Since its precipitous fall in mid-April, the SPDR Gold Trust (NYSEMKT:GLD) has been largely range-bound ever since, both struggling to recover and testing previous lows repeatedly. Gold, the ETF's underlying commodity, has been under pressure from a number of forces, but the recent impact of apparent strength in the U.S. economy may be the most severe. Spearheading the onslaught on gold has been the U.S. Federal Reserve and Chairman Ben Bernanke. In comments earlier this week, Bernanke indicated that the Fed may slow the pace of bond buying that has been the centerpiece of the central bank's policy of quantitative easing. When coupled with remarks from various member of the Federal Open Market Committee, the gold bulls may be in trouble.
The Fed minutes, particularly when taken in combination with remarks Bernanke made to Congress, paint a mixed view of the way forward. There are members of the FOMC who clearly want to see a reduction in quantitative easing, if not an all-out halt. This stance is largely a reaction to improving conditions in the labor market and the sense that the economy is improving -- the U.S. Commerce Department said that orders for durable goods rose by 3.3%, more than the 1.5% that had been expected.
On the other side of the argument is the warning that Bernanke issued to Congress on the dangers of ending QE too soon. The Fed chairman suggested that a premature reduction in bond buying could slow or reverse the recovery that he believes the policy has fueled. The ultimate message was pure Fed-speak -- despite Bernanke's stated wish for transparency -- in that the Fed might pare back QE, but maybe it won't.
What does it mean?
One very real concern surrounding the end of QE is the impact it will have on the stock market. There is a pervasive belief that the current rally is Fed-created and that an end in easy-money policies will create a vacuum that will punish stocks severely. Whether or not this is completely true -- and I believe it is -- the degree to which it is an accepted reality means it will probably happen. The role of the Fed in the equity markets have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The challenge for the Fed is to find a way to turn off the cash spigot without cratering the market.
For the gold bulls, the evidence is not great on multiple fronts. A strengthening U.S. economy has led to a strengthening U.S. dollar. A strong dollar is generally bearish for gold, and that has been the case here as well. Furthermore, much of the gold rally since QE began was driven by investors looking for a shield from inflation. That inflation hasn't shown up, and if QE disappears without an appearance, gold is likely to be badly punished.
Supporting this last argument is that the iShares Silver Trust (NYSEMKT:SLV) has suffered roughly the same fate. Silver is generally considered more industrially important, but the precious-metal element of silver has pushed it down even more than gold this year. Similarly, most of the major miners have been hurt as well. Goldcorp (NYSE:GG) is down even more than the commodity, despite reiterating full-year guidance at its last earnings call. The company saw both revenue and earnings decline, largely because of receiving a lower price per ounce than it had a year earlier.
Ultimately, the gold bulls look like they have some real challenges ahead. From a trading perspective, the next breakout will be important. If gold can trade above $1,400, the long-term trend may be protected. If, however, gold slumps below $1,300, more bulls will be on their way to the slaughterhouse.
Fool contributor Doug Ehrman and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.