Criticizing the Federal Reserve and loving gold seem to go hand in hand. Former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a noted opponent of the Fed, dedicates a large portion of his portfolio to gold, mostly by owning shares of gold miners such as Goldcorp (NYSE:GG). Hedge fund manager David Einhorn has attacked what he calls the Fed's "Jelly Donut Policy," and has put a big chunk of his fund in the Market Vectors Gold Miner ETF (NYSEMKT:GDX), while John Paulson has long held a big position in the SPDR Gold Trust (NYSEMKT:GLD).
But Mark Spitznagel, CIO of Universa Investments -- a hedge fund with about $6 billion in assets -- isn't a big fan of gold. In his book The Dao of Capital, Spitznagel strongly opposes the Fed, blaming it for our current economic malaise, and a likely crash to follow; still, he doesn't share his fellow critics' enthusiasm for owning the precious metal.
Gold as the anti-Fed play
Traditionally, gold is regarded as a way to bet against the Fed -- more specifically, to bet against its current policy decisions. The Fed's critics allege that, through several rounds of quantitative easing, the Fed has debased -- even destroyed -- the U.S. dollar. Gold, which backed the dollar at least partially until 1971, stands as a sort of alternative currency.
An ounce of gold today will still be an ounce of gold 10 years from now, but a U.S. dollar will probably not have the same purchasing power in 2023. This stationary property of gold fuels some investors' enthusiasm for it, but at the same time, it serves to draw in its critics.
Warren Buffett, in his 2011 letter to investors, observed that all the world's gold was worth about $9.6 trillion. If an investor had such a large sum of money, he or she could, in theory, purchase all the gold in the world -- or all the farmland in the U.S., along with 16 ExxonMobils. In 100 years' time, the investor who bought the farmland and ExxonMobils would've generated many trillions of dollars worth of profits, whereas the one who bought the gold would still just be holding gold. When you get down to it, gold just isn't a productive asset.
How gold could threaten civilization
Spitznagel shares Paul and Einhorn's disdain for the Fed, but he largely agrees with Buffett. In fact, though he acknowledges that gold is the "perfect medium of exchange" and a great long-term store of value, he warns that gold obsession is unhealthy, even dangerous, for society. Instead, he would rather see investors put their money into productive assets, though he admits that it's a difficult thing to do right now.
This is what Spitznagel told me:
I can't begrudge anyone for their gold holdings. As dollars are clearly a decaying asset, there's sound economic logic behind gold's long-term appreciation. But if everyone just invested in gold, civilization would slowly come to an end.
I would hate for everyone to be a gold bug; that would be a disaster. People need to invest in productive, real assets, such as farmland. We can thank the Fed that this is such a scary thing to do these days -- it is the real paradox of Keynesianism.
Moreover, while Spitznagel believes gold will maintain its value over the long run, he's concerned that investors holding gold today will get burned:
There's lots of noise in its valuation, due to momentum investors. How many people acquire gold only after it goes up, and dump it when it doesn't? I'd recommend the opposite strategy. By definition, gold, with zero intrinsic value, is a pure greater-fool investment, requiring a greater fool than you who is willing to take it off your hands. It has value only because we all agree that it does.
Should you have some gold in your portfolio?
As an inflation hedge, holding a token amount of gold makes sense for any portfolio. In the event of severe inflation, gold's price appreciation could help to offset the damaging effects to any cash or bond holdings.
But as Buffett notes, buying gold isn't investing, and investors shouldn't overload their portfolio with the yellow metal. Certainly, among Fed critics, there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with owning it. Hopefully, some of these investors will consider Spitznagel's advice.