Hope, Change & Gold
Ten years after the American century ended, should an optimist choose to buy gold...?
Gold doesn't mind a bit of hope or change. It doesn't care about anything much, what with being just an inert metal and all.
But those people who buy gold tend to fear for the future, and they fear the change it might bring. At the very least they are anxious. Gold offers insurance, whether to Western savers trying to second-guess interest rates or the stock market, or to Asian households suddenly able to make discretionary savings each month from their small, but growing income.
So what kind of future might see the gold price jump 1.7% p – as it did in 1 hour on Tuesday – only to hold that rally as Barack Obama claimed a second term in the White House, before easing off as the rest of the financial markets sank two, three and more per cent on Wednesday?
The peaceful war-making president now has another 4 years pulling the levers and twisting the dials which control the direction of the USA. Or at least, that's the idea. But this stuff is a long way from flying killer drones by remote. And while Obama quickly bagged an outright victory last night in the number of electoral colleges – America's version of first past the post – he still needs to win a clear majority in the "popular vote" too. Because otherwise (or so analysts and pundits reckon), the Republican-controlled House will feel empowered to block his budgets and bills. It might feel obliged anyway.
Twiddle all the knobs you like. They don't work anymore.
January 2013 still looms, therefore, inviting that nasty thug Fiscal Cliff along to ruin the world's New Year party. Half-a-trillion dollars of unfunded spending is set to vanish, unless US politicians can agree to extend a series of tax cuts and benefits. And last time Washington's boxers sank into a clinch and refused to break, back in summer 2011, world stock markets plunged, and gold surged to record highs above $1900 per ounce. Because the S&P ratings agency downgraded the federal government's $13.5 trillion debt from AAA, and the US lost its "risk free" status as a debtor.
Today the US debt has grown to more than $16 trillion. World stock markets have recovered (no thanks to the unending Eurozone crisis), and gold has retreated. But might "that hope-changey thing" – as ex-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin mocked Obama's core promise in 2010, aping the T-shirts of grassroots Tea Party activists – lose all power to its instrument panels again?
Tuesday's sudden and sharp rally in gold did not predict last night's party in Chicago. It was driven by leveraged traders getting whacked when the price crept above $1700. Selling gold short – in anticipation of further falls – has proved a foolhardy move plenty of times in the last 5 years of crisis. And Obama's second victory has so far only confirmed gold's jump against a backdrop of everything else sinking. Because true hope and real change are still pending. And outside the United States, investors the world over will need to start to believing in the levers and dials of US politics once more to undo the 12-year bull market in that careless, unrusting lump.
The point runs deeper than the partisan sniping just endured by TV viewers and newspapers the world over. Because whoever had won last night, "the American way [is] to make fools of pessimists," claims TIME columnist Joe Klein. Whereas gold is the ultimate pessimists' investment, a hedge (at the very least) against politicians losing whatever control they thought they had and only making things worse with their meddling.
Big picture? Against gold, and on the side of "the American way", is the very 20th century belief that we live in a world "where man has achieved a self-conscious mastery of nature...[and so money should] be a creation of government," as British Museum academics put it in their History of Money.
Choosing that path, and dispensing with gold or silver limits on the amount of stuff we can all promise each other through money, would make currency "subject and responsive to rational manipulation and control." Or so the politicians and bureaucrats of the 20th century, the American century, believed. But the US authorities also built the world's greatest-ever hoard of gold too. Because even optimists need insurance.
"By making clear that we are establishing permanent metallic reserves in the possession and ownership of the federal government," said F.D.Roosevelt to Congress in 1934, "we can organize a currency system which is both sound and adequate."
The subterfuge was plain – freeing the Dollar from gold began with hoarding a mountain of gold to back it. But only with that hoard, that redoubt and refuge at Fort Knox in place could America grasp the bright future ahead.
Where's that future a decade after the optimists' century, the American century ended? Prices to buy gold have risen 6-fold. President Obama just got a second shot at hope and change.