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In each of the last two years, a single commodity has taken center stage, helping to frame the storyline for the broader market. In 2008, oil's jump up to $147 a barrel became a contributing factor in tipping our already precarious economy into the Great Recession. Then in 2009, as a result of the ensuing economic turmoil, gold truly entered the spotlight, reaching a peak near $1,220 before cooling off slightly as the decade came to a close.
With 2010 not even a week old, we asked a collection of Fool contributors and analysts which commodity -- gold or black gold -- would dominate the coming year. Here's what they had to say:
Alex Dumortier, Motley Fool writer: Which of the two will outperform the other in 2010? I think gold’s story is more convincing than that of oil. I expect global economic growth to remain tepid next year, keeping demand for oil in check. Not so for gold. 2009 could mark the beginning of a secular change in this market, as central banks and international institutions were net buyers of gold for the first time in over 20 years. The BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) collectively upped their gold reserves by nearly 50%. China, which runs the largest trade surplus with the U.S. among all our trading partners (and is thus accumulating dollars faster than anyone else), increased its gold reserves by three-fourths, yet gold remains just 1.5% of its total reserves.
Increased demand for gold isn't limited to central banks, either. As of Dec. 29, the SPDR Gold Shares ETF (NYSE: GLD ) owned 1,133 tonnes of it, more than China and surpassed only by the U.S., Germany, France, and Italy.
The fear that inflation will erode the value of the dollar is entirely legitimate. The government is already doing a first-rate job of debasing the currency, but this show may be just getting started. We should expect the fiscal position of the U.S. to continue deteriorating over the next several years, creating enormous temptation for the government to monetize its debt through a massive dollar-printing campaign. In this context, gold must surely appear increasingly attractive to foreign central banks, institutional investors and individuals alike. I’m giving it the nod over oil in 2010.
Christopher Barker, Motley Fool writer: Both are solid choices for capital preservation amid a currency crisis for the U.S. dollar and other structurally impaired fiat currencies.
All the untold trillions of dollars in failed derivatives contracts -- and the unavoidable resurgence of the deleveraging event -- land squarely upon the lap of these strained currencies. As the one currency that is immune to debt-driven impairment, gold remains the superior choice.
Oil could outperform gold if counter-cyclical relative strength in the dollar continues amid the artful perpetuation of a fairy-tale recovery myth, but when the enormity of our predicament becomes common knowledge, it's gold that you want to hold. Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY ) remains enormously undervalued. But there's a third color of gold: silver. With a ratio of 65:1, silver is the obvious choice at this juncture, which is why I chose Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW ) as my top pick for 2010.
Joe Magyer, Motley Fool Inside Value senior analyst: I'm going with black gold here. I think it is fairly priced right now, frankly, though a strong economic rebound would probably drive prices north of $100 again. The real driver of my oil pick, though, is that gold is an asset whose value is driven almost purely by speculation. Gold doesn't spin off cash or find itself predominantly used for industrial purposes. Buying an asset that creates no value and hoping to sell it for a greater price later? No offense, but there's a name for that. Don’t get mad, gold investors. Just look elsewhere.
Toby Shute, Motley Fool writer: I don't view oil or gold as fundamentally undervalued today, but macro events could easily drive prices higher. 2009 was light on armed conflict, and the world may not be so lucky in 2010. Sovereign default risks are also looming in places like Ukraine and Greece, not to mention my home state of California.
The stock prices of commodity producers are also riding high, so it's getting harder to dig up companies that are clearly undervalued, as Venoco (NYSE: VQ ) was when I highlighted it in early October.
Your best bet may be to go with a company that's reasonably priced, run by good people, and charting a clear path to transformative value creation. That was part of the thinking behind my pick of ATP Oil & Gas (Nasdaq: ATPG ) for best stock of 2010, and it's a reason I like Fronteer Development Group on the gold side.
Mike Pienciak, Motley Fool writer: Reluctantly, I have to concede that gold likely has a better chance of outpacing oil in 2010, rather than vice versa. However, that doesn’t mean that I consider gold a good long-term investment.
I've previously argued that an increase in the money supply alone isn’t enough to drive inflation -- a view shared by my colleague Seth Jayson. And while I readily admit that mid-single-digit inflation could be lurking in our near-term future, the yellow fervor of 2009 appears to be discounting a more menacing outcome. Even so, I see substantially higher oil prices as more of a 2011-12 phenomenon. And regardless of my own thinking on inflation, I believe that general fear and government distrust, combined with a quest for easy returns, have a good shot at driving gold considerably higher.
For those looking for a long-term investment plus inflation protection, I'd stick with oil, where deepwater driller Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) and top-notch services player Core Labs (NYSE: CLB ) both deserve a look.
So there you have it...
Gold narrowly wins this debate, with the caveat that oil may potentially be the long-term outperformer. Now that you've heard from our experts, we want to hear from you. Please vote in the Motley Poll below, and then tell our community why you voted that way in the comment section.