investing

Gold rush: Investors play it safe

Handful of gold jewelry
Highlights
  • Gold serves as a commodity as well as a hedge against inflation.
  • A decade of upheaval has contributed to a rise in the price of gold.
  • Higher interest rates could put the brakes on the current gold rush.

You know an investment is hot when people are going on the radio and asking you to melt down your jewelry so they can get in on the action.

Gold has been on a bull run over the last decade. In May 2001, the price of gold averaged $272.36 per ounce. On May 18, 2011, it closed at $1,496.50 per ounce, an increase of nearly 450 percent.

But what's behind those gains is a more complex question, says Tom Winmill, portfolio manager for Midas Funds in Indianapolis. That's because gold performs two distinctly different functions. It's a commodity and a hedge against inflation, and its importance in both roles has grown significantly in the last 10 years.

Gold, the commodity

Gold is a consumer good and is used in the production of other goods. Consumer jewelry, electronics, medical devices and other products consume about 10 percent of the world's gold every year, Winmill says.

Nowhere is that more evident than with jewelry. Cameron Brandt, director of research at Emerging Portfolio Fund Research in Boston, says part of the rise in gold can be attributed to increased demand for gold jewelry in the developing world.

As developing countries, particularly India, have matured economically, demand for gold jewelry there has increased substantially. The World Gold Council released a report earlier this year that found gold jewelry demand in the Indian market reached a record 746 metric tons in 2010, an increase of 69 percent over 2009's recession-eroded levels.

Gold also plays a major role in electronics. Most electronic devices contain a small amount of gold, and as electronic devices have become more popular, gold use has increased, Brandt says.

Gold, the inflation hedge

While gold's role as a commodity has had some influence over its price, its other role has accounted for most of gold's rise in value, Winmill says. Investing in gold is a hedge against inflation and a safe harbor for investors worried about political and economic instability.

In normal times, investors worldwide turn to currencies, particularly the U.S. dollar, as a safe haven. Lately, "U.S. fiscal and monetary policy is seen as being very detrimental to the value of the dollar," Brandt says.

Add to that a decade of global political and economic upheaval, and you have a recipe for skyrocketing gold, he says.

"This is a particularly uncertain period. There's been a somewhat unusual convergence of variables in a fairly short period of time -- the outbreak of political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, the eurozone's ongoing struggle to get on top of its debt crisis, the natural disasters in Japan, the looming end to QE2 in the U.S.," Brandt says.

"There's a lot for people to be nervous about, which historically has sent them toward gold," he says.

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Winmill says the buzz surrounding gold also has added to its allure.

"There's been a lot of discussion of gold, a lot of additional investment in gold. We're seeing a lot of retail interest in gold in terms of the ETF (exchange-traded funds)," Winmill says.

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