With economic uncertainty still running rampant, the price of gold is higher than Cheech and Chong put together. Is this precious metal the new long-term king of commodities, or will its reign come crashing down when we least expect it?
Is gold a bubble? I know investors are "high" on gold right now, but I'm contemplating a long-term short on the precious stuff.
We posed that question to a gaggle of gilded Fools, all with their own perspectives on gold's future. Bear in mind that any stocks, ETFs, or other investments they mention aren't 24-karat recommendations -- just suggestions to kick off your own further research.
Anders Bylund, Fool contributor
Is gold bullion the new tulip bulb? Looking at a long-term chart of gold prices, it's hard not to reach that conclusion. The glinting stuff has tripled in value in five short years, and it's currently riding a rocket sled of seemingly speculative gains.
But there's nothing intrinsically valuable about gold. You don't eat it, you can't sleep on it (unless you're Scrooge McDuck), and the metal has rather limited real-world uses in general. Stocks rise over the long term because people work at making the underlying businesses better and more profitable. Gold? Eh, dig up some more.
If all you want is a rock-solid long-term investment that won't go away in the next 20 years, you're better off with a whole-market index fund or a handful of truly solid stocks. I intend to ride Google
Christopher Barker, Fool contributor
Any serious discussion of a gold bubble must first concede that a vast graveyard of similar failed calls has characterized this entire bull market. When gold began a grueling 18-month correction in March of 2008, I encouraged bubble-declaring Fools to keep their gaze on the underlying fundamental drivers supporting sustained strength in gold prices.
Now that we stand at another key crossroads beneath $1,250 an ounce, I remind Fools that the very same fundamental drivers remain firmly in place. The only difference today is that the U.S. dollar is experiencing a near-term rally because of a more acute crisis in the euro. However, the scale of deficit spending, and the duration of this zero-bound interest rate environment, do not bode well for sustained strength in the greenback.
I understand that many investors out there look upon the gold price with a very different pair of eyes from my own. Because all gold investors must be prepared to endure gut-wrenching corrections, conviction is a key ingredient to successful gold investing. If you are not convinced, as I am, that gold will reach $2,000, or that my top pick, Silver Wheaton
However, even those who may be 100% convinced gold is in a bubble are strongly encouraged to abandon any thoughts of shorting gold. As I said in early 2009, I could scarcely conceive of a riskier activity.
Andrew Sullivan, Fool analyst
It's very simple. Gold is money. Dollars are simply a promise that competes with gold. If people become less confident in dollars, gold goes up in paper terms -- precisely what is happening now, because of inflation, enormous fiscal deficits, and high debt levels.
To put the current price in perspective, gold's 1980 high was about $7,000 in today's dollars when using the original CPI methodology, and $2,200 when using the new methodology. On that basis, today's price looks cheap. More importantly, China, India, and Russia all want to diversify away from the dollar, and central banks have turned into buyers from sellers, creating something of a price floor.
Inflation is another worry. The deflation arguments ring hollow, when you consider that inflation is a fundamental tenet of the postwar financial system, and a trend that's almost certain to continue. Physical gold is also in short supply compared to all the claims against it, which could lead to upward pressure. Finally, there is the not-so-insignificant risk that the entire financial system might collapse.
With a price floor and huge upside, gold is still a very good bet. Bullion is a good choice, but better returns are likely to be had in mining firms. One mining fund that hasn't fully recovered from the beating it took in 2008 is U.S. Global Investors' World Precious Minerals Fund (UNWPX).
Alex Dumortier, Fool contributor
I've given this question enormous thought since I first wrote about gold in February 2009. My conclusion, so far, is that there is no gold bubble. In its most recent issue, Barron's has an interview with John Hathaway, the manager of the Tocqueville Gold Fund, who has an illuminating way of framing the question:
The price of gold as quoted in dollars -- or in Zimbabwe dollars, to make it a really absurd example -- can look like a ridiculous chart. In terms of bubble analysis, it might look very dangerous. But then you look at what is driving it and you say, well, what is the real bubble? It really has been money creation.
In other words, although the appreciation of gold in dollar terms may look spectacular, it is simply the natural result of an extreme debasement of the U.S. dollar, or the anticipation of such.
Even if you are convinced gold is a bubble, and you're interested in shorting the SPDR Gold Shares ETF
Even if he or she is proved right over the long term, anyone shorting gold today should be prepared to experience massive amounts of pain along the way.
Jim Royal, Fool financial editor
While I agree with the sentiment that gold itself (as opposed to gold miners) is a poor long-term investment, you don't have to short gold just because you think the price is high. In this era of uncertainty, a short on any asset class that has the propensity to spike countercyclically -- that is, when the market tanks -- is doubly dangerous.
