The price of gold is moved by a combination of supply, demand, and investor behavior. That seems simple enough, yet the way those factors work together is sometimes counterintuitive. For instance, many investors think of gold as an inflation hedge. That has some common-sense plausibility, as paper money loses value as more is printed, while the supply of gold is relatively constant. As it happens, gold mining doesn't add much to supply from year to year. So, what is the true mover of gold prices?
- Supply, demand, and investor behavior are key drivers of gold prices.
- Gold is often used to hedge inflation because, unlike paper money, since its supply doesn't change much year to year.
- Studies show that gold prices have positive price elasticity, meaning the value increases along with demand.
- However, the investment growth rate of gold over the past 2,000 years has not been meaningful, even as demand has outpaced supply.
- Since gold often moves higher when economic conditions worsen, it is viewed as an efficient tool for diversifying a portfolio.
Correlation to Inflation
Economists Claude B. Erb, of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, have studied the price of gold in relation to several factors. It turns out that gold doesn't correlate well to inflation. That is, when inflation rises, it doesn't mean that gold is necessarily a good bet.
So, if inflation isn't driving the price, is fear? Certainly, during times of economic crisis, investors flock to gold. When the Great Recession hit, for example, gold prices rose. But gold was already rising until the beginning of 2008, nearing $1,000 an ounce before falling under $800 and then bouncing back and rising as the stock market bottomed out. That said, gold prices rose further, even as the economy recovered. The price of gold peaked in 2011 at $1,921 and has seen ups and downs since that time. In early 2020, prices fetched $1,575.
In their paper titled The Golden Dilemma, Erb and Harvey note that gold has positive price elasticity. That essentially means that, as more people buy gold, the price goes up, in line with demand. It also means there aren't any underlying "fundamentals" to the price of gold. If investors start flocking to gold, the price rises no matter what shape the economy is or what monetary policy might be.
That doesn't mean that gold prices are completely random or the result of herd behavior. Some forces affect the supply of gold in the wider market, and gold is a worldwide commodity market, like oil or coffee.
Unlike oil or coffee, however, gold isn't consumed. Almost all the gold ever mined is still around and more gold is being mined each day. If so, one would expect the price of gold to drop over time, since there is more and more of it around. So, why doesn't it?
Aside from the fact that the number of people who might want to buy it is constantly on the rise, jewelry and investment demand offer some clues. As Peter Hug, director of global trading at Kitco, said, "It ends up in a drawer someplace." The gold in jewelry is effectively taken off the market for years at a time.
Even though countries like India and China treat gold as a store of value, the people who buy it there don't regularly trade it (few pay for a washing machine by handing over a gold bracelet). Instead, jewelry demand tends to rise and fall with the price of gold. When prices are high, the demand for jewelry falls relative to investor demand.
Hug says the big market movers of gold prices are often central banks. In times when foreign exchange reserves are large, and the economy is humming along, a central bank will want to reduce the amount of gold it holds. That's because the gold is a dead asset—unlike bonds or even money in a deposit account, it generates no return.
The problem for central banks is that this is precisely when the other investors out there aren't that interested in gold. Thus, a central bank is always on the wrong side of the trade, even though selling that gold is precisely what the bank is supposed to do. As a result, the price of gold falls.
Central banks have tried to manage their gold sales in a cartel-like fashion, to avoid disrupting the market too much. Something called the Washington Agreement essentially states that the banks won't sell more than 400 metric tons in a year. It's not binding, as it's not a treaty; rather, it's more of a gentleman's agreement—but one that is in the interests of central banks, since unloading too much gold on the market at once would negatively affect their portfolios.
The Washington Agreement was signed on Sept. 26, 1999, by 13 nations and limits the sale of gold for each country to 400 metric tons per year. A second version of the agreement was signed in 2004, then extended in 2009.
Besides central banks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs)—such as the SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) and iShares Gold Trust (IAU), which allow investors to buy into gold without buying mining stocks—are now major gold buyers and sellers. Both ETFs trade on the exchanges like stock and measure their holdings in ounces of gold. Still, these ETFs are designed to reflect the price of gold, not move it.
Speaking of portfolios, Hug said a good question for investors is what the rationale for buying gold is. As a hedge against inflation, it doesn't work well. However, seen as one piece of a larger portfolio, gold is a reasonable diversifier. It's simply important to recognize what it can and cannot do.
In real terms, gold prices topped out in 1980, when the price of the metal hit nearly $2,000 per ounce (in 2014 dollars). Anyone who bought gold then has been losing money since. On the other hand, the investors who bought it in 1983 or 2005 would be happy selling now. It's also worth noting that the 'rules' of portfolio management apply to gold as well. The total number of gold ounces one holds should fluctuate with the price. If, for example, one wants 2% of the portfolio in gold, then it's necessary to sell when the price goes up and buy when it falls.
One good thing about gold: it does retain value. Erb and Harvey compared the salary of Roman soldiers 2,000 years ago to what a modern soldier would get, based on how much those salaries would be in gold. Roman soldiers were paid 2.31 ounces of gold per year, while centurions got 38.58 ounces.
Assuming $1,600 per ounce, a Roman soldier got the equivalent of $3,704 per year, while a U.S. Army private receives $17,611. So a U.S. Army private gets about 11 ounces of gold (at current prices). That's an annual investment growth rate of about 0.08% over approximately 2,000 years.
A centurion (roughly equivalent to a captain) got $61,730 per year, while a U.S. Army captain gets $44,543—27.84 ounces at the $1,600 price, or 37.11 ounces at $1,200. The rate of return of 0.02% per year is essentially zero.
The Bottom Line
If you're looking at gold prices, it's probably a good idea to look at how well the economies of certain countries are doing. As economic conditions worsen, the price will (usually) rise. Gold is a commodity that isn't tied to anything else; in small doses, it makes a good diversifying element for a portfolio.