Correction Appended: Dec. 18, 2009
Gold, that barbarous relic, is having a thoroughly modern moment in the spotlight. Its price in dollars ($1,170 per ounce when last I checked) is setting a new record every few days. Cash4Gold and its competitors have been flooding the airwaves with ads exhorting you to fork over your gold jewelry for dollars. And for the first time since 1971, when U.S. President Richard Nixon unilaterally yanked the world off the gold standard, gold is also attracting interest from a crowd that usually doesn't pay it much heed: the world's central bankers.
What's going on? Part of it is the fact that "gold's gyrations are the Dow Jones index of anxiety," as this magazine put it three decades ago amid the last big gold fever. When investors are scared about inflation, about political turmoil, about financial breakdown they return to the soft, shiny metal that has for millennia served as a store of value. When things calm down, as they did after the gold price peaked in 1980 at $850, demand for gold subsides and the price declines.
But there is more to gold's current boom than just a flight to safety. The metal is showing signs of a more sustained run at respectability. So while its price will at some point stop going up (and start going down), don't count on another descent into seeming irrelevance, as occurred in the 1980s and '90s. That's because of changes in the mechanics of investing in gold and the weaknesses of the current gold-free international monetary system.
It used to be that to buy gold you had to actually buy gold. In 2003, I went to Manhattan's 47th Street jewelry district to purchase a few hundred dollars in gold coins. When informed that I had to pay cash, I left and never made it back. Dumb move, I know, but indicative of the less-than-investor-friendly ways of the business. One could buy stock in gold-mining companies, but that added a layer of volatility and risk. Since 2004, however, it's been possible through exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to effectively own gold without the hassle of actually owning it. Gold is now something you can hold in a portfolio, like any financial asset. Lots of investors have chosen to do so. The SPDR Gold Shares ETF has assets of $40 billion, and similar ETFs around the world have another $10 billion.
Gold is unlikely ever to be a great investment in the sense that buying into Microsoft in 1986 or Google in 2004 has been a great investment. The price of gold in dollars has more than quadrupled since the end of the long gold bear market in April 2001, but over the long run the return has averaged about 2% a year, says George Milling-Stanley, managing director for government affairs at the World Gold Council in New York. (That compares with about 8% for stocks.) It's less a ticket to riches than what Milling-Stanley calls an "insurance policy." Many of the commodity investors who have recently piled into gold are looking for big gains, not insurance, and their involvement may guarantee that gold's price will be driven too high and then crash. But waiting in the wings is another set of market players who are likely to have more staying power: the central bankers.
For the past 38 years, the world has been engaged in the historical experiment of a monetary system based on a single currency (the U.S. dollar) that has no link to gold. This arrangement was shaky in its early days, in the 1970s, but seemed to work passably well for the next two decades. Lately, though, the dollar standard has been blamed for everything from China's huge buildup of dollars to the financial crisis of 2007 and '08 and a future of rampant inflation that hasn't materialized yet but that many doomsayers are convinced is on the way. And while there's been talk of the dollar being supplanted as the world's reserve currency by the euro or the Chinese yuan, that would still leave a monetary system dependent on the whims of one central bank.
"Gold is the one currency a central bank can't print," says Martin Murenbeeld, a veteran gold watcher who is chief economist for Canadian money-management firm DundeeWealth. Gold's big attraction as a pillar of the global monetary system is that it isn't beholden to national politics. The downside is that its supply increases fitfully, with no regard for the state of the world economy. That's why John Maynard Keynes called the gold standard a "barbarous relic," and why you won't find anyone outside the goldbug fringe calling for a full return to the gold standard now. But a partial return, in which central banks hold gold as a hedge against financial turmoil (the Reserve Bank of India just bought $6.7 billion of the stuff from the International Monetary Fund) and gold begins to play a role in the pricing of oil and other important monetary tasks, may well be in the cards. Gold is looking less barbarous than the alternatives.
The original version of this article misidentified the Reserve Bank of India as the Bank of India.