The value of gold in the face of economic turmoil
Although the major international economic organisations try to send a reassuring message about controlling inflation, the UK’s experience in the 1970s raises serious doubts. Gold appears to be an interesting option to protect against the depreciation of money amid a “bear market” cycle that could last longer.
For months now, inflation has been far exceeding the optimistic forecasts of the major international economic organisations. The harsh reality means that time and again these institutions are forced to recalculate their forecasts upwards.
They all coincide in sending out a reassuring message. The mantra is that this year’s out-of-control rates will tend to moderate in 2023 and that by 2024 a rate close to the desired 2 % will be restored. The interest rate hikes by the major central banks should make a decisive contribution to this.
The latest to make this point is the International Monetary Fund, which, in a report, predicts that wage restraint will prevent a dangerous inflationary spiral.
Learning from the past
However, some economists warn that there are parallels between the current situation and the stagflation experienced in the UK half a century ago. Since 1970, the British government had been doping the economy with expansionary budgets and lower interest rates. As a result, inflation soared to 9.1 % in 1973, similar to today’s rate.
As now, interest rates had started to rise. Between June and November 1973 they rose from 7.5 % to 13 %, which led to the bursting of the housing bubble and the ensuing banking crisis. Moreover, between May 1972 and January 1975, the main stock market index lost 74 % of its value. The economic slowdown did not prevent inflation from spiralling out of control: it reached 16% in 1974 and a whopping 24.2% in 1975.
The big concern is that history will repeat itself. The bad news is that the spread between the inflation rate and interest rates is now much wider than it was then, so the monetary policy correction could have a much more devastating effect on the economy. The overall contraction in bank credit will be severe and many firms will become insolvent.
At current inflation rates, interest rates and the cost of government debt would logically soar. And, predictably, central banks will do what they have always done in the past to deal with this type of crisis: print more banknotes, which will further reduce their real value.
Gold, a safe-haven asset
The rise in interest rates in the early 1970s was no obstacle to the appreciation of gold: it went from less than £18 per ounce when interest rates were 6% to more than £40 when they rose to 13% in November 1974. For, as the founder of J.P. Morgan said, “gold is really money, everything else is credit”.
Since the suspension of the Bretton Woods agreements in 1971, which meant abandoning the gold standard, the sum of banknotes and commercial bank credit has increased more than 30-fold, which is equivalent to its devaluation. In fact, middle-class single-earner households were common before 1970 and are now a utopia. Buying a house or even a car without going into debt has become a privilege only within the reach of a few rich people.
Gold, on the other hand, has taken the opposite path to that of the money supply and its value has increased 38-fold. In fact, since December 2015, gold has appreciated by more than 40% against the euro.
Endorsed by the biggest hedge fund
Hence, the recommendation by Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, to buy physical gold is not surprising, despite the fact that many investors see the current depreciation of many other financial assets as a buying opportunity.
Rebecca Patterson, chief investment strategist at Bridgewater, says the reason for going into gold is the need to protect against a “bear market” phase that is set to continue over time. Consequently, the logic of buying assets in the economic downturn, when prices are low, only to sell when the economy expands and rises again may not hold true this time around.
Moreover, both the Chinese and Indian economies are regaining their historical appetite for gold, which will contribute to gold prices in the short term.
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