BREAKINGVIEWS-Review: Gold’s financial fascination never dies

BREAKINGVIEWS-Review: Gold's financial fascination never dies

by Reuters

Friday, 16 June 2017 13:33 GMT

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

By Kate Duguid

NEW YORK, June 16 (Reuters Breakingviews) – Before winning the presidency and replacing the Oval Office's red drapes with lamé, Donald Trump was lionizing the gold standard (http://bit.ly/2riEUiS). He wasn't alone. Campaign rivals Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Ben Carson also backed reviving a policy that had been abandoned by the global financial system 40 years earlier. James Ledbetter's new book "One Nation Under Gold" helps explain why the outdated idea won't die.

These Republican presidential contenders were not proposing sincere policies with white papers and serious co-authors. Bullion-backed bucks had been discarded for good reason: it was an impractical constraint that, even when it was the law of the land, had to be abandoned when the United States needed money for war or to combat recession.

No countries in the world operates on a gold standard today; there is no consensus on what a standard would look like or how it would be implemented. And, as Ledbetter puts it: "there will never be enough gold in the world to support the U.S. economy at its current size."

Yet gold, the book argues, is woven into the American DNA. It is enshrined in the Constitution which says that states may not "make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts." Ledbetter chronicles two centuries of debate over the clause's exact meaning and its implications for a federally distributed currency. The California gold rush of the mid-19th century established the West as a locus of political and economic power, largely because of the immigration it brought, and the subsequent development of industry. The gold rush became part of America's founding myth, and for early settlers, evidence of divine providence.

Sound money, as commodity-backed currencies are known, also appeals to an American tradition of small government. A limited supply of gold necessarily limits the supply of money a government can issue, which in theory limits government spending.

Gold remains of interest to Americans not just as a basis for currency, but also as an investment. Though it pays no dividends and, unlike a company, the size of the asset will not grow, the precious metal is still popular, particularly amid economic insecurity. To wit: in 2011, after the financial crisis, gold prices reached an all-time high of more than $1,800 an ounce.

When presidential candidates talk about the gold standard, they're not just addressing worries about fiat currency, they're also signaling to goldbug investors who have more faith in a scarce commodity than American industry. One of the more interesting arguments comes toward the end of Ledbetter's book. "Listening to today's gold populists, it can be difficult to distinguish between the sales pitch for buying gold and the arguments for gold-backed currency; it seems likely that some of that confusion is a deliberate blurring of passions." Ledbetter's account of gold's association with populism illuminates how these two interests have blurred.

Like bitcoin, gold, as a basis for currency and an investment, appeals to those with little faith in government or the financial system. Anti-gold sentiment in the 19th century and early 20th was associated with the East Coast banking elite, and became linked to big government during Franklin Roosevelt's four presidential terms. Though the United States didn't fully abandon the international gold standard until 1971 – a decision made by the Republican administration of Richard Nixon – its limits were clear when Roosevelt decided paper money would no longer be convertible to gold and the dollar became a permanently managed currency.

Enabling the president to adjust the value of the dollar based on economic need arguably helped the United States to recover from the Great Depression. It also linked Roosevelt's anti-gold policies with what critics deemed to be the socialist programs of the New Deal, as Ledbetter documents. This was enmeshed with a virulent strain of anti-Semitism, and produced a populist movement familiar today: nativist, anti-elitist and anti-government.

The performance of the S&P 500 Index has largely been inversely correlated with the price of gold, affirming our understanding of gold as a safe-haven investment. When faith in the American economy is low, gold prices tend to increase, as was the case in 2011. The trend, however, has been harder to map in 2017. The S&P peaked in June, as Trump's political crises helped gold hit its highest level since he was elected. While that can be explained by gold's status as a safe haven, it may also indicate skepticism about the financial system, government and big business that has persisted since the financial crisis.

Though the price of gold fell from its peak in 2011 as the American economy began to recover, it never returned to pre-crisis lows. That may suggest that as long as American populism has life, so does the country's fascination with the shiny metal.

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Bitcoin vs Gold: Which is a Better for Long Term Investment

bitcoin v gold which is the better investment

Bitcoin vs Gold: Which is a Better for Long Term Investment

 

Imagine that you have $100,000 at your disposal. You must spend all of it on either bitcoin or gold – no mixing and matching – and the assets will then be stored in a trust that cannot be accessed again for 50 years.

Which option would you choose?

With the two commodities now in roughly the same price range, it's worth putting aside some of bitcoin's short-term volatility and liquidity concerns to compare them as long-term stores of value side by side.

Sure, you might argue bitcoin is newer and flashier, and that it has arguably more utility in the digital era than gold. But, gold has the indisputable track record, having been a cherished store of value for thousands of years across human civilizations.

However, bitcoin's traits have led to those backing the cryptocurrency to believe it could potentially unseat gold over the long haul.

Spencer Bogart, an analyst with Blockchain Capital and formerly of Needham & Company, told CoinDesk:

"If we think about the qualities that make gold a respected 'money' or store of value, bitcoin is actually superior in many regards."

Inflation vs deflation

Another key advantage bitcoin has over gold is that its supply level is fixed and transparent – eliminating fears of the typical inflationary pressures associated with overproduction that could diminish the value of the asset.

"A well-known characteristic about bitcoin is that it’s on a disinflationary supply schedule. While many people think of gold as being the same, gold is actually a sneakily inflationary asset," said Chris Burniske, blockchain products lead with ARK Investment Management.

Burniske added that the global supply of gold has clandestinely increased by 1–2% annually over the last century.

He continued:

"If you were to ask people what gold's supply schedule looks like over time, they probably wouldn't draw you something that looks like an exponential curve. With gold being sneakily inflationary, it’s not set up to preserve value in the way that bitcoin is."

Such characteristics, in theory, serve to increase bitcoin’s future utility as a means of account, exchange and storing value.

They also suggest that bitcoin's value, usefulness and importance to society will only continue to grow as commerce becomes more digitized.

"As more infrastructure is built around [bitcoin], we think that demand will rise relative to its mathematically metered supply, increasing its price support," Burniske wrote in a recent white paper.

Slow and steady

The clear advantages that gold has over bitcoin are trust and reliability, according to those surveyed for this article. However, a change in consumer preferences, new technological disruption or a crackdown by a government could easily kick bitcoin to the end of the bench.

"Gold has something very important that bitcoin lacks: a more than 1,000-year history of being a decent store of value. This is very important for trust and people's willingness to store value in that particular asset," said Bogart.

Gold has also proven itself to be of value even when governments attempt to restrict its usage or outlaw it completely.

This happened in 1933, when President Franklin D Roosevelt implemented measures to prohibit and criminalize its possession in the US.

"For more than 5,000 years gold and silver have been tried-and-true money. They've lasted basically the duration of organized civilization," said Dave Kranzler of Investment Research Dynamics.

In this light, Kranzler was keen to highlight bitcoin's 'counterparty risk'.

Gold's advantage over bitcoin is that it's not dependent on the operation of the internet, thus affording it a degree of protection from heavy-handed regimes, he said.

"There’s nothing to stop any government from shutting down the internet in their country under the guise of national security purposes or what not,” he said, adding:

"We’ve seen democracies come and go, but totalitarianism always seems to creep back in. And when that happens, the government controls everything."

Elemental value

Gold has also proven itself immune to technological disruption.

According to Burniske, while bitcoin has generated significant cultural cachet, it remains at the bleeding edge and could still be dethroned relatively easily.

"That position is not necessarily going to remain the case if bitcoin is not able to attract new users and provide a happy medium in terms of user experience," he said.

Yet, as asset classes like Dutch tulips, Japanese real estate, dot-com companies and the US housing market have boomed and busted, gold has consistently plodded ahead, withstanding the test of time.

"I don’t think anyone can say with any certainty that any man-made system is going to be valuable 50 years from now," said Josh Crumb, co-founder of GoldMoney and a former commodities strategist at Goldman Sachs.

He continued:

 

"People forget that gold is not a pet rock or a speculative asset, it's an element. Gold is a very low-risk store of value. Fifty years from now it’s going to still be valuable."

While investors like Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss have suggested that technological developments as far fetched as asteroid mining could eventually put upward pressure on the total supply of gold (and reduce its scarcity), Crumb reckons that technological creative destruction poses a much greater threat to bitcoin.

"People have been trying to crack gold for 600 years. I think it's much more likely that we're going to have quantum computing that can change cryptography than asteroid mining that's going to bring back loads of gold," he said.

Complementary or substitutionary?

Perhaps asking whether bitcoin will ever unseat gold as the universal store of value isn't quite appropriate, as it's plausible that the two can, and will, co-exist as complementary assets.

"I like bitcoin, particularly in the short-term, so it's kind of like saying 'Do you like gold or do you like investing in Facebook in 2011?'" said Crumb. "To me, it’s two totally different things."

As is standard practice across other realms of investing, the correct answer to the bitcoin versus gold question will ultimately be determined by the risk profile of each particular investor.

"In terms of proper portfolio construction, you want to diversify. You want to have different types of assets that don’t necessarily move together," said Burniske, concluding:

"There's always room for collaboration. It’s sensational to pit [bitcoin versus gold] as a fight to the death."
 

David Ogden
Entrepreneur
 

Author: Aaron Stanley

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