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Gold – the ultimate hedge, or an increasingly irrelevant asset?

Whether or not you are a gold bug, as followers of the yellow metal are sometimes known, the reality is that gold remains a popular investment asset. More than any other precious metal, gold is where investors turn at times of economic, political and social unrest or as a hedge against currency crises and stock market weakness. Just recently the returns have been less than golden, but opinion is as divided as ever over what the future may hold in store. 

However, the swift reversal in the fortunes of gold - down from a high of over $1900 in 2011 to just above $1300 in April this year - has led to technical analysts calling a new bear market. Yet conditions around the world - conflict in Syria, problems with North Korea, continuing concern over economic strength and low interest rates - set a scene that many would consider conducive to continuing demand.

The recent collapse in the gold price owes much to the increasing level of speculation that surrounds this asset, an approach made easier through the introduction of sophisticated instruments allowing exposure and the use of futures contracts and derivatives. The severe fall in April - the largest for 30 years - was put down to margin calls brought about by recent weakness in the price, thus triggering a further wave of selling. Hedge funds, which are often active in this market, bore the brunt of the blame, though there was some speculation that Cyprus might have to sell some of its reserves as part of the restructuring demanded by the providers of the bail-out fund, perhaps setting the scene for other indebted nations to sell.

However, it is hard to view such concerns as being the reason behind gold's fall from grace. Cyprus's stock of the metal is small in international terms, while some governments, such as Sri Lanka, have even indicated that they could take advantage of the decline to add to their reserves. Perhaps a more credible explanation is that the price was driven higher through the availability of cheap money from central banks - itself a response to the financial crisis which gripped the developed world which was just the kind of background that has investors flocking to buy gold as a hedge against uncertainty - and that this will come to an end at some stage.

What is the reason for holding gold as an investment?

Make no mistake, gold is currency in its purest form. Until comparatively recently many currencies were convertible into gold - the so-called "Gold Standard". Globalisation and competitive exchange rates have rendered this particular aspect of gold as an investment largely irrelevant, but it is worth remembering that convertibility into gold was only abandoned by America in 1971.

Perhaps one of the principal reasons for considering gold as a potentially important investment is the limited quantity of it around. It is estimated that all the gold ever mined totals only around 160,000 tonnes - a quantity which veteran investor Warren Buffett once remarked could be held in a cube with sides measuring just 20 metres. The reality, though, is no-one knows for certain how much gold is around, though its durability and the fact that central banks hold a lot of it suggests that most of the gold ever mined is still around in one form or another.

Because supply is relatively inflexible (which itself creates a reason for wishing to hold it), price fluctuations are most likely to occur through changes in sentiment. Two macro aspects will influence the price on a regular basis, though. Because gold does not pay dividends and actually costs money to store, interest rates can affect demand, with high interest rates likely to depress the price and low to encourage investing. Recent low interest rates will certainly have helped the price, with fears that at some stage quantitative easing must come to an end a reason to turn a seller.

Similarly, the value of the dollar influences sentiment. Gold is priced in dollars - as is oil, which arguably enjoys some correlation with the gold price - so a weak dollar encourages a rising gold price, just as the recent reversal of the fortunes of the greenback could well have added to the selling pressure. However, gold's position as a global currency means that some holders will always wish to retain a physical holding in case local upsets render their other assets of limited or unrealisable value. Gold is the ultimate hedge against fear.

How might investors gain exposure to gold?

The options available today are far wider - and arguably purer - than those which investors could utilise in the past. Back in 1974, when a global economic and financial crisis on a scale not too far removed from that which gripped the developed world recently brought our stock market to its knees, renowned investor Jim Slater remarked the ideal investment portfolio was shotgun cartridges, tins of baked beans and Krugerrands. This South African minted gold coin closely followed the gold price in value and was much in demand by investors during these difficult times

Gold coins remain an option today, as do bullion bars for the seriously wealthy, but Exchange Traded Funds are now arguably the easiest option for an investor seeking exposure. The first of these to be issued - SPDR Gold - is one of the largest ETFs available, worth around $50 billion. It is also possible to purchase gold certificates, which demonstrate ownership without the costs associated with storage, while derivatives, including CFDs, also provide an option. Gold can easily be included in a portfolio if so required.

What about gold mining shares?

One of the less easy to understand aspects of gold investment is that gold shares often do not move in line with the price of the metal. Mining shares, for example, peaked ahead of the gold price and have suffered a torrid time of late. The best known fund, BlackRock Gold & General, includes the term "General" in its title at the insistence of the first manager, Julian Baring. He contended that, while opportunities to profit from gold shares would arise, at times they should be avoided en bloc - hence the ability to purchase other mining assets.

Just recently there has been evidence that the surge in the price encouraged some mining companies to develop higher cost options, which the recent fall in the gold price has rendered uneconomic. Comparing valuations of gold mining shares with those of companies extracting other minerals suggests that this sector of the market's problems may not yet be over. However, the most important point to make is that mining shares do not automatically confer performance of the gold price to the investor and need to be considered totally separately.

Is the future direction of the gold price any easier to forecast than for any other asset?

This is an easy question to answer on the face of it, though what is happening elsewhere in the investment world can give an important steer to how the price might behave. The performance of gold, like any other asset, cannot be forecast with any degree of accuracy. Gold remains an option for those seeking a hedge against the uncertainties that can develop both financially and geopolitically, but is hardly an appropriate investment for anyone seeking income.

That said, there will always be gold followers and gold traders. Watch interest rates and the dollar if gold is an area you seek to follow, but do not expect any silver bullet when it comes to knowing when to buy and when to sell.

Brian Tora is an associate with investment managers JM Finn & Co.

My PFS - Technical news - 07/05/2013

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