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Gold: The Thrill Is Gone, and So Is the Story


If you want an optimistic bet on today's market, you probably have better options than gold -- starting with platinum, palladium, and silver.

Among the big financial questions commonly posed for 2013 is whether the 12-year bull market in gold will finally come to an end. Actually it has. Gold prices peaked in the summer of 2011 and have been going sideways since October of that year – 15 months of breakeven.

Metal pros expect moderate gains this year, but certainly no renewed gold rush. The 23 traders and pundits polled annually by the London Bullion Market Association came up with an average 2013 gold price of $1,753 an ounce, about 5% higher than current levels. Three analysts identified by Bloomberg as the most accurate on gold in the past were still more conservative, expecting averages between $1,700 and $1,740. The LBMA wisemen and women predict gold to be outperformed by all of its lowly precious metal cousins: silver, platinum, and palladium.

Worse for gold bugs than petering momentum is the fog that has descended over the traditional, and still constantly repeated, rationale for stocking up on the ancient metal. Gold is supposed to be the ultimate grumpy person's investment, turned to when the world is going to hell in a handbasket and paper money can no longer be trusted. Despite the rage for exchange-traded products like the SPDR Gold Shares Fund (NYSEARCA:GLD), 90% of speculative purchases still come in the form of gold bars or coins, stashed in a safe place in case humanity loses faith in more newfangled stores of value, according to Nick Brooks, research director at London-based ETF Securities.

Gold performed according to this script for decades. It soared in the malaise-ridden 1970s, crashed and went moribund in the optimistic '80s and '90s, came roaring back to life after the tech/telecom crash and Sept. 11, 2001. But a funny thing happened to gold prices in 2008: They plummeted like almost every other financial asset in the world. Futures dropped 25% between July and October of that fearful year, a similar trajectory to stocks as measured by the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX).

Gold rebounded from the crisis earlier and more dramatically than equities, and the world never has a problem explaining rampant success. But since the metal stalled 18 months ago, advocates have been increasingly strained to fit the old justifications for buying to new circumstances. The world has certainly not been short of alarming economic news since mid-2011, nor evidence that its major paper currencies are being "debased," to quote a favorite gold bug term. Plenty of reasons out there to put your remaining savings in metal bars and batten down the hatches.

Yet a helpful chart from ETF securities matching 2011- 2012 gold movements to news events shows an erratic pattern. Gold prices sometimes rise when they logically should, like after Standard & Poor's downgraded US sovereign credit in September 2011. But sometimes they don't, as when the Fed announced the "debasing" QE3 program a year later. Gold fell, as you would expect, after a Greek government bailout deal in March 2012. It also fell, as you would not expect, after the European Central Bank released 489 billion printing-press euros through its Long-Term Refinancing Operation four months earlier.

So all debasements and crises are not created equal as far as gold is concerned. The metal's price shows a more reliable, negative correlation with the value of the dollar, falling as the US currency rises against the euro, and vice versa. But not entirely reliable. The euro has been on a tear lately, gaining 5% against the greenback since mid-November; gold prices have slumped anyway.

The new truth about gold is hiding in plain sight. The time-honored pessimists' choice has become one more "risk-on" asset in the post-2008 environment. Gold prices have rallied and dipped roughly in lockstep with stocks, as money peeks out from behind the broad skirts of the US Treasury, or skitters back again in apprehension. Again, the last two months have been a notable exception, gold dropping even as the S&P 500 had a 9% run-up.

If you want an optimistic bet on today's market, you probably have better options – starting with platinum, palladium, and silver, all of them more beaten down in recent years and more geared to industrial recovery. The LBMA traders' pick for 2013 is silver, slated for a 9% rise over current levels.

Gold could presumably reassert its historic safe-haven role if epic failure by the US Congress overturns the post-2008 order, triggering a default that finally shakes confidence in Treasury bonds and leaves trillions of dollars with nowhere to hide. But in that case the best investment might be canned food and a gun.
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