Congress to do his bidding. Eventually, even the Supreme Court backed him up. So what’s that old expression? “It CAN happen here.”

Many other countries of the world are currently buying gold, fresh from the mine. Today, China is the world’s largest gold-producing nation, and its central bank is buying and building reserves. Russia, too, has a tradition of holding gold and today is acquiring gold from its own mine output and via purchases on international markets. Or look at tiny Qatar, a small nation in the middle of the Persian Gulf. Qatar had only 8 tonnes of gold about three years ago. Now it has 12 tonnes, an increase of 50% in a very short time. What do the Chinese, the Russians or the Qataris know? They know that they want gold. They can buy it. They will hold it. And they are hoarding it.

I’ve mentioned on many occasions that I like holding precious metals. I like holding metals as an investment and I just like the feel of the stuff. At the “elementary” level (yep, that’s a pun), you can hold physical metals. If you’ve never felt the coolness and heft of a shiny gold $50 Eagle or a Canadian Maple Leaf in your hand – let alone a fine old specimen of a $20 coin from the days of old in the U.S. – you’ve missed something. Really, the only thing better than holding an Eagle or Maple Leaf is holding an entire roll of 20 of them.

When I was in South Africa last year, I visited a refining operation and actually picked up a gold brick. It was almost right out of the melting pot. The brick was still warm, and the darn thing weighed about 75 pounds. That’s what I call “useful weight gain.” Too bad I couldn’t bring it home with me. But the armed guards at the refinery might have objected.

I’ve never made a formal OI recommendation for buying a particular kind of gold or silver coin, or ingots from this mint or that or any such thing. Those kinds of gold purchases are too hard to track in a newsletter like this. So I’ve recommended gold and silver miners and their shares. But over the past couple of years, I hope you’ve had the chance to acquire some real metal for your portfolio. Agora Financial has been banging the golden drum for at least 10 years. If you have never bought any gold, it’s still not too late. I think that the recent visit to $1,000 is just the beginning of another great wave of gold buying. I won’t be surprised to see $3,000 gold.

Coins and ingots are the kinds of things you keep in your bank safe deposit box or in a well-hidden home safe. Some people keep them in their “second” home safe. Why a second safe? Well, the first safe is the one with a few hundred bucks of cash and some good-looking costume jewelry in it. You would open the first safe if a robber broke into your house and held a gun to your head. (Sorry, I’m not kidding. We live in a tough world.)

And for as much as I urge you to own some gold or ingots, you should never talk about it. OK, you might tell a few family members or maybe a trusted friend or two. But the fact that you have a stash of real gold is too valuable to broadcast or advertise. As I said above, “It CAN happen here.” It already has happened here. It might happen again, if things get too rough out there.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning