going parabolic

The case against gold

September 29, 2010: 6:43 AM ET

Gold is trading like it's lighter than air, but now is not the time to get carried away and load up on the stuff.

Gold futures for December delivery closed at their second straight record Tuesday, hitting $1,308. The gold price has risen more than 30% over the past year, with a third of that in just the past two months -- and to listen to the ever-expanding ranks of gold fans, this is only the beginning.

Is this really just the beginning?

They point to an economy choking on debt and increasingly dysfunctional U.S. politics. Investors are embracing gold, they say, because they have given up hope that Washington will answer pressing questions about employment, taxes and deficits.

This leaves central bankers flooding the economy with money, with unhappy -- perhaps dire -- consequences for the purchasing power of the dollar.

"Low interest rates equal rising gold prices," said James DiGeorgia, publisher of the Gold and Energy Advisor. He expects gold to rise steadily over coming years to what he calls the "equilbrium price" of around $2,300 -- which happens to be in line with gold's all-time record on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Even longtime skeptics of the pro-gold case are running up the white flag lately. As recently as July, Julian Jessop of Capital Economics was forecasting a drop below $1,000 by year-end, arguing that a weakening global growth picture would sap demand for gold as a hedge against inflation.

That argument went out the window with the march toward a new round of so-called quantitative easing by officials at the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. With "additional QE more likely than an early exit, it is hard to see anything on the horizon to change the positive sentiment towards gold," Jessop wrote last week. He now expects the price to "stay high for several more years."

Needless to say, gold bulls won't leave it there. Chris Wood of Casey Research urges readers in a note this week to bet at least a quarter of their portfolio on precious metals.

"At this time we're recommending investors allocate their assets 1/3 to gold (and silver), 1/3 to cash, and 1/3 to stocks," he writes. "So if you don't own any gold, now has to be viewed as a time to buy."

But does it? Figuring out what to do now is certainly a puzzle, when stocks have spent a decade treading water, bond prices have ballooned and every shoeshine boy has a tip about a favorite gold ETF.

Matthew Keator, a partner in the Keator Group wealth management firm in Lenox, Mass., urges that you consider what you're giving up to buy gold at current prices. Every bit of income is important at a time when prices of all sorts of assets appear out of whack and employment statistics are less than uplifting. Gold can be a small part of a well diversified portfolio, he says, but with the emphasis on small.

"The problem is you don't get paid to wait" for gold's next leg up, Keator said. "You need income in this environment, but gold doesn't give you that."

This is an argument billionaire investor Warren Buffett has been known to make on occasion, and it's worth considering especially at a time when the gold price has risen fivefold since its 1999 low.

A huge rally hardly puts a cap on prices, obviously, but it also suggests there is plenty of official ineptitude already priced into the market. If policymakers succeed in restoring some order to the political process and vibrancy to the economy, gold could easily pull back.

Indeed, gold's latest rally has been so steady that DiGeorgia says he thinks that regardless of what else happens, gold could head back to July's levels in the high $1,100s before making its next move up. Wood says those with large gold positions can wait to buy on the next dip.

That's why Keator suggests anyone taking the plunge should limit their gold exposure to a "complementary" position in the portfolio, say of 3%-5%.

That weighting could offer some protection if all the yelling about the destruction of paper currencies continues, without exposing the holder to the volatility gold prices are well known for -- and that some observers say could well manifest itself again soon.

None of this is to say you should be banking on a plunge in the gold price, either. The volatility could be dampened by Asian central banks' desire to add to their gold holdings, and by other bankers' desire not to make the same mistake twice. At the same time, higher prices tend to draw out new supply over time.

Such are the headaches of investing in a highly uncertain environment in which inflation seems likely to reappear in force sooner or later. The sense that Bernanke & Co. won't be able to dodge that threat helps to make the rally in gold and other hard goods look bulletproof, Keator said.

But don't forget that this crisis has left a few other sure things by the wayside. "I have concerns," Keator said, "just as I did two years ago when everyone was talking about how you needed to get exposure to crude oil."

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.