Gold: The fear bubble bursts

By Felix Salmon
April 15, 2013

The total amount of gold in the world, according to Thomson Reuters, is 171,300 metric tonnes, or 5.5 billion troy ounces. What that means is that every time the price of gold falls by $100 an ounce, as it did on Friday and it has done again today, the value of the world’s gold falls by more than $500 billion.

That doesn’t mean investors have lost $1 trillion in the space of two trading days. Some gold is used in industry or jewelry, and there’s a huge amount in central banks, which don’t mark to market and therefore aren’t really investors as we normally understand the term. Still, with a “market capitalization” at the end of 2012 of about $9 trillion, the gold market is not much smaller than the NYSE, is twice the size of the Nasdaq, and is almost three times the size of the Tokyo and London stock exchanges.

As a result, the falling price of gold is more important than simply being an opportunity for schadenfreude around the likes of Glenn Beck or John Paulson or Zero Hedge. At the end of 2012, for instance, Paulson owned 21.8 million shares of GLD. Those have sunk some 19%, or $30 per share, since then — a total loss of more than $650 million, for Paulson and his investors. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.6 trillion wiped off the value of gold more generally during the same period.

To put that number in context, the NYSE has risen 6.6% since the end of 2012, a rise in value of some $930 billion. Which means that the value of gold has been falling faster than the value of stocks has been rising. But gold is held in much more concentrated hands: most people have very little exposure to it, while a relatively small number of investors have huge allocations. As a result, the wealth effect from the fall in gold prices is likely to be felt quite acutely.

Gold is the classic zero-coupon perpetual bond: an asset whose industrial value is a tiny fraction of its cash value, and which represents, as Joe Weisenthal says, a costly failure of markets to efficiently allocate capital to where it is best invested. Goldbugs are by their nature defeatist and pessimistic; get enough of them together at the same time and they become self-fulfilling. (That’s why they tend to be so evangelical about their beliefs.)

So what does the fall of the gold price mean for the rest of us? The first thing to worry about is the wealth effect: if people have suddenly lost a trillion dollars, does that mean they’re going to spend less, and hurt the broader economy as a result?

I doubt that, somehow. About 2,500 tonnes of gold is tied up in gold ETFs. That’s about 80 million ounces, which translates to investor losses of about $16 billion in the past couple of days. On top of that, there have probably been about $3 billion of losses in the futures market. Those numbers — a proxy for the gold positions which are marked to market regularly — are relatively modest: they’re much smaller than the $100 billion or so that has been wiped off the valuation of Apple this year alone.

What’s more, very few investors have leveraged positions in gold, and when asset bubbles burst, it’s normally the leverage, more than the bursting bubble itself, which does the most damage.

Still, there will be pain — pain which is necessary to break the gold fever. It’s important that goldbugs are seen to not only have silly beliefs, but also to have lost a substantial amount of money. Gold is a fear trade rather than a greed trade — it’s defensive, and defensive investors are always particularly loss-averse. If you lose money betting on high-flying tech stocks, that’s much more likely to be money you can afford to lose than if you lose money after putting your life savings into precious metals. (Silver, as befits its status as the “B” share of gold, is also being hit badly today.)

The biggest problem in the markets right now is that they’re still far too risk-averse. Fear-based assets like gold, Treasury bonds, and cash are in high demand, while there isn’t enough money flowing through greed-based assets like stocks and bank loans and into the economy as a whole. Even if the stock market is expensive, the number of primary and secondary offerings remains low; similarly, banks are not expanding their loan books nearly fast enough.

What the system needs, then, is a stark reminder that fear-based assets can be just as risky as greed-based assets. Rising interest rates can eat away the value of your bond portfolio, inflation can erode your cash, and as for gold (or bitcoins, for that matter), well, it can plunge in value literally overnight.

My hope is that the price of gold will continue to fall, that goldbugs will look increasingly silly, and that as a result Americans with savings will conclude that the best thing to do with those savings is to put them to work in a productive manner, rather than self-defeatingly trying to protect what they have.

At the end of the 1990s, and again in the mid-2000s, we had greed bubbles. Both those bubbles burst, and the weird result was a fear bubble, which manifested itself in negative risk-free real interest rates and a soaring price of gold. Let’s hope that what we’re seeing right now is the fear bubble bursting. It’s what the world needs.

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