Fourth, gold prices rose sharply when real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates became increasingly negative after successive rounds of quantitative easing. The time to buy gold is when the real returns on cash and bonds are negative and falling. But the more positive outlook about the U.S. and the global economy implies that over time the Federal Reserve and other central banks will exit from quantitative easing and zero policy rates, which means that real rates will rise, rather than fall.
Fifth, some argued that highly indebted sovereigns would push investors into gold as government bonds became more risky. But the opposite is happening now. Many of these highly indebted governments have large stocks of gold, which they may decide to dump to reduce their debts. Indeed, a report that Cyprus might sell a small fraction—some 400 million euros ($520 million) —of its gold reserves triggered a 13 percenet decrease in gold prices in April. Countries like Italy, which has massive gold reserves (more than $130 billion), could be similarly tempted, driving down prices further.
Sixth, some extreme political conservatives, especially in the United States, hyped gold in ways that ended up being counterproductive. For this far-right fringe, gold is the only hedge against the risk posed by the government’s conspiracy to expropriate private wealth. These fanatics also believe that a return to the gold standard is inevitable as hyperinflation ensues from central banks’ “debasement” of paper money. But, given the absence of any conspiracy, falling inflation, and the inability to use gold as a currency, such arguments cannot be sustained.
A currency serves three functions, providing a means of payment, a unit of account, and a store of value. Gold may be a store of value for wealth, but it is not a means of payment; you cannot pay for your groceries with it. Nor is it a unit of account; prices of goods and services, and of financial assets, are not denominated in gold terms.
So gold remains John Maynard Keynes’ “barbarous relic,” with no intrinsic value and used mainly as a hedge against mostly irrational fear and panic. Yes, all investors should have a very modest share of gold in their portfolios as a hedge against extreme tail risks. But other real assets can provide a similar hedge, and those tail risks—while not eliminated—are certainly lower today than at the peak of the global financial crisis.
While gold prices may temporarily move higher in the next few years, they will be very volatile and will trend lower over time as the global economy mends itself. The gold rush is over.