Gold has had a terrible year, its price dropping 25 percent in the last quarter alone. "You're cheap," says John Waggoner at USA Today. Really, really cheap. Like, "when someone asks you for three cheers, you only give two."
But is it cheap enough to buy yet? The short answer: That's a really tough question.
Generally, gold prices are supposed to rise when the economy weakens. The basic idea is that gold is beautiful, finite, and scarce, a physical anchor in a sea of floating paper currencies. But the relationship between precious-metal strength and economic weakness is complicated, says Conrad De Aenlle at The New York Times: "Prices can rise or fall for seemingly contradictory reasons."
In this case, the Federal Reserve has been helicopter-dropping lots of money into the economy (read: purchasing government securities) for years, a practice that should contribute to inflation. However, inflation was a very modest 1.4 percent over the past 12 months, discouraging a flight to perceived safe havens.
"The reasons for the dip may not be clear, but the results certainly are," says De Aenlle. Gold is currently selling at a bit more than $1,200 an ounce, down from a high of $1,895 in 2011, and "mutual funds specializing in mining stocks lost 34.5 percent, on average." Investors in gold funds lost a record $44.7 billion in the second quarter.
Many financial advisers say that gold has further to fall. Inflation is tame, the dollar just hit its highest level in three years versus other currencies, and the growing strength of the U.S. economy has the Fed suggesting it will end its quantitative easing later this year. "Given these factors, it seems reasonable that gold is going down," Rebecca H. Patterson, the chief investment officer of Bessemer Trust, tells the Times.
"The gold price is, in our view, in bubble territory," agrees Michael Haigh, head of commodities research at Société Générale. Among those even more bearish on gold is economist Nouriel Roubini, Dr. Doom himself. Roubini's predictions of falling gold prices — "The gold rush is over," he says — have so angered gold bulls that some goldbug bloggers are "accusing Dr. Doom of being part of a global conspiracy to rig the market," says David Prosser at Money Observer.
Still, while goldbugs can be a tad fanatic about their investment of choice, that doesn't mean they're wrong. "The consensus forecast among gold analysts, says Bloomberg, is for gold to end the year at $1,752, well above the current price," says Prosser.
Indeed, the crash in prices has already upped demand for gold coins and jewelry. And don't forget that the gold market is seasonal. "The second half of the year usually sees gains in physical demand for wedding seasons and religious festivals in Asia, including India and China, the biggest buyers," says Bloomberg's Nicholas Larkin.
Aside from ceremonial value, its beauty, and some industrial purposes, though, gold has no practical value; it is worth only what people are willing to pay for it. "Unlike stocks or bonds, gold doesn't pay any interest or have any earnings, which is how people evaluate many investments," says USA Today's Waggoner. And almost any way you try to gauge gold's value — its long-term mean price, average annual gains — gold looks like it hasn't quite hit bottom:
On a short-term percentage basis, if you squeeze your eyes and wish really hard, gold might be undervalued. On the other hand, it may simply be backing off from a strong, sharp rally. It's not that hard to look at a five-year chart of gold and be reminded of a five-year chart of the Nasdaq from 1996 to 2001. [USA Today]
If you're a bargain hunter with money to lose, you might do well investing in gold mining companies, Waggoner suggests. "It's certainly better to buy them when they're beaten down than when they are on the rally." But their price is also tied to the price of the metal they rely on, which takes us back to the future of gold.
That doesn't mean gold is necessarily a bad investment, says De Aenlle. "The main drawback of gold — its lack of intrinsic cash flow or practical utility — makes speculation unsuitable for conservative or unsophisticated investors." But there's a useful place in a diversified portfolio for a small amount of gold bullion or gold funds — not to earn a healthy return on investment, but as a hedge.
"The risk is that people are not prepared for whatever that next unknown unknown is," Bessemer Trust's Patterson tells the Times. "If it happens, you're going to be glad you held on."
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