Sunday, December 20, 2009

More on gold

During this crisis, we hear more from the "gold bugs" - people who are convinced that most modern currencies will become worthless, because they are "fiat money", i.e. the government can make unlimited amounts of them since they are not related to anything in fixed supply, such as gold (or land, when the Nazis restructured the mark).

One such is an American called Jim Willie. He reminds us of debt problems, not only in the USA and Britain, but Spain, Greece etc. Even Swiss banks are under pressure, because of loans to small European countires whose currencies have since devalued. Willie thinks the Euro will unravel because of the difficulties of a number of its member economies, and that Germany will reintroduce the mark, perhaps under some reassuringly Euro-like pseudonym.

Germany happens to have the world's second-largest official holding of gold - 3,400 tonnes compared to the USA's 8,100 (assuming we are being told the truth about how much the USA actually has in its vaults, and that is a matter of serious debate). This article reports China's ambition to increase its own holding of gold, from around 1,000 tonnes now to perhaps as much as 10,000 tonnes in 10 years' time.

The gold mania is not universal. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard predicts that the price of gold will actually fall next year - among other bad things such as the collapse of America's social security pension fund. He may be right. In a panic, people want ready money, so maybe cash will (for a time) be king. But when an economy is in dire straits, its government will do whatever it can to ease the pain, and many think that the strategy will be to increase the money supply, or even introduce a new form of the currency, as has just happened in North Korea.

The attraction of gold is for pessimists. It doesn't earn any interest, so mainly it is seen as a last-resort store of value when the money system breaks down (and it's nice to wear and show off). It is perfectly possible that you could make a loss on gold, but it will never be worth nothing at all, unlike the old US Continentals, or Confederate money after the North won the Civil War. In this context, it's worth noting that Reuters news agency reported back in September that Hong Kong moved its gold reserves out of London and into the gold depository at its Chek Lap Kok international airport. A sign of something, but what?

Gold is not the only tangible store of value, of course. Agricultural land, houses, food, medicines etc all have intrinsic value, i.e. they are worth something because of what they can do for you themselves, not just because they can be exchanged for something else.

Inflation remains a serious long-term threat. Comparing the past and present value of cash is difficult, because the economy has increased in size and changed in nature; but depending on the measure you use and looking at what has happened since 1971 (when I started at college), the British pound has lost 90% - 96% of its buying power. It's still (until April next year) possible to retire at age 50 in this country, so if history repeats itself, you could see a similar devaluation during a long retirement.

In short, it's not about the value of gold, but the unreliability of money.

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