Markets Insight

Gold is no safe port in this storm

Cash and short-term government bonds are better retreats in this particular storm
Gold has been billed as a ‘wonder investment’ in portfolios: apparently it can help protect against inflation or deflation, political, financial or economic chaos and much more besides, so it’s no wonder that we’re seeing interest in this commodity soar at the moment as investors find themselves in a moment of political turbulence on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, some caution is warranted here. Odysseus famously plugged his crew’s ears with beeswax and had himself strapped to the mast to resist the call of the sirens. I would simply suggest that gold should occupy no more than low single digits in percentage terms as a proportion of your total investible assets — calls to hold significantly more, no matter how honeyed the voices, should be strongly resisted.

Perhaps the most alluring part of gold’s story right now seems to be its role as a safe port in the storm. In a world seemingly beset with more than usual levels of monetary, economic and political uncertainty, gold, with its thousands of years of practice as a store of value, seems to shine brightly as an investment prospect.
Most would agree that a safe asset should have a relatively stable value during times of market stress. If we assume that such times tend to see equity markets fall sharply, gold’s historical record over the long run is far from perfect on this count.

Even without that blemished relative record, investors should be wary of havens where the price has jumped around so dramatically — even when just viewed over the past five years.

Nonetheless, if enough investors believe gold to be a haven then it may well act as one.

Some argue that gold is not for protection against expected changes in inflation, but rather the unexpected. This is more difficult to weigh, as the tricky procedure of decomposing inflation into its expected and unexpected components is more art than science. However, based on some (admittedly crude) empirical work, the long-run relationship between gold and unexpected inflation looks entirely unremarkable.

One area where there is an undeniably strong relationship is between gold and real bond yields.

The basic argument here is that the relative attraction of gold wanes as the real yield available on other, more plausible, havens rises. Why would you buy gold, which throws off no cash flows or coupons, when you can lend the US government money with a yield above inflation? As real and nominal bond yields have plunged lower this year, gold has prospered.

We see inflation picking up over the course of the year, particularly in the US economy.
Revolving credit is picking up, wages are too and just as oil prices exerted significant downward pressure on inflation indices over the past two years, they will exert upward pressure as we continue to annualise those dramatic falls.
We suspect that as inflation starts to return, a less historically remarkable term-premium for government bonds may also follow, pushing real yields higher. We would hesitate to suggest how quickly such a risk premium would return, however, this sits behind our recommendation that gold should not occupy large parts of a diversified investment portfolio.

There is perhaps some irony that the recent recovery in oil prices has sown the seeds for gold’s future underperformance. Nonetheless, our preferred route in commodities is the diversified one. China’s ongoing property market bounce is likely to help sentiment across the space even in the face of still unappealing inventory statistics and supply demand balances.

For those looking for a port in the storm, cash and short-term bonds remain the best option, nominal values will remain constant even if real values won’t. To protect against the kind of inflation that we are currently envisaging, equities have historically proved to be the most consistent bet.

William Hobbs is head of Investment Strategy Europe, Barclays Wealth & Investment Management

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