Imagine that you short a profitable gold miner, and investors flee to gold for safety, causing gold stocks to soar. You'd likely face losses, and perhaps even a margin call. Just when stocks are cheapest, you'll be unable to purchase high-quality names on the cheap.
If you have to own a commodity-focused business, why not opt for oil producers instead? In contrast to gold, oil is vital to the global economy, and the long-term prognosis clearly calls for price appreciation. Rather than focus on ETFs that purchase oil directly, consider highly profitable businesses such as ExxonMobil
Morgan Housel, Fool contributor
Buying gold should make sense as the global economy rots. I just question whether the timing is right, given the massive run-up.
Frankly, the confidence of the gold bulls scares me. They don't think they're onto something; they know they're right, and naysayers are wrong, and stupid you for thinking otherwise. I'm not a mining expert, nor do I follow the gold industry or even particularly care about it. I just know that this behavior more often leads to disappointment than riches.
Here's why I'm wary:
Retrospective back-patting: Gold has essentially gone vertical for 10 years, which bulls somehow find bullish. Really? All it means is you should have bought 10 years ago.
There's also a sense that gold must go higher because it hasn't hit the record highs reached in the early '80s. Count me out. I don't think a level that in hindsight was clearly overvalued and set up a devastating collapse should be strived for.
Celebrity endorsement: Forget Glenn Beck. There's a great commercial where G. Gordon Liddy (of Watergate fame, now apparently a respected gold analyst) says, "Gold is the time-tested currency that goes up, not down!" No further comment needed.
Gold bulls are quick to point out that this is tabloid economics and doesn't matter. Like hell it doesn't. Name an asset that had celebrity endorsement and didn't collapse.
- The scarcity fallacy: Gold can't be a bubble, some say, because it's finite. But so is land, and look what happened. No asset is immune to overvaluation, and all assets can become disconnected from reality.
I don't know whether gold is a bubble. I just know that it's giving off the aroma of something that smells like one. Buying a little bit as a disaster hedge might make some sense. Buying a lot in an attempt to make money seems dangerous.
Jim Mueller, Fool editor
Sure, I think gold is in a bubble-like condition. I just don't understand why. Traditionally, gold has been touted as an inflation hedge. Yet over the past five years, as gold prices climbed from roughly $420 per ounce to the current $1,230 or so, inflation in the U.S. has been very low, climbing just 12% or 2.23% per year. Major disconnect. Plus, it's not a currency, it costs money to store, and it has no cash flows to pay you with.
Should you short it, though? That'd be pretty dangerous, in my opinion. Remember the old maxim that the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.
What should you do instead? Find a distressed mining company bleeding cash to short. On the flip side, find a profitable mining company, and go long. The need for metals certainly won't diminish over the long term. BHP Billiton
Mike Pienciak, Fool contributor
Buy gold? No, thanks. Short it? Never in a million years.
Let's be clear -- I don't count myself among those who point to the Fed's money printing, ,, sound the inflation alarm, and immediately buy wheelbarrows full of bullion to protect against a falling dollar. The onset of rising prices is more complex. These days, I mostly side with the bond market's view that deflation remains the word of the hour.
The trouble, however, is that gold's only fundamental is investor sentiment, which means that we can never really know why gold is rising or falling, or reasonably predict its next move. Currently, I'd say that general uncertainty is buoying gold prices, and I wouldn't be surprised to see macro fears drive prices much, much higher.
Furthermore, noted market strategist David Rosenberg reminds us that during the deflationary cycle of the 1930s, bullion doubled in sterling terms. (At the time, FDR had fixed the dollar price of gold.) In other words, there's no reason to suspect that gold prices will necessarily drop when the widely feared double-digit inflation never materializes.
That said, we could see a major short-term pullback in gold should the market tank, prompting traders to "sell their winners" in order to raise cash. Recall that following the Lehman collapse, gold dove from $900 to $720 an ounce, most likely as part of a global margin call.
If an investor wanted to speculate on such an occurrence, I'd recommend a July or August bear put spread on the SPDR Gold Shares ETF. Implementing this type of options strategy would define one's risk and limit potential losses -- something that's impossible to do when shorting common shares.
But tread carefully, and recognize that such a trade is tantamount to a lottery ticket.
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Christopher Barker owns shares of Silver Wheaton, and Anders Bylund owns shares of Coca-Cola and Google, but none of the other contributors own any of the shares they've written about. Fool online editor and lead Tweeter Nathan Alderman holds no financial position in any of the stocks mentioned above. The Fool's disclosure policy secretly wishes it could have been one of the Solid Gold Dancers.