Gold’s bull run is tired but maybe not over

February 23, 2012

By Ian Campbell

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Gold, it seems, can have it both ways. Its latest charge to a three-month high is ascribed both to relief at a Greek bailout and to fear it won’t work. The bubbling precious metal has become simultaneously a speculative, risk-on play and a safe haven. That duality should keep the gold bull alive for a little while yet.

The golden beast is showing signs of fatigue. A three-month high leaves it 8 percent down on its September peak. Demand for gold rose in 2011 – but by just 0.4 percent on 2010. Ultra-high prices are weighing down jewellery consumption. India, traditionally the largest consumer of gold for jewellery, imported 44 percent less gold in the fourth quarter of 2011 than a year earlier as the rupee plunged. China overtook India as the biggest gold importer, but its demand was up a meagre 3 percent year-on-year.

Weakness in jewellery demand is in fact not new. It is down by a quarter over the past decade, from an annual average of 2,587 tonnes in 2002-04 to 1,931 tonnes in 2009-11. Extremely high prices are deterring consumers. Industrial demand has been stable, at about one tenth of the total. But it is demand for gold as an investment that has soared, rising from just 341 tonnes in 2003 to an annual average of 1,604 tonnes in 2010-11.

Sustained dollar weakness, zero interest rates and abundant money printing by the U.S. Federal Reserve have all boosted the appeal of gold and reduced the opportunity cost of holding it. The September price peak of $1,920 per ounce coincided with fears of a euro zone collapse and additional money-printing in the United States. When paper money cannot be trusted, gold seems priceless.

Normality is the gold bull’s enemy. Better American data, which has reduced the likelihood of more quantitative easing, and a firmer dollar are negative signals. Rising U.S. interest rates will eventually be the precious metal’s nemesis. But that day is still distant and euro zone crisis risks intensifying again, sending investors gold’s way. Gold’s bull run is tired but not quite over.

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