Gold, Long a Secure Investment, Loses Its Luster

For generations of investors, the golden decade created the illusion that the yellow metal would keep rising forever. According to William O'Neill, "Gold is very much a psychological market." As the economy improves, the demand for gold as a financial hedge declines.

By NATHANIEL POPPER
Published: April 10, 2013
NY Times

Below the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the world’s largest trove of gold — half a million bars — has lost about $75 billion of its value. In Fort Knox, Ky., at the United States Bullion Depository, the damage totals $50 billion.

And in Pocatello, Idaho, the tiny golden treasure of Jon Norstog has dwindled, too. A $29,000 investment that Mr. Norstog made in 2011 is now worth about $17,000, a loss of 42 percent.

“I thought if worst came to worst and the government brought down the world economy, I would still have something that was worth something,” Mr. Norstog, 67, says of his foray into gold.

Gold, pride of Croesus and store of wealth since time immemorial, has turned out to be a very bad investment of late. A mere two years after its price raced to a nominal high, gold is sinking — fast. Its price has fallen 17 percent since late 2011. Wednesday was another bad day for gold: the price of bullion dropped $28 to $1,558 an ounce.

It is a remarkable turnabout for an investment that many have long regarded as one of the safest of all. The decline has been so swift that some Wall Street analysts are declaring the end of a golden age of gold. The stakes are high: the last time the metal went through a patch like this, in the 1980s, its price took 30 years to recover.

What went wrong? The answer, in part, lies in what went right. Analysts say gold is losing its allure after an astonishing 650 percent rally from August 1999 to August 2011. Fast-money hedge fund managers and ordinary savers alike flocked to gold, that haven of havens, when the world economy teetered on the brink in 2009. Now, the worst of the Great Recession has passed. Things are looking up for the economy and, as a result, down for gold. On top of that, concern that the loose monetary policy at Federal Reserve might set off inflation — a prospect that drove investors to gold — have so far proved to be unfounded.

And so Wall Street is growing increasingly bearish on gold, an investment that banks and others had deftly marketed to the masses only a few years ago. On Wednesday, Goldman Sachs became the latest big bank to predict further declines, forecasting that the price of gold would sink to $1,390 within a year, down 11 percent from where it traded on Wednesday. Société Générale of France last week issued a report titled, “The End of the Gold Era,” which said the price should fall to $1,375 by the end of the year and could keep falling for years.

Granted, gold has gone through booms and busts before, including at least two from its peak in 1980, when it traded at $835, to its high in 2011. And anyone who bought gold in 1999 and held on has done far better than the average stock market investor. Even after the recent decline, gold is still up 515 percent.

But for a generation of investors, the golden decade created the illusion that the metal would keep rising forever. The financial industry seized on such hopes to market a growing range of gold investments, making the current downturn in gold felt more widely than previous ones. That triumph of marketing gold was apparent in an April 2011 poll by Gallup, which found that 34 percent of Americans thought that gold was the best long-term investment, more than another other investment category, including real estate and mutual funds.

It is hard to know just how much money ordinary Americans plowed into gold, given the array of investment vehicles, including government-minted coins, publicly traded commodity funds, mining company stocks and physical bullion. But $5 billion that flowed into gold-focused mutual funds in 2009 and 2010, according to Morningstar, helped the funds reach a peak value of $26.3 billion. Since hitting a peak in April 2011, those funds have lost half of their value.

“Gold is very much a psychological market,” said William O’Neill, a co-founder of the research firm Logic Advisors, which told its investors to get out of all gold positions in December after recommending the investment for years. “Unless there is some unforeseen development, I think the market is going lower.”

Gold’s abrupt reversal has also been painful for companies that were cashing in on the gold craze. In the last year, two gold-focused mutual funds were liquidated after years of new fund openings, Morningstar data shows. Perhaps the most famous company to come out of the 2011 gold rush, the retail trading company Goldline, has drastically cut back its advertising on cable television, lowering spending to $3.7 million from $17.8 million in 2010, according to Kantar Media.

Goldline agreed to pay $4.5 million last year to settle charges brought by the city attorney of Santa Monica, Calif., accusing the company of running a bait-and-switch operation. Goldline did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

But the worst news for gold is probably good news for the broader economy, which, though still struggling to grow, has recovered from its lows.

“As the economy improves, the demand for gold as a financial hedge declines more than the fundamental demand for gold jewelry increases,” said Daniel J. Arbess, a partner at Perella Weinberg Partners, who sold off his fund’s large stake in gold in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Investment professionals, who have focused many of their bets on gold exchange-traded funds, or E.T.F.’s, have been faster than retail investors to catch wind of gold’s changing fortune. The outflow at the most popular E.T.F., the SPDR Gold Shares, was the biggest of any E.T.F. in the first quarter of this year as hedge funds and traders pulled out $6.6 billion, according to the data firm IndexUniverse. Two prominent hedge fund managers who had taken big positions in gold E.T.F.’s, George Soros and Louis M. Bacon, sold in the last quarter of 2012, according to recent regulatory filings.

“Gold was destroyed as a safe haven, proved to be unsafe,” Mr. Soros said in an interview last week with The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong. “Because of the disappointment, most people are reducing their holdings of gold.”

Gold’s most vocal bulls say gold doubters are losing faith too easily. Peter Schiff, the chief executive of the investment firm Euro Pacific Capital, said that he still expected gold to hit $5,000 an ounce within a few years because, he said, the world is headed for a period of dangerous hyperinflation.

“People believe the U.S. economy is recovering. It’s not,” said Mr. Schiff.

The most famous investor who is standing by gold is John Paulson, the hedge fund manager who made a fortune betting against the American housing market. His $900 million gold fund reportedly dropped 26 percent in the first two months of this year.

Mr. Paulson’s losses were particularly severe because he bet heavily on gold mining companies, which have fallen more sharply than gold itself.

Mr. Norstog, in Pocatello, made a similar mistake. He put his money in a gold fund that was focused on mining company stocks.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would have just bought the gold,” Mr. Norstog said. “At least that way I could have run my fingers through the glittering coins.”

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